Controversy swirls around author, teacher, and tracker Tom Brown, Jr., I can’t deny it. As founder and head instructor-for-life at The Tracker School in New Jersey, he has made a career out of having strong opinions without any apologies. And yet one thing, that he said in the very first class I ever took, has stuck with me for almost twenty years:
If you believe everything I say, you are a fool.
Prove me right, or prove me wrong.
But I betcha can’t prove me wrong…
Pressure Release tracking, what Tom (in his inimitable fashion) calls “master tracking”, called to me from the first time I heard of its possibility. And yet, due to my health and the maladies of youth, I couldn’t sink my teeth into more than just the surface of this traditional art.
Tom asserts that this art directly comes from the Lipan Apache Scout tradition of tracking. Over the years, knowing Tom’s storytelling nature, I’ve wondered about its origins and investigated other possibilities. But, at last, I have decided to defer to the decision of the still thriving Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas – who, as best I understand it, recognize Tom as a teacher via his Lipan mentor.
So, I feel confident speaking about my pride and awe at this indigenous system of tracking, which to me, shows as much or more complexity than the acupuncture point system in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tom shares what his mentor taught him as thousands of “pressure releases” – individual behaviors and expressions inside the track – upwards of 5,000.
What does “pressure release” mean? Well, you could call it “how the earth feels about the movement of your foot against it”. You could also call it a track landscape feature – ridges, caves, crests, fissures, and so on.
But more than that, this approach dives into the soul of the being making the track – exploring not just how much they weigh, how tall, male or female, handedness, leggedness, how old, but also how much food in their belly, how much they need to pee or poop, hunger, thirst, emotional state, where they look, injuries, sneezes, coughs – only your curiosity limits you.
You can best think of this world – this amazing tiny massive world inside the landscape of the track – as a cultural world. A traditional, indigenous, continuously mapped and remapped world of the living soul. As Tom has translated into English (and you probably know my feelings on how widely “civilized” languages and indigenous languages differ from each other in character and purpose), the Lipan Apache Scouts had a deeply expressive yet highly technical jargon for describing and exploring the tiny world of the track.
As a lover of Sherlock Holmes and mysteries of all kinds, this original science has owned my heart for years.. And over the past few months I have begun to embrace Tom’s call to “prove me right, or prove me wrong”.
Due to the limitations of WordPress, I encourage you to follow my adventures here on my tumblr blog. I dream of a well-designed online space for collaborating on this inquiry into pressure releases, but for now, a tumblr blog will have to do.
Let me end with this thought: up until Tom began sharing it, this system of pressure releases, a few thousand different features in size (and growing slowly with the discoveries of new trackers), remained hidden from view. I don’t know of it surviving anywhere else (apparently other tribes had similar systems). I hope beyond my knowledge other native folks still carry it for the benefit of their people, but I can’t help but wonder at how easily it may have died out.
This beautiful, majestic, system of mastery, far more than the wildest dreams of any modern hunter, any modern geologist, any forensic scientist, and even many traditional trackers.
As I look back at the cultural world of my ancestors that crumbled under the onslaught of colonization, and then recognize my line became just one more platoon of colonizers, I think of how much we have lost, how much we almost lost, how much we continue to lose right now, and how important and precious the duty to decolonize ourselves, support the indigenous cultures all around us, and caretake that inner urge to do magnificent things and make the heart of the mothering land swell to have such children.