Tom Brown fascinates me. He grew up in the sparsely populated Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey. When he was eight years old, he met Rick in the woods, and the two boys became the best of friends. Rick’s father was stationed at a nearby base, and his grandfather was Stalking Wolf, an old Apache tracker. The Tracker was the first of Tom’s many books, and it introduced us to the amazing world that he was blessed to experience.
Stalking Wolf was one of the last Apaches to be trained in the old ways, by elders who were still wild and free. The wilderness was his home, church, and school. He could follow tracks on a dark night — by blind touch. He could perceive the trail of a mouse across dry gravel. His stalking skills allowed him to sneak up on deer and touch them, an ability that some modern hunters no longer have. He earned his name by touching a wolf, a nearly impossible feat. He could read the patterns of the land — the smells, the snapping twigs, the alarm calls of animals, or the sudden silence of the bird music. He was completely in tune with the land, both physically and spiritually.
Stalking Wolf taught Tom and Rick for eight years. “He taught us to make use of everything, to live with the least disruption of the earth, to revere what we took from the woods, to master our fear, to hone our special skills sharper and sharper, to expand our senses and our awareness, to live in the space of the moment and to understand eternity.” The boys learned tracking, stalking, awareness, self-control, survival skills, and spiritual consciousness. They spent all their free time outdoors, studying nature, and practicing their skills. They rarely saw their parents on weekends or summer vacations.
Tom became completely at home in the wilderness. He could go into the woods, naked and empty handed, and spend the whole summer living off the land — confidently, comfortably, fearlessly, and joyfully. He could catch a deer and kill it with a knife. Often he would wander far beyond familiar places, and not be sure where he was, but being “lost” was never a cause for fear or panic. “Everything I could want was immediately at hand. If I was lost, I seemed better off than a lot of people who weren’t. I was always at home, wherever I was. Only when I came out of the forest did I find out how easy it is to get lost.”
Stalking Wolf taught the boys that there were no greater or lesser spirits. The spirit of an ant had no less significance than that of a bear or a brother. He loathed all aspects of the civilized world, and he avoided contact with it, to the best of his ability. Despite what white people had done to his land and his people, he did not hate them, because they were lost, unhappy, and didn’t know any better. But he did hate their way of thinking and living — “they killed their grandchildren to feed their children.”
The boys absorbed his love for the land and the wild ones who lived there. Like Stalking Wolf, they could not comprehend the mentality of people who brought in bulldozers, or dumped their trash, or drove through the woods. Outsiders were like space aliens, displaying no respect for the place. “True lostness is when you have forgotten the spiritual center of your life, when your values have gotten so warped with time that you do not remember what is truly important.”
One day, Tom discovered a number of dead deer in the woods. Their shoulders and hindquarters had been removed, and everything else was left on the ground to rot. New York restaurants would pay good money for prime cuts of fresh venison. Tom was horrified. He followed the tire tracks to an old cabin, and found the four poachers. In a blind rage that he barely remembered, he attacked them, beat them up, bent or smashed their guns, destroyed the cabin, and burned their truck. He took bold action to defend the land. “The woods were my life and still are.”
The Tracker is a treasure. It reminds me of my boyhood years, when we spent our days in the woods and fields, swamps and lakes, in a beautiful rural countryside that has since been erased by a cancer of strip plazas and McMansions. I developed a strong bond with nature. Only later in life did I realize that most folks never had this experience. So many grow up in manmade environments, and many of them never experience anything else. Tom’s bond with nature went far deeper than my own, because he was lucky to find a wise elder to guide him. I grew up in a community of General Motors factory rats.
Despite being raised in consumer society, and despite submitting to a public school education, Tom was able to remain detached from the civilized mindset and follow a healthier path. It wasn’t easy. He had to straddle two totally different realities. He was routinely mocked and ridiculed for displaying his intense respect for nature and spirit, for not going to college, for not pursuing a corporate career. The civilized crowd could not comprehend what he valued and loved, because they had no spiritual connection to life.
When we envision a healthy, sustainable future, it’s going to be a world where people have remembered how to live with the land and the community of life. Throughout his journey, Stalking Wolf was frustrated by the difficulty of finding people to teach. Almost no one was interested in learning the old ways, because this knowledge had no value in the modern world. His elders encouraged him to keep trying: “The things of truth and spirit will never pass away. Our ways will not die. In the final days, man will seek again the things that we know.” Tom established a wilderness school, and he has spent his adult life teaching the old ways to eager students. The story continues.
Brown, Tom, The Tracker, Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1979.