Nature. Even if you’re an avid outdoorsman, you likely take it for granted. When you’ve seen one tree or one blue sky, you’ve seen them all, right?
Well, to those with well-trained senses, natural surroundings can actually tell you a whole lot. The leaves on a tree can tell you what direction you’re headed and the smell in the air can tell you about the weather. There are bits of knowledge and fascinating signposts all around you. My guest today has spent his life observing and cataloging these small details in nature and uses them to deftly navigate the wild without a map and compass. His name is Tristan Gooley and he’s the author of several books, including How to Read Nature.
Today on the show, Tristan tells us how he got started with natural navigation and how he’s having to rediscover what was once common knowledge to our ancestors. We then dig into specific ways you can use nature to navigate or even know if there’s a storm coming soon. After listening to this show, you’ll never look at trees the same way again. I guarantee it.
- How Tristan became so interested in nature, and especially in using nature for navigation
- Why you shouldn’t leave your compass and map at home, even when navigating by nature
- How Tristan came to discover (or more accurately re-discover) these methods for navigating
- People and cultures who still use nature to find their way
- Why and how the wind leaves “footprints” everywhere on Earth
- How do you get to a point of knowing nature’s signs and guideposts?
- How 20 seconds of navigating without your smartphone can increase your competence
- The benefits of studying migration patterns — even among humans migrating towards city centers for work
- The SORTED method for getting the lay of the land
- Using trees (and all plants, really) to navigate and find direction
- Nature’s common sense
- Why shape recognition is so important in natural navigation
- Using the sky — even a clear blue one — to get our bearings
- Why we all need more outdoor time in our lives
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 15 Constellations Every Man Should Know
- How to Find Water in the Wild
- How to Keep Your Course in the Wilderness
- How to Find Direction Using the Sun and Stars
- How to Get Your Kids to Love Nature
- Tracking Animals
- Tracking Humans
- 22 Old Weather Proverbs That Are Actually True
- 4 Ways Nature Restores You
How to Read Nature is one of my favorite books of 2017. It’s literally changed the way I look at the world. When I’m outside, I’m looking at trees and plants in a whole new way. This would make a great gift for the outdoorsmen/women among your family and friends.
Connect With Tristan
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Nature, even if you’re an outdoors man, you likely take it for granted. When you’ve seen one tree or one blue sky, you’ve seen them all, right? Well, to those with well trained senses, natural surroundings can actually tell you a whole lot. The leaves on a tree can tell you what direction you’re headed and the smell in the air can tell you about the weather. There are bits of knowledge and fascinating signposts all around you out there in the wilds. My guest today has spent his life observing and cataloging these small details in nature and uses them to deftly navigate the wild without a map or compass.
His names is Tristan Gooley. He’s the author of several books including his latest, How to Read Nature. Today on the show, Tristan tells us how he got started with natural navigation and how he goes about rediscovering what was once common knowledge to our ancestors. We then dig in to specific ways you can use nature to navigate or even know if there’s a storm coming soon. After listening to this show, you’re never going to look at trees the same way again. I guarantee it. When you’re done listening to the show, besides checking out trees, go check out our show notes at aom.is/readnature.
All right. Tristan Gooley, welcome to the show.
Tristan Gooley: Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: You have an interesting title. You are a natural navigator. What is a natural navigator and how did you become one? Was this something you knew you wanted to be when you were a kid?
Tristan Gooley: It was a really gradual process. I was a restless kid. I’d see a hill and think it might be more interesting at the top than the bottom. I’d be standing on a lake thinking it might be more fun on the other side. It was pretty gradual. The hills became mountains. The lakes became oceans. I don’t know the exact moment when I realized that navigation was the key the sort of fun that I wanted.
I’ve since discovered that in every journey we take of any description, you’re either a navigator or a passenger. There’s nothing wrong with being a passenger, but life’s a bit more fun is occasionally you think, “Right. I’m going to be the navigator this time.” That’s I think the kind of bug I got even before I knew what the word navigation meant. The journeys got a bit bigger, bolder, a bit more ambitious, a little bit more risky at times.
