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How to Tune in to the Wild

From "A Natural Man", National Wildlife Magazine (June-July 1984)
by Richard Wolkomir (interviewing Tom Brown Jr.)

According to Tom Brown Jr., many of us enter the woods as if we were driving Sherman tanks. Our noise sends wildlife fleeing, and we are blind and deaf to our surroundings. He believes that anyone can get more out of the wilds by using some simple techniques. Here are some suggestions:

  • "Our society is highly goal-oriented, but when we're in the woods to enjoy nature we should remember the old saying, 'Happiness is not found at the end of the trail but along the way,'" says Brown. When I go for a walk, I'm going nowhere in particular. I never say, 'I'm going to the top of the hill,' and I may travel only 30 feet in five hours." If we are not hurrying toward a goal and worried about the time, our perceptions can open up.
  • "If I set out to see deer, I probably won't see any," observes the tracker. Concentrating on what you expect to see closes your perceptions to other possibilities. You may see deer, but miss the ruffed grouse pecking at apples in the tree over the deer's heads. Concentrate simply on being in the natural world, alert to everything, he advises.
  • To prove that we are prisoners of habit, Brown watches where people look when they enter a room and then stands where they do not look, becoming invisible. "I might stand on a table next to the wall, unhook a painting, and hold it in front of me. I look ludicrous, but people walking past don't even see me," he says. In the woods, he suggests, try taking a different trail, or no trail at all. Lie down, for a chipmunk's view. Sniff the earth. Instead of focusing on the ground a few yards ahead, look up in the foliage. Look into dark places.
  • "Everywhere the landscape is full of tracks, whether it's a tuft of bear hair in a tree or the Grand Canyon, which is a track made by water," notes Brown. "Not a square inch of ground is blank." he advises studying a tracking guide, such as his own Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking or the Peterson series' Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murrie. Then put in a lot of "dirt time," studying tracks where you find them and observing animals as they make tracks, learning not only what species make which tracks but also how configurations reveal a creature's behavior.
  • Almost always we walk too fast in the woods, says Brown. The solution is simply to walk at a third or a quarter of our normal pace. That automatically makes us less noisy, and opens our perceptions. Perhaps an even better idea is simply to sit and let yourself vanish into the landscape. After a while, the animals ignore you. "People ask me how I can sit for three hours on a stump in the middle of the woods. I ask them how they can sit for three hours in front of a television screen," he muses.
  • One key to seeing more animals is to know where to look. Wildlife concentrates in transition areas, like the edges of forests, fields and streams, which offer a variety of food and cover as well a water. The best time to encounter many animals is at night. Just before and after a storm animals are especially active. Brown also points out that most of us look too high -- instead of looking over a bush, look into the bush. Animals tend to be smaller than we think. We should also be alert for parts of animals, an ear or a tail, because usually much of the creatures we see is obscured by foliage. Look also for movement.
  • As we look around at the world, most of us focus on a small area, something like a flashlight beam. To see more wildlife, Brown advises adopting the native American way of looking, which he calls "splatter vision." Instead of focusing sharply, look toward the horizon and take in everything directly ahead and to the sides at once, as if you were looking through a wide-angle camera lens. Your focus will be abit fuzzy, but you will pick up any movement. Then you can focus sharply on the movement to see what it is.
  • Unlike those of rabbits, deer and many other animals, human ears are too small to pick up faint sounds. You can partially correct that deficiency by cupping your hands behind your ears and aiming toward a faint sound that you are trying to tune in on. You also can use the system to get a fix on the location and distance of a sound, such as an elusive bird call: using your cupped hands, aim in the general direction from which the sound is coming, then slowly turn one ear down, until the sound seems to be coming from the middle of your head. Then cup both hands in a circle around one ear and focus in on the sound, which should give you its maximum volume and a good sense of its location.
  • To hide your scent from animals, try bathing before you go out, using a natural soap such as pine tar. You also can rub your clothes and exposed parts of your body with pine needles, catnip or any other aromatic herb; thoroughly smoking yourself in front of a campfire also does the job.