Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: THE NATURAL NAVIGATOR – Tristan Gooley [Vol. 4, #4]

“To Know (and Navigate) A Place

A review of
The Natural Navigator:
A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill

By Tristan Gooley.

Reviewed by Sam Edgin.

The Natural Navigator - Tristan GooleyThe Natural Navigator:
A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill

Tristan Gooley.

Hardback: The Experiment, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Humanity must navigate. We must, many times a day, get to there from here. Most don’t bother to question how exactly that is done. Our tools do it for us. Terrain is not a question, weather rarely is a factor, and night is the same as day. Navigation today is mindless, sterile and virtually impossible without the many tools at our disposal. Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Navigator is meant to lead the modern, adventure-prone (or even just work-aimed) man or woman to make their way through any environment using simply what surrounds them.

The book’s subtitle says it even better: “A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill.” The information Gooley includes is not new by any means. It is what was used thousands of years ago before the invention of the compass, the sextant, wristwatches and GPS. Gooley wants his readers to be able to “know” direction instead of “finding” it. Sure, he admits, an untrained individual would have little problem left on their own if pointed in a direction with a goal to reach, but they would still be “unconnected from the environment.” It is this connection with the environment, the assurance that all of the tools we might need to navigate anywhere on earth are right before us, that Gooley is trying to create with this book. It seems there are few better men to do that.

Gooley has led expeditions on five continents, climbed mountains throughout the world, flown and sailed across the Atlantic alone, and started a navigational school in Britain with the same name as this book. His experience dictates his readiness Yet it is the subtleties of how he describes walking through the woods in West Sussex, England, using the planet Venus as a guide; and in the way he relates what various Tuareg tribesmen have told him about walking in the desert that show us how strong his passion is for this subject. That passion stalks the reader. Each page, it draws closer and invites us further in.

Before you pick up this book, there are a few things that should be said. Let’s call them cautions. These are not things that are bad, but instead are things that would just be useful to mention. First, The Natural Navigator is in no way a survival manual. Neither is it a how-to guide. If you are looking for a book with well-indexed five-step sections on emergency navigation, this is not it. This is not the book you whip out of your back pocket when you fall into situation “2C” on “page 132.” In fact, Gooley takes the time in the introduction to tell us why his book is not this sort of manual. Survival skills, that is, the quick tricks that are learned in case situation “2C” happens, simply don’t supply any connection to the environment. You are still lost, even though you know how to get out. To know direction is much better than just finding it. Gooley weaves the skills he seeks to teach with history, literature and story. The knowledge is retained better, and that connection is preserved.

Secondly, and on an even more minor note, Tristan Gooley is a British adventurer who still lives in the U.K. This results in some language that may seem strange to sensibilities that have been molded in a distinctly Americanized way, and some references to English geography and culture which may seem foreign to those who haven’t been to the U.K..

The Natural Navigator is divided into eight chapters which are bookended by introductions, epilogues, resources and other helpful material. To make understanding a little simpler, Gooley has written each chapter only about a particular part of nature. Chapter one is about the land, chapter two, the sun, and so on. Some of the chapters are rather short, as the subjects they concern either have a complex or limited use for natural navigation (i.e., The Moon, Creatures of Habit); and some of the chapters are extensive because of the many facets of navigation that can be utilized in that area of nature (The Sun, The Firmament, The Sea). Each chapter takes its focal area and explores, one by one, all of the natural navigation techniques that could be utilized therein. Much of the information builds. For instance, in the introduction we find out that an outstretched fist can measure about ten degrees. This will come up again in chapter eight (there is even a diagram!), but each time he mentions measuring degrees you will be thinking, “Now, could I measure this with my fist?”

Gooley artfully covers all a natural navigator would need to know for any situation he or she may find themselves in, be it a wilderness trek, a jaunt through the local woods, or just the walk to work. Yes, Gooley intends to give you the tools to find your way when you are lost, but what his main purpose is is to make sure you have an idea of where you are at all times. Although he splits the book up into useful chapters concerning each of the parts of nature, he uses his epilogue to clarify that, often, these things will end up working together in one way or another.

As an outdoorsman myself, this book was a fresh step towards a greater confidence in my own skills. Often, without a map and a trail I would have little to no idea where I am. So, with one reading of The Natural Navigator under my belt, I will continue to look at the growth patterns in trees, and that way the snow melts on a hillside. It will probably require a re-reading in order to set some of the principles of natural navigation more securely in my head, but that will be a pleasure, another educational walk through the woods with Tristan Gooley.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

  1. Nature is your guide, a book by Harold Gatty written in the 30’s? gives all the information re ‘natural navigation’. Seems like this could be the source of much of what’s been rehashed into this ‘modern’ book?