Stalking Into The Heart Of the Forrest

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NORTH GEORGIA JOURNAL -winter 2000

STALKING INTO THE HEART OF THE FOREST

By Mark Warren

Because the January morning was refusing to warm up, I left the
floodplain where I had been following last night’s beaver tracks and
turned my direction uphill toward a facet of the mountain I had never
explored.  Without the usual warm air currents of post-dawn rising from
the valley, my human scent would not arrive up the slope before I did.

I was here just to see.  My hands were empty.  I had given up hunting
long ago for something more.  It was a hard thing to define at the time,
but I knew I was after some- thing with animals that did not involve
death.  I was here to see whatever the wild had to offer  -  deer,
raccoon, owl. or any other phantom of the forest.  It did not matter.

Since dawn I had been moving like smoke.  Smoke drifting on the faintest
of breezes.  It was an ancient skill I had come to embrace simply
because I wanted to be a part of the wild, not a visitor.  Before I
became a stalker, I realize now, every walking step I had made in the
woods was like a stone thrown into a pond sending concentric ripples of
alarm that literally pushed away the creatures before me, making the
forest seem barren of animal life.  Little did I know just how many eyes
and ears were focused on me and how many cautious “ghosts of the
forest” were dissolving into the foliage all around me.  But on this day
I was one of them.  Every movement of my body was locked in a slow dance
that was about to carry me to one of the most memorable experiences of
my life.

At the rate of about one yard every two minutes, it took me over an hour
to reach that magic spot where it happened.  There a gigantic icicle
hung from a boulder.  It was just too impressive to pass by without a
few moments to admire the evanescent art of freezing water.  As my heart
rate settled from the slow motion climb, I leaned forward, inching my
nose toward the ice, and inhaled its cool fire.  All around me the quiet
of the forest was absolute.  A faint whisper of shoals far upriver only
seemed to magnify the stillness of my mountain.  The forest seemed to
hold its breath.

Then the silence ripped apart at the seams.  Uphill, on the other side
of the boulder, something skipped and tore through the carpet of leaves
like a ricocheting bullet.  When it rounded the boulder and burst into
my little niche below the stalactite of ice, my eyes were turned to the
edge of the rock, waiting.  The rest of me was as condensed as possible,
my arms drawn inside the silhouette of my torso, my legs squeezed
together into one trunk-like shape.  I was just one more icicle, or
gnarled juniper stump, or mossy outcrop of stone. anything but the
dreaded homo sapiens.  I hoped.

The rabbit braked and considered me with frantic eyes for a heartbeat
before tearing past me down slope.  I remained frozen, watching him
disappear in my peripheral vision.  As always in a close encounter with
the wild things, I felt exhilaration and high drama, not just for me .
for both of us.  But a bubble of disappointment rose inside me.  I
hadn’t been so quiet after all.  I had spooked the rabbit from a
distance.  But .he had run right to me.  So hadn’t I been quiet enough
to confuse him as to my location?  As it turned out, both of these
thoughts were off the mark.  The real magic was about to happen.

I have had quite a few encounters with foxes, both red and gray . and
once on a moonlit midnight, a black fox (a rare phase of the gray).  My
longest sighting was in a meadow at twilight.  For almost an hour I
watched a red fox repeatedly cock his head, freeze, and spring upward in
a high arc then pin a swatch of grass with his feet where an elusive
meadow mouse was giving him fits.

But the fox who came around the icicled boulder would paint one more
indelible picture in my memory, one that I still replay countless times
like a precious strip of film meant to instruct as well as inspire.  The
rocky terrain beside the boulder was like a broken staircase , so
irregular and jumbled as to defy passage.  But this gray fox fairly
glided down the impossible ramp.  His body was shimmering and fluid,
like a bead of quicksilver running down a sheet of paper, as his legs
worked like shock absorbers taking up each measured difference in the
trail.  His smoothness seemed so effortless and immediate, I knew I had
witnessed the passage of a master of movement.

Reaching the sloped plateau where I stood, he slowed, his intent clearly
changed.  The rabbit had become a missed opportunity, a thing of the
past quickly forgotten to make way for the reality of present and
future.  When he veered my way at a walk, he passed so close to my left
foot that had I pivoted at the heel a mere two inches, my toe would have
stroked the rufous coat of his left flank.  But, of course, I didn’t.  I
remained a stone as he sauntered behind me, traversing the face of the
mountain with the light pat of his paws.

This time I turned.  I watched his rear feet carefully slip into the
precise place his front feet had been, making a narrow, straight line of
tracks directly at the center of his body weight.  Thirty feet away he
made one last broadside pose as he stopped to listen down the mountain,
just in case there was something more for him there.  Then he was gone.
But I had seen exactly what the ancient Cherokees had seen that had
helped to make them stalkers extraordinaire.  The lesson of the fox.

