OWL EYES AND FOX WALK.

Recently my brother sent me a copy of Deep Survival (website), by Laurence Gonzales, telling me it was one of the best books he’d read recently. Since I respect his opinion, I put it on the mental pile of “books I intend to get around to sometime in the foreseeable future” and went back to Tolstoy. But then during a phone call he asked me if I’d started it yet, assuring me that I’d really like it, and I said “OK, I’ll read it, I’ll read it,” and with a dutiful sigh I picked it up… and found it (with apologies for the cliche) impossible to put down. It’s not at all the kind of macho “I’m tougher than you can possibly imagine, and if you follow my training program you too can kill alligators with your bare hands” kind of book I took it for; he tells a lot of hair-raising stories (a seventeen-year-old girl fell out of an airplane into the Peruvian rain forest… and survived!) and passes on fascinating facts (did you know that one of the demographic groups most likely to survive in the wilderness is children six and under?), but his focus is always on the habits of mind necessary for survival in tough circumstances, and even this bookworm who avoids anything more strenuous and perilous than hiking and cross-country skiing in well-marked areas, finds it riveting and educational.
But what I wanted to pass along was a particular passage on pp. 189-90, where he’s describing a survival course he took in Vermont:

As we hiked through trailless forest, Morey stopped every 20 or 30 yards to point out something, and we’d examine and discuss what we found. After we’d followed him deep into the woods, he asked us to close our eyes and point the way home. It is a humbling experience to find that you can’t. I’d been following him, which is never a good idea. I had not walked my own walk, and as a result, I was lost.
Morey directed our attention to the last place we’d stopped to talk. We could still see it from where we stood. “Remember, we talked about the bittersweet vine there?” We’d taken a sample from a vine that’s good for making cordage. So we hiked back to that spot. Then he pointed to another spot, where he’d shown me ways of seeing and walking that were used by Native American trackers and other Aboriginal peoples. He called it “Owl Eyes and the Fox Walk,” that full-body alertness I’d seen when he listened to the birds. It can put you in an altered state of perception, he said. We returned to that spot. From there, we could see the place where we thought we’d found the hoof print of a deer, but it turned out to be the entrance to a vole tunnel. We had squatted there to discuss the difference between voles, moles, and mice.
Thus, hopping from one conversation to the next, we were able to retrace our steps exactly and to remember in great detail not only where we’d been but what we’d said and done at each spot. In what seemed to be a featureless and homogenous forest, Morey had given us tangible cues, like road signs, which we could easily follow home. He had discovered an effortless way to embed a reliable mental map in our brains.

At this point I was thinking “songlines!” The very next paragraph read:

“It’s called song lines,” he said. “And it’s an ancient navigational technique used by Australian Aboriginals.”

Somehow it never occurred to me that you could apply songline techniques in another part of the world, but of course you can. It’s just a matter of being attentive to your surroundings.

Comments

  1. I am reminded of the biblical exodus from Egypt. The archaeological record show a history of migrations along this path for a hundred years or so before Moses. So how did they all know where to go? (I can’t get the blockquotes to work right in this format, so I’m trying to make this more readable by putting biblical quotations in italics.)
    In Numbers 33 we see a list of campgrounds, about 45 of them for what today is a tiring day-long bus ride:
    1 Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. 2 At the LORD’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages:
    3 The Israelites set out from Rameses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, 4 who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.
    5 The Israelites left Rameses and camped at Sukkoth.
    6 They left Sukkoth and camped at Etham, on the edge of the desert.
    7 They left Etham, turned back to Pi Hahiroth, to the east of Baal Zephon, and camped near Migdol….
    But in Exodus, we have a series of stories associated with the places (this from Exodus 15):
    22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah. [f]) 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
    25 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
    There the LORD issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”
    27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
    And in Deuteronomy 2 we have the cultural/tribal narrative:
    2 Then the LORD said to me, 3 “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. 4 Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. 5 Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. 6 You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.’ “
    7 The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.
    8 So we went on past our relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. We turned from the Arabah road, which comes up from Elath and Ezion Geber, and traveled along the desert road of Moab.
    9 Then the LORD said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.”
    I’ve known about the ancient list of campgrounds since reading The Sign and the Seal, and of course I’ve seen a lot of this area (there is a carved stone snake on a peak in Petra right about where Moses was supposed to have raised the serpent in the wilderness, and Madaba in the middle of “Moab” that Moses gave orders not to conquer now has Jordan’s best pizza place) but the “songlines” tradition sort of brings it all together, doesn’t it.
    (Here is a description of the exodus put together from several books of the Bible–scroll to the very end.)

