To Tell of the Telling

Last Saturday evening (November 10th, 2012) we unleashed the first ever Telling on an unsuspecting crowd of good Doncaster folk, and thankfully they seemed to like it. In fact, they did more than like it: they welcomed it with warm, friendly, open arms and said ‘Let’s do that again!’ The important word being ‘let’s’, as in ‘let us‘, because that’s exactly how most people feel about The Telling; when they understand it for what it is, they want to be involved. More delightful than the waves of applause which washed over our performers (which were very delightful indeed) are the waves of ideas which have been filtering through ever since. For the last couple of days I’ve been busy planning an ‘open imagining’ event to get the ball rolling for part two of The Telling in February.

I’d love to take credit for the first event (and you can read about exactly what happened that evening here), but the truth is that it has grown organically from a series of chance meetings and it would continue to grow if I fell off the world tomorrow. I’ve already written a longer description of the events which gave rise to the idea, so I’ll briefly say that The Telling grew from a desire to capture the flavour of Tom Hirons, Rima Staines and Dougie Strang & co’s performances at Uncivilisation 2012, bottle it, and bring it (and hopefully them) back to my home-town of Doncaster. It would have remained a dream if it were not for added inspiration from local artist Rachel Horne (whom Dougald Hine speaks very highly of in Dark Mountain book 2, and who also spoke at Uncivilisation 2011) and the generosity of world-renowned street artist Phlegm and the Doncaster Central Development Trust (DCDT) who own Church View, the former art college where Saturday’s performance took place.

A few months ago I was invited to Church View on other business and I knew instantly that it’s post-apocalyptic courtyard was the perfect space for a fire-lit story or two. I sent pictures of the courtyard to Phlegm and he too fell in love with it. Rachel and I drew together a number of artists from Doncaster and Abi Nielsen and Iona Hine of the South Yorkshire Dark Mountain group brought in artists from Sheffield and it wasn’t long (ten weeks from our initial meeting to be precise) before we had a show… and what a show it was.

I’ve already written an overview of The Telling Pt1: Where were you when the lights went out? over on the The Telling blog, so rather than talk about the evening itself I think it would be more productive to talk about how a group of people who barely knew each a few months ago could come together and create something wonderful with a budget of £125. Especially as the initial idea was to have a series of ‘Tellings’ in different towns, if possible in each town where there’s already a Dark Mountain group.

Firstly, never underestimated how many people are willing – eager even – to put a lot of their own time, energy and imagination into making the world a little more magical, with little or no personal recompense save for the joy of creation. Phlegm himself is the perfect embodiment of this DIY/maker ethos. Everything which he produces – and he produces a lot! – is self-financed through the sales of his own prints and comics (he’s invited to paint all around the world, but sometimes he even has to cover his own air-fare – quick tip, if you’d like to support his work send him some air miles!.. or at least buy his forthcoming book). The only time he has done anything remotely ‘commercial’ is when a skateboard park in Sheffield was threatened with closure and he provided clothing manufacturer Paul Smith with artwork for limited edition t-shirts to raise the funds which eventually saved the park.

Everybody involved with The Telling gave their time for free. The £125 budget I  mentioned  went towards materials like paraffin and marine flares (which should give you something of a clue as to what the spectacle itself looked like on the night!) Most of the other materials we needed for the event were either found (in supermarket skips or on Freecycle) or donated by the artists themselves. Refreshments were served on a donation basis and tickets for the event were £1 each, yet we still made around £280 on the night (some of this will cover the costs of the food and drink and the rest is going to help set-up the two aspiring young street artists who manned the bar).

We’re looking into ways to recompense more people for their time and material costs for Part 2 of The Telling in February, but I think we’ve shown that an initial lack of money is no obstacle to making things happen. In fact, building an event like this from next to nothing – and expecting nothing in return – is a great way of critiquing the central ethos of the dominant consumer capitalist culture. It wasn’t a British Burning Man (a long-held dream of yours truly), but it convinced me of the possibility of a British Burning Man! Anyone got a spare field …?

