Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tracking, The Controversies. Or so I've been told

I am hopelessly naive it seems and man, am I happy about that! In many things I have done in my life I never first consulted others, I never first researched what was contemporary, accepted or even expected. Mostly I figured it out for myself and only when I was confident I got stuff down or got stuck I would start to look around. If somebody else did it better I simply took it over. If somebody did certain aspects better I simply merged the best of both. There is never a "not invented here" issue and also prestige never played a dominant role. I simply like to come up with my own solutions before "adjusting" them to what is out there. This has been true in my computer science work and also in my studies and teachings of aboriginal living skills.

I may be naive but I am not stupid and over the years I have noticed that this method of mine almost never earned me any points in the social and work related arenas. It is baffling to me that science, for instance, is so incredibly stifled by it own dos, don'ts, tabus and dogma. This mechanism can be identified in everything. It is an important component in our societal glue it seems. It did, however, never occur to me that this would even be true for originally aboriginal skills such as tracking.

My interest in (and consequent obsession with) tracking started with it being one of the aboriginal living skills. As described above I found out how to do stuff on my own and later fine tuned it with the knowledge and experience of others. The funny thing was that mostly my own solutions were more like how aboriginal people would do as opposed to how survival experts would do. Later, this became a very important element of my courses.  I realized that aboriginal living skills were not simply text book skills but a very natural function of our connection with Nature. More importantly, our natural awareness and ability to track seems to be the common denominator of the human capacity to survive anywhere on Earth.

So, my own study of tracking was never inspired by an application in contemporary society such as tactical or SAR tracking but rather by it being a natural part of my interest in the living skills of the human animal. Later of course I became very much involved in the application of these skills in modern society and the goal of promoting and teaching the use of tracking in SAR and law enforcement was the main reason why I started The VaraVild Scout Project and later joined Professional Tracking Services Europe. Initially however tracking and awareness were to me the foundations of understanding the natural world. Nothing controversial about that one would think. Or?

When I seriously started to study tracking I had basically one and only one goal: Being able to know what happened. For me tracking was never just identifying a track to an individual animal and following those tracks until I found it. No, I wanted to know what happened on the way, what the animal was doing, what it encountered, what it was thinking and most importantly, if it was aware of me tracking it. Without this skill the aboriginal hunting methods made no sense to me. So I entered the world of tracking completely naively assuming that such information naturally is laid down in the animal's tracks. It didn't take me very long to discover a glimpse of this wonderful language. While lying on my belly in the sand studying my own tracks I soon saw that increasing speed, changing direction and all kinds of other things like looking in different directions etc. left recognizable sign in the tracks. As I am rather science oriented I soon started to see systematic change in these sign depending on changing energy and dynamics in the movements. For me this was all natural and part of my journey to understand and learn tracking.

I never had the need to communicate these things with others. They were a completely internal language and I never named these specific signs. I simply recognized and used them. It wasn't until I decided to start teaching these things that I needed to create a language. In the event I didn't need to create anything. I found a book that described all these things I discovered and much, much more.

The book was The Science and Art of Tracking by Tom Brown Jr. In this book the system of track dynamics was described in a level of detail I did not think was possible. My own internal system was very course and inaccurate in comparison but in essence it was the same system. I did not find this at all weird. I mean I was a very inexperienced amateur tracker and the fact that the book described a far more abundant model than I had formed was only natural. I simply thought: "Got a lot to learn". This was one of these cases where I took the better model.

The key insight for me in tracking is that a track is not just a print. A track is not simply the result of a deformation caused by a claw, paw, hoof or foot. The final shape of the tracks is also caused by the reverberation, the springing back of the soil when the pressure is released. That is why from the beginning I have always seen tracks as the Earth's reaction to the intention of the quarry. After reading the book they suddenly got a name: Pressure Releases. I liked the name and it described very well the physics at play. What I did not know at the time was that with starting to use that word and the names of the various pressure releases I did not only enable communication with students and other trackers but even opened a can of worms I never imagined existed.

