in Philosophy of Tracking

Vivisecting “The Flesh”, and the Cult of Science

Science, i.e. the culture and practice of inquiry performed by civilization, has always, and will always (as long as it can) embody the relationship of civilization to the community of life. I characterize this relationship as one of domination and blindness to the living reality all around us. Civilization, as expressed by authors such as Derrick Jensen and Daniel Quinn, and indigenous speakers of many tribes and continents, cannot help but destroy itself by destroying its habitat, its home. If it didn’t do this, we could no longer call it civilization.

So, if Science embodies an abusive relationship to that which it studies, how do we walk away from it? How do we study the world in a way that ensures Life, and a future for our grandchildren?

Animists have an answer in this, in the Way of Tracking.

Animistic “Tracking” differs from the discipline practiced by civilized hunters and sportspersons in many important ways. I give Tracking a capital “T” in the same sense that give Science a capital “S”; both embody far more than the act of science or tracking, they contain an entire worldview.

Formerly I wrote about Tracking as the first animist “science”, but I’ve since seen this clouds the issue, and distracts from the true nature of science as a beast of civilization.

One could also call Tracking “animist inquiry”, but I prefer Tracking because it contains the understanding that an animist starts with the story of the track, and builds onto that the study of the entire universe.

By studying Tracking, an animist studies everything; things we might call soil geology, fluid dynamics, meteorology, ethology, psychology, zoology, botany, epistemology, astronomy, physics, and on and on. Tracking includes the study of so many phenomena that expand out from and return back to the Track, it truly becomes a study of the universe itself.

Or rather, it becomes a study of the animist universe. It extends to any area of study that assumes a living universe.

Any knowledge base gained from an insensitivity to a living, sensitive universe, falls outside that which exists to an indigenous mind and body.

Our Science has propelled an immense productivity in scientific knowledge precisely because it does not consider the universe alive; it proceeds at a meteoric pace, because it need never ask permission of a dead universe, it need never pause in its breakneck progress. Because of this, it will also never know certain things, and actually will perpetuate a blindness of other relationships. The Scientific process actually acts as a ceremony that further inculcates the worldview of a dead universe.

A Tracker constantly asks the flesh of the world permission to proceed, how it feels so far, and the Tracker expresses thanksgiving for what knowledge they have received.

Thus Tracking acts as a ceremony that inculcates a radically different worldview; that of a living, sensate universe. A Tracker then experiences, ever more richly, a world described by the Lakota as “Mitakuya Oyasin”…’All My Relations’.

Most of us have a foot in both worlds, belonging fully to neither; enacting the ceremony of one stunts the relationship with the other.

“Scientific knowledge” gained from generations of nonconsensual experimentation on the living world, contains within it the assumption of a dead universe. By its very nature, it answers questions one would ask of a corpse. Geologists don’t see stones as alive; so any geologic information we have describes a dead mineral object. Not just dead…it never lived at all. If one has truly dived into an animist worldview, this knowledge doesn’t just come across as fragmented, but comes across as imbued with an insane sheen…the ghosts of the living world hang heavy on it.

So what does one do? How do we relate to scientific knowledge, and our vast array of devices, machines, and electronic wizardry, and still remain animists?

It all comes down to informed consent. You do what you have to do, with a knowledge of the impact of your actions. No pure path exists. Some of us, to share what our hearts demand, must use the infrastructure of a mad culture to contact the people enslaved by that culture. And yes, engaging machines begins to feed a relationship with those same machines. We cannot avoid this. We can minimize it, mitigate it, and when the time comes walk away from it, but until that day comes, we do what we need to do.

In the end, knowledge has a value less than that of dust…at least the dust has a body. But our relationships determine our wealth, and when we have earned the trust, respect, and love of other living beings in our world, they will rain down all the knowledge we could ever want. It all comes down to the process of building the relationship.

This happens in a very real way with Tracking…one can spend an entire Life studying the Fox, but if the Fox doesn’t want to, you will never see him, except in a cage. Once he trusts you, watch out! Once he loves you, the limits fall away and universe upon universe opens up; more knowledge than a thousand generations of persistent field biologists could imagine in their wildest dreams.

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  1. This is an exerpt by Louis Liebenberg

    The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science

    The art of tracking may well be the oldest science.

    As far as written records are concerned, the critical or rationalist tradition of science can be traced back to the early Greek philosophic schools (Popper, 1963). A fully modern brain had evolved at a time when all humans were hunter-gatherers. Yet the same brain that has been adapted for the needs of hunter-gatherer subsistence, today deals with the subtleties of modern mathematics and physics (Washburn, 1978).

    This apparent paradox may be resolved if it is assumed that at least some hunter-gatherers were capable of a scientific approach, and that the intellectual requirements of modern science were a necessity for the survival of modern hunter-gatherer societies.

    The art of tracking, as practised by contemporary trackers of the Kalahari, is a science that requires fundamentally the same intellectual abilities as modern physics and mathematics (Liebenberg, 1990). It may even be argued that physicists think like trackers.

    A characteristic feature of the scientific knowledge of hunter-gatherers is the anthropomorphic nature of their models of animal behaviour. This anthropomorhic element is not necessarily unscientific. On the contrary, it may well be a result of the creative scientific imagination. Anthropomorphic projection has been noted as an essential and important element in scientific work (Holton, 1973).

    In nuclear physics, the experimenter’s preconceived image of the process under investigation determines the outcome of the observations. This image is a symbolic, anthropomorphic representation of the basically inconceivable atomic processes (Deutsch, 1959). When a scientist has such a visual image, the nature of the seeing or sensing is almost as though he/she felt like the object being visualised (Walkup, 1967). In thinking about a phenomenon they are interested in, some physicists, even in highly abstract theoretical physics, may more or less identify themselves with, for example, a nuclear particle and may even ask: “What would I do if I were that particle?” (Monod, 1975).

    The symbolic power of useful scientific concepts lies in the fact that many of these concepts have been importing anthropomorphic projections from the world of human drama (Holton, 1973).

    In the art of tracking the anthropomorphic way of thinking arises from the tracker’s need to identify him/herself with the animal in order to anticipate and predict its movements. The tracker must visualise what it would be like to be that animal within that particular environmental context. In the process of projecting him/herself into the position of the animal, the tracker actually feels like the animal. In doing this the tracker must ask: “What would I have done if I were that animal?”.

    To be able to do this the tracker must know the animal very well. But in the process the tracker superimposes his/her own way of thinking onto that of the animal, thereby creating a model of animal behaviour in which the animal is understood to have certain human characteristics.

    Considering the role of the anthropomorphic way of thinking in science, it is by no means obvious why a physicist should think in such a way. On the contrary, it would appear to be a rather paradoxical way to understand highly abstract concepts. On the other hand, it is quite clear why a tracker should think in such a way. This may well suggest that the creative scientific imagination had its origin in the evolution of the art of tracking.

    The differences between the art of tracking and modern science are mainly technological and sociological. Fundamentally they involve the same reasoning processes.

    The implication of this is that there is no reason why traditional trackers cannot be employed to conduct research in a modern context.

    taken from:

  2. “He who breaks a thing to find out how it is made has left the path of reason.”


    Thank you for this post, Willem. I know it’s old but it’s really helped me to fully conceptualize how an “unscientific” approach to knowing the Universe can be both practical and life-affirming. Hooray!

    And thanks Scout for the insight that anthropomorphjizing can allow a person to put themselves in the ANIMAL’S mindset, rather than just shoehorning the animal into our own.