- E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life:
It is half an hour after sunset one early April, and I am trying to be invisible.
I lift one foot in a slow and soundless arc, letting it nose gently to ground before I transfer my weight. A robin fusses momentarily beneath the eaves of the hemlocks, and then quiet resumes. I lift the other foot. The drifts of leaf litter underfoot rustle and sigh. I imagine coyotes and songbirds tucked into the forest like coins in coat pockets, listening tense and wide-eyed to my slow transit through the oak leaves.
If I am especially lucky, skillful, or both, this affords me a few minutes to watch this wild being as it moves about with perfect unselfconsciousness, unaware of my presence. The feeling this gives me is hard to describe. Though I know that this kind of communion hinges on the fact that the animal doesn't know I'm there, it feels like a reunion, or a reclamation of some kind. Like a missing limb has been regrown or a long lost family member has reappeared.
I suspect that what motivates my fellow tracking students and I is a craving to be as intimately connected to the natural world as possible. We want so badly to reclaim our place in the woods, to be welcomed home there. Many of us practice various survival skills: dabbling in flint knapping, hide tanning, building shelters and gathering wild food and medicine. Though these skills build undeniably strong connection to the land (it's easy to feel a sense of relationship towards a place that has literally sheltered and nourished you) most of us seem entranced with tracking above all. We revel in the intimate detail with which we are sometimes able to scrutinize the activities and even the emotional states of the animals we track. It assures us that the forest is an action-packed place, a stage for high drama, life-and-death struggle, birth, and courtship. Though the animals do their best to keep their secrets from the chatty day-hikers and dog-walkers, the tracks don't lie. Because we track, we know about the coyotes cruising the snowmobile trails, the otters fishing in the wetland, the mink hunting at the ice edges, the bears advertising their reproductive status. All of this knowledge makes us feel closer to our wild neighbours, closer to rejoining the community.
The legend of “Mervana” circulates among us. It's a story about a guy named Merv who was born on a remote piece of property – an island, maybe – somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He spent his childhood on this land, eventually inheriting it from his parents, never living anywhere else. All his time was spent tending this place, hacking back the blackberries and planting fruit and nut trees. He never tried to be invisible, just went about his business with great care. They say that by the end of his life the deer were so careless around him that they would actually bump into him, or nudge him aside with a swing of the head. He didn't need to be invisible. He had attained 'Mervana'.
None of us in this group have the benefit of an uninterrupted lifetime on a secluded rainforest island. We are a collection of people more-or-less firmly entrenched in the 'real world': among our number are a pharmacist, a social worker, a minister, wilderness guides, small business owners, the director of a successful charity, teachers. We are all driven by the need to know as much as we can about the woods, but we are not necessarily looking to forsake our obligations and email accounts in favour of squatting in a homemade shelter. And however inspiring we find the quasi-mystical account of Mervana, our learning is built on some fairly clinical foundations. We spend hours each week in research mode, poring over thousand-page tomes on gaits and track patterns. We memorize foot sizes and animal morphology, measuring tracks and skulls and owl pellets with calipers, jotting down notes in our all-weather notebooks. We measure tracks over and over and over until we can tell red squirrel from chipmunk, vole from shrew, bobcat from house cat at a glance. We spend a day counting the teeth of deceased small mammals. We engage in emphatic debate over the minutiae of foot morphology in red foxes. But perhaps the most fruitful exercise in our pursuit of knowledge is sit spot.
The brilliant blue of twilight seems to press forward between the pines. I am still in transit to my sit spot; over the last half hour I have moved about 35 yards. My spot is at the base of a boulder, one of many strewn among the trees, erratics abandoned as the last ice age ground to a halt. I breathe a silent breath of relief as I sit down and melt into my surroundings. Camouflaged by a dusk-gray blanket, I am just another rock. Underneath me is a fluffy layer of beech leaves, several feet of glacial till, and the secret world of invertebrates, bacteria, mycelia. My fidgeting ebbs and my blood slows. The coolness and stillness of the rock spills into my warm back. This is a magic time, this transition from day to night. Crepuscular (from the latin 'crepusculum': twilight) and nocturnal animals are making their moves: foxes are cruising the landscape, quick and graceful; coyotes zip in measured trots along their routes; the birds are setting themselves to roost with soft notes of complaint. Flying squirrels blink and stretch.
At first glance, sit spot is a simple prescription: pick one place outside; go there a lot; try your hardest to notice what is happening around you. But describing sit spot to the uninitiated can be tricky. Throw around phrases like 'meditation practice' and 'nature connection' and most people will conjure up vague new-age ideas involving some hocus-pocus about self-improvement and 'oneness with nature'. Like tracking, sit spot has the sheen of mysticism but is in truth a fairly pragmatic and straightforward practice. While I'm there, I try (and often fail) to take in my surroundings with unwavering awareness. I keep track of which birds are singing, how many, where are they, and when they stop; which plants are growing, flowering, seeding, being fed upon by deer or voles or rabbits. Over longer time periods, I map the territories of nesting birds and the dozen or so squirrels. I keep track of weather, and seasonal markers like the return of certain songbirds or the mating of owls and raccoons. The experience is so empirical I might as well bring calipers – and in fact I sometimes do.
