Ryan Condo, March 31, 2019
Tracking Workshop March, 2019
My eyes lock into a mushed mud track as I sway around and inspect it. There’s a level of focus that comes with tracking that feels subconscious in a way. Like when you’re so honed in on something that it blows your mind when you finally look at your watch and see that what felt timeless was actually a five-hour day. This focus is not one I get to engage with often. As a full-time student with a slew of responsibilities and a somewhat sufficient motivation to complete them, it’s tough to channel all of my thinking into what’s in front of me.
The woods help. The Sycamores serve as barriers to block all of the worries, as well as the sound of traffic down Elmira Road. Out here there’s a connection with the world beyond my own. Inlet Creek is a stream that flows through Tompkins County and into Cayuga Lake. I’ve driven past it numerous times without ever having the sight to acknowledge its existence. But now, outside of my daily universe and on the stomping grounds of a wide array of wild animals, my eyes are adjusted to see from a new perspective. One where I’m not trapped in my own world but discovering ours.
“What happened here?”
That’s how we are instructed to frame our thinking as we wander the sandy washed shores and muddy flats looking for the sight of any wrinkle in the Earth’s surface to determine whether it’s a footprint or not. When discovered, each print opens a story book of questions beyond the sacred “what happened here?”
The first big question to answer is: what animal could have left that track? While explaining, Jason (one of our instructors) tells us a story about him tracking with a group of students. They spent a long time looking at a mark in the mud only to eventually find it was left by a beer can. Hence, it’s also important to establish whether what you see is actually a track. This part of tracking alone raises many more questions to be answered. After identifying the animal, we can then try to understand why that animal chose to come here. We can try to figure out when the animal was here. We can even make an educated guess on how the animal felt when they were traveling through this area just by looking at its tracks!
Unfortunately, my new perspective did not give me the ability to answer many of these questions. I am still me, and my only previous tracking experience involved a FedEx package and a long number. Many of the ideas and key words like “gate analysis” and “tarsal pad” foreign to me. Tracking was a new language, and one I struggled with learning as I looked into prints providing more questions than answers. Luckily, I learned this was a good thing! Who knew?
I found the freedom of nature embraces asking questions. With so much unknown, it’s only natural to inquire and learn. Jason and Jed tell us to ask questions and continue to question ourselves as we try to identify tracks. When we come to conclusions, we are told to try to prove ourselves wrong. We learn that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Being wrong is how you learn. It’s how you grow.
It’s crazy to think that in my world all I try to do is get everything right. Whether it’s grades, or work, or just about anything. There’s a constant pressure to do everything perfectly. It’s not until I take a step outside of that world that I realize that’s impossible. I get so caught up in the task itself to realize the absurdity that comes with thinking the first time I touch a video camera I’m going to be like Martin Scorsese. It’s refreshing out here to be allowed to be wrong. To be encouraged to be wrong.
It turns out I am great at being wrong. If I wanted to brag I might argue that I’m the best at it, but that’s beside the point. The point is every time I’m wrong it brings me one step closer to being right. We look at tracks in the dirt and I throw ideas at my fellow trackers. They’re very helpful at guiding me in the right direction without telling me anything. It’s like they provide the faintest bit of an answer. This pushes me to get there myself. Though my patience is often tested and it would be a lie to say there was never any frustration about it, this assistance allows us to find better answers than we would if we were told what to think. Instead, we all bring our own ideas to the table. We’re able to consider new aspects that we wouldn’t of discovered on our own. At one track, someone recognizes that the feet are very close together on gray fox track we are looking at. Someone says it could do with the terrain. Another says it’s because the animal was feeling uncomfortable in the area. We learn that both are a very good possibility since we are in an open area on one of the mudflats.
I slowly get worse at being wrong. The more tracks we come across the more comfort I have interacting with them. I know to look for the number of toes and claw marks in the substrate. I know the word substrate. I’ve also developed some mental filecards (another fancy word) for what I know tracks should look like! I know to go through our tracker chant when I’m struggling.
“Dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, shrews, weasels, weird, deer, bugs, birds, herps, no.”
The chant is supposed to help us build our universe. It’s designed to help us recognize all the possibilities of wildlife we can find. Sometimes it’s easy to forget in our daily lives that all these animals are here living with us too. This realization lightens the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. It makes life a little easier when you realize that you’re not the only one in it.
By the time I look at my watch, my time as winter tracking warrior has come to an end. We go back to a paved parking lot where everyone gets out of the cold and into their promptly heated cars. I begin my journey back to school and enjoy driving the same route I typically travel with a new perspective. One that allows me to see the universe outside of myself. I can take my eyes off my path for second and see the light snow glowing in the reflection of the sun, the trees shimmying in the breeze, and the flow of Inlet Creek. I can’t help but wonder what stories will be created while I’m gone and who I will see there next. And I smile knowing that what I learned from our world will change my world forever.