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Field Note- Spring 2023

By Bryan DiFabio

I had just turned 35, having spent the last five years of my life pursuing my passion of owning a recording studio in San Diego. There were some ups, but also some serious downs. I could feel my body rapidly falling apart. I was stressed all the time, not paying attention to my health, compounded with being a heavy cigarette smoker and sugar addict. Life had to change.

Shortly after that moment of clarity, I decided to move back to New England. I couldn’t work 80-hour weeks and stay healthy. A friend invited me to join him on a hike in NH. I thought, “I don’t think I’ve spent any time outside in the last 5 years!”, a revelation that was hard for me to believe. On a fall morning, a half hour in the woods, I felt a part of me change, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in quite a while. The day-to-day stresses melted away. I felt more aware of what was going on around me. I felt … alive.

This started a snowball effect- longer, more challenging hikes, gardening, and herbalism. Connecting with plants, the food, medicine I put into my body, was profound. I wondered, “What if the meat, I eat is harvested by means of my own hands?”

It was a tough hurdle, as I truly love all animals. I had great conversations with other hunters who showed me what was involved, developing my method – bowhunting. I want to be close to the animals understand their behavior, connect with them on a level that not many others are able to. THIS is how I discovered the art of tracking.

What started as a skill for improving my hunting abilities, turned into so much more. I, like many others, thought tracking was looking at the prints animals leave and following them. My first encounter with other trackers, at least in the realm of tracking, was this past year’s Northeast Wildlife Trackers Conference. I was overwhelmed by so much experience in one place. All attendees seemingly had already spent thousands of hours in the wilderness honing their craft. I’m 41 years old, tied to a job in the tech industry. Do I have the time to dedicate to this artform? Have I started too late? I certainly underestimated what was involved with tracking, but I was intrigued.

My first hurdle – where and when to go tracking? I knew other hunters, but no one who was walking through the woods the way I had observed from trackers. Should I be looking for certain tree species, walk deeper into the woods, further away from human traffic and homes, practice in my backyard to keep myself from getting deterred and making excuses?

At first, I had no one to ask these questions. Another challenge was disconnecting from the busy world to focus on connecting to my surroundings. I found I could do this only for seconds at a time before my mind wondered what I was going to make for dinner or where I was going after I was done in the woods. I still struggle with this, though I have gotten much better with practice. I try to enjoy my time in the woods without the focus of a result, a prize, or reaching a goal, the mindset we are somewhat forced into in today’s modern world. When I can slow down, I am able to see so much more of what the forest has to offer.

Time offers its own unique challenge, especially during the short days of winter. If I work during the daylight hours, when can I practice tracking? How can I get better if there is no time in the day? My weekends are often filled with family obligations and errands. Sometimes a whole month would go by, and I would realize I hadn’t been out once. Short stints, a half hour or so, weren’t nearly enough time to clear my mind, feeling forced and unproductive.

The last hurdle – the challenge of tracking itself. I would find sign, or did I? Was this in fact something an animal left behind? I was so unsure of everything I was doing. Having a little bit of knowledge made this more difficult. I found myself jumping to conclusions, then moving on. I tried to apply what I heard about gaits and measuring track length and width. It was just so overwhelming that I would often give up. With no one to bounce ideas off, I was never sure what I was discovering.

All these challenges made me ask myself “Why do I want to be a good tracker and what does it mean to me?” I am still figuring that out. What I do know is that when I am out in nature, and can leave the modern world, I transform into a different person. I feel like I belong there and feel content. Not wondering what’s next, only what’s happening now. I can’t get that by any other means. Since my initial days of tracking, I have found wonderful groups of people through tracking collaboratives and programs, learning each time I am out with these groups, growing more confident. It’s ok to let your mind drift-just to go back to being present.

No time to go out? I immerse myself in a book, watch the birds in my backyard, listen to their songs, watch the various critters wandering through my yard then go out to see the tracks they’ve made. As far as my tracking skills are concerned, I have learned to take one step at a time enjoying the journey of discovering nature’s secrets.

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