  2. I haven’t read Deep Survival, but I’m always interested in any mention of Juliane Köpcke, the girl who survived the airplane disaster over the Amazon and lived to get out of the jungle arrived – she’s a real brave soul! From the way you describe this story, I assume you may not have heard of “Wings Of Hope,” Werner Herzog’s fine movie about this girl. Evidently, a last minute change prevented him from being on the flight himself. And some number of other people survived as well, but couldn’t make it out of the jungle alive. Juliane’s upbringing, zoological training and stellar common sense are some things to be admired. Check out the movie, you’d like it.

  3. The navigation-by-storytelling is used fairly widely in anthropological discource – though I can’t think of any direct examples. My mind has got stuck at Geertz’ thick description.
    But basically, every time you get up in the morning and remind yourself of what to do (clothes, toilet, food, …), and every time you go somewhere (except when you forget where you’re going) there’s an element of retelling a story. More broadly, social sciences refer to this as a big part of how we maintain the status quo.

  4. I can’t get the blockquotes to work right in this format
    Blockquote, like strikethrough (and doubtless other things I’m forgetting), doesn’t work in comments. Don’t ask me why; I just pull the levers and hope for the best.
    I assume you may not have heard of “Wings Of Hope,” Werner Herzog’s fine movie about this girl.
    I haven’t (or, more precisely, I probably have heard the name without knowing what it was about); I’ve liked the Herzog movies I’ve seen, so I’ll definitely look out for this one. Thanks for the recommendation!
    social sciences refer to this as a big part of how we maintain the status quo
    Yes, Gonzales talks a lot about how our brains and minds work to keep us in touch with our surroundings, but this particular form of orientation—explicitly telling stories—is pretty specialized. Nijma’s biblical parallels are extremely apposite.

  5. This is (sort of) similar to the classical “Art of Memory”– where you ‘put’ things you want to remember into rooms in an imaginary building. Then, when you want to retrieve a memory, you follow a path into the appropriate room and ‘get’ the information. The late great historian Frances Yates wrote a book on this subject, as I recall…

  6. There is, however, considerable difference between Native American trackers and Aboriginal peoples AND the modern city-dweller whose “full-body alertness” has been conditioned by nothing more than a daily walk to the local Krusty Kreme! His “altered state of perception” only comes after two glazed and a cup of joe.

  7. There used to be a “survival” game for business groups with a “crashed in the jungle” type scenario where you were left with several items–a bottle of liquor was one–and had to make decisions like what to keep and whether to try to walk out. You played it with your work group, first answering the questions by yourself and then together as a group. Based on your answers, they tell you whether or not you survive. I suppose the idea was to show that you are strongly working together as a group. For me it was just depressing–as an individual I would survive, but not if I was with the group. BWT, I hike with a map.

  8. Frances Yates at LH.

  9. John Emerson says:

    The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
    Ricci used this method to memorize Chinese characters, and attained enough proficiency to be accepted as a scholar by the Chinese.
    The Mongols used hunting as a way of military training, and they were famous for their ability to coordinate far separated military actions. Their scouts had some sort of stereotyped, possibly versified method of reporting the terrain they had scouted. The Mongols were very techi about military things and my guess is that it was an apprenticed skill.

  10. John Emerson says:

    The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
    Ricci used this method to memorize Chinese characters, and attained enough proficiency to be accepted as a scholar by the Chinese.
    The Mongols used hunting as a way of military training, and they were famous for their ability to coordinate far separated military actions. Their scouts had some sort of stereotyped, possibly versified method of reporting the terrain they had scouted. The Mongols were very techi about military things and my guess is that it was an apprenticed skill.

  11. That’s why the English navigate by pubs. Left at the Duck & Glue Pot – that sort of thing.

  12. John Emerson says:

    My sisters, bless their hearts, and my sainted mother never sketched a map or used compass directions in their lives. It all depended on recognizing nice houses and stores where you could buy certain kinds of things.
    I am in the process of producing a bicycle map of the taverns within 25-30 miles of my house. About 3 trips and 5 taverns to go. Some towns in Minnesota have two taverns, one church, and 75 inhabitants. Traditional values.

