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Site Contents

by Ernest Thompson Seton 

From "The Book of Woodcraft," Ernest Thompson Seton, Doubleday, Page & Co.

 

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1. Tracks of old man.
2. a young hunter.
3. a city woman.
4. a dog.
5. a cat.

The Secrets of the Trail

It was Fenimore Cooper who first put the good Indian on paper--who called the attention of the world to the wonderful woodcraft of these most wonderful savages. It was he who made white men realize how far they had got away from the primitive. It was he who glorified the woodman and his craft.

 Yet nowhere do we find in Cooper's novels any attempt to take us out and show us this woodcraft. He is content to stand with us afar off and point it out as something to be worshipped--to point it out and let it die.

Fenimore Cooper has had many imitators, just as Uncas has had many successors. The fine art of trailing is still maintained in the Far West, and it has always seemed strange to me that none has endeavored to give it permanent record, other than superlative adjectives of outside praise.

Trailing

What is trailing? The fox-hunter has some idea when he sees a superb pack follow a faint scent through a hundred perplexing places, discerning just which way the fox went; and about how long ago. The detective does another kind of trailing when he follows some trifling clue through the world of thought, tracing the secret of an unknown man along an invisible path, running it to earth at last in the very brain that conceived it. 

In his trailing the Indian uses the senses of the "animal" to aid the brain of the man. To a great extent his eyes do the work of the hound's nose, but the nose is not idle. When the trail disappears, he must do the human detective work; but under all circumstances his brains must be backed by the finest senses, superb physique, and ripe experience, or he cannot hope to overmatch his prey.

Hard to Photograph Tracks

When, in 1882, I began my dictionary of tracks (see Life Histories of Northern Animals), I found that there was no literature on the subject. All facts had to be gathered directly from Nature. My first attempts at recording tracks were made with pencil and paper. Next, realizing how completely the pencil sketch is limited by one's own knowledge, I tried photography; but it invariably happens that not one track in ten thousand is fit for photographing, and it cannot be taken except when the sun is about thirty degrees above the horizon--that is, high enough to make a picture, and low enough to cast a shadow of every detail. Thus photography was possible only for about an hour in the early morning and an hour in the late afternoon. But the opportunity in the meanwhile usually was gone. I then tried making a plaster cast of the tracks in the mud. Only one such in a million was castable. As a matter of fact, none of the finest were in the mud; and the much more interesting dust-tracks were never within reach of this method. For most practical purposes I have been forced to make my records by drawing the tracks.

No Two Tracks Alike

The trailer's first task is to learn the trails he means to follow. The Red Indian and the Bushman, of course, simply memorize them from their earliest days, but we find it helpful and much easier to record them in some way. Apart from other considerations, a form is always better comprehended if we reproduce it on paper. 

As a general principle, no two kinds of animals leave the same track. As a matter of fact, no two individuals leave the same trail. Just as surely as there are differences in size and disposition, so there will be corresponding differences in its trail; but this is refining beyond the purposes of practicability in most cases, and for the present we may be satisfied to consider it a general rule that each species leaves its own clearly recognizable track. 

One of my daily pastimes when the snow is on the ground--which is the easiest and ideal time for the trailer, and especially for the beginner--is to take up some trail early in the morning and follow it over hill and dale, carefully noting any change and every action as written in the snow, and it is a wonderfully rewarding way of learning the methods and life of an animal. The trail records with perfect truthfulness everything that he did or tried to do at a time when he was unembarrassed by the nearness of his worst enemy. The trail is an autobiographic chapter of the creature's life, written unwittingly, indeed, and in perfect sincerity.

Whenever in America during the winter I have found myself with time to pass between trains, I endeavor to get out into the country, and rarely fail to find and read one of these more or less rewarding chapters, and thus get an insight into the life of the animal, as well as into the kinds that are about; for most quadrupeds are nocturnal, and their presence is generally unsuspected by those who do not know how to read the secrets of the trail.

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THE LIFE HISTORIES OF NORTHERN ANIMALS. Two large volumes by Ernest Thompson Seton, dealing with habits of animals, and giving tracks of nearly all. Scribner's, 1909.
GAME ANIMALS AND THE LIVES THEY LIVE. Four large volumes by Ernest Thompson Seton. Doubleday, Page & Co.

The Birch Bark Roll 

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Last modified: July 03, 2013.