Return to Synature Home         Books by the Tracker, Tom Brown, Jr.

described by Brandon C. Smith

(This file is as of Jan 94. There are some more books, Awakening Spirits and the Way of the Scout which I've read and will talk about soon. so here it is 2008 and I haven't talked about them. I've been trying to live parts of them...)

There are three types of books in the twelve that make up the Tracker's corpus: five autobiographical, six how-to and one what-it-is. The order I will follow in describing these books is not chronological. The first three are what I consider the core to understanding, intellectually, what the Tracker is about. I would recommend reading these three before attending the basic course. The remaining books are all very good in their areas, expanding considerably on the material found in the first three.

The first book and the one most important to someone unfamiliar with Tom Brown is "The Tracker." In this slim paperback William Jon Watkins helps Tom describe growing up with Rick and Stalking Wolf in the pine barrens of New Jersey. It shows how a 20th century boy can learn primitive survival skills so well that living with nature can be enjoyed even more than living in the lap of luxury. It affirms that feeling most of us have that animals talk and that wilderness is not really hostile. It left me with feelings of regret that I hadn't had the luck to grow up with Stalking Wolf there to show me how to live. It also left me wondering if I would have been able to take advantage of a teacher like Stalking Wolf. Most of all it inspired me to want to try to learn as much as I can of this wonderful way of approaching nature.

The next book is his first field guide, "Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival." Coauthored with Brandt Morgan, this work is highly practical, full of detailed instructions and drawings. It covers the four essentials to making oneself comfortable in the wilderness: Shelter, water, fire, and food. If you had it memorized before you went to the basic course, then you could concentrate on learning the hand, eye, and foot skills that are required. No book can teach you how to make fire with a bow drill -- until you've carved your tools and practiced under the expert eye of an instructor you just don't know what you're missing. I can hear a few of you saying that you have learned physical skills from a book or a video tape. Maybe so. But my experience has been that no book or video tape can look at me and help me set up my body to get the angles just right. This first field guide goes a long way toward being detailed enough to stand on its own as the only book you might need in the wilderness. However, Tom mentions in several places that it is not enough. For example, you must have a good plant identification book before trying to collect edible plants. NEVER eat a plant that you have not positively identified!

The third book at the core of Tom's corpus is his "Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants." This book does not have a coauthor, and is the first time you will meet 100% Tom Brown. It is a lyrical, sometimes whimsical, description of forty four of Tom's plant friends. There is an underlying assumption that seems to contradict the explicit plant identification called for in the other field guides and in the classes: Sit quietly and reach out spiritually to communicate with a plant and it will tell you if you may eat it or if it has a specific medicinal value for you. You can use the information Tom provides about each plant. However, until you have learned and experienced spiritual unity with nature, you should use a plant identification book to verify what you have. Tom did not use the word "Field" in the title of this book. This is not a book on plant identification. It is what I categorize as a "what-it-is" book. In many ways it is a precursor to the three autobiographical works in which Tom is the sole author. It introduces you to a very different way of relating to the plant world.

The next group of books is the other Field Guides. The one on Nature Observation and Tracking is an excellent starting point for someone interested in the wonders that can be learned by being more aware of what nature has to tell us. Tom discusses in considerable detail how animals leave a book on the ground that tells a complete story for someone willing to learn how to read it. Most of us look but do not see. The book provides exercises that will train you to see. Quite a bit of learning to see is learning to move or not move, and much learning to observe is only mastered by "dirt time": laying on the ground studying a track.

The "Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival" recasts the basic ideas of wilderness survival into the environment of cities and suburbs. The same basic premises apply. The materials and some techniques are different. Essential reading if you live in a city.

The "Field Guide to Living with the Earth" is aimed at people who live or want to live in a rural setting and do the right thing. Much of the material is oriented at a way of relating to nature that I think of when I hear the word "Permaculture."