As this book was so important for me by giving words to my experiences I was keen to find more books on tracking. To my big surprise I never found any other book that described the same system. In a few there is some talk about action indicators, twists and toe dig but on the whole pressure releases are not written about in the literature on tracking I could find at the time. I would have thought that at least something would be said about it in the SAS Guide to Tracking by Bob Carrs but no. It puzzled me. More disconcerting was that a friend warned me that this was a subject of considerable controversy in the world of tracking. I have by now heard many people state that they do not believe in pressure releases. What is there to be believed? Look down and see them happen. How can you not believe in them? So, here I found myself knowing a system that is of unbelievable significance in tracking, one I am totally convinced aboriginal peoples all over the world used in all of history in order to be able to hunt the way they did and for some reason this is something of a tabu?

Well, maybe I need to talk about the little catch in the pressure release system. The problem that in my opinion is the cause of this controversy. I do not mean the opinions people have about Tom Brown Jr, the person most associated with the system. I never cared about the private details of the author or the format of his books and other claims he made. As I have explained, I only take the good bits and merge them with my own stuff. No, the real problem is the system itself. The system builds on the fact that the signs in and around tracks systematically take various forms depending on movement of the whole paw, claw, foot etc. and also its constituent parts. The system is measured relative to the depth, length or width of the track. This makes the system scalable. The forms of the sign are not depending on the size of the animal or human who made them. They are consistent from elephant to ant. The system is defined in perfect soil (also called zero soil). This is a lightly moist extremely fine sand with defined buffering. It is the zero soil that kind of is the catch because there are almost no places on Earth where you can find zero soil. "How is that useful than?", you may ask. Well if you take another type of soil and humidity all the pressure releases will occur but they get translated up or down and adapt to the soil. Maybe there is no soil but leaves or moss or a paved road. It does not matter. The system is still there it can be observed and it retains its scalability but you need to know exactly how the zero soil system translates to the current soil type to interpret them correctly. So now we have a system that is dependent on almost an infinite number of variables. This is what causes the controversy. It is seen as impossible to apply in real life.

Isn't it then? No! In explaining why it is not impossible to use I will touch upon yet another aspect of tracking that creates a lot of controversy. The problem of translating the system is one I have to admit I missed completely in my own studies. That didn't mean I was unaware of it. It was simply so obvious to me that the PRs (pressure releases) would have to be transformed to any type of soil and weather that I did never consciously pondered over them. This may sound strange but for me tracking and most other aboriginal skills are done from the heart and by training and not so much the logical mind. I simply missed recognizing the enormous complexity of it because I was just doing it without thought. Much in the same way you would catch a ball if I would suddenly throw one to you. You can not fathom the complexity involved in estimating the ball's weight, velocity, air resistance etc. etc. and calculating its trajectory from a fraction of a second you see the ball move before you. The mind boggles. Some training is involved but you catch that ball largely by instinct, intuition and awareness. It is in our nature as predators, as the human animal. So is tracking. Now this is the other controversy: It seems things are only allowed to be text book skills. Anything to do with instinct or intuition is tabu.

Another reason for the controversy is comparable to the catching-a-ball-example. You never went to a week course on catching a ball. You learned it by necessity but over a very long period of time. Every day in your life until you die you will learn more and get better in catching the ball (disregarding the effects of old age for the sake of this argument). And so it is with tracking. Learning to read the PRs will take you a life time. You can only become good at it if you get obsessed. You need to unconsciously navigate the enormous complexity of all the parameters of soil and all that impacts it and getting good at it takes an enormous effort: years and years of training. This does not really fit with our modern society. We want to take a course and be experts when we are done. Well, that is not how it works. You will only get the theoretical knowledge on tracking that way. Could you catch the ball after you read a book on how to do it?

There is a strange anomaly though in the literature of tracking. They all do write about aging tracks. I am not going into aging but think about aging for a while. It requires you to read the effects of time, weather and wind, an infinitely complex set of variables on just as many soil types as there are soil types to read PRs in.  Logically if you do not believe in PRs you can absolutely not believe in aging tracks.

Just as an interesting note: certain PRs can take the form of other ones due to the effects of aging! Yeah, that is how totally awesome the human capability is because we can see it and use it as long as we stop thinking about it!

For me there exist no controversies in tracking. I do what I do because I love it and it works for me. I teach it to anybody who want to learn it cause I know it to be part of my type of tracking. Believe it or not, in the end its about succeeding in tracking. And if you have a cool method count on me learning it from you and making it my own. I do not really see why one would spend valuable time arguing about controversies in tracking? That time is much better spent in the dirt, learning and training tracking in your unique but inevitably purely human way.

Peter Friebel