As for the artists themselves: we found that you don’t have to look  far for some amazing talent. Every artist involved with the first Telling was from South Yorkshire; Phlegm, Tim Ralphs, Abi Nielsen, Iona Hine and Mr Fox all hail from Sheffield, the Pixies are based in Rotherham and everyone else is from Doncaster. Doncaster is often described as a ‘cultural desert’ by people who should know better, and the local authorities have spent tens of millions on a new ‘cultural quarter’ to try and ‘attract’ more talent to the area. The reality, of course, is that there is plenty of ‘culture’ in Doncaster, it’s just not the kind of culture which fits conveniently inside the tick-boxes of grant/publicly-funded bodies.

In truth, the voices that we really need to be listening to in constructing a counter-narrative to the stories propagated by the Machine probably won’t be appearing on daytime TV anytime soon. The people of Doncaster have known nearly three decades of economic collapse, and before that they witnessed the ecological destruction of their immediate environment during the heyday of industrialism. So it would be more incredible if the people of Doncaster didn’t have something worthwhile to say about the terrible situation which we are all currently facing.

What is true of Doncaster is true of every other town; our cities, towns and villages may have all begun to look the same on the surface, but in terms of talent – and potential tales – there is a deep and diverse seam of experience running throughout these fair isles which is waiting impatiently to be tapped. Our experience in Doncaster was that there were many people who wanted something like The Telling to happen, but very few who believed it actually could… at least ‘not in a place like this.’

In terms of organisation, I think what we did here could perhaps best be described as ‘horizontalist’. The Telling has been something of an organic process, coming together collectively with little, if any, central planning. We gave the very wonderful Tim Ralphs something of a shock when he asked who wrote the performance schedule and nobody could answer. We had meetings, but mostly these involved walks and talks and and lots of ‘what ifs?’ This is not to say that people didn’t take control of certain aspects, just that any leadership only came to the fore when needed, and then only temporarily.  Or as Abi Nieslen observed: ‘It doesn’t mean no-one takes charge, it means that when you are the best person to take charge, you do so.’ The experience was far removed from the hackneyed idea of the all-powerful, maniacally egotistical director. In truth, people didn’t need much direction, they just needed a space (both physical and mental) to develop and share their ideas; which brings us to the most important element of the performance.

The Telling would not have been possible without the DCDT. We’re lucky that the trust is managed by artistically-minded people who realise that property is only an asset if it’s actually being used. Most towns will have a space which is perfect for storytelling and, unless it’s in the hands of a ruthless money grabber, a lot of managers and landlords will appreciate the positive publicity an arts event can generate. Stories are best told around a fire, and fires are best kept outside; this gives The Telling an added advantage as it makes use of spaces which are often overlooked and which carry less potential risk to the owner. The success of our arts-based event has already opened up possibilities with regard to more practical permaculture and self-reliance workshops.

So if you have some people, some imagination and a building, you can have a Telling. Having done the risk assessment for Saturday’s event I can give you a hundred reasons why it might fail. But I can’t think of one good reason why you shouldn’t try.

So, come on Mountaineers: tell us a story.

The Desert and the Settlement

A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2010)
Good News, Edward Abbey (Dutton, 1980)
The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day (Harper & Brothers, 1952)

Rebecca Solnit’s recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell, has a chapter on Dorothy Day, the writer who founded The Catholic Worker movement. When Day was eight years old, she lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Three thousand people died and half the city’s population was homeless. Fires spread from block to block, begun both by broken gas mains and by the authorities’ incompetent attempts to dynamite buildings to create firebreaks.

Here, though, are Day’s memories:

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.

For the rest of Day’s life, the memory of this crisis was a touchstone for what a healthy human community would look like. In Solnit’s account, the behavior of those San Franciscans is not a romanticised account, or an aberration. Rather, it is what usually happens after disasters.