The "Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness" tells you how to learn nature observation by spending time in your back yard. Even if your yard is pure concrete, there are things you can learn about nature if you are willing to put in the time. However, a lawn is better, and a few bushes insure that you have more than enough wilderness to learn volumes about how nature works.

The "Field Guide to Nature & Survival for Children" is exactly that. It contains the same basic stuff as his first field guide, but the material is presented for parents to teach young children. A lot more exercises are described, quite a few of which are not only more fun for kids, but also fun for adults. Also included are more explicit warnings about the dangers that are inherent in using knives, learning blindfold walking and so forth. This one is coauthored with his wife Judy.

The remaining books are autobiographical. "The Search" is a direct continuation of the story in "The Tracker," this time with William Owen. Here you will find the first real hunt, and you will learn about living a full year in the wilderness. Here you will also find Tom using his skills to track lost people. Successfully in terms of finding where they went, not always successful for the found person since Tom's skills are often asked for too late. This is the book where Tom describes how he came back to "civilization" to found a school.

The next three are also autobiographical, but in a much more spiritual way. Like Taoism and Buddhism, the native American "religion" is more a way of life than what modern Western man means by religion. Spirit to most modern peoples means communing with God with a capital G. The vast majority of modern man thinks of God as either a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim single God, jealous of and denying the existence of any other form of spiritual existence. Native peoples generally have a more tolerant view of spirit that may include the holy personages of any other form of worship. What Tom learned from Stalking Wolf goes quite a bit beyond making fire with sticks. "The Vision" is his first attempt to capture some of this in words. It succeeds only to the extent the reader understands that people are not necessarily the most important part of nature.

"The Quest" contains Stalking Wolf's prophecies: The holes in the ozone layer, the AIDS epidemic, and one more that we all must pray doesn't happen. "The Journey" continues with Tom's personal efforts to come to grips with the awful things that seem to be down the road for humanity on its present course. The earth will do all right, probably, but how much longer humanity can carry on with greed as the motivator is in serious question. These last two books can be depressing unless you are firmly rooted in respect and appreciation of nature. There is always a chance to turn things around. It starts with learning how to see what nature has to show us, and it continues with learning how to live in harmony with what we have learned to see. "The Grandfather," Tom Brown's latest book, is basically a biography of Stalking Wolf, his teacher and mentor. Through unique circumstances, Stalking Wolf was raised almost completely in the old ways -- his tribe stayed out of contact with the white man despite near total subjugation of the land and the native peoples going on at the time. To someone who had not read and believed The Tracker, Stalking Wolf is fantasy. Even then, unless you've met Tom Brown and seen him "perform," you might think "The Grandfather" is pure fiction.

Tom once told us he hates to show people what he can do, it makes him feel like a circus performer. Nonetheless, once you've witnessed his incredible skills, you know he's the real thing. Too many teachers have too little mastery of what they teach, and most masters have too little patience to teach. We are incredibly fotunate that Stalking Wolf taught Tom, and that he in turn eventually assumed the burden of teaching us. It's clear from the book that Stalking Wolf would never have been able to run classes the way Tom does, would never have accepted the half-hearted attempts of most of us to learn these skills.

Most of Stalking Wolf's life was tied up in learning how all the peoples in north and south america who honor nature manifest that honor. He is totally horrified by the way white men can dishonor nature and get away with it. It is many years before he discovers that skin color does not necessarily indicate whether or not a person is capable of honoring nature. All people, regardless of skin color, are mostly water. Therefore, all people have to capacity to become close to nature.

The incredible leap of logic in the last two sentences can only be explained by reading the book. As you will find, this book is both more pessimistic and more optimistic than the "Quest" and the "Vision." To say we live in perilous times seems trite in view of what we learn by reading "The Grandfather." (However, I strongly urge you not read it without first reading at least "The Tracker," "The Search," and one of the field guides or attending one of his classes.)

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Last update: May 2008.
Copyright © 1997,Brandon C. Smith. All rights reserved.
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