Intuitive Tracking: An Ancient Practice Finds New Life
by Josh Lane, Shikari Holistic Tracking mentor, October 2013
Intuition, to me, presents one of the most interesting aspects of the art of tracking. The elder, and skilled tracker, Ingwe, described the sense of intuition as a blend of all the other senses, combined into one. By exercising each sense individually, we are able to build a more powerful intuitive sense.
In tracking, the senses are taking in a vast amount of information – sound waves from birds, wind and animals; visual impressions ranging from the color and dampness of the soil to the crispness of the edges of the track that help determine its age; the scent of the air, soil and plants; bodily sympathetic feelings generated by a sensation of the movement or gait patterns evident in the tracks; and so much more.
Somehow all of this information comes together to help the tracker paint a picture of the story of the tracks. Intuition can be seen as a vehicle allowing the deeper parts of the tracker’s awareness to help synthesize the meaning and interrelationships of complex data. In a way, this is a natural process that we all engage in every day to some extent.
In the past decade, a number of wildlife tracking authors have begun publishing their personal stories of gestalt or “intuitive” based approaches to tracking. For many, this perceptual art form has been a compelling doorway into connecting with the natural world. This article explores the burgeoning interest in intuitive tracking approaches that has arisen in the last few years, and some of the ways that intuition has played into the deep history of tracking.
A Different Way of Perceiving
Jon Young, naturalist and author of What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, shared stories a number of years ago about trailing and finding deer through intuitive methods of observation.
For Young, the sense of intuition manifested one day as a visual phenomena that helped him track deer across a crop field. He perceived what appeared as three “braided silver lines” weaving across the ground in his field of peripheral vision. Following the lines across the ground, he saw the images of the three deer that had left these trails behind. Even though Young’s conscious mind was unable to see or detect clues of the deer tracks in the hardpan soil, he followed the silver trails and actually found the the deer resting in their day beds (1).
Perhaps a deeper part of Young’s being was recognizing subtle clues – a scuff in the soil here, a partial hoof indentation there – and feeding an image to his conscious mind in the form of the silver lines. While this kind of tracking may sound like an experience out of Return of the Jedi or other sci-fi adventures, stories of intuitive perception can be found in many other places, too – appearing also in the midst of the ancient tracking cultures of the Kalahari Desert.
Listen to an interview with Jon Young about this experience: [esplayer url=”http://8shields.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Jon-Youn-Intuitive-Tracking-retrospective.mp3″ width=”200″ height=”25″]
Anthropologist Paul John Myburgh writes of similar intuitive experiences from his time living and tracking with a group of /Gwikwe Bushmen hunters in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The old hunter Dzero-O told Myburgh how he could sense in his body the activity of different animals: “He could feel the ostrich itching in his body. . . he could feel it was running. . . and then he could see where it was. . . he is able to read the feeling in his body as pictures, and then bring them to cognition.” Twelve miles away, after a three hour walk by foot, they found the three hour old tracks of the ostrich in the exact place and depicting the same behavior that Dzero-O had described (2).
On a recent visit to the Kalahari, Naro Bushmen elders shared with Young that deep intuitive tracking skills are best utilized when other forms of tracking have failed – for instance, when the trail has been lost and people desperately need food. At those moments, intuitive perspectives such as following the “energetic lines or ropes” or other methods that the hunters describe have been traditionally called on and known to provide success in hunting. Similar perceptions are also awakened in the healing trance dance, an ancient practice stilled used by various Bushmen communities today (3).
On Connection & Communication
Young appeared recently in the documentary film The Animal Communicator, produced by Craig and Damon Foster, the documentary team responsible for world-renowned films including The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story.
Filmmaker Craig Foster asked Young to demonstrate intuitive tracking skills for the film as he trailed an eland, a large African hoofed mammal. Young found the animal’s tracks and explained that from the trail, he began getting a feeling, the “signature” of the animal. By “tuning in” to the animal through its tracks, he could sense in which direction to find the specific individual, even though a number of eland were elsewhere in the area.
