Tristan Gooley’s love of adventure has taken him all over the globe. “I’ve been exploring for thirty years. In the beginning, it was very much goal-driven, but I was never really an adrenalin junky. Others were always wanting to peer into the abyss, but I was much more motivated by understanding how to shape the journey.”
He set out to learn everything that he could about navigation, and, once he’d reached the limits of conventional understanding, he began to draw on ancient stories, academic research and, most importantly, his own observations. “Go outside and ask yourself ‘which way am I looking?’, then allow the natural clues to give you the answer. Very quickly you’ll realise that every single natural thing is trying to tell you something. Every animal, every plant, every star, every cloud. It’s something our ancestors would have been much more attuned to.
“I set myself the challenge of walking across a couple of miles of English countryside without any maps or technology, and that was a turning point. Trying to get up bigger mountains and across bigger oceans gave diminishing returns, philosophically. Whereas understanding how to find my way across small distances, using only natural cues, has become increasingly fascinating.” Over decades, Tristan has learnt to find his way using the sun, moon, stars, weather and water – a set of skills that he describes as natural navigation. He knows more than 20 ways to use a tree as a compass; can ‘read’ a rainbow to forecast the weather, and spot the multiple subtle pointers in a woodland that will lead you back to civilisation. (Or away from it, should you so choose.)
Of course, with smartphones in our pockets we no longer need these skills to find our way but, Tristan explains, they stimulate our inherent problem-solving capabilities, enrich our experience of the landscape and go a long way to filling the “nature deficit”; something we’re hungry for, if sales of his bestselling books are anything to go by. He’s also set up a natural navigation school and, this month, he’ll be sharing some tips to try out in the Sussex countryside at a Catalyst Club special. “Some of them will leave you open-mouthed,” he tells me. “You won’t be able to look at the outdoors the same way again.”
Word is, once you know what to look for, natural navigation becomes addictive and, once you’ve learned to read the signs, the skills will travel with you. “A small Sussex woodland is shaped by similar forces to those that shape ice ridges in Antarctica and mountains in the desert. And we all share the same stars, by and large.”
Who knows how far you’ll go?
The Joy of Natural Navigation, a Catalyst Club Special. Latest Music Bar, Manchester Street, Thurs 26 Sept, 7.30pm.