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The Language of Nature

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I watched the rolling hills, covered with spiky acacia trees and large, dun colored
boulders as they slipped endlessly by, I was sitting in the back of a battered Range
Rover,as it jarred its way down the broken, dirt trail that passes for a road in this part of
Africa ,the narrow road eventually gave way to a series of dry washes. After nearly an
hour of choking dust, bumps and pain slowly settling into my cramped knees, we finally
left the vehicle.And followed Gaspar, our guide, into the bush searching for the village of
the Hadzabe tribe of “bushmen” renowned for their tracking skills. The hike was made
more difficult because the tribe had moved since Gaspar’s last visit. The old village
revealed the remains of their stay; dilapidated frames of several huts, a large baobab
tree used for stretching hides, and bones littering the area. A cave’s smoke blackened
ceiling was evidence that this too was used for shelter.

Leaving the old village, I began noticing signs of recent activity in the sandy soil, tracks
of goats, dogs, and a set of human prints less than three hours old. Later, our guide
also discovered the tracks pointing them out to the group. He began to whistle loudly
every few minutes, listening for a response guiding us to the current location of the tribe.
After several attempts a replying whistle was heard, and we headed that direction. A
shouted conversation through the undergrowth informed us of the need to wait out of
sight while the women put clothes on. Gaspar, like most Tanzanians, seemed to be
somewhat embarrassed by the Hadzabe, considering their practice of wearing little-to-
no-clothing as crude and backwards. Telling us, “I don’t know why they live here, not in
the city like normal people”. Unsure how to respond to the criticism, my mind drifted,
thinking about the path that led me here.

My first memory of tracking is from a school trip, visiting a local expert in wilderness
survival and primitive skills. I learned the basics of starting fires without modern tools,
how to build shelter and tracking. As I started hunting there was always an element of
tracking involved, scouting the autumn woods looking for fresh tracks or the
unmistakable sign of shredded bark where a buck had rubbed his antlers. Years later, I
was able to continue honing this skill attending tracking school while serving as a scout
sniper in the Marine Corps. After returning to civilian life, I took a job teaching tracking to
the military and law enforcement communities. It was as I began to teach that I really
started to understand that this skill, like many others, involves speaking a new
language, the language of nature. As with any language, it is composed of many small
pieces connected together to create a larger meaning. A famous Yaqi tracker and
mentor once told me “Every step is a word, several steps a sentence, and the entirety of
the track, is a complete story”. This attitude opened up a whole new world to me.
Instead of mindlessly following a trail; boot prints, broken twigs, and bent grass , now
my mind was searching for these details and how to piece them together into a story, a
story that told of what has come before.

It is not well known that tracking is widely used throughout the modern world, occuring
daily without much attention. Military and police use tracking to locate and follow
suspects from crime scenes and battlefields. Park rangers in Asia and Africa use
tracking in the struggle against poaching and the illegal ivory trade. Wildlife researchers
track individual animals, as well as migration patterns using skilled trackers and special
databases. What I discovered, in the modern tracking community, was that the story of
what has come before is often overlooked — an afterthought, a brief mention of American
Indian trackers or Australia’s Aborigines– before moving on to “bigger and better”
subjects.

Our wait over, I could feel the excitement building as I moved to meet the tribe I had
heard so much about, short and thinly built, and covered in an array of animal hides,
the Hadzabe welcomed us with happy smiles. Gaspar told them of my desire to hunt
with them, and they readily agreed, fresh kudu tracks were found and we were in
business. The soil in the area was a firm sand, damp, and dark from the rain the night
before. The sun having been hidden behind a low-lying cloud layer, now started to burn
through, accompanied by the buzz of insects, giving us good tracking light. As we
followed the kudu the bushmen would indicate each track they saw with an arrow. It was
soon obvious they were used to tracking animals and understood the mind and habits of
the prey. If the next track was not readily apparent they would immediately begin
looking near bushes that would attract a browsing animal. I began to point out subtle
tracks as well, and understanding dawned on the faces of my hosts, I could spot the
sign as quickly as they did, we began to divide the area into unspoken sectors and
moved faster in our pursuit. I noticed Gaspar wearing a slightly bemused look as he
trailed behind, his translation wasn’t required, everything was being said with a simple
gesture or look, we were fluent in the language of nature, one that he and my
companions didn’t speak. Eventually it was time to leave, but I took with me a new
perspective.

Disregarded as unimportant, backwards, or embarrassing, the “primitive” tribesmen had
taught me an important lesson. Although, we didn’t share a single word in common and
our cultures are polar opposites, we shared a literacy that allowed us an understanding
that transcended these differences, a bridge stretching back through time to a world
long forgotten. Tracking had once again showed me a story, a story of what had come
before.