Tom Brown's Wilderness School
by Charlie Reitze
On a gentle evening in February of 1988 in the lofts of Tom Brown's old dairy farm in Ashbury N.J., a town located in the west central part of the state, I scurried around with fourteen other anxious students fluffing up hay. We were making comfortable places to lay our sleeping bags for the next seven nights. Students, both men and women, varied in ages from the early twenties to mid to late forties. We had gathered from all across America, and as far distant as Alberta, Canada, to attend Tom Brown's introductory, Standard Survival Course.
Late evening found us sitting on wooden benches in horseshoe fashion facing a raised platform in one end of Brown's barn.Mice darted back and forth on the rafters. Tomahawks, snares, traps, other Native American implements, and clippings of survival stories about Tom Brown were hanging on the wooden pine board walls.
In his thirties, and standing over six feet tall, Tom Brown stood barefoot on the platform.He had kicked his sneakers off to the side. His piercing, restless, blue eyes roving the room, scanned the face of each person without stopping to rest on anyone or anything. Looking back at me, he said, "You have a bad low back." He let silence hang in the air. My mouth must have dropped a foot.I had not divulged this information to him or anyone at the school. Seeing the shocked expression on my face, he smiled and said, "I could see it in your tracks in the driveway. You can tell anything about a person by looking at their footprints. Well, the man had my rapt attention, and everyone elses.
Tom had short hair and a drooping mustache. He seemed full of energy, tense; yet in some other way that I didn't quite understand, intense. He was a man that definitely knew what he was about. And his cockiness showed it. Trying to place him, he put me in mind of the pictures I'd seen of Chief Crazy Horse; he looked as agile as Robin Hood, and tougher than all the Hell's Angels eating boiled owl.
Speaking in an abrupt, strong and sonorous voice to no one in particular, he said, "The next seven days will be long, arduous fourteen hour days. You'll learn four basic areas of survival. When you leave you'll know how to provide shelter, water, fire, and food in the wilderness. You'll learn nature awareness, tracking, and the Native American philosophy of the world and humanities place in it as I learned it from my teacher, Stalking Wolf. I hope you'll see and experience nature in a different light. Hopefully you'll act towards it with much more respect. We are not only concerned about your survival, but the survival of the planet."
Pacing back and forth on the platform, his eyes fixed on the class, perspiration dripping from his face, he continued, "People are raping the earth of its resources, littering it with all manner of trash, and polluting it with poisonous chemicals. I hope you’ll go home carrying a new love and respect for Mother Earth." Bending over, he slipped his sneakers back on, spoke briefly of the next seven day's schedule, and in his clipped Jersey accent, kind of out of context, said, "I guarantee, you'll even be able to track mice before this week is over." Then as quietly as he came, almost ghost-like, he stole from the room walking out into the night. He walked on the balls of his feet as quietly as a mountain lion stalking its prey.
Tom Brown was raised in a small town bordering an unspoiled wilderness area known as the Pine Barrens, in South Jersey. At age seven, through his childhood friend, Rick, Tom met Stalking Wolf, an eighty year old Apache Scout and medicine man who grew up in Mexico. Rick was Stalking Wolf's grandson. From the age of seven to eighteen, Brown apprenticed with Stalking Wolf, whom he respectfully called grandfather.
Stalking Wolf taught by what the Apache termed, "Coyote Teaching" that is, he never gave straight answers. He forced Tom to learn from his surroundings. One day without a sleeping bag or tent, Tom and Rick headed on an overnight with Stalking Wolf. On the way, they asked, "How will we keep out of the wind and rain?" In the Coyote teaching method, Stalking Wolf replied, "Go ask the squirrels." So, Tom and Rick climbed a tree, examined a squirrel's nest, then after several unsuccessful attempts learned how to make the debris hut, a one-man triangle tent type of affair, which you can survive in, naked, at 40 below zero, and break out into a sweat.
