Richard Vacha: Inside the tracker's mind

David Briggs
Author Richard Vacha leads monthly courses and free excursions into the Point Reyes National Seashore, where he teaches how to shift into "tracker's mind."  
05/23/2019

What goes on among coyotes in the seashore when no one is watching? What is the bobcat’s favorite trail, the rhythm of otter play, the strategy of the red fox that arrived during the drought? Richard Vacha, a Point Reyes Station resident with more than 30 years of local tracking experience, knows. 

This month, Mr. Vacha will release his new book, “The Heart of Tracking: Inner and Outer Practices of Nature Awareness.” A compilation of essays published in local newspapers over the past two decades along with never-before-seen stories, the book is both a practical how-to and a window into the spiritual practice of tracking. It was published by Mount Vision Press, which will celebrate the release on May 30 at Point Reyes Books. 

“Tracking operates on many different levels at once,” Mr. Vacha writes in the introduction. “It can enliven our walks in the surrounding countryside by helping us notice more of what is happening right around us. And it can bring more joy and peace into our lives as we learn how to relax and appreciate the depth and beauty of the present. 

“It is no small accomplishment to develop a skill that can reliably cultivate this benefit. In this simple practice lie spiritual depths that can heal our grief and troubles, and potentially our consequent physical ailments as well.”

Mr. Vacha grew up in San Anselmo, but spent much of his childhood on the beaches, woods and ridges surrounding Point Reyes Station and Inverness. His father helped build the now-removed housing on Limantour Beach in the ‘60s, and for a time after the federal government bought the land, he and his family continued to have access—“like our own private beach,” he said.

Sitting at his kitchen table last week, Mr. Vacha said it took him until his 40s to discover tracking but that he always had a special connection with the natural world. “I saw the potential for tracking way back, but I didn’t know how to access that world,” he said. 

After studying extensively with tracker Tom Brown Jr.—who as a boy received training from an Apache scout—Mr. Vacha founded his own tracking club around 2005, the Marin Tracking Club, which he continues to lead today. In the early 2000s, he began writing columns for the West Marin Citizen; later, he wrote for the Light. 

Although he focused on biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a woodworker by trade, Mr. Vacha said writing the book came naturally: he’d always kept a journal, and he felt compelled to open up his world to others. 

Samantha Kimmey, a publisher with Mount Vision Press and a former Light reporter, was the literary editor for the project. “It’s impressive,” she said of his abilities. “He is clearly able to immerse himself into a tracking mindset, to drop down in a deep way. But he is also able to communicate and to write about it—to write about ineffable experiences.”

After publishing four volumes of the Inverness Almanac, a compilation of nature-based art and writing, Mount Vision Press turned its focus to local authors; the decision to publish Mr. Vacha’s book was easy, the publishers said.

“This is a nature guide, a collection of field notes, a consortium of biology, but it is also spiritual and philosophical, a merging of memoir and observation,” said Katie Eberle, a Marshall resident who leads the press’s graphic design. “Anyone who likes the deep end of nature will enjoy this book.” 

The narrative follows the seasons, beginning with the fall; the chapters narrate animal encounters, delve into local species and the interactions between them, and explore some of the persistent mysteries the author has observed over the years. Tracking particulars such as how to identify gaits, tracks and pressure releases from commonly seen mammals in the area are interspersed throughout. 

Mr. Vacha also describes the mindset that guides him, which begins with setting an intention and a shift into a quieter mind. He invites his reader: “Check into your senses; listen out around yourself; tune in; open your eyes and let the light in. Now you are shifting. Go into your primal animal self; it’s always there, just under the surface, ready to awaken.” He calls this “going feral.”

The book describes several tools that enable his shift into tracker’s mind: giving a voice to gratitude and openness, moving into sensory intensification, entering the spirit of the land by envisioning animals and their movements, observing from different spatial perspectives, and developing a range of animal tracking skills. 

“Taking this step creates a new depth and dimension, a relief from the flatness of our experiences when we are lost in our minds,” Mr. Vacha writes of the shift. “Sensing the aliveness around us awakens our own aliveness. The very practice of being aware, then, is a process of becoming more alive. It cleans us up, so to speak. Nature can feel this, and tells us quickly how much it appreciates our progress by revealing more of its intimate secrets.” 

What are those secrets? In one story, called “Touching the Buzzard,” Mr. Vacha describes a particularly bold turkey vulture atop Mount Wittenberg, where he was sitting with a friend. “We stayed very still, watching as [the vulture] settled down and began pecking at the gravel, apparently unaware of us, probably refilling the grit in his craw…. I took advantage of this opportunity to see how close I could get to him.”

The author then describes crawling toward the buzzard, slowly closing the 30 feet between them. The buzzard, which was sunning, continued to stretch its wings to their full, six-foot span. 

“I made some polite conversation for a while, and when the time seemed right, I reached out and touched his wing,” Mr. Vacha recounted. “He shuddered a little, looked askance again, but left his wing outstretched. I began to stroke his outermost wing feathers. I continued talking to him in very low tones, telling stories of how highly I thought of him and what a fine afternoon it was. I avoided saying anything untrue, wanting to convey proper intentions.”

Most of the time, Mr. Vacha is tracking animals he can’t see, filling in a lost narrative. Looking over a pile of tooth-cut lupine set out on his kitchen table—clues to a mystery he is currently unraveling—he said the skills he learns while tracking permeate his life. At times, he said, that can be hard. 

“Right now, I feel like I am on the edge of my experience, opening myself up to new levels,” he said. “But it makes me realize how guarded we have to be to survive in our society: there is a lot of negativity, and basically everyone is hurt in one way or another. That open state can attract negativity too, so you also have to have a really sophisticated sense of what is going on around you in order to protect yourself.”

 

Richard Vacha speaks and signs copies of his book, “The Heart of Tracking: Inner and Outer Practices of Nature Awareness,” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 30 at Point Reyes Books, in Point Reyes Station. Before the official release date in July, first copies will be available for purchase at the bookstore and at the bookstores operated by the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. The book is available at mountvisionpress.com.