Creating habits of awareness: or why I’m spending so much time on tracking journals

fox journal pg 2

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on tracking journals. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been involved in a tracking apprenticeship program through Earth Tracks Outdoor School. The year before – having  developed a deep curiosity about plants, especially their edible and medicinal uses – I’d signed up for a wild plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. I signed up impulsively, but with an instinct I trusted. I had taken a couple of workshops with Alexis and had a really good feeling about his teaching style. I knew I wanted more grounded knowledge of ecology and nature. After many years of education, I was suddenly stunned by my own ignorance about the natural world. I wanted to zoom in on things, see the details, really know what was around me. I wanted to be outside all day, learning cool stuff.

The monthly commitment felt daring and kind of improbable – my younger child was only three, and we had rarely been apart. But sometimes I set my mind to something, and I can’t turn back.

From the first weekend, the time and space and all-day immersion in nature tapped into to something that I had been longing for. As the eight-month plant apprenticeship wound down, I wanted to continue learning in exactly this way. I found out that Alexis was offering a ten-month tracking program, which would start just a week after the plant course finished. As we drove back and forth together the last months of the course, my new friend Lee and I gradually talked each other into it. It was a leap of faith, because at that time I knew little about tracking, but it also felt right, because I knew how much the weekends had nourished me the previous year. I knew also that in nature nothing is separate. Tracking was connected to a huge web of naturalist learning that I wanted to dig into. And I also felt, in a way, that a wave was carrying me that I couldn’t really stop. And didn’t want to.

Now, I am in the second year of tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. Along with a couple of others, I’m participating in a pilot second year program in a work/trade role. I’ve also practiced tracking in other contexts over the same period, in the midst of homeschooling my kids and other responsibilities: a week-long immersion course in Algonquin Park run by Earth Tracks and White Pine Programs; helping run a monthly drop-in tracking program for the PINE Project; and time on my own when possible. And now, I’m also working my way through lots and lots of tracking journals. The ones we use for the apprenticeship are based on the Shikari template, with two pages of more reflective questions added by Alexis. Each journal is six pages long in total, and completing one involves mapping, sketching, measurement, weather observations, ecological observations, species research, observations on one’s own patterns and gaps, and reflection on the more intuitive and personal aspects of tracking. Another set of journal pages, also part of the homework, are focused on species research and field observation. With these, I was initially a bit fixated on making them “complete” and now I’d like to work on making them shorter and more concise instead.

On top of all that are ecological mapping exercises, seasonal nature observations, and tracking exercises of various kinds. Whew! It’s going to take me a while to get through it all. But as with so many things, I’m finding that as I make a habit of it, I’m drawn further in. I’m learning to love my tracking journals, picking away at the homework bit by bit each day. And doing this kind of recording, questioning and puzzle-solving is reinforcing the experiential naturalist learning I’ve been doing the past couple of years. This is field research, but it’s not detached. It’s detailed, but it’s also personal and reflective and connecting. In the past, most of the academic work I did involved writing and more writing: long essays about patterns and theories. I liked making leaps of intuition; I avoided methodical work. This uses a different part of my brain, one which needs to be present to the details. Slowly I can see that paying close attention and recording observations is training me to see better. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’ve realized that this kind of learning is a life-long commitment.

Here are some more (non-matching) example of individual journal pages. Some of these are finished, some are not quite. They are teaching me the importance of just showing up and doing the work, of slowly bringing small pieces together into something substantial, of creating methodical habits that over time create big changes of perspective.roe deer journal page

allan park map journal pagesnowshoe hare journal pageracoon species journal

muskrat personal reflections journal page

tracking binder on kitchen table

Slowing down

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The past three weeks the kids and I have taken turns being sick, and our pace has slowed down in a way that would have been hard to implement if I’d set to it deliberately.

I always kind of appreciate those illnesses that leave me to function, for the most part, during the day, but knock me out at night so that I can’t help but stop all of my puttering around and just go to bed. Go to bed, sleep, dream, and maybe let my mind and body do its work without so much intervention from me.

The past few weeks my body has been on patrol. Any sign of me pushing too hard, and the sore throat and cough and tiredness come back. They’re waiting on the periphery, creeping up on me, ready to pounce.

Part of me wants to fight against slowing down. I don’t like this molasses in my brain, my body’s desire to curl up under a blanket and hibernate. I want to be outside, moving my body, exploring the world. I want to write – every day, about everything. I want to work my way through all the tracking journals I need to finish to complete my apprenticeship. I want to dig deeply into more naturalist skills. I want to dig more deeply into everything. I want to have some kind of plan for our homeschooling each day. There’s so much to do, so much to learn, so much on my list to cross off.

