Decoding Nature's Language-An excerpt from Primal chapter 5

One of my favorite chapters to write!



I couldn’t believe it—it actually worked. As I sat at the top of the hill at ALI near my classmates, suddenly we heard the forest come alive with bird calls and songs. Jonah had led us on a relatively long nature walk checking out animal tracks and looking and learning about trees. I think he was also trying to tire us out, so we might sit still. Once at the top of the hill, he prompted us to sit spread out from each other a little ways, stay still, and just listen. He promised if we waited long enough and were patient enough, then something special would happen. We sat fidgeting beneath the mixed hardwood forest, just far enough away from each other to not start whispering or causing trouble. After about twenty minutes we all heard it: a distinctive whistling sound with a slight trill.

We quietly huddled together with Jonah.

“That’s a bobwhite. It’s usually the first to begin calling again. But let’s stay quiet and keep listening.”

As we sat, more birds began to call, and there was even one I recognized.

“A cardinal!” I whispered in an excited voice.

Jonah nodded at me and put his finger to his lips as I continued to listen, chagrined.

Over the next 20 or so minutes, the simple calls of the bobwhite and the cardinal were joined by a complex chorus of many different birds and other animals. After we were able to sit still and be quiet in one place for some time, the forest simply came alive.

“It’s like this everywhere in nature,” Jonah explained, “but especially in a forest. People just don't sit still and quiet down for long enough to hear and even see the animals. The animals can hear us a mile away, and then they ditch [their songs] before we even get there. If you can quiet down and sit still, it will completely change your experience with animals. It’s called quieting your concentric rings.”

Jonah had learned this from reading Tom Brown’s book, The Tracker, as a kid. Tom Brown’s skills were something of a legend for the White family, similar tohow native scouts who could hear and feel European colonizer armies coming from miles away by sensing the change in the birds in the forest. Little did I realize that years after our hilltop bird adventure, [KC1] I would dive deeply into these skills with a man who would share them with the world: Jon Young, Tom Brown’s first student.

* * *

Understanding bird language and nature awareness stories is one of the best ways to understanding deep nature connection, which is so very important as a survival skill. It is the foundational skill and forms the basis of many cultures’ knowledge and connection to land and place. It's like the primal precursor to other survival skills. Learning these bird language and deep nature connection skills under Jon shaped my awareness and understanding in huge and powerful ways that I am still unpacking and learning about. And they were a big part of my time as an Anake instructor at Wilderness Awareness School.

One morning, after a snowfall the previous night that left icy conditions at the school, Alexia and I were trying to determine how to proceed with class. Not all of our students had cellphones or access to emails, and they would often show up if they could (even if the roads were treacherous). Eventually, we decided to meet on Linne Doran at Malalo ya Chui, the firepit and primary outdoor classroom on the land and assess the situation: how many students showed, how much snow and ice accumulated, and what could we do for the day? With a full third of the class missing and plenty of snow and ice on the land, we opted to throw out that day’s planned curriculum.

It took a long time to get a friction fire that morning. The students were given the edgy challenge of having to get their fire on top of the snow, and then bring a coal into Malalo to start the central fire for the day. Several students were a little ticked at the scope and nature of the challenge, but after a blaze roared to life in the central fire pit everybody warmed up, both literally and emotionally.

We sent students out to do solo sits at their sit spots. We figured that sitting in the frozen winter wonderland would reveal a new understanding of the landscape to students, and it would also be a further survival challenge of how to stay comfortable under those circumstances. On top of that, we added in Jon’s secret weapon to increase awareness, perception, and understanding: bird language.

As far as I know, Jon was the first to coin the term bird language, and he has been teaching about it for decades. Having written a book (What the Robin Knows), developed multiple study courses, and taught thousands of people over thousands of hours, Jon was still just scratching the surface of what birds can teach us about what’s actually going on around us in nature.

The art of understanding bird language rose directly out of Jon’s experience of doing many hours of sit spot under Tom Brown’s tutelage, combined with an understanding of concentric rings, a concept passed on by Stalking Wolf. The concept of concentric rings in nature is quite simple but very profound. The basic version of it is that every disturbance and even movement in the woods puts off a ring of disturbance, much like when you drop a pebble in a pond. Practicing deep awareness, a person can learn to minimize theirown concentric rings and read the rings of nature, figuring out not only where a disturbance was created, but also possibly what caused it.

Over time, Jon would synthesize bird language and the concept of concentric rings into a scientific and artistic approach. He developed a method to literally map over time what the birds were saying and doing, as witnessed by dozens of people. When putting together all the data and story of a dozen or more people doing a bird language “sit” together, startling conclusions could be drawn about what was really going on in an area. This kind of deep understanding of the world around them was one of the key things that keeps hunter-gatherer people alive. Paying attention to bird language can quickly turn our primal awareness and brains on.

So, the students went out with the dual challenge of keeping their asses from being frozen while also paying attention to what the birds were saying for an hour. The Anake program in a nutshell.

