A couple of weeks ago I was out early for a breakfast radio show, and I happened to hear a guy on the radio talking about the art of finding your way in the world without the help of man-made devices. He was an expert on ‘natural navigation’, orienting yourself entirely with the signs and patterns of the natural world. I only heard a couple of minutes, but this was clearly someone with a perspective on the world that I’d never encountered before. When I got home I looked it up. Turns out it was Tristan Gooley and as I hoped, he’d written a book or two. This is one of them.
How to connect with nature is another book in the beautiful little series from The School of Life. It doesn’t attempt to guilt-trip us into paying attention and has no particular environmental message. We should want to connect with nature because it “will make you a more interesting and effective person”. Being more aware of our surroundings and making more of a connection with our world is enriching, and that is a good in itself.
But how do we do that? ‘Nature’ is big and vague at first glance. “When our initial enthusiasm for nature in theory collides with the real thing, it is hard not to feel daunted”. There’s so much we don’t know. So Gooley starts with us. He runs through our senses and how we can use each of them to notice more – closing our eyes and mapping the territory through sound. The eyes only see what you point them at, after all, whereas your hearing can map in 360 degrees. What can we feel, and smell. What can we see, both what is moving and what is still?
That gets us noticing things, but ordering and understanding them is still a big challenge. Tristan’s approach here is to outline 15 building blocks for how nature works, big pieces of the jigsaw that bring some order to the “big green chaos”. For example, everything needs water, so where you find water, you find more life. Or another: “all land is based on some kind of rock”. A few simple rules and you can start to make generalisations about the landscape, putting two and two together to work out its geological history, what habitats it may contain and what you can expect to see. It is this sort of ‘detective’ work that the author finds so exciting, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Gooley’s two favourite questions are ‘which way are you facing?’ and ‘what time is it?’, which he offers as a kind of mental challenge for anytime you find yourself outside. There are all kinds of clues, from the sun and the moon to the shape of trees and the way rocks have weathered. I’ve been practicing this over the last few days, and I can confirm that there is a pleasing sense of satisfaction to deciphering our surroundings. (Incidentally, in Madagascar this came naturally to people. If you stopped and asked for directions in the street they would reply in compass bearings rather than the left and right that we prefer.)
A book about connecting with nature could be pretentious and flaky, but this is too full of childlike joy to be so easily dismissed. Like E O Wilson, who is a clear influence here, Gooley finds fascinating things in everyday places and ordinary life. There’s poetry in his turns of phrase, but he’s also practical and irreverent. If you don’t get on with latin names for things, just call plants what you like. If plants aren’t your thing, there are rocks or planets or insects or weather or any number of other things you may find more interesting. “Nature isn’t one big pile of stuff”, as Gooley unceremoniously puts it. I should also mention that it’s a very funny book, full of tongue in cheek ideas and little tangents.
My only hesitation about the book was the focus on conflict as a driving force in nature. Of course, there’s conflict everywhere in nature, but it’s not the defining feature. Evolution moves forward through cooperation too, and spotting harmonies and synergies in nature is just as exciting as looking for conflict, something that’s missed here.
That minor imbalance notwithstanding, I can heartily recommend How to connect with nature. It’s a rewarding and entertaining book that will make you look again at the world around you, wherever you live. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I have already started Tristan Gooley’s latest book, The walker’s guide to outdoor clues and signs.