The Cardinal and the Deer
by Jon Young
Since I was a young man I have
always been fascinated by the language of nature. The words, the sentences, the
paragraphs are all there for us to read, we just need an interpreter to get us
started. Unlike the dry language studies I experienced through formal education.
The language of nature speaks loud and clear to a sensory part of our being
other than our ears and linear, rational thought. This is a complicated way of
saying something that one of my elders, Ingwe, says frequently: Expand your five
senses and develop a sixth sense.
When I was ten, I met Tom Brown, Jr. He was twenty-one years
old at the time, and truly an extraordinary tracker. The word tracker - though
simple in its two syllables - is one of those funny little words that expands
into an entire universe of meaning. Many people read the word, or hear the word,
tracker, and assume all sorts of severely underestimated misconceptions. For no
subject or lecture from any formal education prepares one for the sheer
immensity, depth and spiritual ramifications of the subject of tracking as
practiced by the so-called primitive societies. I expand on the concept of
senses and the concept of tracking as a manner of introduction for what I am
about to relate to you. Luck was with me on that fateful day. Tom recognized me
as a potential apprentice in the ancient art of tracking. I was eager to accept
this elder-brotherhood, for he had so much to offer a young naturalist hungry
for knowledge and inspiration.
My two mentors, Tom Brown Jr. and Ingwe, have taught me much
about the ways of wildlife and the wilderness for both had incredible teachers
themselves. Ingwe, a great tracker in his own right, was raised among the Akamba
people in East Africa. The Akamba, much like the Apache in North America, had a
reputation as among the keenest trackers around. Ingwe, now nearing his
eightieth winter, had an elder brother tribesman mentor him in tracking. Tom
Brown Jr. was mentored by an Apache tracker in the Pine Barrens. These two men
have much in common, and both express that there are things in this life that
are beyond the ability of our minds to explain. Both these men recognize that an
animal's age, sex, weight, behaviour, speed, individual and species identity,
and further, its very mood can all be read or derived from the tracks.
Amazing information can be derived from the voices of birds,
just as this information is available in the body language of people and animals
and therefore their tracks. It would take volumes to explain all the specifics
of the language of birds.
But behaviour and emotions are universal enough that a good
deal can be gained from intuition and careful attention to detail. Since
boyhood, the birds have held a special interest that went well beyond hobby
enthusiasm. I became fascinated by certain calls and often followed for an
entire day until I found the caller, or returned home hungry for the answer -
only to resume the search again. An elder in my life kept up my interest in the
bird language for all my childhood. When I met Tom I began to apply a tracker
thinking to bird language. Soon, I understood the forest and all goings on with
only my ears. I knew where were, where the fox was stalking, where the
neighbourhood cat was lurking, and indeed all the local feathered couples who
were present in my watershed.
Understanding bird language, and recognizing that some things
are just unexplainable, are seemingly disjointed ideas that are united in the
traditions of the Iroquois people of the New York area. The Iroquois tradition
known as the Thanksgiving Address is just that, an address to creation to give
thanks for aspects of Creation and the attributes each aspect mentioned. The
birds are recognized for taking us from our minds and elevating us into a
spiritual awareness. Birds have territories, as do all wildlife species. Some
species are very habitual and are accustomed to going to sleep in the same
places each night, with the same routine of calls and behaviour. My subconscious
mind keeps this all filed away and, when in the early morning the routine is
interrupted, I notice it. One such interruption caught my attention a few
years ago that the editor of this magazine asked me to share with you. The
circumstances are related to awareness, to birds and to the spirit.
In a dream a large, old and powerful buck with a game leg and
a magnificent rack battled a youthful six point buck over territory in my
backyard. They cast their heads about, and the young buck conceded victory to
the elder, and clear victor. Years of experience, great wisdom and some injury
that taught a powerful lesson to the old buck was more than the younger deer
could defeat. For some reason, after the two bucks separated from one another,
the younger was suddenly dead there on the ground, though not from the contest.
The old buck turned and limped away, though the limp was from an old injury long
healed. From my dream state I began to hear the alarm cries of the cardinals in
the predawn. I awoke with haste and sat up in bed, for the last time I heard an
alarm from the cardinals at dawn, I raced to the window in time to see a screech
owl between the male and female cardinals, visible only as dark silhouettes in
the twilight of dawn. The owl had apparently made a failed attempt at the waking
cardinals and now they were letting the world know, with tremendous
The calls of the
cardinals, though disturbed, in no way relayed the great duress expressed by the
same pair when their life was directly threatened by the owl, but I was drawn to
the window nonetheless. I looked down at the pair beneath the locust where the
owl lived. They were clearly agitated by something, but in the blackberry
thicket there was only the cardinals to be seen. What had them so excited?
I was thinking that I should get up for work when something
inside me said, Wait a few minutes more. So like an owl myself, I perched silent
and still, resting my chin on my hands on the sill. The cool morning breeze
greeted me as I waited for the unknown to become known. Just as I was about to
give in to impatience and pull away, motion caught my eye from the right where
the cardinals were facing. This whole sequence from when I awoke from the buck
dream took less than two minutes. The dream was still fresh in my mind. I
thought for a second I was still dreaming for right there before my eyes limping
in from the right was the very buck I had just dreamed of. I had never seen him
before, yet there he was just I had dreamed. I called to my wife, she came to
the window in time to see the great elder buck pass just beneath the window.
There were at least ten points on a magnificent, stout and wide rack.
In my dream there had been two deer, so I knew the younger
male also must be there somewhere. That morning he did not appear. I scanned and
touched the tracks - of the elder buck and looked about for more sign of the
young one. He was not there. I got very busy that day and the next and it was
two days before I could get to the backyard again to resume my tracking. A
vulture lifted up from behind the blackberries beyond the cardinal roost beneath
the locust. I quickly entered the clearing beyond the blackberries to discover
the younger buck, lying dead there beneath the spice bush undergrowth. It had
been struck by a car and lay facing east in its final sleep.
A year had passed by and I never that old buck again, though
I looked for him each day. A young man named Sean was in training both by Tom
and myself, and he had frequent occasion to hear tracking tales from Ingwe. Sean
and I traveled with Ingwe across the country and he and Ingwe went on to Alaska
while my family and I turned back in Seattle. Upon their return, Sean went for a
walk down among the great tupelo trees and past one of the largest grape vines I
have ever seen. He felt drawn to a clearing among some spice bush on an island
in the swamp.
There he found the skeleton of a great deer with its head
facing east sporting a magnificent rack. The deer lay in a sleeping position
there as though it had gone comfortably to its final rest. He came back with the
skull completely excited about his discovery. One look at that rack and I knew
the deer. It had all come full circle, and now there was one question for Sean.
Did that deer have funny wear patterns on its hooves as
though it had a limp?
I don't know I will go and see.
We all know the answer. My son received the deer skull from
Sean as a birthday gift and to this day, Aidan values it as one of his most
precious belongings. It has come full circle again. The birds do indeed take us
beyond our minds, into and beyond our senses. Once again, tracking takes us on
journey that lies over the horizon of the expected.
This story is one of many from In Harmony
With Mother Earth by Jon Young and Ingwe (The Leopard).
From In the Tracks of the Tracker
magazine, Winter-Spring 1994
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