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.

As to the equally controversial idea that the tracking movement is an example of improper cultural appropriation, Vasha doesn’t see it - and he personally does not lean heavily on Native American references. “I think there is a universal human instinct for tracking,” he said. “It goes to the very beginnings of human consciousness, certainly the beginnings of language. All over the world, hunter-gatherers use these skills of awareness.”

A little ways down the trail, Vacha has spotted a pile of scat. Upon investigation, it is more accurately a pile of three scats - one rather fresh, and the other two in varying stages of decomposition. He quickly determines that it is a spot where a coyote poops consistently, to mark its territory, and that, “yep, the plums are ripening right about now.”

Farther along, he examines another, smaller scat that appears to be a couple days old. It has a shiny coating of mucus and is packed with what is unmistakably rabbit fur. Bobcat, Vacha concludes.

He walks the trail much more slowly than a recreational hiker. Something catches his eye and he slides off the trail to examine a nibbled branch or a scrap of fur on a thorn. In less than an hour, even during an interview, this variety of nature worship is both stimulating and relaxing.

For Vacha, as the subtitle of his book hints, tracking is in part a spiritual practice, a brand of meditation that can calm and strengthen the mind as effectively as the Eastern meditative practices.

“Our brain is kind of a filtering organ,” he said. “Our senses are absorbing and our brain is noting way more information than we are truly conscious of. In a state of tracker-mind, you bring awareness to what your senses are picking up. And with training, you can learn how everything is related, how any animal movement is related to that animal’s life, its place in this particular spot and its evolutionary history. The story is unfolding constantly.”

The science and practice of reading animal activity “keeps my philosophizing down to a practical level so I don’t get lost in ungrounded thinking,” he said. “It sidesteps the necessity for a belief system, because you’re just working with what’s actually there and is observable. It shifts you into your intuitive senses and stuff that’s deeply wired in your brain structure.”

Vacha says this “open meditation” continues to stretch him and that he is recently confronting what he calls “a personal edge.” This past spring, he said, he visited a mesa above the dunes near his Point Reyes home. After two wet winters, this place that he has visited for decades was more alive than ever. The colors seemed more vibrant, the plant and animal communities more abundant. He said it was difficult to absorb it all.

“I think it’s the culmination of all my tracking experience up until now,” he said. “Nature is calling me to open up more, just to be able to take it all in.

“But there’s a vulnerability to that, because when I come back into the world of people, especially these days, you’ve got some cranky people. And nature can be vicious, but it’s not cranky.”

His tolerance for this crankiness is wearing thin, he said. But he believes the key might be to do what he feels nature calling him to do: open up even further.

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