The Hunters of August

Tuesday evening the sky was full of nighthawks and bats as the sun began to set, early enough that there was enough light to photograph them. Maybe not National Geographic-quality photos, but good enough to capture their characteristics in flight. Like the way the nighthawks, who look almost sparrow-like when you see them at rest, with their tiny beaks and plush toy feathers, turn into sleek little interceptors of the crepuscular sky, their profile expressing an aeronautical evolution for speed and sharp turns.

The bats are not as elegant in flight, and they are even harder to photograph, because they are so small, and by the time they arrive at this stretch of the river they are seventy-five to a hundred feet above ground. But when the light is good you can see what weird little boomerangs they are, how they stay airborne off no more than the spastic beats of wings that are more like human hands, hands evolved to maximize the spreads of skin between the fingers. And as you watch them working the beginning of their shift, radar-snarfing little bugs from the air, you imagine what kind of caloric intake they require to do that all night. No wonder they sleep all day.

There were big clouds in the eastern sky turning a bright August orange against the blue haze, a beautiful backdrop for the little black wings in motion, flying in a formation that had no apparent order other than the way it mapped the presence of their prey. A few human tracks were traced behind the clouds, contrails of the last transcontinental jets still working their routes at the end of quarantine summer, and one low-flying Cessna taking its student pilot back to Bergstrom. There’s always something beautiful about seeing the ancient natural flyers sharing the sky with the machines we made to imitate them, even if we can’t approach their grace.

To take pictures of birds and bats in flight, you have to track them with the eye of the lens as they move. To anticipate their arc. It’s a deep human instinct to follow the path of animals with your eyes, an instinct most video games tap, and when you exercise it out in the natural world, it feels good.

The Tracker

I have begun trying to teach our young daughter how to look at the woods. She has a convenient perch in her backpack palanquin (convenient except when we need to duck under low-hanging branches), which gives her a view from above my shoulders. And she is proving a quick learner. The first lesson we are working on is to focus the attention of your gaze along an imaginary horizon line as you move through the forest or along the river. That is where you will be mostly likely to see wildlife, or whatever else is coming, usually at a distance that will serve your advantage whether you are predator or prey.

I learned that lesson from a car salesman more than fifteen years ago, shortly after our frat boy governor had moved to Washington to become global overlord of Shock and Awe. I was buying a new Subaru, one of the first new cars I had ever purchased after years of cool beaters and practical hand-me-downs. As I was sitting there in the salesman’s office, waiting for him to complete the paperwork, I admired the aquarium he had on his desk. A fish tank that looked like a complete ecosystem, a little box of liquid green life like that lost city Superman keeps on his desk.

I complimented the salesman, whose name was Chance, and he explained what it was, and then explained what he was.

“I’m really a tracker.”

He was a student, he elaborated, of the famous tracker Tom Brown. As it happened, I was familiar with Tom Brown, as I owned a couple of his books about urban wildlife. But I did not know that the author of those books was the Aragorn of the Jersey woods, operating a school where he taught people outdoor survival lore. Chance told me how he and a partner who had also studied with Brown were bringing that knowledge to Texas, focusing their efforts on tracking the wild secrets of the sandy expanses of the Balcones Escarpment. He told me Brown’s best book is his first one: The Tracker.

I asked Chance if he would ever be interested in teaching some of his techniques to the second-graders in our little Cub Scout den, and he was game.

The place where he had us meet him at sunup one Saturday morning in late spring was an unlikely rendezvous point for a wildlife outing: under the overpass of the Mopac freeway where it crosses the dammed-up section of the urban Colorado known back then as Town Lake. Chance was there waiting when we arrived, standing in the rain with no protection other than a wool shirt and accompanied his two very young children.

The first thing he showed the boys was how the unmowed grass there in the right of way under the freeway was criss-crossed with the tunnels of voles, tunnels just about the size of your arm. He told us how long it took him to explore those tunnels before he could finally hold a vole in his hand. He taught the boys how to follow those tunnels. How you would go about estimating the number of voles in the colony.

He walked us from the right of way down into the patch of woods along the creek next to Zilker Park, maintained by the city as a nature preserve. He taught the kids the horizon-line trick. He helped them listen to the birds and the other sounds, explaining that most wildlife will leave or hide ten seconds before you arrive. He showed them how to walk in quiet stillness on the balls of your feet. How you should keep your hands hidden as you walk because the flashing of human hands in the light is one of the main signs that warns off animals. And he taught them how to begin to read some of the most common tracks, like how to gauge the size of the deer and what it might have been doing from the imprints its two big toes leave in the mud.

