|In a Footprint, a Life Story; Teaching Survival Lands a
Tracker in Hollywood
New York Times (March 15, 2003)
Tom Brown Jr. gets twitchy indoors.
Give him a frozen pond to lie on, to observe the wildlife below, or
a corner of Central Park to bunk up in, and he'll be happy as a clam
at high tide. But put him inside, especially in a city, and he
paces, his fingers playing fast octaves on his legs.
At least that's how Tommy Lee Jones portrays the character based on
Mr. Brown in ''The Hunted,'' a Paramount film about tracking a
fugitive, which opened yesterday. Mr. Brown, who runs the Tracker
School in western New Jersey, was the technical adviser for the
film, in which the hunter and the hunted set snares, make their own
fires and knives, and follow each other based on the tiniest tales
told by bent blades of grass.
Mr. Brown, 53, has written more than a dozen books, nearly all of
them published by Berkley. In ''The Tracker,'' a memoir that came
out in 1978, he recounted camouflaging himself, sneaking up on a
badger and petting its stomach. When he is following a person in the
wild, he sees more than just lifeless depressions on the ground.
''From one human track, at a glance, I can tell a person's height,
their weight, whether they're right- or left-handed, male or female,
emotional state, degree of strength, whether their belly is full or
empty, what degree of full or empty, and whether they had to go to
the bathroom or not,'' he said in a recent interview at his home on
this residential area on Long Beach Island, in Ocean County. ''A day
before you get any symptoms of a common cold, I'll know.''
To do this, he studies how a foot has hit and left the ground, the
depth of a track, its direction and other factors. If you stand on a
cool floor, barefoot, and raise your arm or exhale deeply, you can
see and feel slight compensatory movements in your feet, he said.
These changes, however faint, show up in tracks.
He said that tracks can tell him if a woman is just two weeks
pregnant, and he can detect serious health problems among his
students. It's a skill he treats with great respect.
''We teach at our school that to scrutinize other students' tracks
is a severe violation of privacy,'' he said.
By teaching people how to survive in the woods, he said, he is
helping reconnect them to nature.
''When I see a person out on the landscape with a backpack on,
that's no better than a scuba diver as far as I'm concerned,'' he
said. ''That scuba diver runs out of air, that backpacker loses that
umbilical cord, that ball and chain, they're dead. They're aliens to
their own planet.''
He said that survival training gives people a kind of insurance
policy: ''It gets rid of the apprehension, and you become a child of
the earth again. It's no longer wilderness. You're going home.''
While he may not feel at home indoors in cities, he has used his
wilderness survival skills on Ellis Island and in Central Park. It
is easy to become invisible in New York City, he said.
''I used to have this love affair with the Museum of Natural
History,'' he said, ''and I had a hidden scout den across the street
in Central Park, so I'd stay there a week, and live in Central Park,
eat the plants and live on the ground.''
Warren Moon, executive director of the Wilderness Awareness School
in Duvall, Wash., said the most important lessons he gained from the
four classes he took with Mr. Brown were about ''awareness, and its
connection with aliveness.''
''He's the reason I left my engineering career,'' Mr. Moon said.
''He inspired me to get on the path of helping people foster a
connection with the land, which is important for the ultimate
stewardship of the earth.''
William Friedkin, who directed ''The Hunted,'' as well as ''The
Exorcist'' and ''The French Connection,'' met Mr. Brown 20 years
ago. He was impressed by Mr. Brown's ability to find tracks of fox,
deer, wildcat and various bird species in the director's Beverly
Hills backyard. But then, Mr. Friedkin said, Mr. Brown got down on
his living room carpet and accurately described the emotional states
of the people who had recently been there.
''He's unique,'' Mr. Friedkin said. ''There's no one else who has
his combination of skills and uses them so widely.''
He believed Mr. Brown's stories of tracking murderers and teaching
wilderness skills belonged on the big screen.
But Mr. Brown said translating his skills onto film was a challenge.
''Trackers can be hours sometimes for 50 yards,'' he said, ''and it
gets boring for moviespeak.''
He learned tracking from Stalking Wolf, an Apache elder whose
grandson was Mr. Brown's best friend when he was growing up near
Toms River. He has preserved such knowledge in books like his
''Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival'' (1986), ''Field Guide
to Nature Observation and Tracking'' (1988) and ''Field Guide to
Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants'' (1995).
The movie, which also stars Benicio Del Toro, shows the character
based on Mr. Brown training soldiers for the military. This part of
his work posed a moral quandary for him.
''I was teaching military escape, evasion, camouflage, the ability
to pick out tripwires, thinking this is for guys that are stuck
behind enemy lines,'' he said. ''I'm going to make them high-speed,
invisible survivalists. I come to find out after several years that
they were using these same skills to be more efficient killers. I
just stopped teaching after a while for the military.''
He added: ''These skills that are sacred to me were being used just
for the opposite. I don't teach to kill.''
The Tracker School, based in Asbury, in Hunterdon County, offers 25
classes, including expert awareness, search and rescue, and
intensive tracking. Courses, which often last a week, cost about
''The first day, I tell my students take one last look at the
ground, because it's the last time you're going to see it this
way,'' he said. ''Suddenly it opens up, and eventually they can see
a mouse track on a leaf.''