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Q&A With Infamous Naturalist and Author Tom Brown: How We Can All “Heal the Earth”
Lifestyle

Q&A With Infamous Naturalist and Author Tom Brown: How We Can All “Heal the Earth”

The controversial N.J.-based outdoorsman releases his latest book, a guide to reversing the damage we’ve done to the earth

He can track any living creature through the wilderness, be it beast or man. He can revive entire felled forests to their original glory. And he learned it all from an Apache elder named Stalking Wolf, who mentored him throughout his childhood.

The tales about Tom Brown, Jr. are tall, to say the least. The 69-year-old outdoorsman from Toms River, N.J. has been telling them throughout his career as an author, educator, and tracker—a career that has earned him both loyal followers and vocal critics. It’s a controversial reputation that looms over the release of his latest book, Tom Brown’s Guide to Healing the Earth—a work that, whether you believe the mythology or not, may be the rallying cry the world needs.

According to Brown, he was only seven-years-old when he met Stalking Wolf—whom Brown sometimes calls Grandfather—a member of the Lipan Apache tribe who migrated to New Jersey and ultimately trained Brown in the art of surviving in the wilderness, tracking animals and caring for the earth, all while espousing wisdom and prophecies. However, no evidence of Stalking Wolf exists—whether you chose to believe in his existence is entirely up to you. And while some are skeptical about his background, there are also many who trust Brown’s skills—including law enforcement. After spending his 20’s traveling living in the Rocky Mountains and parts of Central America, Brown returned to New Jersey and lent his tracking abilities to local police to hunt down missing persons, dangerous animals, and even fugitives and murder suspects. One such case in Ramsey, N.J. resulted in a $5 million lawsuit after authorities wrongfully arrested and charged an innocent man. But the ordeal earned Brown national attention and even interest from Hollywood. He served as a technical advisor to Tommy Lee Jones, who played an FBI tracker, on the 2003 film The Hunted

Now he runs Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School deep in the Pinelands, the sprawling South Jersey woodlands where Brown claims Stalking Wolf taught him everything he knows. Since 1978, thousands of students have flocked to the school to learn about wilderness survival, tracking and even Native American vision quests. Brown has also published 17 books about nature. The latest, Tom Brown’s Guide to Healing the Earth, comes out Nov. 26 and was written in partnership with Brown’s mentee Randy Walker, Jr. Green Philly spoke to Brown about the book and why he thinks the message—about how individuals can reverse humanity’s harm to our planet—is more urgent now than ever. 


GP: It’s been 16 years since you last published a book. So why now?

TB: I always get this comment from students: “The environmental problems are so big, and we’re so small. What can we do?” And I got tired of hearing that because I would try to explain to people, no matter what you do, you’re going to send out a positive effect, no matter how small it is, no matter how insignificant it seems to you. We’re all interconnected. And any act that helps the earth and our grandchildren is huge. I don’t care what you do. 

And I decided, Randy and I together, that this would be a very poignant book. It was ironic that this big youth movement of skipping school on Friday came into play just as my book got a publish date. It did my heart good to see young people—who everybody equates to cell phones and videos and this and that—actually taking a role and being upset, realizing what their ancestors have done. 

Grandfather said that we’re a society of people that kill our grandchildren to feed our children. And I often wonder about people’s decisions. Don’t you see what this is going to do to your children and grandchildren? It’s almost like a hedonistic approach. It’s only now that counts, and us. And that’s what this book is: what a person can do to help make a difference.

GP: Does that mean that climate change was a motivating factor for this book?

TB: It’s funny, you remember back when they discovered holes in the ozone layer? Back before my book The Vision was published, I had turned that entire manuscript into my publisher about two years before they discovered the holes in the ozone layer, which was a big thing back then. And that was from a prophecy that the old Native American who taught me said: “When they find holes in the sky, there’s going to be little hope left unless we all pull together.” And I’m thinking to myself, how is anybody going to imagine a hole in the sky? It’d be like Chicken Little, the sky is falling. But lo and behold—holes in the sky. 

Grandfather as I call him, or Stalking Wolf, he is right on with his prophecies from the global warming issue to the new diseases that are erupting and those that are becoming resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics we have out there. All these things that are befalling us are taking place now and at a horrific rate. So this book has been percolating in me for a good 25 or 30 years. It’s just now is the time. In fact, I’m hoping it’s not too late.