Looking at the response of survivors to a series of 20th century North American calamities, from the Halifax munitions explosion in 1917 to September 11th in New York, Solnit finds similar patterns: ordinary people self-organise; they improvise solutions to problems; and they show a level of competence and generosity that they rarely show—or get a chance to show—in everyday life.

Maybe we should have more faith in each other—this is the basic message of Solnit’s book. And in case our faith is shaken by actual interactions with our fellow citizens, Solnit points out that disaster—whether it strikes Mexican seamstresses or Wall Street bankers—seems to wipe away many of the habits of thought and behavior that rule our everyday lives. ‘Just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage,’ she writes, ‘so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster.’

(I wish she had chosen a more resonant image than an unplugged computer, but the point stands.)

Why should any of this be a surprise to us? Why are most of us so convinced that the neighbours will start gnawing on each other’s legs within days of a crisis? In Solnit’s view, we are trained to be—it rises from the self-seeking view of man which animates our entire economic system. The elites who thrive in such a system, and usually view the disaster from a distance, naturally act on such beliefs, insisting on centralised relief efforts and troop deployments to maintain what they see as order. Many of the worst injustices of the aftermath—pointless shootings, the confinement of refugees in unlivable camps—reliably occur when the military gets involved. And before disaster strikes, mass culture regularly spits out visions of armed heroes herding the hysterical to safety.

At this point, I suspect readers are generating counterarguments, and they are entirely legitimate. In Solnit’s asides, we sometimes see the other side of the coin. In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 in Japan, for example, vigilantes killed six thousand Koreans (or people they thought were Koreans) because wild rumours circulated that this minority was setting fires and poisoning wells. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, militias of white men were so sure that black men would loot their property that they began to shoot them on sight.

How do we know what kind of society we are going to get? And how can we work towards one where people don’t immediately open fire on each other? ‘Beliefs matter,’ Solnit says—our conviction that people are stupid and vicious will help ensure stupid and vicious behaviour—but she doesn’t go much deeper into the question. She also doesn’t mention what might happen when a society no longer has surplus resources to send to the victims of a crisis, or when survivors cease to feel that recovery is just around the corner.

Still, her book is an intelligent and generous first step. If it is one-sided, I think it is a necessary corrective to too many other visions of collapse

An example of just such a vision: while reading Solnit’s book, I picked up Edward Abbey’s novel Good News, which I had gotten curious about during my last post on the literature of catastrophe.

This is the story: about forty years before the events of the novel, industrial society collapsed. The major factor in the breakdown was food: ‘the cities could not feed themselves,’ Abbey writes in the prologue, ‘they were largely abandoned as urban millions spread into the countryside in search of food.’ Cars are abandoned by the side of the road, rusting, all facing away from the cities.

The novel takes place in what was once Arizona. For some time, there have only been small bands of people wandering the desert, but now a kind of imperial force is rising again. An army led by a Chief is living in a great glass tower, using the last of the oil, terrorising the countryside, drafting stragglers into its army, and fighting a band of anarchists who are trying to make sure the old system does not come back—for example, by burning down the hall of records, a classic anarchist tactic that Solnit also mentions.

Into this world come Sam Banyaca, an Indian shaman, and Jack Burns, an old man looking for his son. One beautiful touch: with the fall of the industrial system, magic seems to be returning. Sam can shape reality in ways that are never explained, and somehow don’t need to be.

In many other ways, though, the novel felt deeply familiar. It highlights a tendency that I have always found troubling in Abbey’s work—namely, the willingness to celebrate the tangled interdependence of the natural world while consistently refusing to acknowledge the tangled interdependence of human beings.

For example, Abbey devotes no time to explaining how people in this world support themselves. The only meal we see people eating together is a roast dog (that old chestnut of the apocalypse). Since Abbey explicitly locates food as the driving force behind the collapse, I think it is fair to ask how his characters survive. Except for one incident where Sam forages from a cactus, though, we get no information on this subject.

