Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Value of Journaling in Tracking Training

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on tracking journals. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been involved in a tracking apprenticeship program through Earth Tracks Outdoor School. The year before – having  developed a deep curiosity about plants, especially their edible and medicinal uses – I’d signed up for a wild plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. I signed up impulsively, but with an instinct I trusted. I had taken a couple of workshops with Alexis and had a really good feeling about his teaching style. I knew I wanted more grounded knowledge of ecology and nature. After many years of education, I was suddenly stunned by my own ignorance about the natural world. I wanted to zoom in on things, see the details, really know what was around me. I wanted to be outside all day, learning cool stuff.
The monthly commitment felt daring and kind of improbable – my younger child was only three, and we had rarely been apart. But sometimes I set my mind to something, and I can’t turn back.

From the first weekend, the time and space and all-day immersion in nature tapped into to something that I had been longing for. As the eight-month plant apprenticeship wound down, I wanted to continue learning in exactly this way. I found out that Alexis was offering a ten-month tracking program, which would start just a week after the plant course finished. As we drove back and forth together the last months of the course, my new friend Lee and I gradually talked each other into it. It was a leap of faith, because at that time I knew little about tracking, but it also felt right, because I knew how much the weekends had nourished me the previous year. I knew also that in nature nothing is separate. Tracking was connected to a huge web of naturalist learning that I wanted to dig into. And I also felt, in a way, that a wave was carrying me that I couldn’t really stop. And didn’t want to.
Now, I am in the second year of tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. Along with a couple of others, I’m participating in a pilot second year program in a work/trade role. I’ve also practiced tracking in other contexts over the same period, in the midst of homeschooling my kids and other responsibilities: a week-long immersion course in Algonquin Park run by Earth Tracks and White Pine Programs; helping run a monthly drop-in tracking program for the PINE Project; and time on my own when possible. And now, I’m also working my way through lots and lots of tracking journals. The ones we use for the apprenticeship are based on the Shikari template, with two pages of more reflective questions added by Alexis. Each journal is six pages long in total, and completing one involves mapping, sketching, measurement, weather observations, ecological observations, species research, observations on one’s own patterns and gaps, and reflection on the more intuitive and personal aspects of tracking. Another set of journal pages, also part of the homework, are focused on species research and field observation. With these, I was initially a bit fixated on making them “complete” and now I’d like to work on making them shorter and more concise instead.

On top of all that are ecological mapping exercises, seasonal nature observations, and tracking exercises of various kinds. Whew! It’s going to take me a while to get through it all. But as with so many things, I’m finding that as I make a habit of it, I’m drawn further in. I’m learning to love my tracking journals, picking away at the homework bit by bit each day. And doing this kind of recording, questioning and puzzle-solving is reinforcing the experiential naturalist learning I’ve been doing the past couple of years. This is field research, but it’s not detached. It’s detailed, but it’s also personal and reflective and connecting. In the past, most of the academic work I did involved writing and more writing: long essays about patterns and theories. I liked making leaps of intuition; I avoided methodical work. This uses a different part of my brain, one which needs to be present to the details. Slowly I can see that paying close attention and recording observations is training me to see better. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’ve realized that this kind of learning is a life-long commitment.

Here are some more (non-matching) example of individual journal pages. Some of these are finished, some are not quite. They are teaching me the importance of just showing up and doing the work, of slowly bringing small pieces together into something substantial, of creating methodical habits that over time create big changes of perspective. 


By Malgosia Halliop (2nd year Tracking Apprentice)  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Day 2 - Pressure Releases - Sunday November 2, 2014

On a bright and crisp morning in Grey County, a group of trackers could be found building a "Tracking Box". To the untrained eye, it may look like a sand box, but it is also a fascinating tool that helped unlock some of the mysteries of the pressure releases as outlined in "The Science and Art of Tracking" by Tom Brown, Jr. 

So first, a little lesson on a Do-It-Yourself Tracking Box. 
The dimensions of the one we built were 4 ft X 8 ft out of 2 in x 10 in lumber (tip - if you get three 8 ft long sections of 2x10 then you just need to make one cut to have all the pieces). A rectangular frame was then placed in a good location on the property, lined with a tarp and filled with sand. The best sand for the job is play sand that can be found at an aggregate supplier. Being on a farm with cats, it is important to think about how to cover the tracking box (in this case with a piece of ply), before it becomes the kittie's domain. . . ! Et voila - get ready to get detailed tracking information!

After we had constructed the tracking box, and warmed ourselves with red clover and hibiscus tea from the expertly built fire, it was time to smooth the sand (anything flat and the right length will work, in this case - a piece of lumber 4 ft wide). With a blank slate in front of us, it was up to Alexis to start the study of the first type of pressure release we would study - Pressure against the walls indicating a change in direction. 

Now looking at this image you can get an idea about the level of detail that we were discussing. The principle at play here is the way that sand reacts to shifts in direction or turning. Try it yourself by comparing tracks that were moving forward with a set of tracks where you initiate a sharp turn. With twelve faces close to each grain of sand and the corresponding charts and reference books we happily spent hours discussing slight movements on the each part of the foot. 

The second set of pressure releases we looked at were about what happens when an animal changes or maintains forward motion. A great example of how to understand the principle at play is to find some sand and walk across. Then sprint beside it. A quick comparison of these two sets of tracks will demonstrate the backwards motion of the sand as momentum increases.

The third and last pressure release we looked at in detail was the roll and head position. To feel this in your body, close your eyes and reach to the sky, paying attention to the movement in your feet. Now, touch the ground still feeling your feet. You will hopefully notice the way that your balance point changes depending on the position of your head and upper body. 

All of these pressure releases can help trackers identify the subtle shifts in direction, speed and body position that a given animal made. These subtleties are etched into the earth and can last longer than the fleeting image of a deer in the distance, but it is important to acknowledge the distortions that can come into play based upon things like rocks, sticks, slopes, water, etc. The controlled environment of the tracking box can be our laboratory and then with fresh "search images" in our brains we can go out into the field to read even deeper into the tracks. 

We ended our day by playing a fun game that can work in a tracking box, or a smoothed beach, or untouched snow. One member of the group would walk through the sand, turning, jumping or running as they pleased. Next, the other trackers would come back to the tracking box, having not seen what had taken place, and we would use all the evidence in the tracks we could find to piece together what happened. This way we could test our observations against the direct experience of the track maker. It was amazing to see the way that even within one day, we were able to notice tiny ridges and plates of sand that could then create a whole story. Now to learn the language of pressure releases and the way that they translate into clay mud, snow, pine needle debris and frozen leaves . . .
Written by:  Lee Earl - 2nd Year Earth Tracks Tracking Apprentice