Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Tracker

The other day I launched into a discussion about how true some of the important (to me) works of non fiction actually were. One of the books I talked about was The Tracker, by Tom Brown Jr. It's a book about Tom Brown Jr. growing up on the edge of a wild area called the Pine Barrens, in New Jersey. And it's about his friend and an Apache "Grandfather" who teaches them woodcraft. Tom learns animal tracking and survival skills at a level so accomplished it almost can seem like magic. When I read the book for the first time I took it as wonderfully true. In the piece I wrote yesterday I put it in more of an at least somewhat not true category. But it's still an important book to me, and though it has been some years since I read it, I still sometimes think of it.

And so I have been thinking of it lately, particularly as I wander my neighborhoods with my new camera, stalking squirrels, robins, ducks, and flowers. I have long been aware of the negative side of photography, where the world becomes something less to be in, and more something to encapsulate or memorialize. Enjoying the sight of a flowering magnolia tree is easily diminished when it is replaced by a desire to get a good picture of it. Experience, presence, pleasure, attention is sacrificed for something else; a collection, the future, proof, the desire to make the statement "I was here".

This is part of why I gave up taking pictures, in addition to not being terribly good at it, developing other interests, and a few other things.

And yet...

As I now walk my neighborhoods and cling to the Mississippi River bluffs in search of pictures I have become aware of a different value in it, and also a more positive way that it effects me. And something that I remember from Tom Brown's books helps me to express it best.

Because of his unique skills, Tom Brown used to help track lost people, and so he had followed the tracks of many people for many reasons. And in one of his books he reflected on the difference in how adults walk through the woods and how children walk through the woods. He said that adults walked in straight lines, blinded and incurious about the world around them, missing much that was happening all around them. But the paths of children were very different, meandering, stopping and starting, circling, wandering, and attentive to all sorts of details and interests.

On my morning walks I am very much an adult. It's not that I am incurious. I look around! I smell and think and admire. But I rarely pause, only for exceptional things. I move on. I keep to the sidewalk or path, and if I take a look at a flower or a bird it is rarely more than a little pause before I keep on. If Tom Brown could track me on a sidewalk or a hard earth river path (which by all accounts he could) mine would be a simple trail to follow, and it would tell a simple story. On a map my path would often be merely a straight line out and a straight line back.

Not so me with my camera. 

As I make my way taking pictures the sidewalk is only the vaguest of guides. I wander up hillsides and embankments. I squat in the gutters and streams. I follow robins around and around some grassy yards in a crazy maze of stop and start. I hang out under a tree with a family of squirrels for ten minutes until they all mysteriously disappear. I climb down a cliff and back up. I get on a log. I stick my face into a tree. I crawl quietly into someone's flower bed and look at all the flowers from all the angles. I dash across the street to see a blackbird.

I guess that my path with a camera must be like a child's. It makes no real sense. It is full of event. It wanders crazily, ever distracted and curious and enticed.

Yes, I am taking pictures. To be honest most of them don't turn out that well. There's usually a few I like. I don't cover a lot of ground. And the time goes by too quickly.

But when I look back, I'm always surprised by how much I saw, and by how much I had no idea was there.


  1. You gave me that wonderful book to read many years ago. I taught it in my sixth grade class, and the students always loved it. Funny how a book can stay alive in different parts of one's history--how it can stay instructive even as it shifts.


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