(Review) Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign by Paul Rezendes

September 27, 2013

Related to the issue of how to see, which is the subject of natural vision, is the idea of what to see or what to look for. Since our visual field is so crowded, we must necessarily be selective in what we take notice of. Yet modern humans have developed an insouciance about the natural environment which reflects a belief that there is nothing important to take notice of.

A coyote on his daily trot through highly familiar territory gleans a great deal of information about what has transpired since he last made the rounds. He knows not only what types of animals have passed through, but how long ago they were there, where they came from, where they went, and what they did in that particular spot. True, a lot of the coyote’s information comes from his superior sense of smell, which we cannot hope to emulate, but with our primary tool of perception, our vision, we can also discern these stories. Seeing an animal is a gift, yet recognizing the signs of an animal traversing the vicinity is also valuable information that can lead to future sightings. And identifying the name of the animal is only part of the equation; the signs also point to a story about that animal.

Deer browse.
Deer browse.

Paul Rezendes’s Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign is an excellent book for learning what to look in the natural environment. Individual tracks in mud, sand, or snow are obviously important and can sometimes lead to identification, yet the track pattern provides better information for identification and tells a fuller story: how many animals, their size, where they were going, how fast they were going, where they stopped, possibly where they died as a large bird swooped down from above.
Goshawk pellets
Goshawk pellets.

Some of the other things to look for on a nature walk are signs of feeding (such as twigs or net casings), scat, and scent markers (which usually have visual as well as olfactory clues). Becoming aware of these signs can give you a better idea of the animals that live in your neighborhood. Even if you live in a city, there may be more coyotes, foxes and possums nearby than you realize. Organizations that monitor wildlife populations have begun utilizing tracking information as a more reliable gauge for numeric estimations than visual sightings and trapping of live animals.

Gray fox tracks.
Gray fox tracks.
Even if you have no desire or opportunity to engage in serious tracking on your own, you will learn a great deal about animal behavior by reading a tracking book. My only quibble with the Rezendes book is that he discusses mainly land animals and says very little about birds. There is, however, another excellent book about bird tracking, Bird Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks. Another book about what to notice when studying birds is What the Robin Knows by Jon Young.

Seeing More Clearly

September 20, 2013

Photo by Vtornet.
Photo by Vtornet.

Many people compare the eyesight of humans unfavorably to that of other animals, but actually we are quite visual animals with the excellent eyesight that reflects this. True, we cannot see small objects from great distances like the Peregrine Falcon, we do not have the huge visual field of the owl, we do not have the hair trigger motion detection of the cat, we cannot see in two directions like the deer, we do not have the excellent low light vision of the fox, and we cannot discern the wide color spectrum of the parrot. What we do have is highly acute adaptable vision suitable for a variety of purposes. We can see well at night in low levels of light, yet our diurnal vision can detect a variety of color. We excel at tasks requiring close vision, yet we can focus on objects miles away. Our ability to detect motion, while not rivaling that of the cat, is something we rely upon. It is instinctive and natural for us to have a clear visual mapping of our surroundings at all times. In short, though we can take no prizes in any particular aspect of vision, we are competent in a variety of areas, which is in itself remarkable.

The core belief of natural vision is that it is natural for humans to have good vision, and poor vision occurs not through the passage of time or any particular activity, but through disease and, especially, poor vision habits. Poor vision is usually an acquired trait that requires practice. Improving eyesight occurs through understanding and utilizing good vision habits – not, as commonly believed, by practicing “eye exercises” a certain number of minutes per day. As one vision teacher explained to me, “I expect my students to practice no more and no less than twenty-four hours a day.”

When I first began exploring natural vision, I was advised that “The most important thing you can do is to throw away your glasses.” I was horrified. The Department of Motor Vehicles had decreed that I needed glasses in order to drive legally, and I wondered how I could negotiate a long list of situations without sharp vision. “Throw away your glasses in order to throw away your glasses” – like so much of natural vision it seemed counterintuitive. I had expected my eyesight to gradually improve, and in the course of this improvement to gradually dispose of my lenses or gradually lower the strength of the prescription.

I was unable to stop wearing glasses entirely right away, but I did begin driving less and using my lenses only in situations where they were essential (which turned out to be less frequently than I expected). I did nothing else at first to correct my vision, and I would estimate that it improved 80% over the course of a year or two through this step alone. In hindsight I understand that this was not entirely due to my eyes readjusting to focusing on their own. There were deeper psychological changes occurring that were also changing my perception. We see with our mind as well as our eyes. For one thing, I let go of the idea that my glasses were an essential part of me. I also became comfortable with the fact that vision is not static: it is clearer some days and foggier others. I let go of the idea that I must have sharp vision at all times, and paradoxically letting go of that need sharpened my vision. Most importantly, I stopped expecting my vision to naturally deteriorate with time and began trusting my eyes to continue serving me.