Then there was another realization probably in my mid 20s when I appreciated that the scale of the journey wasn’t actually determining how much fun or satisfaction I was getting. I was sometimes taking on journeys or thousands of miles and doing some quite challenging navigation, but I’d get to the end of them and I’d think, “I’m not convinced that was any more exciting than what I was doing as a 10 year old.” It was a frustrating feeling, and then I realized, “Wait a minute. I’m just staring at electronics and maps and stuff like that.” I tried something different. I’d come across the idea you can find your way using nature, and I just tried to find my way across some woods. A one mile journey suddenly felt it was amazing being transported back as an adult to that feeling of excitement you can have as a kid. From that moment on, that was it. I was smitten. I was going to pursue this natural navigation thing.
Brett McKay: You don’t use compass, maps. It’s just looking at nature to orient yourself?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. The view I take is that absolutely everything outdoors is part of a map and compass, and I mean literally everything. If you want to, you can fire a few things at me and I’ll sort of give you an idea of how I would use those as a map or compass. It’s not about precision. It’s about getting a better feel for where we are and how we can get to where we want to be. If all we want is the most accurate, fastest way of getting somewhere, then natural navigation isn’t very often the solution. Yeah, pretty much everything from stuff you could see in the sky to stuff on the ground, things in the water, it all can be used as a map or compass. My life’s work has been about understanding that better.
Brett McKay: What kind of journeys have you gone on using just natural navigation?
Tristan Gooley: The vast majority of my journeys are a mix of all types of navigation. I’ve flown solo and sailed single handed across the Atlantic. It’s actually illegal to fly without using the instruments that make it safer, everybody will be pleased to hear. In that situation, it’s more a case of natural navigation adds a layer on. Knowing that the sun rises in the northeast in the middle of summer means that the bright glare above the ice up in Greenland and places like that, the brightness is coming from where it should be if that makes sense.
A lot of natural navigation is a jigsaw. You’re taking pieces. It doesn’t actually matter what you’re using. It’s the layers you add to it. Quite often, I might walk into a wild place using a map and compass and then just stick them in the bottom of my backpack and find my way out without using them. I never recommend people leave everything at home, because there’s a difference between relying on stuff and staring at it the whole time and knowing it’s there if you need it. That tends to be what I do. Probably 19 out of 20 of the journeys I do are quite small. A small number of them are big, but you can just get so much satisfaction from … literally five miles of natural navigation will feel like a major expedition. I guarantee you.
Brett McKay: How did you uncover these methods, this way of looking at the world? Because it sounds like this was once common knowledge amongst humanity at one point before the map and compass and all these devices that we have. How have you uncovered or rediscovered these insights into natural navigation?
Tristan Gooley: Well, I’ve been really lucky because I’m not very good at focusing on one thing for very long periods. It turns out that natural navigation is a collection of pretty much all human experience. There’s astronomy. There are wonderful cultural treasure troves. There are techniques you can find in the ancient Greek myths. Odysseus found his way across the Mediterranean by keeping Arcturus, the bear constellation, on his left. That’s a northerly constellation, so that’s how he managed to keep going east. Things like that, they’re an inspiration.
I might not use that exact method. I’ll use perhaps a more contemporary version of it, but it gives me ideas of how I can do things. Then I’ll discover a method of using a tree I’ve never thought of by reading the latest academic article in a journey like Nature. I’m combining something from thousands of years ago with something that was published perhaps 24 hours ago. Astronomy one minute, botany the next, geology the day after that.
As I say, the world needs specialists. The world needs people who focus on just one thing and become the best in the world at a small niche within astronomy, but I couldn’t do that. I love the fact that it sort of allows me to be sort of intellectually promiscuous. I was out there looking at fungi this morning and seeing if they were going to help me on my journey, whereas tomorrow it might be the way the clouds help.
Brett McKay: Are there still pockets of humanity that still rely on nature to navigate?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. Mostly the indigenous communities in remote areas are using this. They all have their own unique view of navigation. There’s no human culture on earth where navigation isn’t an integral part of life. I should probably expand on that a little bit, because my view of navigation is when we wake up in the morning and decide which side of bed to get out of, that’s the start of navigating as far as I’m concerned. There’s quite a popular perception that navigation is a sort of niche technical skill and it only need bother less than 1% of the people in the world, but unless you’re planning to stay still for your whole life, you’re a navigator. These are skills everybody needs.
Within indigenous communities, some of them will be nomadic, and a large part of their life is taken up with natural navigation wisdom. I spent some time with some nomads, some Tuareg in the Sahara, and the way they can read detail in their landscape, and this is quite a common theme, people get used to their own patch. Wherever we live in the world, we notice any slight change in our landscape. If you live in the center of a city, if a shop closes and another one opens you notice it, whereas somebody who lives in a wild area might not notice that. But if you go to their wild area, if a tree starts becoming less healthy they notice it, but the city person might not.
