You’ve probably all seen the films or TV programs where a character skilled in the art of reading sign takes one look at an area of ground and is able to tell what happened, how long ago, and who/what was involved. This is particularly amazing to urban dwellers who live in built up areas which appear to be a lot harder to leave any trace. Along with buying food from shops, and information about recent events from machines and paper, these are the main reasons why tracking has become something of a lost art to the modern Pagan.
Only in rare exceptions do people who live in towns and cities become aware of the art of tracking. The most common time I have seen this in the UK is nearly every first snowfall, either as part of the stories accompanying it or because it’s a slow news day apart from the snow. The usual tag line is “Police track burglar to own home” the distance varies from a few hundred yards to a mile or more depending on the area and amount of snow on the ground. In this case the tracks left are clear, distinct, and fresh, easy even for the novice to follow, plus the person leaving them doesn’t usually realise they are doing so. This can be turned to your own advantage if you find snow has fallen in the night by walking backwards down the path so that there is a line of footprints apparently leading into the house. This is particularly useful if you are worried about advertising the house might be empty to any casual passer-by, particularly in the suburbs
The snow in the UK is particularly good at holding tracks due to its’ nature. It is formed from big wet flakes that compress easily into ice that don’t drift once it has laid. The type of snow found in most of continental Europe and the USA is more powdery “Like icing sugar” as my wife commented when we were in Norway. It still holds a fresh track, but surface snow can drift with the wind and fill these in, even in a light breeze, with a chance of losing distinct marks and identifying features. When snow melts the moist unpaved ground can hold a print extremely well, especially if it turns to mud. Mud is, without doubt, one of the best footprint holding materials there is and can impart a lot of information about who or what left the print in addition to direction of travel.
This is because mud, particularly if it is damp rather than soggy, forms both a negative mould of the limb that makes the print and it reacts to other forces that were involved. A heavy person leaves a deeper footprint than a light one but, if a line of footprints on the same type of ground suddenly deepens at the front and the stride lengthens, then the person who left it has begun to move more quickly – possibly about to break into a run. Equally a slight drag or scuff mark at the front, back, or both ends of a footprint can suggest the person has a walking problem or is carrying a certain amount of weight on that side. Equally a human footprint with a deeper heel impression than that of the toe suggests the person walked backwards – something harder to tell in snow.
Animal tracks in particular can tell their own stories in this way. By following an animal’s tracks you can tell its size, weight and how it reacted to what was going on at the time, which can help you to deduce what was happening in the area at the time the tracks were made. If the edges are blurred or eroded the track is probably quite old, with prints in waterlogged ground the longer they have been there the more likely they are to have filled up with water even though there has been no rain. When following tracks over grassy areas a good rule of thumb is the more the grass, or other vegetation has recovered from being pressed down or pushed aside the older the track is.
So far we have mainly looked at sign left on the ground but traces left on objects and vegetation above ground level can be equally informative, as can scent. Unless what or who you are tracking takes great care, it is hard not to leave traces on the leaf or branches of any bushes, undergrowth or small trees they pass through. Sometimes these traces are as obvious as broken branches or torn off foliage and, at times, just a misaligned leaf, scrap of fur, or snagged thread, marks where potential food or prey has passed. Scent comes into its own here as damaged foliage can put out a distinct marker which can provide better trace than many visual cues in areas where tracks and other sign are hidden or blurred as in environments such as marsh and thick jungle. Man made scents really stand out in some situations as my father found out serving with the special forces in Malaya when it was discovered that cigarette smoke could be smelt for five miles in the right conditions, and scented soap and toothpaste for almost the same distance.
This brings us neatly to the art of concealing tracks and traces. In films this usually means the person running onto rocks/stony ground, or into the nearest river. In drama this usually works, but in real life it’s a little more complex. Moving over rocky ground leaves less obvious trace, not no trace. Scuffs, scratches where small stones have been displaced, and damage to lichens, mosses, and other plants are there for those who know how to look. Sometimes it needs the right angle of light or specialised equipment such as a ‘step stick’ which is a stick about three foot long with two rubber bands. If you are tracking a specific person once you know how wide their stride is you set that distance between them on the stick and, if you lose the trail, you go back to the last reasonable print or trace and put one rubber band on, or by it. Then scribe an arc with the other and somewhere near or by the furthest band should be the next trace.
With rivers traces are much easier to discern. If you are not far behind the person or potential meal you are pursuing then a good rule of thumb is that if the water is cloudy then they went upstream, if it is clear then they probably went down. In less than clear streams, such as those which run off, or through, peat bogs then careful examination of the point where the target entered the water can suggest a direction of travel. But, unless the water is extremely opaque, there will be sign on the bottom that can be seen, such as light patches left by overturned stones or displaced plants. Sometimes the tracks can be felt, rather than seen. Even the old trick of sliding into the water and either floating downstream, or gently working upstream using your hands, can leave slight trace if you are aware of how this is done. If you get a chance to do this safely and examine the sort of trace you leave behind, you can see and understand what methods – hands, branch, knife, steering downstream without leaving trace on the bank – leave what type of trace on the stream bed and sides.
Becoming aware of the tracks and traces that you, other beings, and things, leave as you and they move through the environment enables you become more in tune with it. This enables you to attune to the energies and environment wherever you are, even urban environments as we will see in the next article, to enhance your Pagan practice and spiritual path.