In the Fosters’ earlier film, The Great Dance, the Bushman hunter !Nquate and his friends describe how they feel themselves “become one” with the animal as they follow its trail. “You jump when the tracks jump,” they say.
It was a natural transition for the two brothers to focus their next film on the realm of intuitive tracking and interspecies communication in The Animal Communicator.
Over a decade ago, Breytenbach was part of a wildlife tracking program that Young was teaching. One day during a tracking exercise, her intuition “switched on” and she found a new passion and skillset that transformed her life. The film shows her at work, giving the audience a view into the amazing sense of connection and respect that is possible between humans and the rest of nature.
Young and Breytenbach have led events in Southern Africa and Germany, and they are teaming up again in November 2013 to offer a weekend training into these perceptual skills in Pescadero, California.
Filmmaker Craig Foster shared with me that “From my perspective, the act of tracking – of putting your mind into the track, and then into the mind of the animal – is really the genesis of all higher cognitive function. But the most interesting thing for me is that tracking may well be the origin of trance – the great healing dance, the oldest ceremony on earth, and the wellspring from which all science and art developed. . .
“The act of moving on a landscape, following animals by sign and tracks, hunting them, ingesting their life giving nutrients and fats, is really a series of very small out of body journeys. Each time the tracker projects his mind into the mind of the animal, he or she is training the mind to step out of the self. If practiced in the old way, this feedback loop can develop into trance. The animal fat in some ways is the driver, as this fat activates brain function in a powerful way. That’s why the Bushmen connect fat and /num [spiritual life force energy].”
Following up on this point, Breytenbach explained that “Training the tracker’s mind to step out of the self is the key to empathy. . . the way in which we open ourselves enough to fully know another’s experience.”
A Window into the Lives of the Animals
Numerous stories appear from around the world depicting a common shared experience of such mysterious perceptual faculties. Practitioners of traditional martial arts and healing modalities including qi gong, tai chi, indigenous shamanism, and yoga have also described observing similar perceptual patterns. These moments of ephemeral awareness are hard to define or quantify – but does that makes them any less valuable as experiential signposts of one’s own relational journey with the world?
Other tracking authors have been picking up on this thread, too. Most recently, Jim Lowery, Southern California-based author of The Tracker’s Field Guide, published his newest book, Walk With the Animal (available only from EarthSkills.com). Lowery documents a series of tracking journeys in which he focuses on trailing a particular individual animal through its tracks and sign. His goal was to experiment with techniques that would help him when “hitting the wall” (the moment when a tracker seems to lose the trail, and hits an impasse), to continue along the trail and get a deeper window into the animal’s world. Lowery found that a combination of intuitive and analytic techniques helped him to succeed in his trailing endeavors, and various tracking methods are highlighted throughout the text.
Earlier this year, wilderness skills expert Tamarack Song released his tome on Entering the Mind of the Tracker, sharing a lifetime of intuitive tracking stories that illustrate how to connect with the animals and nature through tracks, sign and direct observation. Song’s engaging stories underscore our natural human ability to recognize symbols in the form of animal tracks and sign, perhaps the earliest form of “reading,” and to access our ancient capacities for imitating and learning from the animals we track.
Messages from the Depths
For as long as people have been tracking and observing nature, there have been different perspectives and techniques on how to sense and know the world around us. Different terrains, ecologies and cultural norms have all shaped and been shaped by patterns of perception.
In a general way, we can distinguish between the linear logical/deductive methods of tracking, and the intuitive or gestalt processes that have typically been perceived as art forms rather than scientific processes. Although, such intuitive processes have actually lent much to the origin and development of the sciences as we know them today, frequently inspiring epiphanies that lead to new frontiers of scientific understanding.
There are many famous stories of scientists who have struggled to solve a complex problem, only to awaken at night from a vivid dream or imagery that presents the solution. The 19th century chemist Kekule is well known for having seen the solution to the chemical formation of the benzene ring in a dream or reverie, in which the ourobouros or snake eating its own tail appeared before him (4). Kekule’s personal notes and speeches indicate that he had learned to intentionally develop his visualization skills and access of this dreamlike state over a period of years, leading to this moment of realization (5). Similar historical documentation has been recorded for hunters and trackers who have searched for game to feed their village, or in cases of people needing to evade danger; Jesuit historical records of Iroquois dreaming practices from early colonial times provide accounts of “dream scouting” techniques to avoid danger or locate food for the village (6). Similar techniques and practices have occurred around the world since antiquity, into the modern day.