It is a telling omission. As Kropotkin pointed out in Mutual Aid, the more difficult the environment, the more creatures tend to cluster together—for safety, for food, for company. As the novel progressed, though, it became clear that Abbey is profoundly invested in a world where it is easy for a man to survive on his own in the desert, even in the absence of a system that trucks in food to the grocery store.

And yes, it is usually a man. Almost every major character is male. There are no young children, who I suspect would be a reminder of several things that Abbey would rather ignore. How this society keeps itself going is a mystery. (Incidentally, I remember reading once that, in hunter-gatherer societies, women tend to supply most of the calories.) The only prominent female character in Good News, Daisy, is a young bartender. The few other women we meet—other than one tomboyish member of the anarchist collective who is often mistaken for a man—are all prostitutes for the Chief’s army.

There is one mention of children. When Daisy returns, Glenn, the bar’s piano player, says that she is meant to be a mother. He then puts his hands ‘gently but firmly’ on her breasts and says, ‘Look at these marvelous things.’ It is entirely typical of Abbey’s vision that Daisy seems to regard this as a charming gesture.

Another element that I recognised from Solnit’s analysis of Hollywood movies: almost every scene takes place between, at most, two or three people. Not a single functional community exists anywhere in the book. Other than sexual desire and/or romantic love, there seems to be no real reason for people to stay close to each other. In one of book’s climactic scenes, Jack Burns finds the son he abandoned many years ago, and insists on having some kind of connection with him. ‘Why?’ the son asks. It is a fair question, one that vibrates through a great deal of American life.

In the single scene of communal feeling, the anarchist collective, which Abbey obviously admires, finds its deepest satisfaction—not in preparing food or making music or working together—but in listening to a phonograph record of Beethoven. A bunch of people silently absorbing the work of a solitary genius—this is the novel’s most rapturous moment.

Finally, every interaction in the novel turns on power. Only physical strength mixed with a bit of cleverness makes any difference in this world. Someone mentions that, when society broke down, people began to eat each other, and they are basically still doing so—the novel is filled with torture, violence, and getting the other guy before he gets you. When two people disagree, there is no way to settle things without fighting.

Good News strikes me as a demonstration that you cannot contend with an enemy for your entire life—as Abbey did with our techno-industrial system—without beginning to share some of its assumptions. Basically, he destroys a deeply atomised, brutal society so that he can replace it with a deeply atomised, brutal society. This is the ‘good news’—and clearly Abbey wants us to think of the Gospels—that we will get after the end of industrial society.

I noticed that, like Robinson Jeffers, Abbey is continually drawn to solitary predators: hawks, cougars, snakes. Neither of them has any desire to give their hearts to, say, the musk-oxen, who were one of Kropotkin’s inspirations. ‘What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine / The fleet limbs of the antelope?’ writes Jeffers in The Bloody Sire. Undeniably this is a part of the truth—but the antelope have other characteristics than fleetness, ones developed in gentler communion with each other and the world around them. These are, I think, also worth writing poems about.

In his essays, Abbey talks about the value of community, but as Good News demonstrates, he cannot imagine it convincingly. Like many another great American writer, he has absorbed the national belief that individualism is the central human virtue. Solnit’s is the anarchism of groups, while Abbey vision strikes me as the anarchism of solitary individuals. Solnit points out, for example, that American communities that have received an influx of immigrants from Latin American tend to have a revival of public street culture; Abbey says that the immigration of such ‘culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people’ is not good for the ‘material well-being of the U.S.’

Sometimes Abbey is purposely being outrageous, but I think all of these remarks (sigh, and several more, including the aside that India, where I’m from, is the ‘sickliest nation on Earth’) highlight his unwillingness to have a conversation with the society that he was actually living in. For reasons that should be obvious, I have yet to meet a female admirer of Abbey’s novels, and in his essays Abbey seems to purposely push away non-white readers (if only we had written more symphonies).