But I don’t actually have control over this.

And some kind of deeper body wisdom is at work here, keeping my patterns of over-enthusiasm and over-commitment in check. We’ve made so many choices that are about living intentionally and deliberately, and then so often, I don’t actually slow down. The inner math doesn’t add up in how our days and weeks play themselves out.

In some way, the past few weeks have created a rhythm much more in tune with what I want our daily life to look like than it actually has in recent years, especially in this darkening season, as we move into winter. Fewer casual social commitments – although our intentional weekly commitments have remained intact. More time with the kids at home: reading out loud, sitting and doing math together, playing board games, involving their participation in cooking and baking and cleaning up. More time for intentional “schoolwork.” More time to go deeply into their learning. And my learning. More time to work with my hands, do the stitch by stitch work of knitting sweaters and hats and things that meet my need for warmth and beauty to get me through the cold days. More time to observe my kids’ patterns, to talk through big questions with them, to work through their emotions, to understand them better. More time to follow through in getting their participation in household tasks, instead of taking the faster route of doing it myself. More time for walks around the neighbourhood, observing, playing games. More time for me to be playful – playfulness requires taking one’s presence seriously. More evenings at home with Conan, talking about what matters to us right now, supporting each other’s goals. More evenings for me to read good writing that inspires me.

The kids are getting in the rhythm too. They’re playing together more peacefully. They’re thinking and dreaming, and telling me their grand theories about life. They’re going deeper into their own interests. They’re making up games and alternate worlds. They’re not waiting for something to happen, something to entertain them.

And the work that I want to do? It’s getting done, bit by bit, just because I’m here and present. I chip away at it day by day.

Writing is different. Writing takes bursts of inspiration and a clear head and some time alone, and all those have been in short supply. With that, I need to stay patient.

But life is long, and I’m seeing that my projects are life-long projects. Mastery at anything takes hours, and months, and years of practice. Like committing to a life-long love, savouring a relationship day-by-day, the satisfaction is in greeting it anew each morning, waking up and remembering what hums a song deep through your being. Why hurry?

Or else life is short, and then my presence to the beauty of this moment is the only thing that matters.

tracking homework

Unraveling

This weekend, I looked at a sweater I was knitting for myself, one that I’d been picking away at for a month but had started avoiding. I knew it wasn’t going to work out. I took a deep breath, took it off the needles and unraveled, all the way back.

It was painful, but also exhilarating.

I could have kept going, knowing that I hadn’t figured out the pattern; knowing that what I was making wouldn’t fit. I could have kept working at it, and maybe found a way to make it come out right. Tugging and pulling. Trying to resize, reshape. Trying to fix it somehow.

I’ve done that before. Kept going. Looked back and thought: THAT was the moment where I saw something was wrong. And with each stitch, I was further committed. I had more to lose.

Now I know that sometimes you need to tear everything apart and start again.

And now, a few days later, I’m almost as far along as I was in that month of work. I’m singing through it, stitch by stitch. My fingers are flying. I like what’s taking shape.

Metaphors are all around me, and knitting is full of them.

Nine years ago, when Lachlan was born, I was working full-time at a university. It was a good job in many ways, a series of good jobs, one after another, but they never felt like me. I kept looking for a better fit. Each time I moved, I made small alterations – a tug here, a pull there – trying to resize, reshape. But it was the wrong pattern all along. I never could figure out how to make it come out right.

And then, in a mess of love and hormones and sleeplessness, but also with great clarity, I decided to unravel the whole damn thing and start again. I took a deep breath and pulled on the thread.

It was painful, but also exhilarating.

At first, I looked back and mourned all the work that had gone into creating what I’d unraveled. Degrees. Work experience. What was it for? Was it all wasted? What had I done? What pattern would I follow now? Maybe it was too late to start again.

But I did. I was impatient at first: rushed, misread the pattern, dropped stitches, made mistakes.

Now, I think I’ve found a flow. Slowly, stitch by stitch, something new is emerging. I don’t know what it will look like yet, but I like what’s taking shape – the fibre, the outline, the colours, the texture, the fit. I’m trying it on as I go, adjusting when needed. I’m taking my time. I’m trusting the process. This project could take a lifetime to finish. But my heart is singing, stitch by stitch, joyful in the act of creation.

Unraveling was worth it.