He had the kids’ full attention, and the dads’.

It was many years later that I got around to reading Tom Brown’s original and most important book after coming across a copy in the used bookstore. I had visited the website of the school Chance had gone to, a school where you build your own shelter from sticks and hide in the woods watching what happens around you for a few days, but that was not the kind of getaway a young dad with a busy law practice and a Blackberry that followed him wherever he went was going to easily manage. But I went out on weekends with my son and together we applied some of those lessons and learned more than we expected.

The Tracker is a weird book. A New Jersey variation on Carlos Castaneda, in which Brown recounts the story of how from the age of seven he and his buddy Rick were taught to read the woods by Rick’s uncle, a Lipan Apache elder named Stalking Wolf. It’s structured as a series of wisdom-imparting adventures in the Pine Barrens, from boyish revelations about how to pay patient sensory attention and Karate Kid-style survival lessons to young adult encounters with massive packs of wild dogs and scary humans who sound like the bell-bottomed predators of grindhouse movies. It was written in 1978, after Brown had gained some TV news notoriety for helping to track down a wanted man.

Critical reading is especially important when reading stories about colonizers and their descendants learning the secret knowledge of Native Americans, which are usually narratives of exculpation by appropriation. But a text that helps you see the landscape of postwar America through those eyes has more to teach than just practical outdoor tips. Even as you wonder how much of the story is a fiction, one that takes the narrative of this famous PSA of the time and runs with it:

That commercial was an all-American lie—the “Indian” was an actor of Italian ancestry, and the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA campaign was propaganda by the major beverage and packaging companies who produced all that trash. And like that ad, and Castaneda’s tales of his mentoring by Don Juan, The Tracker’s factual authenticity has been questioned—Stalking Wolf is said to have died when Brown was 17, with no evidence available of his existence, and Rick is said to have died in a motorcycle accident in Europe not long after that.

The book is co-authored by William Jon Watkins, a poet and SF writer who taught community college English and won the Rhysling Award for science fiction poetry. Maybe that’s why it reads so well, and why you don’t feel like the truth of how Brown really came up with his techniques is that important. The story works more like folklore, one of a long line of factually embellished stories of the backwoods archetype Constance Rourke called the “Gamecock of the Wilderness”—figures from Davy Crockett to Sergeant York who mythologize the complex history of our devouring of the American wild by wrapping real stories inside tall tales.

Like those stories, The Tracker imparts real truths—about how to connect with wild nature in the shadows of smokestacks, when the only “frontier” left is the right of way between the freeway and the subdivision. I don’t know how true the stories Tom Brown tells are. What I know for sure is that everything his student taught me has worked to help me experience urban wildlife, read the signs nature leaves around us, and even open portals of a sort. The real lessons are the ones we teach ourselves, after learning to pay closer attention to the world around us, and tapping the instincts our ancestors bequeathed us.


More Cybertrucks on the Colorado

Following up on my recent post here about the new Tesla site in East Austin, I had the good fortune to write an op-ed for Austin’s new public affairs site Urbanitus about the opportunity Musk’s new project represents to save Austin’s wild urban river. Check it out, and if you are in Austin, please share it widely if you are so inclined:

Cybertrucks on the Colorado – how Tesla’s Gigafactory can save Austin’s urban river

Further reading

The Tracker, by Tom Brown, Jr., as told to William Jon Watkins (1978)

Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School

“Tracker gains big following even as some say tales stray”—Philadelphia Inquirer, June 26, 2011

For more on the backwoods scout other archetypes of American folklore, track down a copy of Constance Rourke’s 1931 American Humor: A Study of the National Character, available as a reprint from New York Review Books.

For Austinites, Robert Faires at the Austin Chronicle has a wonderful piece about the new podcast-guided walking natural history tour of Waller Creek UT’s Office of Sustainability has put out—thanks to Bruce Sterling for the tip.

We had a wonderful crowd turn out for Wednesday’s virtual launch of my new novel Failed State hosted by BookPeople and in conversation with my friend and colleague Cory Doctorow. It was a big smile to see 125 people turn our nerd chat into a virtual happy hour, and the book seems to be off to a good start despite the challenging circumstances. BookPeople has the video of the event available on their Facebook page if anyone is interested (no login required). And they have signed copies of the book available, after my socially distanced visit to the store earlier this week (see above pic from BookPeople’s feed—I even broke out the pink shirt for the pink book).

Have a great week.

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