D. H. Lawrence, who wrote my favourite book on the mingled virtues and destructiveness of the American character, Studies in Classic American Literature, has this to say:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealised purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

For all the beauty and wit and truth in his writing, you will not find much sense of community in Abbey. I think it is this absence—not just in Abbey, but in American life—that led me to pick up Dorothy Day’s memoir, The Long Loneliness, which Solnit quotes from in her book.

The long loneliness—isn’t it a beautiful title?—is Day’s term for our separation both from a genuine community, one engaged in worthwhile work, and also from the more-than-human (call it what you like). For Day, this sense of the divine came first through the natural world and then through the Catholic Church. I suppose her memoir is not a literary masterpiece, but it is a book that I will read again, as I will not re-read Good News, because it is the story of a wholeness that, at least for me, is radiant and convincing.

Day spent her youth in radical labour circles, but her sympathies remained anarchist throughout her life. You don’t expect to get quite so many Bakunin and Kropotkin quotes from a woman who is currently a candidate for sainthood. I suspect that canonisation will be an uphill battle for her. ‘Don’t call me a saint,’ she said herself. ‘I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.’

At the time of her conversion, Day’s lover, Forster, was a Marxist biologist who delighted in explaining the workings of plants and animals to her, which Day both cherished and seemed to see as somehow beside the point. ‘The very love of nature,’ she writes, ‘and the study of her secrets which was bringing me to faith, cut Forster off from religion.’

Day was pregnant when she converted to Catholicism. Forster left her and she raised the baby alone. Eventually, after meeting Peter Maurin, a French peasant who had emigrated to America, Day began The Catholic Worker, a loose collective which still exists in communities around the world. Its basic programme was sketched out by Maurin, who for years had been preaching to anyone who would listen about ‘cult, culture, and cultivation’—that is, religious devotion (in his case, the Catholic faith), the education of the people, and the creation of communal farms and soup kitchens.

In Day’s sketch, he is a wonderfully endearing crackpot, saintly and silly, constantly pushing books on people, lecturing the uninterested about his various objections to Andre Gide, cheerfully bearing rebuffs, and living on almost nothing. As Day writes, ‘when he could not get people to listen, he wrote out his ideas in neat, lettered script, duplicated the leaflets and distributed them himself on street corners.’

During the Great Depression, the Catholic Worker started attracting volunteers from all over the country. ‘We are not an organisation,’ Maurin said, ‘we are an organism.’ Day mentions that marriages kept sprouting up among them—on their charity farms, the newspapers, the soup kitchens. There is something about the movement that has, in Oliver Goldsmith’s wonderful phrase, the ‘bloomy flush of life.’

Day allowed divergence, variation, free criticism. Papers in different cities took different positions; farms figured out their own ways to manage, although plenty of them failed. Many-sidedness is fertile—it is the mark of movements that, even if small, survive. ‘If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will,’ Day writes, blithely ignoring her own church’s doctrine. ‘Death changes nothing.’

Plenty of writers have identified the destructive tendencies embedded in the Christian worldview, but every great religion has many faces, and I rarely had to turn from the one that Day shows in this book. What could be better for the wild world, I wonder, than a group of people living modestly and close the earth? What could be healthier for the life around us than joyfully opting out of a rapacious and extractive system?

People have tried such farming experiments repeatedly since industrialism began spreading its blight through the world. If they manage not to fold after a single winter, we can count ourselves impressed—and the Catholic Worker farms, like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Tolstoyan communities that survived deep into the Soviet era, have a core of longevity that comes, I think, from a sense of a life being embraced rather than a disaster being escaped. It is the sacramental sense of community that Lawrence saw being eaten away by the American obsession with individual freedom.

‘Viva la libertad!’ scream the anarchists in Good News, again and again, as if this answered all questions. And yes, it does answer some questions. Desert wisdom is real wisdom, and Abbey is a kind of desert father for me, difficult to approach (and he has chosen to make it difficult) but one I keep returning to. I feel the need to put his work next to other visions, though, for my own sense of wholeness and human possibility.

