Walks of Life – Art from the Wild

I stood inside the enormous circular depression in the ground. Even with both of my size 11-US boots, there was plenty of room to spare. It was unbelievable: the sheer size, the amount of power it must have taken to cave in the earth like that. I will never forget it - the first time I saw an elephant track.

Today, I spend most of my time looking at animal tracks and explaining them to others but in a very different environment. After graduating EcoTraining’s Professional Field Guide program, I started “Walks of Life”, an initiative to raise funding for wilderness conservation through the sale of high-end artwork. My paintings are all made with real animal tracks that I hand-collect in the wild – a process I started experimenting with while still on course.

Artwork - Ecotraining - Elephant Safari

Photographs © Cannon Winkler

Tracking and Trailing

As I introduce my work to others, I have found that my fascination with wildlife tracks (or spoor) is often shared, even with those who have no experience with tracking. Personally, I believe it is in our nature. Human beings have been tracking animals for thousands of years as an essential part of life. It has only been in the last few hundred years that we have forgotten. But luckily some still remember.

It was a hot March morning, and we had been trailing a white rhinoceros for several hours. The students were rotating as lead trackers every 20 minutes, and I was up next. Our EcoTraining instructor, Cobus Spies, waved me over and whispered to me so that we would not disturb the tracking in progress.

“Take a moment to get your eyes right. Where is your first positive spoor?”

I pointed below me to the crisp impression of a 3-toed rhino foot in the sand.

“Good. Now, where is the next one?”

I searched arduously. The trail went into the tall grass and I couldn’t see any more footprints.

“You are overanalyzing. Picture how (the rhino) moves. You know he stepped here, and his stride is only so long, so his next step must be here. And then here. And then here.”

Cobus stretched his legs wide, mimicking the large pachyderm’s gait, as he swung his feet from track to track.

Some deeper part of my brain understood the lesson because suddenly I could see impressions where there were none before. While there were still no visible footprints, I could read the changing patterns in the tall grass and perceive a trail. I had ‘gotten my eyes right.’

Artwork - Ecotraining - Walks of Life - Art from the Wild

Photographs © Cannon Winkler

The Art and Science of Tracking

During our training, we were constantly told that tracking is part art and part science. You need logic to narrow down the possibilities of what you are looking at, but that will only get you so far. Intuition takes you the rest of the way.

Using the surrounding environment you must interpret the animal’s behavior, but to do that you must understand the bigger story. Why was it here? Where was it going? What factors could have influenced its movements? Try to picture the world from that animal’s point of view. It is part analysis and part empathy. It’s not just about simply following a trail, it’s a different way of seeing. You are looking at the larger natural systems at work and appreciating how each piece relates to and influences one another.

This is the kind of appreciation you are taught as a tracker and field guide. And it is that appreciation I hope to inspire in others with Walks of Life.

Artwork - Ecotraining - Walks of Life - Art from the Wild

Photographs © Cannon Winkler

Inspirational Art

Now I create paintings using the same spoor from the rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo that I learned to track at EcoTraining. I still marvel at the size of an elephant foot, but I get more joy from taking that piece of the wild and sharing it with others. Helping people bring the African bush into their lives and homes so they too can marvel and wonder.

My plan is simple. I want to help people ’get their eyes right.’ Help them remember how to see nature and all of the systems and relationships that work together to create it. I do this because in the words of Steve Irwin,

“humans want to save the things they love.”

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About the Author: 

Cannon Winkler is a graduate of the EcoTraining Professional Field Guide course and the artist behind Walks of Life. You can find more of Winkler’s work on www.walksoflifeart.com and @walksoflife.art