In future posts on this topic I will describe some key insights of good visual habits and how they apply to divination and inner vision. In the meantime, consider the implications of the idea that letting go of the need to see sharpens the vision.

Relearning to See

September 6, 2013

This isn’t so much a review of Thomas R. Quakenbush’s book Relearning to See, considered one of the best books explaining what is called the “Bates Method,” as it is an exploration of how the principles of natural vision have changed my thinking and my life. Although most people will elect to go the route of glasses and surgery to correct vision problems, and a few lucky people have perfect vision without considering the issue, I think these insights have implications beyond correcting eyesight, implications especially for the magical practitioner.

I first decided to use natural vision methods over twenty-five years ago, when I was at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I was camping out at the festival with several thousand women, and I rolled over my glasses in the tent while I was asleep, breaking them beyond repair. I was a day’s drive away from home, and my girlfriend did not know how to drive, so I had no idea how we would be able to get home. I was in a bit of a panic. In the end, some women scrounged up materials and pieced the glasses together so that they could stay on my nose long enough for the drive – but that was the turning point. I saw that my life was hanging by a thread, depending on these implements to interface with the world, and I vowed that I would find a way to emancipate myself from the tyranny of eyeglasses. I had never heard of “natural vision,” and I didn’t know anyone who had successfully thrown away their glasses, but I was determined to be free.

Looking back, I can see that it was no coincidence that my commitment to better vision began here, just as it was no coincidence that my vision problems started in my first year of college. That year I began complaining of headaches, and my mother made an appointment for me at the “Vision Clinic,” as it was misnamed. It should have been called the “Adjusts to Poor Vision Clinic.” Sure enough, my eyesight had deteriorated. The explanation given was that I was spending long hours hunched over books, often under the glaring light of the library, and this was putting a strain on my eyes. I don’t dispute this explanation, and William H. Bates himself says that eyestrain is a big culprit in poor vision, but this is a surface explanation, like saying your car got dented because something hit it. What happened?

College is a period of indoctrination as much as a period of learning. The biases, prejudices and imperatives of Western civilization bombard the young mind, as the institution struggles against itself to teach that mind how to think while dictating to it what to think. Especially for a woman, the incongruities are fierce. I took what amounted to a minor in English literature, and in all those classes read exactly one book written by a woman. The thing that bothers me most about that is that I didn’t “see” it. I majored in economics, and it was never mentioned that most wealth is in the hands of men and poverty disproportionately affects women. What bothers me now is that I didn’t “see” it. For a woman higher education is a period of great strain, one she survives by turning a blind eye, or at least a myopic one, to what is going on.

Since I had not been inured to wearing glasses at a young age, of course I hated them, and I only wore them when reading a textbook – something that should have been instructive. When I graduated from college and began working for a large corporation, I began needing higher prescription lenses to read it all, and eventually needed glasses even to drive.

Michigan provoked the turn around. This was in the earlier days of the festival, before the rise of organized attacks that changed the timbre of the music. I had to never been in a crowd of so many women. I had to never been in a large public gathering where men were completely absent. I realized with a shock that for many years, perhaps most of my life, I had lived in heightened alert against the threat of rape, both in and outside of my house. I had never reflected on this, never even noticed it, but the absence was startling. My body was conditioned to tighten at the sound of a low voice or a rustle of leaves – but then I would remember, “I am safe here.” This is what the early days of Michigan were like.

It was also at Michigan that I met my first witch, or at least the first witch who would talk to me. I had imposed myself once on a woman who was pointed out to me at a local coffee house, who admitted to being a witch. I asked her where I could learn how to fly on a broom, and she brushed me off. But at Michigan there were lots of witches. I took a tarot class taught by Daughters of the Moon designer Fiona Morgan. I remember nothing about the class except that I felt excited to catch a glimpse of some thing totally new. Something was shifting in me. Looking back I see that my fuzzy eyesight was the distortions of patriarchy and my eyeglasses were the coping mechanism that allowed me to function. I left Michigan determined not to throw away my coping mechanism, but to dispense with the need for it altogether. The clearer vision that ensued allowed me to penetrate the occult realms.

As often happens when I write a blog post, I have discovered that I have more to say than I thought I did. I will continue the topic of acquiring clear vision in another post.