Pat Hickey and Kathy Ray
We had come for the thunder. The distant rumblings had reached
us all over, the country, and, now the storm was imminent as we gathered in a
rustic bam amid deer skulls, hand-fashioned traps, and mysteries not yet
revealed. The room was a collage of sensations: the smell of hay and damp wood,
the chattering of roosting barn swallows, the light touch of the evening wind.
We sat expectant, strangers.
Then, without warning, Tom Brown was among us. The head of
this highly respected survival and tracking school, a man renowned worldwide for
his wilderness skills, had entered the room with all the quiet grace and
deliberateness of a stalking animal. Somehow we were not surprised. The
week-long course had begun before the first words were even spoken.
"The word survival is actually a misnomer,", Tom
explained early that first evening. "Many people think that survival is an
intense, debilitating, draining experience. Well, I've been out for a long time,
and I have never had an experience like that. I don't believe in going out and
fighting nature; I believe in blending in."
For those of us not quite so well versed in wilderness
survival, however, learning the kind of blending that Tom was alluding to would
entail hours of concentrated effort. Our first exercise was in creating fire by
friction, using a bow drill. All morning the sound of creaking wood on wood and
the smell of burning cedar filled the barn, as one after another of our tinder
bundles burst into flames. Appreciating the effort and great care each small
demanded, we were quick to cheer each other on. "Did you get your fire
yet?" was a common question at lunch that day, and throughout the rest of
The course progressed like an avalanche, constantly gaining
volume and momentum. We learned to construct a shelter out of fallen tree limbs
and debris that would withstand heavy wind and rain, and keep a person warm in
the dead of winter. We were taught to make strong cordage from deer sinew or the
inner bark of plants, and to collect water by wiping a piece of clothing on
dew-laden plants. Weaving, basket-making, stone and wood-work, and hide-tanning
were among the other skills we studied.
Although we foraged for edible and medicinal plants, and
learned to construct animal traps and hunting implements, Tom reminded us often
that blending means respect. "I do not advocate killing anything unless
there is good reason", Tom told us. "The ultimate gift a plant or
animal gives us is its life."
Underlying the scores of survival skills we were learning was
a philosophy of nature awareness that Tom Brown considers the key to all harmony
and balance". Right from the start he challenged us: "How much have
you observed? Which way is the wind blowing? Can you see the moon? What kind of
clouds are in the sky? Are there ripples on the pond? Besides the pickerel frog,
the spring peeper, the bullfrog, and the green frog, how many other frogs have
you heard? Have you seen the lacework of cottontail, fox, and deer tracks around
the firepit and in the back field? Did you hear the owl in the silo? Did you see
the raccoon poking his head out from under my desk?" A week seemed much too
short a time to learn the kind of awareness that it had taken him many years to
achieve. But Tom promised that by the end of the course we would be able to
answer every one of those questions.
Tom Brown's own study began at the age of seven when he came
under the tutelage of Stalking Wolf, an Apache Indian and the grandfather of a
close friend. In a little-known wilderness area of New Jersey called the Pine
Barrens, he learned traditional Native American survival skills. Eventually he
was able to enter the woods with only a knife and survive -- and prosper, he
asserts -- for a year. By the time he was sixteen he had become an impeccable
tracker, gaining recognition nationwide for saving the lives of many people lost
in the wilderness.
Tom's training with Stalking Wolf entailed hours, sometimes
days, spent in trees or crouched along animals runs, observing them in their
routines, then studying the tracks they had left, how the wind and rain
weathered them. Tom calls this "dirt time" and claims it is the only
way to truly understand nature. "Get into it," he urged us. "Get
dirty." To set an example, he was the first to cover himself with mud while
we were building a ceremonial sweat hut. Before we were done, everyone was
happily slapping mud on themselves and one another, and draping their heads with
grass and weeds.
To this day, Tom draws on the teaching methods he learned from
Stalking Wolf. He told us how he had once turned to his teacher and asked,
"Grandfather, how did you know the owl was in the tree?" Stalking Wolf
had answered simply, "Go ask the mice".
