A few years ago, in the context of wilderness survival training, I got interested in wildlife tracking. I love watching animals but wildlife tends to make itself scarce unless it’s accustomed to humans, and most of us make too much noise to get close and aren’t willing to sit still long enough for them to come to us. (Hunters are a notable exception.) Wilderness Awareness School out here in the Northwest offers, among other interesting classes, an intensive course of training on tracking animals. I signed up, and had the first class over the weekend.
There’s a lot involved in tracking, but mostly it seems to amount to being observant. I’ve been hiking and camping all of my life but looking for animal signs is a different way of interacting with my environment. I move more slowly, make less noise, spend more time examining things that seem disturbed or out of place. One of the course instructors described tracking as a form of pattern recognition. I suspect it’s also a matter of recognizing when a pattern is broken.
One of the most interesting elements of tracking–a technique the school also uses for aidless navigation–is storytelling. Tracking, traveling, and storytelling are some of humankind’s oldest behaviors. There’s something primal about combining them.
When I was at Clarion West, the writer Paul Park told us that a story is an accumulation
of specific detail. That’s a definition that I’ve never forgotten. When you’re tracking, you’re gathering details, uncovering them, like a good journalist: who was here? when? what were they doing? why? where were they coming from, where did they go? This kind of storytelling serves a practical purpose–in the days of hunt and gather, kill or be killed, an eminently practical one. The activity I engage in out of curiosity and a desire to better know the natural world was once a matter of survival, and in some parts of the world, still is.
The story you tell when tracking is made up, but not out of whole cloth. You’re gathering those specific details and assembling them into a picture so vivid that, last weekend, I sat in a wash in the forest with over a dozen other students and all of us could picture the mother mountain lion and cub that had passed through that exact spot in the recent past. We assembled that story out of our observations, the promptings of our teachers, and our imaginations, and told the story to each other. And now I am telling it to you.
The role of storytelling in tracking is obvious. What about the role of tracking in storytelling? A writer will say that a story isn’t so much made up as discovered; Stephen King describes writing as a form of archaeology. If storytelling developed out of the human need to tell one another what happened–there was a mountain lion here with her cub, there were deer here, a squirrel shredded some Douglas fir cones and I heard him shrieking at me from the treetop here–then the process of story creation within our minds is indeed an act of discovery. And it’ll feel like a discovery even when we’re completely making it up.
I used to write fast. I have reams of stories from those days, churning out the million or so words that suck until you start getting out of your own way, developing your skill, understanding how the stories you read actually work, and get to the good stuff. As it turns out, both tracking and writing require quiet of mind, attention to the task at hand, a careful uncovering of detail, and a willingness to sit still.