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Reading the Land, Keeping Old Earth Tracking Skills Alive


With hunting season under way, perhaps it's a good time to reflect on some increasingly forgotten, old earth tracking and awareness skills.... skills that are in danger of extinction as the modern outdoorsman turns away from his or her senses and toward the comfort and ease of technology. While we're not here to rag on outdoor tech, we are here to keep the old earth knowledge and skills alive because you never know when you might have to fall back on them.

In the not too distant past, the average woodsman knew exactly what plants, animals, and resources resided on his/her land without the help of trail cameras or ATV's. In fact, I'd wager that the old earth woodsmen knew their environment far better than any modern one. The old earth woodsman HIKED the land. He didn't cruise by on four wheels. With the tunnel vision that comes with steering a vehicle, many of nature's clues and details are missed. Taking the time to slowly scout the land allows a chance for far more details of sight, sound, and smell to be taken in. A bigger picture of what is normal vs disturbed becomes more reliable, thus tipping you onto the activities of any given animal. Perhaps our increasing disconnection is a symptom of the hurried lifestyles of today, because knowing the land well enough to see what's normal and what's out of place requires time..... time spent in the field establishing a personal relationship with it. By only putting in the time during hunting season, the modern woodsman ceases to be a master of his domain and becomes a tourist in it.

Today's woodsman places far too much emphasis on equipment, and not enough time into skills.... except for shooting of course. But then, shooting and hunting is becoming more and more about equipment culture, and less about food culture and woodlore where it should be. Far too many woodsmen today would rather play "show and tell" with their gear than discuss the vitality of resources on their land. Not nearly enough thought to plant knowledge and foraging opportunities are given either. Old earth woodsmen regard plant knowledge as being of equal importance to animal knowledge. Why? It's because they are all connected to one another. The old earth mindset looks not only at the plant or animal of interest, but also at the neighboring links on the food chain as well. Knowing and understanding both plants and animals in your evironment allows you to establish a better grasp on the habits of both. It's rare to come across a modern woodsman that is equally excited about the big buck living on the property as he/she is about a huge patch of paw paws, or boneset.

With a wealth of old earth knowledge, the traditional woodsman could read the land and translate animal signs into a remarkably complete picture of its habits without ever laying eyes on the animal itself. Dumping a pile of corn on the ground and pointing a trail cam at it doesn't reveal much about an animal's habits or how many there are. So without the gimmicks, how is this information acquired? Here are a few tidbits to give you an idea of how deep this old earth rabbit hole goes......

Understanding animal sign is much more than studying tracks. Often times, tracks are not easily visible on hard rocky soil, or through spongy leaf litter. Old earth wisdom tells us to look for other signs that something lives in, or is active in the area. It takes a trained eye to spot the matted grass that outlines a rabbit run, or the entry/exit point that a muskrat frequents at the water's edge, or the patch of trillium beheaded by deer. And even though most people these days want nothing to do with any animal scat (poop) they happen across, to our ancestors it was time to stop and have a closer look..... a LOT closer.....

Animal scat contains a wealth of information, not just what kind of animal left it and where its been, but what it's been eating that might be of interest to us as well. Example: It's no secret that I LOVE paw paw fruit. So finding paw paw seeds in this coyote scat was exciting news.... There are paw paw trees in the area! Now I'm more inclined to examine the local terrain more closely to discover them. Animals don't digest fur very well, so examining a predator's scat can also tell me what prey animals I might find in the area as well. If I haven't lost you yet, this should blow your mind....

As you might imagine, animal scat can also indicate the health of the animal that left it. Sometimes you'll happen across scat with worms, or scat that's runny. A closer examination may reveal evidence of plants in the area that the animal was consuming to correct its malady. Carnivores tend not to eat salad, so when they do, there's usually a good reason for it. Our old earth ancestors learned everything they know from studying nature, and animals were (and are) some of our best teachers. Observing what sick animals would eat in the wild is how we humans began to understand the medicinal value of many plants. If that's not a good enough reason to take an interest in animal poo, I don't know what is!

Finding animal sign or learning your animal tracks is a lot easier when you know the hot spots as well. Our old earth ancestors could always gauge what was living in the area (and how many) by a visit to the nearest woodland meadow water hole or creek. The water's edge in a woodland meadow (a meadow surrounded by woods) is a great place to look for animal sign for several reasons. Meadows have amazing plant diversity, which in turn attracts diverse animal life that lives or feeds on and around those plants. This in turn attracts the predators which come out of the woods to hunt the herbivores, and all of these animals have to drink somewhere! It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but it all works out somehow. Striking a harmonious balance is what nature does best.

Reading the land to track animals is an old earth skill that is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. Awareness of your surrounding environment isn't just about knowing what you can harvest. It's about responsible resource management. Our old earth cultures were (and are) very careful to avoid overexploitation, which in turn assures the continued availability of any given plant or animal resource. The thing about modern tech is that it eventually fails with time and use, often at inopportune times, and it costs money. But skills only get stronger as you use them, and they cost nothing but time and practice to develop. So as woodsmen of today, shall we continue to put all our eggs in the tech basket and roll the dice? Or are we going to hold onto a more intimate connection to the land by keeping those old earth skills honed for the time when we may really need them?

“The more you know, the less you have to carry. The less you know, the more you have to carry.” ~ Mors Kochanski ~

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