I think it is useful to remember that the men we think of as desert fathers weren’t as isolated as we imagine. Have you ever wondered how they managed to survive for so long? People brought them food. St. Anthony was continually followed by people from the surrounding communities—he could not escape them, and I wonder if he would have wanted to.

In a healthy spiritual tradition, there is always a track between the desert—or the mountain solitude, or the bowels of the cave—and the settlement. Wisdom that comes from too deep an isolation ceases to be meaningful or comprehensible; it ceases to be wisdom. Eventually, the man in the cabin may not be able to understand the angels he came to hear—or, if he does hear them, and has wisdom which he wishes to share, may no longer know how to have a constructive conversation with the community. Some of this is the community’s fault, but it is the hermit’s fault as well.

A last thought. I mentioned being dissatisfied with Solnit’s computer simile. Walking today in the cooling New England weather, I thought of another one.

Trees have always felt both solitary and social to me. We forget sometimes how much they depend on each other. As Stephen Harrod Buhner mentions in The Lost Language of Plants, a girdled tree—where a circle of bark is cut around the trunk to prevent sap flow—will survive for years in a forest, because nutrients will arrive through the mycelial network of other plants. The tree dies quickly if marooned in a park.

As I tramped through the crunching acorns and leaf-fall, I thought of Day’s line about the people in the earthquake. They give away every extra garment that they possess. As with people, so with trees—the deciduous ones, at least. Abandoned abundance supports an entire community, a community which includes the individual self. The decision to strip oneself to essence for winter is not just a withdrawal into self; it is also, simultaneously, a social act. This is the way it should be, I think, and has to be. The spirit of life always survives most reliably in the grove.

Tracking Bobcats in California

On top of the ridged triangles and crescents made by hiking boots and Nike running shoes, in the fine trail-dust of late September, a bobcat walked. Her prints were clear and intent, moving steadily along the edge of the path at dawn. Cats are edge-walkers – they stick to the shadows, the cover, the line between light and dark made by the moon. This bobcat kept to the side of the path that was shaded with coyote brush, poison oak and coffee berry. The moon must have been bright above her as night shifted toward dawn, only a day shy of full.

In some places, her prints obscured the marks of human shoes with their feline roundness, their soft clarity. In others, we lost her trail for a few steps beneath the morning’s foot traffic – a runic tangle of rubber soles. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure this cat was a ‘she’ at all. I’m not that good at this yet. But I like to guess, based on my instincts, in order to avoid calling an animal ‘it.’ Even if I’m wrong, ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more intimate pronouns than ‘it.’ They feel like subjects and not objects. So, for the purposes of intimacy and story, and because of the conjectures explored at the end of this piece, I will continue to call the bobcat a ‘she.’

Nine of us – all there together in the hills of the Point Reyes Peninsula, north of San Francisco, to learn about the mountain lions and bobcats who are our neighbours – crouched down by the side of the trail on hands and knees, as if in prayer, and studied those paw marks. We examined the dips and shadows and lines they made in the dust. The steadiness of their pace, hind foot falling a few inches ahead of the front in the quick, overstep walk of a travelling bobcat, a cat on the move.

When hunting, bobcats like to use game trails through grass and brush made by their prey. They walk slow and silent, then crouch, waiting for the voles who move quick as water through their tunnels to slip up, show their faces, take a risk. When travelling to a den site after a night’s hunt, or toward a known prey area, bobcats will often use human trails, which are easy to walk upon and are cut out of the ground in direct lines.

It is sensual to see the outline of a bobcat’s paws so clearly: the three lobes at the base of the metacarpal pad, the four quiet toes, claws retracted, paws a little bigger in front than in the back, to carry the weight of the head with its quick, moth-light ears and strong neck. There is something intimate and vulnerable at once, to see the marks of paws, skin to dusty earth. They make me think of my own bare feet, how full of nerves those soles are, and how it feels to walk barefoot on the ground.

