Comprehending Footprints


No, this is not a photograph of my two left feet … I will only claim the shod one at the left. Australia’s heaviest native land animal, the adult female Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius johnsonii, left the imprint of the other. As can be seen against my size-10 clodhopper, this is a bird that would fill a room.

On the issue of footprints, tracking is an invaluable skill taught to traditional indigenous children throughout time. It is a form of literacy, although the script is somewhat unenduring. Nevertheless, as it is with tracking, translating faded writing is entirely possible if the essence of the letters and their sequencing allows reader anticipation to conform to the growing meaning of the prose.

Much is reported about rates of illiteracy in indigenous communities, but the tracks presented in the assessment are of an overly unfamiliar passing and in an abstract form. Would non-indigenous Australia be regarded as equivalently illiterate in its performance of an indigenous test of tracking comprehension?

Many years ago, I crossed the path of an indigenous elder at the outskirts of a Warlpiri settlement in the Tanami desert. His concentration was on the ground before him as he walked along. I asked what he was looking for and he replied Killarwi, his son. He was tracking him. The truly astonishing part was that the track was awash with footprints; around two-hundred and twenty kids passing eight times per day at least five days per week. And yet the elder was able to read the passage of his son’s amongst all others. As an outdoor educator, this was a skill that I would very much like to acquire.

More recently, I was denied a commercial activity permit to enter Daintree NP from my adjoining property. The deposition of the Principal Policy adviser of the region included reference to a phone conversation with a Dr. John WINTER. He wrote:

“Dr. WINTER indicated to me that 4 expeditioners spent five days on the summit of Thornton peak (sic). These expeditioners formed paths simply by walking through the ferns. D. WINTER (sic) indicated that on a return visit about 8 months later there was no signs of any recovery to the vegetation from the damage done by trampling of the expeditioners.”

For such an important matter, I regarded the testimony very poorly. Who was to say that the impact was exclusively the expeditioners, or that in the intervening period no other had stepped foot on this portion of the landscape? And what of the thousands of feral pigs running rife throughout the Daintree and the other, more legitimate inhabitants?

Much is spoken these days of the ‘footprint’ of particular impacts, but I must say, the reading of tracks to give comprehension is a skill that is sadly lacking in contemporary curricula. Whilst governments provide recurrent funding for English literacy to be taught in indigenous communities, there is no counter-part for the employment of indigenous trackers in non-indigenous institutions.

5 Responses to Comprehending Footprints

  1. James Mayeau March 24, 2008 at 8:55 pm #

    Neil, you are a bug man, right?
    Anthony Watts has a bug hypothesis regarding honeybees which is sort of interesting. Here in the states our bee keepers have been plagued with bees that go missing. They call it colony collapse disorder. Have a look at Watts’ theory and see if it holds water.

  2. Neil Hewett March 24, 2008 at 9:55 pm #

    James: To bee or not to bee? That is the question.

    And truth be told, Jen is the entomologist. I’m no more a bug man that I am a mammal man or a plant person.

  3. Paul Biggs March 24, 2008 at 10:23 pm #

    Not a bird you would want to argue with – that middle claw is some weapon!

  4. James Mayeau March 24, 2008 at 10:41 pm #

    those spider pictures … I just assumed.

    I’m an oak man myself.

    Alright I gotta go. See you later.

  5. Schiller Thurkettle March 26, 2008 at 10:22 am #

    That’s a carbon footprint.

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