GP: A lot of the time, sustainability efforts are about preventing further harm: cutting down carbon emissions, banning plastic bags, things like that. Not many people talk about how we can undo the damage that we’ve done, how we can heal the wounds that we’ve inflicted. Is it possible to do that and if so, how?

TB: Back 25 years ago, you would hear the expression, “We’re stewards of the earth. We’re caretakers of the earth.” We have gone too far now. We have got to become healers of the earth. We’ve got to take a very active approach in Earth Mother’s healings. 

There was a clearcut area here in the Pinelands very close to our camp. Normally, to get back to a forest, they’d leave it alone and maybe in 50 to 60 years, you’d have a semi-healthy forest. But by bringing in a caretaker class of just 28 individuals, we were able to take several acres of that and turn it into this beautiful Garden of Eden. Our baby trees are healthy, 20 to 30 feet tall, no diseases, well-spaced, a good mix of every kind of plant that is found in that environment. The animals are happy. The whole thing is a picture of health. I even had people from the State Department come down and take pictures of it because they say this is impossible. But it is possible. You just have to put your back into it. You have to care enough to do something, anything. That’s the way I feel about it. There is hope.

GP: Some say we as individuals need to change our lifestyles and take action. Others say it’s up to the institutions, policymakers and big corporations. Where do you fall in that debate?

TB: Both. We’ve got to make decisions and get people in who really feel the need—and not a need-based on financial gain—but a need based on the needs of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And yes, some of those things are going to be painful to do but we need to do it, rather than have our children and grandchildren suffer that pain. We can shoulder a little bit of that burden. And it’s not too much to ask. It doesn’t take much. But all of us have to change our lifestyle. We keep going through this, but we’ve got to take an active role. It can’t be just lip service, it’s got to be a reality. And some of that change is painful. But in reality, it’s not that painful. We just learned to adapt.

GP: I want to talk about the Pinelands themselves, which is where you run your school. There are a lot of threats facing it, whether it’s natural gas pipelines or off-road vehicles. What are you doing to fight that?

TB: We pull out more garbage than you can imagine off of this beautiful landscape here. My students all pitch in. We have clean-up weekends, we replant forests, we block off illegal trails. It’s a continuous labor of love, but we’re up against a tide that just will not quit. The latest is that advertised on the Internet, we’re seeing huge off-road vehicles and dirt bikers coming down here in groves from every other state, littering up the land, cutting trees, running over pristine vegetation. I don’t mind if they ride the trails, but it’s just like the Wild West. And we’re getting 50 to 80 individuals back here, just pummeling the land. That’s added to the cars that are stripped back here and dumped, drug exchanges, illegal timbering, dumping of chemicals. It’s just an ongoing battle. Take a page out of the Homeland Security book: if you see something out of place, report it.

GP: And why is it so important to protect the Pinelands? What makes that area so special?

TB: It’s sitting on trillions of gallons of pure water. It’s an absolutely unique environment. Rarely does anybody venture off the hard-ridden trails very far. Everything about it is so unique, yet to the untrained eye, it’s not like the Grand Canyon. It’s not like Yosemite. This is a land that is subtle. You have to really be aware. It breeds this kind of introspection in you that forces you to look deep in your relationship with the earth.

GP: I know you don’t want to give away too much from your book, but as a little preview, what do you think is maybe the most interesting or surprising thing in there in terms of what individuals can do to heal the earth?

TB: Whether you’re in the middle of the pathless wilderness and you see a straw or a discarded piece of aluminum, and nobody’s around, pick it up, take it out with you. I believe that sends out a concentric ring through the spirit that moves in and through all things, that affects everybody in a positive way. If you ever watch a flock of sandpipers, when you’re up close, you see the individual birds. But viewed from afar, it looks like one organism. And all of a sudden they’ll be flying in one direction and for no apparent reason, countless bellies flash to the sunlight and the whole flock changes. That could be that one single act that causes the flock of humanity to change. And that’s what I want to impress on people. You can do a lot just as an individual.

This article is part of the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub, a statewide, collaborative initiative highlighting environmental stories in New Jersey. 

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Brianna Baker
Brianna is a Philly-based journalist and Baltimore native with a passion for reporting on urban sustainability and environmental justice. In her free time, she's an amateur vegetarian chef, Harry Potter trivia champion and occasional world traveler. View all posts by Brianna Baker

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