We forget, shod and sidewalk bound, that our feet have their own sensual capabilities, their own touch-consciousness. If you sit still and focus, you can feel your heart beating in your bare foot. It can’t beat through your shoe, but barefoot, walking on dirt, your heartbeat is also touching the ground. Studying that bobcat’s prints, the place she passed at dawn under a harvest moon along the trail called Muddy Hollow, just east of Limantour Beach, we were also looking at the places a small quick heart pumped against the dust. We were encountering an individual, with her own hungers and needs and fears, who could feel that dirt under her paws.

This is the thing about learning to read the tracks of animals. If you imagine it’s like memorising a grammar, quizzing vocab words about gait and anatomy, learning a new way to conjugate, you have forgotten what it means to truly read, to use language to tell stories and to speak. Sure, you have to learn a new vocabulary: metacarpal pad, scat, zygodactyl. You have to learn to conjugate the verbs when you see them in dust, mud, sand, snow: overstep walk, side-trot, rotary lope.

But in the end, we learn language to speak to others, each of us using words unique to our tongues, lips, minds, life-experiences, breakfasts, heartbreaks, seasons. It’s just the same with the tracks and signs of animals: they are attached to individuals. A person doesn’t speak grammar; a person speaks stories. Mood, weather, hunger, longing, slang, fear, adoration. Animals leave behind words that are also stories, and this is where the magic resides. This is the land, the wild, the moving world, speaking.

Of course, to really get the details of gait and scat, of behaviour and track size and ecology in your head and heart, a great deal of focused and specific study is required. Eventually, a ruler, a field guide, plaster casts, a magnifying glass, binoculars, all these tools of western seeing, our ‘Elders,’ as Jon Young would say, are very useful things. But they come later. First, the tracks of a bobcat at dawn in the fine dust, the outlines of metacarpal pads clear as heartbeats and unique as fingerprints, alive with sensation like your bare feet are on sand, will change your life.

There will be a moment when something switches in your mind, a dusty old lock cracked open, when your eyes, which have been focusing on shapes, on this desperate need to categorise and identify and find the ‘right’ answer, will soften. The prints will become deeply intimate, like they could belong to someone you know. Everything will change, then. If you are an emotional type, like I am, you may even feel like crying.

I think there is an essential heartbreak at the core of modern human life. We have made ourselves alone as creatures. We don’t remember anymore the languages of the bobcats, the black bears, the weasels and frogs, the kingfishers, crows, voles, elk and rattlesnakes who are our closest relatives on this planet (not to mention the trees and grasslands, fruits and flowers without which none of us would be alive at all). They speak and sing, love, fight, nest and rage, scream and suffer just as we do, but we don’t know how to hear them. We don’t think we are supposed to. We have made ourselves believe we no longer belong, that we are apart, that this is a good thing, and meanwhile, some ancient grief has lodged straight into our cellular tissue, our dark marrow, and won’t leave. That’s why, the very first time I came to the beach with a teacher and began to read a trail of coyote tracks, in a side-trot, through sand, I woke up later that night with my eyes full of tears.

This is part of our heritage as human beings, part of our tangled psychological and biological make-up: we were made to read the tracks and signs of animals as they move through ecosystems. We were made to do this before we ever passed on mythologies, or wrote down songs. Our brains themselves developed as we followed elk tracks through sand, as we ate and worshipped and sang to the animals that we depended on both for our survival and, I would like to argue, our sense of self.

So, crawling around with your nose in the dirt after bobcat tracks, poking at scats with sticks to find the gopher jaws or rabbit bones inside, scanning the coyote brush chaparral and red alder riparian corridor for possible den areas – for me, all of this is an act of healing. It is medicine. It’s a little step toward repairing some broken bonds, both inside myself and my own nature, and between ourselves and the beasts we share the world with. Even when my friends think I’m a little bit mad for bending over animal shit on the ground and whipping out a field guide detailing all the possible bowel movements of coyotes, bears, weasels, birds – you name it – even when hikers stop, and laugh, and say, ‘you’ve got a poop book!’, this new language, this new way of reading and storytelling and connecting, has me addicted. There’s no going back – and who would want to?