Young points out that the successful access of intuitive perception is built upon a foundation of connection and experience within a given field. “All the people who seem to be highly capable of this [intuitive access] also seem to be very well practiced in their art or their sport.” He cites skilled sports players who get into “the zone” and are able to intuitively predict where to stand to intercept a baseball or soccer ball at the right time, or musicians who get into “the groove” that shift complex rhythm or melody in perfect sync with the rest of their group.
Elaborating on this, Young says, “Over the years, many people have come to me in private to tell me about their experiences and how intuition works for them, and the theme is always the same – there’s a surprising moment when some aspect of our unconscious projects something to our consciousness that we can follow and interpret. . . the bottom line is, your instincts are trying to tell your conscious mind something, and so that deeper part projects something your conscious mind can understand.”
A Perception for Every Occasion
Dreaming, intuition, and other ways of “knowing” may be difficult to quantify or define, yet they provide a deep connection and insight into how we relate to the world around us.
Both aspects of awareness, rational and intuitive, have validity and usefulness; training in a variety of tracking methods leads to greater versatility in the field. Context helps define the most useful approach for the situation.
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has explored the intuitive realm of cognition in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s stories show how in certain cases this ability to make a decision based on split second gut-feeling can be preferable to drawn out analysis (7).
In scientific field research, quantitative methods are required. Clear rationale for track identification and other characteristics are needed, which may preclude or limit the application of intuitive methods. However, a researcher who is studying a particular animal may at times draw on intuition (which can be looked at as a synthesis of connection, knowledge and experience) to locate either the animal itself, or a good place to observe the animal, by drawing on “gut feeling” or other means; this is just one example of possible crossovers between deductive and “hyperdeductive” or non-linear means of investigation, in addition to stories like those of Kekule’s, mentioned earlier.
There are, however, a variety of reasons why people track – not all of which are bound to the scientific genre of research. Certainly a clear need for nature connection for human health and well-being has been documented (8, 9). Many people just love following mysteries, and immersing in the sensory world of nature. Others just want to get outside, and wildlife tracking becomes a fun addition to hiking. And for some, tracking is a doorway into the lives of the animals, a portal into another way of knowing and experiencing the world.
Listen to the full-length interview with Jon Young:
[esplayer url=”http://8shields.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Intuitive-Tracking-Interview-with-Jon-Young.mp3″ width=”200″ height=”25″]
About the Author
Josh Lane is an avid wildlife tracker and bird language observer. He contributed to the “How to Learn Bird Language” section of the book, What the Robin Knows, and developed the Backyard Bird Language online course. Josh is a nature connection and holistic tracking mentor with 8 Shields in Northern California, and has presented bird language practices at various events, including the 2013 National Audubon Conference. Read other articles from Josh at BirdLanguage.com.
Learn more about Anna Breytenbach at AnimalSpirit.org
Learn more about Jon Young at 8Shields.org
(1 ) Jon Young, Tracking Pack One CD set. Owlink Media. 1994.
(2) Paul John Myburgh, The Bushman Winter Has Come: The True Story of the Last Band of /Gwikwe Bushmen on the Great Sand Face. Penguin Books, 2013.
(3) Bradford Keeney, Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe. Ringing Rocks Press, 2003.
(4) C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols. Dell Publishing, 1964.
(5) Robert Moss, The Secret History of Dreaming. New World Library, 2009.
(6) Robert Moss, Dreamways of the Iroquois. Destiny Book, 2005.
(7) Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Hachette Digital, Inc. 2007.
(8) “Healthy Nature, Healthy People” article by Mailer, Townsend, Pryor, Brown & St Leger http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/content/21/1/45.full#ref-31
(9) Children & Nature Network Research & Resources webpage: