It felt very strange. I was leaving a hotel room close to New York without Susan, wearing casual clothes rather than a suit, wheeling a large blue kitbag rather than a suitcase. I took the airport shuttle to the bus station and found the bus for Toms River, New Jersey. I was early at the pickup point in Toms River and was concerned that I’d got the right place until more people turned up. Eventually we all squeezed into a pickup truck to the farm where Tom Brown Jr runs his Standard Class.
The farm had outbuildings, a barn where we were taught, a place to eat, a tiny store, an outdoor covered cookhouse and a field to camp in. I pitched my tent, laid out the inflatable mattress and my sleeping bag, put my torch in my pocket and went to find a mug of tea. Other people kept turning up until there was about 70 or 80 of us. We were an eclectic bunch, aged 18 to 70, both sexes, outdoorsmen (women included) and city slickers like me.
My favourite snippet of conversation around the fire, where us old boys gathered, was “Well possum is ok to eat but skunk is just too oily”. These backwoodsmen feed off roadkill!
Tracker School has a really good system where, if you have been on a class, you can volunteer to help out at the same class any time it runs in the future, for free, in return for helping with cooking and chores and the teaching of skills. The courses are great value. In 2001 about $500 covered the teaching, the food and drinks and camping space. There was a rota to help prepare food and clear dishes and a poster with ‘No Whining’ written large.
I would describe Tom Brown as ‘rangy’. He has got outdoor eyes and a moustache. Most of Standard Class is taught by his team of trainers. Tom dropped in to teach some of the classes for about 20 minutes and then disappeared for a cigarette.
His story is covered in his books. From the age of 8 to 18, he and his friend Rick were mentored in outdoor survival and native philosophy by an 80-year-old Lipan Apache called Stalking Wolf, who he and Rick called Grandfather. Stalking Wolf was a bridge, from the time of Geronimo. He had never lived on a reservation and he had wandered in North and South America collecting the knowledge and tools of indigenous tribes in order that the knowledge and skills would not be lost. He had a vision when he was a young man of meeting a young white wolf by a stream and when he found Tom looking for fossils in a stream in the New Jersey Pine Barrens he knew this was the boy to whom he would pass on his knowledge. Tracker School is the vehicle for Tom to train others to enter Stalking Wolfs world.
Tom’s workshops are full on. Teaching starts early and we were often working until 11 p.m. The content in Standard Class was eye opening, literally when we came to tracking! It is fascinating and absorbing and I recommend it to everyone. My friend Thomas Shorr Kohn runs Trackways, teaching the same content near Lewes in East Sussex, if you cannot go to USA.
We were taught everything we would need to know to survive if lost in wilderness. We learned about knives, how to choose them, how to sharpen them and how to use them. We were told that we could make our own cutting tools, but a good knife would make survival easier. I bought a good knife at the store and one of helpers showed me how to get a fine edge on it and I used it constantly until I bought better one from Thomas at Trackways.
I was a Cub, A Scout and a Scout Leader for 12 years. Lord Baden Powell started the Scouts with the same intention as Tom Brown, to teach us how to survive in nature. Scouting does not even touch the surface now! I could identify different types of birds and trees and plants, but I did not really know them. I could lay a good fire, but I couldn’t light one without matches. I could read a map and use a compass but without them I would be lost. I could tie knots, but I didn’t know how to make cordage.
All of these things I learned in Tracker School. I carved my own bow drill set from a cedar block. Creating an ember by friction and blowing on it in a bundle of fibres until it bursts into flames is an experience you never forget or grow tired of. We made our own set and learned the technique of how to brace the arm with your knee. The last person to made fire in our class was a 70-year-old woman. She was carried around the camp on the shoulders of some of the young bucks and her flame was used to start the fire for the sweat lodge on the final day.
I learned about bird language and how everything in nature pays attention to bird alarm calls. I joined in with a group tanning a deer hide (roadkill) with its brains, a very smelly process, and I helped scrape it and stretch it. One of the teaching staff showed us the white deer hide dress she had made for her wedding. It was beautiful and soft.
I helped make a debris hut, a simple structure, with just enough room for one person, which you stuff and cover with leaves and grass and ferns etc. If the structure is covered to the length of your arm this shelter can keep you warm down to -20 degrees. We learned different ways of finding water by tapping sycamore trees, cutting certain vines, by solar still or just using your shirt to collect dew. Two of the helpers collected 2 pints of dew in 10 minutes. We made different traps for catching small animals. We learned that, in Apache villages, most of the meat came from small animals killed by the children by throwing sticks. One evening we had to earn dinner by knocking furry toys off posts. I had skills!
I came back to my senses in Standard Class. When I played in the woods as a little boy, I was alert to the noises, the smells, the sights, the feel of bushes and the wind and the tastes of dandelion stalks. As a fifty-year-old at home and in the office my sensitivity was deadened to avoid the overload of our modern world. In the last 18 years it has got worse. Children walk to school listening to music. They spend half their life on electronic devices existing outside the environment around them. Their social media is not social. They are losing the use of their senses and their connection to nature and they are going mad.
Standard Class continued the work of the Vision Quest and Sedona in bringing me back to my senses. Just being outside working with plants and trees and water and animals and talking to people opened up my senses in a way that is available to anyone. We all have the equipment. It has just got rusty. My future training with Tracker School and Alberto Villoldo was all about opening my sensory gates so that I could pay more attention to what was going on in nature, and in the energy fields around me.
The best example of opening senses was when Tom took us out on a tracking exercise. He led us along a trail telling us to make sure we only walked in the middle of the trail. After about 100 yards he said, “Now I am going to show you what you missed’”. He formed us into a long line behind him and then set back down the trail showing us the tracks that he had seen on either side of the trail. He did this by showing the first person in the line the outline of the first track and then that person showed the next person the track before moving down the trail to next track.
Some of these tracks were very small and faint but you could see them with someone pointing them out. Tom was telling the tale of the tracks as he led us. That morning a coyote had spotted a rabbit and chased it, but the rabbit escaped. Tom’s tracking sense is so good he can read the sex of the coyote, its age and weight, which way its head was facing, just from one track. By the end of the trail my eyes felt alive! I could see more detail, much more easily. Tom then sent us off to find our own tracks and, there in the moss on a waist height wall, I found the tiny imprint of what I had been taught was a chipmunk’s track. I grabbed an instructor who confirmed it. Wow! The next day my eyes had gone back to normal but the change in me stayed.
I was more interested in the Apache philosophy that Tom taught than in backwoods skills, so I went for Philosophy 1 next rather than Advanced Standard, where you learn more skills, but I have never come back to ‘as normal’ since Standard Class.
I had learned fox walking at Standard Class, to move stealthily, and how to use Bird Language to tell you what was going on in nature. When I got home, the same evening I went out just before dusk and fox walked along a trail in woodland close to our house. I suddenly heard a blackbird pinking off in the bushes to the left of the trail. I saw how high it was flying and thought ‘Fox’. I sat down on the trail and 15 seconds later, still tracked by the blackbird, a fox stepped on to the trail about twenty yards away. He turned his head to look at me. “I know you are there” I saw him think. Then he casually continued his journey on the other side of the trail. If that had happened to you would you ever want to go back to ‘as normal’?
To be continued…Philosophy 1 and Pipe Ceremony