Bobcats are solitary animals, except during the brief days in which they mate, and the months when mothers raise their kittens in well-hidden and frequently relocated dens lined with pine needles, grasses, duff. They mark territory with scent that must read something like the graffiti that claims city block, train track, overpass, keeping well clear of each other. So it was interesting to notice, that morning on the Muddy Hollow trail just before the harvest moon – like an unexpected plot twist – that another set of bobcat tracks was walking the other way beside the first ones we’d found.

This other set was older – less clear in the dust by a matter of twelve hours or so, maybe less – and bigger. The metacarpal pad, that sensitive pink heel, was at least a quarter inch wider. The two sets of bobcat prints were, in some places, right on top of each other; they both preferred the brushy edge of the path. The bigger tracks continued up the trail, past a stand of young bishop pines, while the smaller tracks seemed to have emerged from a narrow run off the main path, where one Indian paintbrush bloomed a bright crimson, like a little flame. If both sets were clear enough in that dust fine as silk-powder for our human eyes to make them out, then no doubt those two cats, attuned to deep levels of smell, knew about each other’s presence.

This is where the storytelling comes in, the mind’s love of narrative. This is where tracking becomes a doorway into the goings-on, the daily activities, of the animals who live just over the fence – bobcat, raccoon, rat and bluejay alike. Here is one possible answer to the plot twist presented by those two different sets of bobcat tracks: a mother cat and her adolescent child were co-habiting the territory until the young one was big enough to strike out on her own, or take over her mother’s area.

Generally speaking, mother bobcats will give birth to their kittens between April and June. Those kittens will stay with mom for six months, at which point they will start hunting on their own near her until they are ready to wander off and claim their own turf. Indeed, some female kittens will stay on in their mother’s territory when they are grown, and eventually take over a portion of it. The time frame was perfect – the mother cat, with the bigger paws, gave birth to her litter back in April. Now, six months later, in the last days of September, one of her kittens, a female, almost fully grown, stayed near, the successor to the matriarchal homeland. They utilised the same travel paths, though on different days, at different times. Sometimes they encountered each other, though often only in print and smell and scratch, in the quiet sisterhood of felines.

Of course, there might have been several kittens still living with mom, waiting to fly the nest. Or, those smaller prints could have belonged to a young male, getting ready to leave. We only saw a little snapshot of a great network of lives along the Muddy Hollow trail. There might have been other, smaller bobcat tracks beneath Nike-prints that we didn’t see. Or, the trail might have marked the boundary between two territories – one male, one female – the cats tolerating only a fraction of one another’s presence, just on the edge. Or, something else entirely, something I haven’t thought of yet.

The beautiful thing is – I don’t mind this ambiguity at all, these open-ended stories, these endless questions. I have developed an appetite for, even a love of, unanswered questions and mysteries with only half their parts in place. One day, maybe I will be an expert, I will be able to glance once and tell you the answer, like the legendary Tom Brown. But the beauty of this process of learning to read and interpret animal signs on the land is that I can hold these two ways in my head at once – precision and curiosity, answers and questions.

In my imagination, I see a mother bobcat and her young daughter, sharing the path. That’s how they come to life for me. But I also see a pinwheel of other bobcats, a circle of possibilities, each leading to a slightly different story, a slightly different dawn walk, belly full and warm with vole. It is this initiation into mystery that is the medicine, the reason to bother at all, knowing how little you know or will ever know. It is about following tangible paw-prints – three-lobed, overstep walk, one and one-sixth inches wide – into the wild heart of things, the unknown, the feline and the feral, the thicket just over the fence, where our natures are waiting for us to come, barefoot, and find them.