When Brown was eighteen his friend Rick was killed in a horseback riding accident in Europe. Brown spent the next twelve months living alone in the Pine Barrens. Living the life of the Apache, he buried all of his clothes, and took to the woods with nothing but the head on his shoulders. In the ensuing days, weeks, and months, Brown made his clothing from the hides of animals, built a shelter, gathered food, and lived what he terms a "luxurious life." He made a knife out of rocks, a bowl and spoon out of wood, and fires with a bow-drill. He had a Hogan shelter, a shelter made from rocks, logs, and grasses.
While Brown was on his survival quest, Stalking Wolf went back to New Mexico where, into the mountains, he took his final walk. When Tom came out of the woods, he set out after Stalking Wolf.
At the Apache village, Brown found his ninety-three year old mentor had already left. With no more than a knife and a lion cloth strapped about his waist, Brown headed into the mountains tracking Stalking Wolf. This was to be Brown's final test. Stalking Wolf didn't intend to make Tom's search easy. He walked active, rocky, stream beds, scaled sheer cliffs, and hiked over desert terrain. It took Tom many days before he came to Stalking Wolf's medicine pouch. It was Grandfather's last message to Tom. It was the Apache way of saying, my work is done; I have passed on my tradition; from here I must go on alone to the spirit world. Tom looked about, sensing, knowing, Grandfather was watching. Picking up the medicine bag, Tom knew he had passed the final test. Back at the Apache village, he was honored by the Natives. He now had his own medicine bag, and a mission entrusted to him.
For the next few years Brown practiced, honed his skills. In 1977 he opened up The Tracker School. Tom's job was to teach survival, but more than that he was to teach people to respect the earth, to survive without disrupting the ecosystem. On his farm in Ashbury, N.J., Brown teaches his introductory course. Students who wish to broaden their skills can go on to advanced classes which are mostly held in the vast Pine Barron wilderness.
At the introductory course, we learned how to build fires, without the use of matches. We learned to track mice across a hard surface floor, and dirt driveway. We spent hours on our knees in Tom's back fields tracking voles, learning their habits. We learned to build a shelter that we could survive in at 40 below zero. We learned how to snare wild game, and what plants we could eat to survive on. We practiced throwing carved out sticks at milk bottles (rabbit Sticks), used to kill small game. We worked on various types of shelters, tepees hogans, and enjoyed a sweatlodge ceremony.
And through mental awareness some of us began learning how to control our body temperature while we stood naked bathing in the frigid, river behind Tom's home.
At a later class, Tom singled me out and asked if I could follow directions. I allowed that I could. Sending me down a powdery dirt road in the Pine Barrons, Tom was about to teach the class a valuable lesson. I walked about fifty yards before Tom called me to a halt. As I turned, at Tom's request, I placed a popsicle stick, which I carried for marking tracks, in the ground in
front of my feet. "No," Tom said, " move it ahead six inches, and a couple inches to the left."
Instantly I saw what he was about. From fifty yards away, Tom was tracking, and showing the class what our next lesson would be, how to track from a distance. I had placed that stick right in the toe of a fox track. "You have to learn and know the animals you are tracking," Tom said. And from where I stood there were no signs of human activity. There was no way this Apache scout, this Crazy Horse could have known that track was there accept by knowing his business. And know his business, he did. He never missed a beat. Every time I put a stick down, it was placed perfectly at Tom's direction. He was teaching us the Coyote way. Before that class was over, I was successfully tracking deer from fifty feet away.
Learning the skills Tom teaches are both interesting and challenging. After that last class back in October of 1988, I have gone on my own survival outings. On one occasion I had Folsom's Air service out of Greenville fly me in to a remote pond. Mr. Folsom asked, "Where's your gear?" I said, "I'm on a survival quest for seven days. I have a knife. I need no more. And I didn't.
Seven days later he picked me up in a thunderstorm. I must have looked like something out of a horror show.
I had mud on my face to keep bugs away. I had mud on my entire body; I had only gotten dressed when I heard the plane coming. On that trip I learned that I could survive with nothing. And how I survived luxuriously, I learned, mostly, from Tom Brown.
To get information on Tom Brown, Tracker Inc., write:
P.O. Box 173
Ashbury, N.J. 08802
or call (908)479-4681.
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