  13. John Emerson says:

    My sisters, bless their hearts, and my sainted mother never sketched a map or used compass directions in their lives. It all depended on recognizing nice houses and stores where you could buy certain kinds of things.
    I am in the process of producing a bicycle map of the taverns within 25-30 miles of my house. About 3 trips and 5 taverns to go. Some towns in Minnesota have two taverns, one church, and 75 inhabitants. Traditional values.

  14. Re: John Cowan’s Minnesota town with one church and two taverns:
    Once there was a Jew who was shipwrecked on a desert island. After many years, he was finally rescued by a passing ship. Before he left the island, he insisted on showing his rescuers the three synagogues that he had built. “Three synagogues?” asked the captain of the ship. “Why does a castaway on a deserted island need three synagogues?” The Jew replied “In this one I daven (pray) Shacharis – the morning prayer. And in this one I daven Mincha – the afternoon prayer. And this one, I wouldn’t be seen dead in!”
    By the way, Mr. Cowan, did you work at Kidder, Peabody in the late ’70s/early ’80s?

  15. My girlfriend and I have spent the last year hiking, generally in deep untrailed forests and use song lines to remember our way, but have never heard of them until today. Seems like they must be a hard wired survival tatic that emerges with your understanding of the wilderness.

  16. There used to be be system of marking tails used by the girl scouts by piling rocks in a certain way or slashing arrows on trees. We tried it on Farm Island before it was flooded by the Oahe dam, but by the time we followed an hour later, the carefully arranged signals from the group ahead of us had already been disturbed and the adults had to pull out their maps. Of course we weren’t actually allowed to slash marks into trees or disturb anything growing.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Mr. J. Cohen, J. Cowan is not me. I am J. Emerson.

  18. John Emerson says:

    Mr. J. Cohen, J. Cowan is not me. I am J. Emerson.

  19. But yes, I did, and yes, I remember you.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Blockquote, like strikethrough (and doubtless other things I’m forgetting), doesn’t work in comments.

    Strikethrough doesn’t work, IIRC (test test), but blockquote works. Above is the living proof. Write <blockquote> in front and </blockquote> behind the quote to use it.

  21. Blockquote coding:
    If I want more than one or two html thingies, I use the editor that comes in the free WordPress blogs. So if you have a document that consists of a first paragraph and a second paragraph, it will encode the blockquote like this:
    <p style=”padding-left: 30px;”>a first paragraph</p>
    <p style=”padding-left: 30px;”>a second paragraph</p>
    …which of course isn’t recognized in Hat’s or anyone else’s comments.
    Using the <blockquote> </blockquote> format still doesn’t work quite right–I think it has to do with paragraphs. If you encode your two paragraphs like this:
    <blockquote>a first paragraph
    a second paragraph</blockquote>
    …you get something that looks like this:

    a first paragraph
    a second paragraph

    …it doesn’t work for anything but the first line. When a system isn’t intuitive, and your time is limited, sometimes you have to just go for something you know will work. I put the comment in, though, so people would know I wasn’t e-shouting just to be rude, as bold is sometimes used for, but that it was a formatting solution.

  22. Dee – then perhaps you’ve read Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors.
    Juliane Köpcke has a chapter. Talks about how she left food behind at the crash site because it had bugs on it, and then later takes shoes off a dead girl found, still belted in her seat, down the steam bed. Good map for how quickly one understands the stakes.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    test
    test
    test

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Using the

    format still doesn’t work quite right–I think it has to do with paragraphs.

    Nope, it works for me, and so does even <i> (see above): I wrote “<blockquote><i>test [2 line breaks] test [2 line breaks] test</i></blockquote>”. I used IE7, and I did not preview — previewing blog comments is always capable of screwing up a lot. Nesting blockquotes also works. Neither of the two strikethrough tags (<s>, <strike>) works, however.

  25. I use Firefox; it is the same whether I preview or not. For me it *doesn’t work* quite consistently; Hat doesn’t pay me enough for me to take more time to fiddle with it.

  26. This is interesting — a subject I’ve never heard of from this angle. I’ll have to see if I can get Deep Survival from our library. However, the comments on the Israelites in the desert missed an important point: God led them personally, by means of the pillar of cloud/fire. If He chose to lead them along old traveling routes, that was His decision. I don’t see how “songlines” could have anything to do with it.

  27. One could take it that the “songlines” aspect was developed after the fact, to help remember the path God sent them on.

  28. The biblical account also says Moses went to his father-in-law, who knew the ways in the desert.

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