A track may not be obvious. There may be few signs even if the tracker knows what to look for. But just as important as what is on the ground is what is in the tracker’s head- his ‘rich context’ so to speak. It is just as Kant suggested- perception is about what is OUT THERE and also about how we conceptualise what we see. Kant is never better exemplified than when someone points at an object far distant and says, “What’s that?” Everyone looks and makes suggestions. At this stage it is just a strange shape an anomaly, an incongruity in the mostly unsurprising vista or landscape. Then someone will get it- a car, a tree, ‘just’ a rock, a man walking. With the concept we can then all ‘see’ what it really is. Sometimes you have the wrong concept working quite happily for hours. That oil drum you’ve been walking towards suddenly appears much quicker than you’d have expected and turns out to be a bearing case from a lorry axle. The object instantly transforms- as quickly as the duck becomes the rabbit in the famous ambiguous duck/rabbit drawing. In a world of odd objects, strange journeys, new sights- in the desert world- you understand just how much we as humans bring to what we see in the world.
As well as bringing our knowledge of shape and colour we import meaning to what we see. The ‘rich context’ is all the knowledge we have about something. It is all the ways we can relate it to other things we know about in our lives. To the experienced tracker there is much more to see than what is obviously in front of one’s eyes. And once you know the direction of a track, have figured a reason why the track is going in that direction, then you can guess its route between track signs accurately- and by looking in likely places find evidence of the track you suspected.
I am no tracker but I remember following a track of a fennec fox in the area north of the Gilf Kebir. It is known for tektite glass- that lies glinting on the surface of the sand. I followed the fennec tracks, like those of a small dog, easily across the sand. But on the stony gravelly base of the dune corridor I lost him. I tried for the first time to look ‘sideways’. A bedouin had told me this was a way to see better. You sort of half close your eyes and defocus on details in the hope of seeing a pattern, a track. It was early morning and all I saw were the many glinting pieces of natural glass spread out in front of me. By looking sideways at this confusing sight I picked up a line of absences of reflected light. Maybe here the fox had knocked a stone or two, kicked them out of place where the wind kept them clear of drift sand. I managed to see this faintest of lines and walked it- sure enough on the only piece of sand big enough to hold a print there was one. And yet the line I had been following had been almost imaginary. It brought to mind, for some reason, that famous ‘torch drawing’ of Picasso where the artist depicts the image of a bull using a swirling flashlight and a camera on a long exposure to capture the track of the light, to make a picture from nothing but rapidly moving light.
The track can be almost imaginary, inside your head and you can still follow it. The track becomes a path, in the mystical sense of the word perhaps. The context of the track, if it is richly endowed with meanings, allows such feats of navigation through thin air, featureless desert.