“We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers,
we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the
great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered
the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a
consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’” –Thomas Berry
The connection between Tracking and Permaculture is obscure to many. Both involve earth-based skills, plants and animals, and learning from nature. Patterns are what connects them at the deepest level. They are both pattern-based disciplines. They both start with pattern recognition but lead to pattern generation and even regeneration
Both Tracking and Permaculture use observation to understand where we are in various processes and cycles. Using either I might read the landscape to tell where I am in the fire cycle, where to find water or where stormwater will flow, where to find particular plants, soils, or stones. The best Trackers and Permies however are storytellers. By reading the enduring tracks of dynamic processes they can see the stories they tell unfolding before them. It begins by identifying each track: that’s a coyote, that’s an oak, that’s sedimentary limestone. But like reading written stories, learning the basic letters, leads to reading words and sentences. Eventually you see my thoughts in your mind, barely noticing the letters you are reading them through. The patterns of letters tell you the story. They are the tracks of my thoughts. The red sandstone cliffs tell of ancient seas, the mountains of up-welling magma and colliding plates. The dead cottonwoods speak of lost water, their exposed roots of overgrazing and floods. Everything around us is tracks. They may be tracks of weather events, geologic processes, plant or animal introductions or even of political power. A good tracker can see not only what has happened, but what could happen. Our tracks have led us to this point. Where do we want to go from here? What is possible and how can our choices effect what is possible?
Legendary Aboriginal Australian Tracker Jimmy James successfully tracked a lost girl. When he and his partner Daniel Mudu knew where she was, they stopped and sent her mother over the hill to get her. When the policeman asked them later why they hadn’t just gone and gotten her they just smiled. After a bit they said, “Boss we know how you use us to scare your kids. ‘Come in this house this minute or that black fella will get you.’ If that upset little girl saw two black fellas comin’ toward her in the bush, she woulda run for sure.” Uncle Jimmy could track not only past events, but potential events given existing patterns and could choose a desired course. This is pattern generation.
A hunter reads the tracks of the deer to see where they have been and where they have gone. They use this understanding to place themselves in the right place at the right time to encounter the deer. The Permaculturalist tracks trends, to place themselves and their actions appropriately to make that least change for the greatest effect. We are always scanning for the interaction that will shift patterns toward health. Doing this requires back-tracking to understand how we got where we are now. Without that context it is easy to misread the signs. The point of Tracking and Permaculture is not simply to read patterns, but to use pattern understanding to generate new patterns. Understanding can be used in many ways. The art is to use understanding to build the health of the system.
Nearly 50 years ago, Terry Dobson was riding on a train in Japan, when a dirty, drunken man boarded. The man threatened, bullied and pushed the other passengers around.
After training for three years with the founder of aikido, Dobson was anxious to test his practice in action. Although Sensei Ueshiba had told him not to fight, in his desire to test himself, this appeared a fully justified use of force.
As he stood up to confront the drunken man, a little old man interrupted, calling out joyfully, “Hey, you like to drink?” Stunned, they turned to listen as he asked the man friendly questions and cheerfully went on about drinking sake with his wife beneath the persimmon tree in their garden.
When asked about his own lovely wife, family and home, the drunk’s nasty exterior melted away. Weeping, he explained his wife had died, he’d lost his job and his home, that his life was a total wreck, and he was terribly ashamed. As the train arrived at Dobson’s stop, the man was lying with his head on the old man’s lap, who spoke soothingly to him and stroked his dirty hair. The would-be attacker had been pacified through uncovering the source of his actions, in a way that could begin the healing and regeneration of his life– without any violence.
Dobson realized he had witnessed true Aikido in action. Where Dobson had assumed the design of the interaction—fighting—the old man had made a masterful martial arts move. He’d seen beneath the surface manifestation and read the underlying patterns. He generated a new pattern. He designed a strategy of where and how to place himself and his words and shift the dynamic. He consciously designed an effective path in response to the realities of the situation, resulting in a very different outcome with much greater potential benefits than repeating the pattern of abuse. Beating-up the poor man would have led to nothing. The old man’s approach opened the door to healing and growth.
A wise man once told me, “Hunting is about appreciating the beauty of the animal.” The reverence this evokes calls us to understand the being before us. Be it land, a human or plant community, a business, or an animal who will feed us with her life. Tracking successfully can lead to an end or to a beginning. Pattern understanding gives us great power. Generating beneficial patterns ensures that that gift of power continues to give. This is the source of regeneration.
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, cooled the water in the streams supporting many more trout. A good tracker could have predicted this effect for this small change. In the absence of predators, the grazers and browsers acted just like domesticated cattle or humans. Remaining near the water, they denuded the stream banks. Stripped of plant cover, the un-shaded, silt-laden streams heated-up. Under the reintroduced pressure of large predators, the herbivores changed their behavior. Bunching together to protect their young, they came to water only rarely. Moving frequently, they grazed and manured areas more completely. This behavior encouraged thick growth of grasses throughout the watershed and allowed the re-growth of streamside vegetation. The renewed plant-cover slowed and cleaned stormwater runoff. The clear-running streams, now shaded by cottonwoods and lined with mat-rooted willows and grasses, again ran cool, supporting trout with their oxygen laden waters and clear gravel redds for their fertilized eggs.
The point of Tracking, Permaculture, and literature is not to simply be a good reader, but to take what has been learned to see where and how to join with the community of life so that living patterns can be redirected to reweave the rents and tears of hard and ignorant use. This requires careful and respectful observation. Pattern literacy, like peripheral vision, opens a broader perspective, more sensitive, multidimensional, and information rich. With this soft focus, the patterns and flows rise to the foreground, while objects fade into the background. Nature speaks to us in patterns. If we learn the language of patterns we can not only hear her better, but understand her and respond to her requests. Why can we all read these the tracks on this page but stammer through the tracks around us in the world?
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