Sit spot is fundamental to the growing Nature Connection movement, centred in the US but burgeoning in Canada and the UK as well. The phrase 'sit spot' was made famous (well, relatively speaking) by controversial but influential survival teacher and author Tom Brown Jr., though the concept has been present in Indigenous cultures since time immemorial. Despite a turbulent disposition and a tendency towards mustaches, Brown has gripped thousands of students at his Tracker School with a driving need to be close to nature. Brown's first student, Jon Young, who Brown mentored through childhood, has since expanded the reach of sit spot through his own success as a teacher and writer. His home-study naturalist training course Kamana, and a handful of initiatives including Wilderness Awareness School and the Eight Shields Foundation, continue to influence thousands of students every year. Organizations and community initiatives have sprouted up around North America influenced by this work, and the work of naturalists like Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, E.O. Wilson. At this moment, shortly after 8am Eastern Standard Time in late November, I can imagine the sweep of dawn westward across the continent, signalling an early spring chorus of birdsong and the movement of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of sit spot devotees out of pajamas and into the woods, travel mugs of black coffee in hand.
Though I am an arts student at heart, I have relished the opportunity that both sit spot and tracking provide to observe the world with what feels like scientific rigour. Both of these practices insist on scrutiny of one's biases and analysis. I love using calipers, measuring and journaling endlessly, discerning between correlation and causation. And yet, what forces me out of my bed and into the woods before sunrise feels mystical, like I am brushing up against the body of a great mystery. It seems that many who go to sit spots, armed with calipers and intent on clear and incisive observation, recount their experiences in ultimately mystical terms. My friend Christine describes it as a homecoming: “Before, I always felt at home in the woods, but since sit spot, I feel I belong there. Like everything has welcomed me home, like I have a place. Undeniable, irrevocable.”
Like the famous naturalists, my intellectual and scientific curiosity is fuelled by relentless wonder. Natural history as a scientific discipline has all but vanished from the academic landscape. It is too broad to be useful or lucrative. I feel like a lonely descendent of those early naturalists, part of a lineage that has always been comprised of windburned explorers treading the muck of swamps and reclining in contemplation in the night air, jotting notes in waterproof journals. Sit spot allows me to feel close to a great mystery both intellectual and mystical in nature, a mystery that always stays two steps ahead of my understanding.
When I first began going to my sit spot, I was inspired to do so by the stories I heard from mentors and friends: stories about close brushes with wild animals, moments of trust and insight. One friend was leaning up against a fencepost on a spring evening when a fox stepped on his toe as it was cruising the hedgerow for a meal. Another witnessed a doe, one pre-dawn morning in early summer, visiting her fawn hidden only a few metres away. One time, an ermine killed a chipmunk in a sudden strike and dragged its warm body over my shins and into a brush pile as I sat motionless. Another time, I watched the violent sway of the alders as a bear made its way across a beaver dam towards me. The memory of this still thrills me, and the stories of my friends fill me with wonder. But the encounters that are the bread and butter of sit spot are usually subtler, smaller, harder to write home about. The first robin singing at my sit spot after a long winter, hearing the chuckling grackles make for their roost in the cedars, noticing how the red squirrel always gets especially feisty in the spring.
The brilliant blue twilight ripens to a night sky: starry, clear and freezing. The crepuscular chirps and fidgetings have gone silent. The breeze has dropped off. I am so still against my rock that I cannot hear even the faintest a rustle of clothing nor a whisper of breath. The gray blanket pools around my crossed legs and keeps the cold at bay. High above me in the pines I can hear a wheezy barrage of squeaks between the flying squirrels. Otherwise, the land is held by a silence so heavy the glimmer of the stars seems audible. Abruptly, as if a switch somewhere has flipped, the carpet of leaves around me begins to sigh and whisper with thousands of tiny movements. It is the voles, small rodents that spend their time in the space between the earth and the debris of the forest floor. I imagine what it would be like to be one of those creatures, scurrying around a roofed world of dark runways, tensely attuned to scent and vibration. The whispers in the leaf litter surround me and begin to close in. Perhaps they are drawn to me as an island of inexplicable warmth, or perhaps I happen to be sitting on a main thoroughfare. Perhaps I am finally invisible. The rustling laps at the edges of my blanket, and then I feel something nudge my foot. And then my leg. I am afloat in a sea of voles. I listen, rigid with amazement, until the switch is flipped again and the rustling withdraws and ceases. When stillness resumes, I stand stiffly and tiptoe back to the human world, replete to bursting with a sense of awe and belonging found in the smallest things.