"Do you know what that meant?" he exclaimed to us.
"Five months of dirt time, lying on my belly until at last it dawned on me.
When the owl's around, the mice don't need that deep a cover; they're going to
stick between the grass and the ground. But when a weasel or a fox is around,
they're in the tough stuff.
This method of leading the student to his or her own
discovery, of pointing rather than answering, Tom calls "coyote
teaching". From then on we listened much more carefully whenever he spoke,
looking for the wisdom behind his words.
This is a good place to see deer", he had said at one
point, as we took a nature observation walk down a series of well-used runs. We
had nodded sagely; only later did it occur to us that perhaps a deer had lain
not far off, visible only to the careful eye. Or perhaps, in the spirit of
coyote teaching, it was not a deer at all he had been pointing to, but a
red-tail hawk nesting in the branches overhead.
The test came one afternoon as a storm was brewing. Tom led us
out to the woods, handed us each a piece of rope, and directed us to build a
fire by friction in half an hour. We knew it was possible only if we chose the
right tree from which to gather our wood. Hadn't we just been observing the
beautiful form of the willow? Twenty-nine minutes later, with the help of the
willow, we were standing around a blazing fire in the rain.
Seeing with the Whole Self
Scattered around the barnyard and nearby fields, thirty people
stood open-armed, moving their fingers slowly and taking in the countryside with
an unfocused gaze. We were practicing a technique called "splatter
vision" designed to stimulate our peripheral vision, thus broadening our
degree of consciousness in the woods.
"Some people get so latched on to a particular facet of
the woods that they fail to notice everything else around them," Tom had
told us. "Peripheral vision is the one secret behind seeing animals, and
the one secret behind the way they watch us in the woods."
Tom's philosophy of blending with the rhythms of nature had
led us from basic survival skills to relearning the very way we looked at the
world. As our awareness grew, we were learning that the woods had many stories
to relate to the initiated. The next step was tracking.
For Tom Brown the ground is a manuscript coauthored by the
animals and the elements. Through an understanding of the art of tracking, the
intricate stories existing in layer after layer of imprints can unfold.
"Hey, Tom!" one student called. "We followed
the deer tracks this far. What happened here?" Without bending down, Tom
surveyed the tracks and told the story of a doe and her fawn walking slowly
along the path the morning before. "See, here she must have become
frightened," he explained, "because she turned to look behind her,
then took off through the fields." As he unraveled the story, the tracks
took on life. We could see the deer standing there, browsing slowly and nudging
her fawn. We sensed her fear and her beauty, and could imagine the softness of
her fur. Her traces had yielded up to us a ghost so real we could almost smell
it. If we were proficient enough trackers we could have followed the trail she
left, and eventually seen her in the act of creating the next mark on the
ground. "At the end of every track," Tom assured us "is the
animal that made it."
With our eyes we had learned to spot animals in the woods, and
with our fingers we were learning to track them, feeling the ground for the
shapes and nuances of their imprints. The next step in nature observation was to
entail using every muscle of our bodies in a ritual dance of awareness known as
the stalk. We were drawn pied piper-like into it, imitating Tom's movements as
he, in turn imitated the fox and the weasel.
Throughout the week, spread out across the farm, we practiced
the gentle, intent movements of stalking as we approached rabbits, birds,
insects, and deer. This was for fine tuning our observation skills. Thought was
suspended as we riveted our attention on the animal we stalked, our feet
learning the ground with every soundless step.
The ultimate observation, however, was to be the touch. Hands
reached out to touch the backs of rabbits, finger the last tail feathers of
retreating barn swallows, feel the soft taut flanks of grazing deer -- lightly,
as if the fingers were merely the branches of a tree blown by the gentlest
breeze. Stalking Wolf called this the mingling of spirits.
"That final touch is how you should go into nature,"
Tom urged us, "not just to observe the animal, but to actually touch it.
You have to know so much about that animal."