Douglas Squirral (Tamiasciurius douglasii)
As our track and sign evaluator, Casey McFarland, said to us at ourCyberTracker evaluation, “Watching animals is how we [humans] learned who we are.” The art of track and sign (including bird language) is our most accessible window into the lives of the myriad web of intelligent animals bustling around us all the time. A relationship with those others forms the emotional foundation for an ecological theory of mind. Without that foundation, the meaning of ecological data as communicated in magazines, nature specials, news reports, etc., seems less than real and fails to be fully relevant to our lives.
From Birth: Although there are many ways to access and empathize with life on earth, tracking is the only one that can begin at
birth. I know of 3 and 4-year-olds who easily recognize various plants, birds, and animal sign. Think about this: For the first 18 months or so of a children’s lives, their attention is directed by primary caregivers, usually parents, but also elders and the wider family in complete communities. The ability to name or gesture toward are the primary tools for orienting children’s attention and is the foundation of children’s ability to learn. These tools of naming and gesture are made articulate and complete by the caregiver’s “naturalist knowledge” and tracking is at the heart of naturalist knowledge. If, for example, a parent walks around saying, “Look at the tree. Look at the car. Vroom vroom,” a child’s awareness will lack context and be limited to an object called “tree” that is devoid or life and relationship.
The distinct sign of Douglas Squirrel harvesting bark for nest material
Awareness: In the Pacific Northwest,Douglas Squirrel (Tamiascurius douglasii) harvests nesting material primarily from Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). This sign is distinct and abundant. Caregivers will open a world of interconnected relationships to children with the ability to orient attention to Western Red Cedar and then, more specifically, to the soft, fibrous feel, the sweet smell, and the rich brown-red color of the squirrel de-barking, and then from the de-barking to the likely Douglas Squirrel perched on a nearby branch fussing with a fir cone. Repeating this practice of orienting attention lays the foundation for a child’s awareness in the next phase of life when the child is directing his own exploration and learning to a greater extent.
Relationships: As a child begins its self-mobilized, exploratory phase of life, attention to Douglas Squirrel will draw attention to the ground where Douglas Squirrel leaves large middens of cone scales. Digging through these scales, the child may find that underneath the pile are intact, uneaten cones. Later in life, the child may learn that the midden piles create a cool, preservative micro-environment that keeps their cones from opening and either reseeding or being gobbled up by mice, birds, or other critters. They will also become familiar with sight, smell, and feel or the surrounding plants and trees, like fir, hemlock, and spruce. From there, children will discoverPileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at home on dead snags and the wood-boring insects that Woodpecker feeds on. Relationship-based orientation opens a child’s capacity for self-learning. The principle of self-learning carries out of the forest and into all realms of life.
Story, Science, and Imagination: Louis Liebenberg writes in his book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science:”
“To interpret tracks and signs trackers must project themselves into the position of the animal in order to create a hypothetical explanation of what the animal was doing. Tracking is not strictly empirical, since it also involves the tracker’s imagination. Generally speaking, one may argue that science is not only a product of objective observation of the world through sense perception. It is also a product of the human imagination. A creative hypothesis is not found or discovered in the outside world, it comes from within the human mind.”
Each child’s life is like the dawn of humanity. That child depends on the recapitulation of over 100,000 years of collective cultural knowledge in order to become a participant in culture. Liebenberg beautifully articulates how tracking is at the foundation of both our scientific mind and our imagination.
We like to say that “tracking is seeing through time.” Humans may be the animal most adept at this and it makes us unique. This ability is at the route of storytelling, the fundamental mode of our communication. Awareness of track and sign, opens up something that most people in our culture are blind to — aside from the squirrel or chirping bird and the landscape bush, there is a world of owls, weasels, cougars, raccoons, bears, rats, voles, moles, chipmunks, bats, and an endless list of others bustling around us just beyond the realm of our awareness. With all our technology and specialized knowledge, we are still developmentally bound to tracking as the only way to lay the emotional foundation for the rest of life.
Empathy: Tracking, the act of imagining oneself as an animal or plant results in an Ecological Theory of Mind. Just as theory of mind is critical in basic cooperation and love between humans, ecological theory of mind is critical for the cooperation of humans with the wider world that we ultimately depend upon and for love of that world. Largely because most of us were not raised with a foundation in tracking, few understand or acknowledge that this art is the only way to raise a child with an ecological theory of mind. For the same reason, few understand that basic tracking, enough tracking to do wonders for a child, is readily accessible to adults and can make all the difference for the world. It can be as simple as knowing how to name Douglas Squirrel, to see the stripped bark on Western Red Cedar, and to tell the story to an infant who may not yet understand the words, but who will look, feel, smell and begin to develop a vital connection with the world.