Occidental tracker takes students on a journey through the millennia
Tracking is an ancient art that can put us in touch with our most basic inner selves and our ancestors that came down from the canopies on the savannahs of South Africa, and with all the distractions of the modern world—from the jobs that keep us under banks of neon lights all day, to the electronic devices that take us out of the moment—it can be refreshing to head into the wilds of Sonoma County to reconnect with our origins.
Through its community education program, Santa Rosa Junior College offers an 8-week animal tracking and bird language course taught by Occidental resident Jim Sullivan, whose story is as fascinating as the subject he teaches. He also hosts a monthly Tracking Circle for experienced trackers.
I joined up with Sullivan and a group of intrepid would-be trackers during a break in the stormy winter for a philosophical soirée to Bodega Dunes as part of an introductory class. Despite weeks of rain, a beautiful day greeted us as we took a glimpse into the world and mindset of the modern tracker.
His class description reads thus: “As we learn about animal tracks and bird language, we’ll also explore how the ancient trackers moved through sacred time, and we’ll tap into the contemporary cognitive sciences to further illuminate what it means to engage wild animals in deep time, in their own territories.”
Sullivan gathered the group together to help familiarize them with their surroundings and make them aware of the world directly around them.
“We were born to track,” he said as he stood in a trampled clearing near the entrance to Bodega Dunes State Park. “It releases an ancient capacity in us.”
He explained that hunter-gatherers’ brains formed because they had enough protein in their diets to feed brain tissue. By extension, the brain developed to facilitate tracking: the eyes developed to send the proper messages to the brain, which organized itself to be able to understand and “read” its prey and anticipate behavior.
Several birds flew overhead as Sullivan described the differences between a crow and a raven and told us to count the number of wing flaps made by a raptor to propel itself through the air to help determine its species. He asked us to listen, deciphered birdcalls and explained about the way deer tear at leaves with the tongue and palette, as they have no upper teeth, while rodents cut leaves with their teeth.
We went on, observing tracks and ruts, made by people, animals and vehicles, and listened to the planes flying overhead. All the while, Sullivan pointed out things that seemed obvious, but existed in a place just beyond immediate perception. He told us about reading an animal’s gait by the prints it leaves behind and broke apart pieces of scat to help decipher its source: coyotes have longer digestive systems than cats, so the feces is darker because it spent longer in the gut; paw orientation differs at different speeds.
After three hours we had crossed the millennia and had not even left Sonoma County.
A few of the trackers in the group were long-time or repeat students of Sullivan’s, such as Cazadero resident Ginger Hadley, who scouted out the route for us, and Joe Martinelli, who began tracking at the age of four. Martinelli said that the class has given him a vocabulary to go with his tracking and he looks forward to passing it along to his sons who are in their 30s.
“It wakes me up in my bones and excites them,” Martinelli said. “It helps me understand where I came from. Jim has inspired me and reminded me there’s a huge story in the track. Hopefully, we’re not lying to ourselves when we tell that story.”
Crossing the millennia
According to Sullivan, the origin of tracking goes back 4 to 7 million years, to our ancestors, the primates living in the forests of South Africa. They were living up in the trees on fruits and nuts and small monkeys. They were also socially strong and well organized. It was during a planetary dry period when they came down to the ground, to follow fruit that was falling and fermenting on the ground.
“They liked to get drunk,” Sullivan said. “Then they came down to the savannahs into the tall grass.”
The move to the ground led to further evolution of the species, as they rose up from their knuckles to peer over the grasses. The ability to do that gave them advantages over other animals and eventually their eyes began to focus at longer distances and became a “stalk of the brain.” This led to further reorganization of the brain around the visual stimulus.
“Vision and tracking were supported by thinking,” Sullivan said. “Two million years ago, trackers were getting meat so they had the protein to develop brain matter.”
The human brain developed to the point where it is on the level of complexity with the universe, although much of what it does is on an unconscious level.
“The conscious mind is a small thing compared to the unconscious,” Sullivan said. “We leave a lot to the unconscious brain. If you move toward the unconscious, you’ll find the unconscious is more right than the conscious.”
But tracking is about more than evolution and getting into the mind of prey. It is also a reminder of the relationship we have with time, particularly taken in concert with birdcalls. As Sullivan explained, “Tracking happens in the past. Bird language is immediate contact with the animal in present time.”
“We are not in direct contact with reality,” he added. “Pain is not in the hand, but in the brain. The working model of the self is not in real time and that should give you a sense of humility in your contact with the world.”
The tracker on the hill
I later met up with Sullivan to talk about the philosophy of tracking, an area he has “staked out.” For most of his 80 years on Earth, and in Sonoma County, Sullivan has tramped the hills of the West County around his home at the top of Joy Ridge, northeast of the town of Bodega.
Sullivan is a fourth generation Sonoma County resident. His family moved to the area in 1873. He was born in Santa Rosa, “when the population was only 10,000.” His father Harvey and uncle Austin ran Keegan Bros. haberdashery, a multi-generational family men’s clothier, so the family was high profile and well-connected.
Sullivan’s life path took him to the University of Notre Dame, where he played football with Paul Hornung, but gave up the game because of the physical toll it was taking on his body. In pursuit of his degree, he attended the Institute for European Studies and studied at the University of Vienna in 1957. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in science with a focus on biology.
From there, he joined the infantry and entered into officer training. He served in Korea from December 1960 to March 1962, but resigned his commission in protest of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
“One of my fellow officers told me if I wanted to make a career in the military, I needed to study guerilla warfare,” Sullivan said. “I read Che Guevara [“La Guerra de Guerrillas”] and five pages into it, my mind completely changed.”
He was discharged in August 1962 and eventually made his way to Haight-Ashbury during the height of the free speech and anti-war movements. Like many West County elders, he moved into the hills during the back-to-the-land movement and has lived on the Joy Ridge property off and on since he moved there in 1976.
After a career as a landscape designer/contractor, he retired in the early 1990s.
Sullivan focuses on the “tracker’s mind” and posits that our ancestors prior to the last Ice Age had better memories and physically were in better shape than modern humans.
“They were not negligent about their minds,” he said. “It was a new thing in the world and they started seeing the difference between them and the other animals.”
When he began his tracking pursuits more than a decade ago, there was not much in the way of recorded knowledge and most of what existed was passed along orally. Sullivan credits a New Jersey man by the name of Tom Brown, Jr. for the current state of available information, and he soon hopes to write his own book featuring his ideas on the philosophical aspects of tracking.
“Tracking started out for hunting and killing, but now it’s evolving into conservation,” he said. “Tracking is about making meaning. What does it mean for something to be meaningful? Meaning has a simple definition: it’s putting sensory input into context with what you know.”
Community Education link: communityed.santarosa.edu
Jim Sullivan’s websites: Jasfineart.com, animaltrackingandbirdlanguage.com
Tracking Autumn and the Deer Rut Oct. 21-24: Four days of observing Bodega Dunes Wildlife and Deer with Jim Sullivan and educator, wildlife ecologist and author Meghan Walla-Murphy of Occidental. Space limited. Contact Sullivan: 707-834-9927