We called the students back in with a wolf howl, and they quickly returned to the relative warmth and comfort in Malalo. Huddled around the warm fire, we debriefed the students’ bird “sit” as they wrote their observations, stories, maps, and pictures in their notebooks. Students described live sightings and audible sounds (both bird and otherwise) to people sitting near them during the “sit” to see where they overlapped, especially around significant events, including particularly loud noises or big disturbances. Once the small groups compared notes, we compiled the stories and data onto a master map in front of everybody. What ends up arising is a map full of twenty or more people’s observations of a given area with key data points marked out. The data is keyed to represent the different time periods, and, thus, you have a map of time and space and everything that happened.

On that day, as Alexia and I put together the map and the stories, patterns began to emerge. It was very clear that there were two “hotspots” of activity that had occurred during the session. One was at a drainage on the northwest side of the pond, known as Death’s Crossing (named students from the WAS high school program: Community School). The spot was a known area for animal activity; the drainage created a landscape funnel where animals had to crossover from one part of the land to another. The other area was on the east side of the pond, in a more obscure and less traveled area. That spot was dense with brush, had a fair amount of slope, and was pretty hard to get to.

When we analyzed the information about the hotspots, we realized that there were significant sets of bird alarms and agitations in both spots during the middle portion of the bird sit. In the Death’s Crossing area, the alarm sequence moved slowly across the area, with birds following whatever animal had moved through. The birds didn’t seem extremely agitated but more annoyed, and this suggested a slow-moving animal. On the east side of the pond, however, it was a different story. The winter wrens had alarmed repeatedly in a small area with extreme agitation. They had formed a parabola shape around the animal causing the alarm, and they had alarmed for a significant chunk of time without moving.

After conferring with each other and asking the students some clarifying questions, Alexia and I were willing to put forth some guesses.

“Well...the alarms near death crossing suggest a slower moving animal, maybe a bear or a raccoon,” Alexia began.

“And what about the east side of the pond? Anybody have thoughts on who was setting off the parabolic?” I asked the students.

A few hands went up, and then someone responded, “A weasel?”

“Yeah—that’s a good guess. A weasel or someone in the weasel family.” Alexia and I paused for dramatic effect. “Anybody up for a little snow tracking?”

The students hustled to gather their gear as we set out to go test out the morning’s theories.

Not only had Jon developed the basic ideas of bird language and the method for mapping a group bird sit, he had, over time, seen and heard enough stories to be able to make highly accurate conjectures as to what caused the bird alarms. He could decode the patterns and stories and tell you if the jays were yelling about a bear or coyote, an owl or a hawk, or even a weasel. This kind of understanding and awareness is super practical in a primal context and for survival training. If the birds can alert you to dangerous animals such as large predator or tell you where prey animals are (potential food) then they can become allies in you primal journey. Alexia and I were putting into practice what we had learned from Jon, and now we were going to examine tracks in the snow to find out if we were right.

Alexia took the group to Death’s Crossing, and I took the side of the pond with the way less sexy name: east side of the pond. My group consisted of a mixed bag of interest, some student were itching to get out to the eastern point and see what tracks were there, while others were content to explore mysteries in the snow along the way. There were even quite a few stragglers who simply wanted to throw snowballs at each other. I was leading my group from the front excited about what we might discover. Along the way, my group found amazing stories written in the snow: the tiny imprints of deer mouse feet, the miniscule tracks of juncos and winter wrens, and scattered Douglas Fir cones that had been munched on by chipmunks trying to stay warm. Traveling along the side of the pond got rougher and rougher, and it soon became a combination of bushwhacking through snow-covered snowberry and salal bushes still covered with their large, leather-like green leaves and slipping and sliding at the awkward angle of the hillside. More and more students dropped off as the going got to be too tough, but a handful stayed with me, including Mink, a hardcore survival skills junkie who wanted to see if the tracks had been made by her namesake. After another twenty minutes, we found the general area where the parabolic alarms had come from. We split up and started searching as the sun began its rapid descent and it got significantly colder.

A few minutes after we split up, Mink and I spotted a collection of small tracks going into and out of a very narrow hole in the ground. We called the remainders of our group together and examined what we found. Soon it was clear that there were very small, very fresh tracks of a five-toed creature scurrying around the hole. The heel-pad and characteristic toe shape revealed to us that we had been right in our assessment: we had found weasel tracks right where we had heard the alarms!

While only a handful of students made it all the way out to that spot, the glee and excitement of our discovery was more than enough to carry us back to Malalo. There, we found that the other group had discovered raccoon tracks out at Death’s Crossing that were also very, very fresh. By the time we wrapped up for the day, the students were lit up, excited by the discoveries, and expressing their wonder at the mysteries we had found and solved. Alexia and I enjoyed the warmth of the fire, the warmth of the students’ excitement, and the joy of facilitating a fulfilling impromptu day. Maybe there really was something to this bird language stuff after all.


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