To understand it, ask a friend to stand facing you a few yards away, his
feet squarely on the ground, his body in balance.  Tell him to walk
toward you at the word “go” but be ready to stop at the word “freeze”.
Wait a few seconds then say, “Go! Freeze!” just that quickly.  You will
see that the first movement we all make in walking is a decided shift to
one side over the leg that will support us while the other leg begins to
step forward.  Each time we take a step, we repeat this sway creating a
back-and-forth swagger that is most noticeable from a frontal view of
the walker.

But we are adaptable.  We can emulate the walk of the fox.  Try it.
Rather than waddling your body over left and right legs, bring your legs
under the straight-line path of your body.  Keeping your legs slightly
bent as you walk an imaginary line on the ground, make your body float
with the precision of a laser beam as your legs do all the work to make
that possible.

If you take the mouse’s point of view, you can appreciate the fox’s
technique.  Sit in a semi-dark room facing a late afternoon window.  Now
hold your hand at arm’s length to silhouette it against the window then
squint your eyes almost shut.  Stalk your palm toward your eyes as
slowly as you can.  The gradual enlargement of your hand is hardly
discernable.  Now change the direction of movement 90 degrees, moving
your hand to one side at the same snail’s pace.  This movement is
dramatically more noticeable.

Foxes, deer, raccoons, mice – virtually all the drab-colored creatures
of the wild – have eyes that have evolved away from color detection;
after all, these predators and prey have all become so camouflaged that
color-detection has lost importance for survival.  In their retinas the
cones have been usurped by the rods, which are the sentinels of motion.
When one of the hunters or hunted looks in the direction of a sound or
scent, it relaxes its eyes to look at everything in the entire “screen”
of vision.

Humans rarely do this.  But we can.  Try this.  Hold both fists at arm’s
length in front of your face.  Raise your thumbs and wiggle them.  While
keeping your eyes fixed straight ahead, keep wiggling as you spread your
extended arms to left and right.  Concentrate on seeing your thumb
movement and note when the arms take that movement out of your
peripheral range.  Try using this relaxed vision in the woods.  Look at
a scene and, without moving your eyes, search for movement in every
corner of the oval screen you’ve been peeping through all your life.
There is always something moving there.

This is the same kind of vision-screen that a stalking human must
penetrate in ultra-slow motion to avoid detection in the woods.  The
“walk of the fox” helps make this possible.  But there are other tricks
as well.  The stalker gathers himself into a shape not readily perceived
as human.  With every labored step he takes, his eyes are riveted upon
the animal, for he must know when that creature’s head begins to turn in
his direction so he can freeze like a heron standing in the shallows.
He “sees” with his feet as he lifts them high in deer-fashion, toe down
in the rise and fall to avoid contact with living foliage.  His light
step never betrays his body weight.  He wears soft, silent clothes that
are visually broken up by varying colors and patterns that keep his
silhouette from taking shape against the background of the forest or
field.  He covers the shiny surfaces of his exposed skin with smears of
charcoal or mud.  He wears nothing metallic.  He arranges his line of
approach so that the wind carries his scent away from the animal.  Even
so, he saturates his skin and clothing with pungent forest scents by
rubbing chosen plants over his body.  He even takes care to abstain from
certain tell-tale foods for days before the stalk.

The more you stalk, the more you learn about stalking . and animals.
Hearing the warning snort of a deer clearing its nostrils ( the better
to smell you) will eventually coax you to reply.  I once stalked to the
opposite side of a fetterbush from a very big buck.  We were six feet
apart.  When he finally made his wheezing “blow”, I replied with the one
I had been practicing for weeks.  We exchanged snorts seven times each,
neither of us moving until the dialogue came to its inevitable end as he
crashed away through the woods.

I stalk on all fours too, and on my belly, and in my canoe.  Once lying
in my canoe, using an old Algonquin paddling technique, I approached two
minks playing around a sunken tree in the Chattahoochee.  I
canoe-stalked, drifting to a stop at the tree where one of the minks
surfaced at a limb that slanted from the water toward me.  My right hand
held the T-grip of my paddle one inch from the end of the branch.  The
curious mink scampered up the branch and touched my knuckle with his wet
nose.

These are chapters of my life that will stay with me forever, even those
days without dramatic sightings; because each time I meld with the
silence of the forest, I am at its heart.  And for me that is a journey
worth taking.

And the misadventures make some pretty good stories too.  Like last
spring when after stalking a pelican to within an arm’s length, I turned
to give the anxious bird his space.  I had walked ten paces away without
looking back then paused to listen for his flight.  The next thing I
knew my left hand was clamped by a huge beak.  He had stalked me back.

And then there’s the story of the skunk.