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The Cardinal and the Deer

by Jon Young

    Since I was a young man I have always been fascinated by the language of nature. The words, the sentences, the paragraphs are all there for us to read, we just need an interpreter to get us started. Unlike the dry language studies I experienced through formal education. The language of nature speaks loud and clear to a sensory part of our being other than our ears and linear, rational thought. This is a complicated way of saying something that one of my elders, Ingwe, says frequently: Expand your five senses and develop a sixth sense.
    When I was ten, I met Tom Brown, Jr. He was twenty-one years old at the time, and truly an extraordinary tracker. The word tracker - though simple in its two syllables - is one of those funny little words that expands into an entire universe of meaning. Many people read the word, or hear the word, tracker, and assume all sorts of severely underestimated misconceptions. For no subject or lecture from any formal education prepares one for the sheer immensity, depth and spiritual ramifications of the subject of tracking as practiced by the so-called primitive societies. I expand on the concept of senses and the concept of tracking as a manner of introduction for what I am about to relate to you. Luck was with me on that fateful day. Tom recognized me as a potential apprentice in the ancient art of tracking. I was eager to accept this elder-brotherhood, for he had so much to offer a young naturalist hungry for knowledge and inspiration.
    My two mentors, Tom Brown Jr. and Ingwe, have taught me much about the ways of wildlife and the wilderness for both had incredible teachers themselves. Ingwe, a great tracker in his own right, was raised among the Akamba people in East Africa. The Akamba, much like the Apache in North America, had a reputation as among the keenest trackers around. Ingwe, now nearing his eightieth winter, had an elder brother tribesman mentor him in tracking. Tom Brown Jr. was mentored by an Apache tracker in the Pine Barrens. These two men have much in common, and both express that there are things in this life that are beyond the ability of our minds to explain. Both these men recognize that an animal's age, sex, weight, behaviour, speed, individual and species identity, and further, its very mood can all be read or derived from the tracks.
    Amazing information can be derived from the voices of birds, just as this information is available in the body language of people and animals and therefore their tracks. It would take volumes to explain all the specifics of the language of birds.
    But behaviour and emotions are universal enough that a good deal can be gained from intuition and careful attention to detail. Since boyhood, the birds have held a special interest that went well beyond hobby enthusiasm. I became fascinated by certain calls and often followed for an entire day until I found the caller, or returned home hungry for the answer - only to resume the search again. An elder in my life kept up my interest in the bird language for all my childhood. When I met Tom I began to apply a tracker thinking to bird language. Soon, I understood the forest and all goings on with only my ears. I knew where were, where the fox was stalking, where the neighbourhood cat was lurking, and indeed all the local feathered couples who were present in my watershed.
    Understanding bird language, and recognizing that some things are just unexplainable, are seemingly disjointed ideas that are united in the traditions of the Iroquois people of the New York area. The Iroquois tradition known as the Thanksgiving Address is just that, an address to creation to give thanks for aspects of Creation and the attributes each aspect mentioned. The birds are recognized for taking us from our minds and elevating us into a spiritual awareness. Birds have territories, as do all wildlife species. Some species are very habitual and are accustomed to going to sleep in the same places each night, with the same routine of calls and behaviour. My subconscious mind keeps this all filed away and, when in the early morning the routine is interrupted, I notice it.  One such interruption caught my attention a few years ago that the editor of this magazine asked me to share with you. The circumstances are related to awareness, to birds and to the spirit.
    In a dream a large, old and powerful buck with a game leg and a magnificent rack battled a youthful six point buck over territory in my backyard. They cast their heads about, and the young buck conceded victory to the elder, and clear victor. Years of experience, great wisdom and some injury that taught a powerful lesson to the old buck was more than the younger deer could defeat. For some reason, after the two bucks separated from one another, the younger was suddenly dead there on the ground, though not from the contest. The old buck turned and limped away, though the limp was from an old injury long healed. From my dream state I began to hear the alarm cries of the cardinals in the predawn. I awoke with haste and sat up in bed, for the last time I heard an alarm from the cardinals at dawn, I raced to the window in time to see a screech owl between the male and female cardinals, visible only as dark silhouettes in the twilight of dawn. The owl had apparently made a failed attempt at the waking cardinals and now they were letting the world know, with tremendous expressiveness.

     The calls of the cardinals, though disturbed, in no way relayed the great duress expressed by the same pair when their life was directly threatened by the owl, but I was drawn to the window nonetheless. I looked down at the pair beneath the locust where the owl lived. They were clearly agitated by something, but in the blackberry thicket there was only the cardinals to be seen. What had them so excited?
    I was thinking that I should get up for work when something inside me said, Wait a few minutes more. So like an owl myself, I perched silent and still, resting my chin on my hands on the sill. The cool morning breeze greeted me as I waited for the unknown to become known. Just as I was about to give in to impatience and pull away, motion caught my eye from the right where the cardinals were facing. This whole sequence from when I awoke from the buck dream took less than two minutes. The dream was still fresh in my mind. I thought for a second I was still dreaming for right there before my eyes limping in from the right was the very buck I had just dreamed of. I had never seen him before, yet there he was just I had dreamed. I called to my wife, she came to the window in time to see the great elder buck pass just beneath the window. There were at least ten points on a magnificent, stout and wide rack.
    In my dream there had been two deer, so I knew the younger male also must be there somewhere. That morning he did not appear. I scanned and touched the tracks - of the elder buck and looked about for more sign of the young one. He was not there. I got very busy that day and the next and it was two days before I could get to the backyard again to resume my tracking. A vulture lifted up from behind the blackberries beyond the cardinal roost beneath the locust. I quickly entered the clearing beyond the blackberries to discover the younger buck, lying dead there beneath the spice bush undergrowth. It had been struck by a car and lay facing east in its final sleep.
    A year had passed by and I never that old buck again, though I looked for him each day. A young man named Sean was in training both by Tom and myself, and he had frequent occasion to hear tracking tales from Ingwe. Sean and I traveled with Ingwe across the country and he and Ingwe went on to Alaska while my family and I turned back in Seattle. Upon their return, Sean went for a walk down among the great tupelo trees and past one of the largest grape vines I have ever seen. He felt drawn to a clearing among some spice bush on an island in the swamp.
    There he found the skeleton of a great deer with its head facing east sporting a magnificent rack. The deer lay in a sleeping position there as though it had gone comfortably to its final rest. He came back with the skull completely excited about his discovery. One look at that rack and I knew the deer. It had all come full circle, and now there was one question for Sean.
    Did that deer have funny wear patterns on its hooves as though it had a limp?
    I don't know I will go and see.
    We all know the answer. My son received the deer skull from Sean as a birthday gift and to this day, Aidan values it as one of his most precious belongings. It has come full circle again. The birds do indeed take us beyond our minds, into and beyond our senses. Once again, tracking takes us on journey that lies over the horizon of the expected.

This story is one of many from In Harmony With Mother Earth by Jon Young and Ingwe (The Leopard).

From In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine, Winter-Spring 1994
There's more articles from In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine on the Tracker Trail website.