Tracking with Len

“Hmmm…he must be around somewhere. Maybe he is tracking something or saw a butterfly and followed it,” Director Cathy told the students when they met her at the sand pit near Arcadia on Saturday morning.

“Len!” Cathy called. “LEN!!!” she called more loudly.. ..“LEN!!!!!” she shouted.

“No need to shout, I’m right here,” a voice replied from the ground just a few feet from where the students had sat, making them jump. Then Len crawled from under a small tree where he had been lying in plain, but well camouflaged, sight.

Thus began a day of learning nature awareness skills including tracking, bird language and sensing presence taught by Len Mackey, a highly experienced student (and teacher in his own right) of the famous tracker, Tom Brown Jr.,  as well as yoga instructor and musician, to name just a few of his many talents.

Since the students are off on their week-long hiking expedition in the Adirondack High Peaks, Director Cathy is stepping in with this week’s update.

Len’s elfish grin and delighted laughter encouraged everyone to lose their self-consciousness, and see the world with the curiosity and wonder of a child as we observed how the blue jays quickly sounded the alarm and gave away the location of voles (students) hiding in the woods as coyote (other students) tried to find them and howled when they did. We practiced different gaits to see the sort of tracks they make, walking on all fours like various animals.We examined scat and tracks and tried to identify the animals, what they were doing and when they left their tracks in the sand pit.

We practiced interpreting tracks that Len made while we closed our eyes, marveling at how much detail can be read if only one knows how to observe: the ball of the footprint was deeper on these and the heel deeper on those. Why? The former were made carrying Cathy in his arms and the latter carrying Cathy on his back.

You would think that it would be pretty easy to track a log dragged through the woods by four students. Nope! We had to move slowly and observe very closely for freshly broken twigs, bent ferns and leaf litter that had been subtly disturbed in order to follow the trail. On the other hand, it wasn’t as difficult as one might think to listen closely with your eyes closed and point to someone trying to sneak up on you. It’s a little harder, but very possible, to also sense that person’s intent, even with your eyes closed: do they mean you well or do they intend harm? Yes, really. “Gut feeling” is more than just a turn of phrase.

Why would any of these skills be useful if one isn’t planning to pursue a career in forensic science, or tracking fugitives or lost people, or living off the land and depending on hunting for food? The ability to observe nature/ecosystems closely is an important skill for those interested in conservation biology or environmental studies. But, for all of us, no matter what direction we take in life, developing awareness, an acute sense of our surroundings whether outdoors or on a city street can help keep us safe.  Arguably, more important still, is the cultivation of wonder and curiosity, the ability to observe closely and the development of awareness. We can be like fish in a fish tank: unaware that there exists vast oceans and perfectly happy in our ignorance. Or we can dive into the endless detail and complexity of the world that surrounds us and never, ever be bored knowing that there is always more to discover.

The day, fittingly, ended around a campfire, started by Len using a hand drill. We tried playing his didgeridoos which resulted in much laughter. Only Len could play them; we sounded more like elephants with flatulence. Len studies and teaches West African drumming and we drummed, practicing different rhythms on different drums. Then we made drum magic as we jammed together, danced and sang:

Namu, namu, Len.