Point Reyes tracker, author gives tips for observing animals, nature
The art and science of animal tracking, which Richard Vacha defines as “nature awareness,” begins with a subtle shift in the way one looks at the world. For Vacha, this is a skill that can be taught in minutes. And, having practiced the art for more than 30 of his 73 years, he says he still learns more every time he goes out.
On a walk around the marshes in Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park, Vacha gives some simple instructions: “Let’s begin by picking some very small object at a distance. I’m picking a fencepost up on that hillside,” he said, pointing out across Highway 101 a half-mile away. “I’m focusing on it really tight.
“And then, while still keeping that object in your view, expand into peripheral vision. If you notice, you can just about see your feet and you can see the sky; you can see almost 180 degrees all around - but still hold that pinpoint in your field of view.” As it happens, this is unexpectedly easy.
“We’re stretching the brain’s ability to use our sense of sight,” he says simply. “It does take some practice, but you can learn to walk in this state.“
He repeats the process with a pebble between his feet, and suggests that his hiking partner do the same.
“Pick just one pebble, tight focus, and then ratchet out again into that wide-angle vision,“ he says. “My pebble is staying right there where I saw it, but now I’m seeing the surface of the ground. I’m seeing you. I’m seeing quite a lot in my field of view.”
The next step in his crash course involves colors. Walking slowly, he casually points out the hues, tones, lights and darks of the various greens, reds, yellows and browns visible on the trail and out across the marshland. He notes topographical contours and shapes, different types of foliage, the intensity of the light, the relative dryness and wetness of the ground. He repeats the process with sounds. Just a few minutes of this seems to bring the landscape more fully to life.
And for Vacha, that is what tracking is really about - way beyond simply being able to identify animals or stalk prey. What he calls “the most fundamental human skill,” which was the key to survival for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, is, for him, a practice that makes the natural world more comprehensible and reawakens something deeply human.
Vacha’s new book, “The Heart of Tracking; Inner and Outer Practices of Nature Awareness,” compiles weekly columns he published in the Point Reyes Light newspaper over the past dozen or so years. Its 49 short chapters include some fascinating commentary about tracking as a practice, but mostly it’s a diary of his outdoor neighborhood and its inhabitants, from bobcats and birds to bugs.
Chapter three, “Before the Fall: September and October,” gives a good example of what the world looks like to someone who has turned on their “tracker mind” as he reads footprints and scat and comes away with a story of the season.
“Bobcats and coyotes have been foraging farther in the relentless search to feed themselves and their kids. With the dry year and thinner prey populations, they have had to work a little harder, their patterns more disbursed. Foxes have had an exceptionally successful year, perhaps benefiting from a rodent population that bulged due to big rains. Right now they and the raccoons are busily comparing orchard maps and feasting on the fruit crops coming to maturity. Omnivore scats are full of varying seeds and skins from blackberries, huckleberries, manzanita berries, plums and apples.”
In addition to writing his column, Vacha leads a tracker club on monthly expeditions. He says that is the way it has always been done. Tracking works best as a group activity.
“You multiply your own perception ability by however many people are there,” he says. “People see different things, and all of a sudden you’re working as a single organism, finding out what’s going on. It really is a powerful experience. There’s a richness and a kind of joyfulness there.”
Vacha first encountered tracking from the author and teacher Tom Brown, whose book, “The Tracker,” became a sensation when it was published in 1978. Brown has operated a tracking school from his home near the New Jersey Pine Barrens for decades, and there are tracking schools run by his former students in almost every state. He is a controversial character.
In his book, Brown claims that he learned to track beginning at the age of seven from a friend’s grandfather, an old Apache named Stalking Wolf, who, he claims, was living in the wilds of the Pine Barrens. No one else has ever reported meeting Stalking Wolf, and there is no evidence of his existence. Vacha doesn’t involve himself in the controversy, except to say that he has found Brown to be forthright in person, and that his skills are undeniable.