Out in the desert until you’re used to it, every single patch of sand looks quite similar. Then you realize the Tuareg are just seeing just such subtle difference just stand out to them. They are seeing a map in what to us appears sort of homogenous, just sand everywhere. There are cultures all over the world. I spend some time with the Dayak in Borneo, and instead of using sand they’re using the way water flows. Their concept of direction has all to do with the way rivers, the water flows and grading.
Brett McKay: The Inuit, like they can look at snow and figure out where they’re at even though everything looks exactly the same.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah, that’s a great example. That’s the sort of thing that I think somebody who’s not familiar with these sorts of techniques might think, “Wow. That’s just impossible. That’s a weird thing that one society has spent their life focusing on, therefore they can do it,” but actually it’s quite simple because whenever the wind blows over any surface on earth, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the middle of a city, up in the arctic, in the middle of an ocean, the middle of a desert, in a rural area, the way I put it is the wind leaves footprints. Everywhere on earth has trends, prevailing winds, winds that come from certain directions more often than others, and they will leave marks. It’s just getting to know the marks in your area.
The simplest possible technique, which applies pretty much all over the world, is that the wind will create shapes where there’s a shallower angle on the direction the wind has come from and a steeper angle on the side that the wind is going towards. All you have to do is however you do it, there are lots of different ways of doing it, but however you do it, you work out where the prevailing winds are in your part of the world and then you find these shapes. It’s the shape the waves swell in the middle of the ocean, which allows the Pacific Islanders to find land that technology would struggle to find. It’s the way ice is shaped. It’s the way sand dunes are shaped. It’s the way trees are shaped, right down to little of dust in towns. You get these shapes everywhere.
Brett McKay: That’s crazy. You said earlier that if you’re in it all the time you’ll notice that. I think most of our people who are listening to this podcast, they might live in a city, a suburb, so they’re well acquainted with that scape of life. What’s the mindset shift that needs to occur so they can start noticing things in nature? Like how do you get to that? Is it just a matter of spending more time in nature?
Tristan Gooley: Well, one of the big tips I’d want to give your listeners is this is not an either or thing. What I’d recommend is before you go to the technology or whatever you’re going to use to answer your question of how do I find or what direction is something, just take a go at answering it yourself. The philosophy is it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. Unless you’re sort of running an hour late for the most important meeting of your life, most of us can spare 20 seconds.
Those 20 seconds, you just go, “Right. I know the map on my smartphone’s going to sort this out for me, but I’m just going to have a bit of fun here. I reckon, okay, I’ve just been keeping track of the fact that the clouds were moving this way before I got on the subway and I’ve now popped out and I know that the station I’m getting out of is west of where I need to go. I know which way the clouds go, so my best guess is I need to go down that street.” Then you turn to the technology. More often than not, what it says is you’re not 100% right, but you’re not wrong either. That’s the beginning of quite a lot of fun, because you suddenly realize that it’s doable. Yeah, we don’t have to be too hard on ourselves. We’re not trying to become like desert nomads in the space or a day or two.
Another really fun way into it is just randomly you could be looking out of an office window and you just sort of go, “Which way am I looking?” You can try and answer it, north, south, east, or west. You go, “Right. Well, how am I going to answer?” Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong the first 15 times you do it. You’ll notice things that nobody else is noticing. You’ll notice, “That’s weird. The birds are always flying past that way,” or, “I can tell that the sun must have been there even though I can’t see it because it’s cloudy, because that whole part of the street has dried. It rained two hours ago. That part’s dried.” You have a go. You might be 30 degrees out or something. It doesn’t matter. You notice a whole load of things the way an indigenous person would do. You keep doing it, and then you surprise yourself quite nicely because the moment comes where you’re high fiving yourself because you get it right.
Brett McKay: Those example you gave, like you didn’t have to get out into the quote/unquote “wilds”. You could do this from your office.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things, a technique people would use in the wild, which we can actually … quite often the techniques that are used in the wild are ones we’ll borrow and tweak slightly to use in a city. A good example is academics believe that the way the Pacific Islanders found new land was by in a very sort of casual way studying bird migration patterns. Now, we can use that all over the world, but actually a nice city version is human beings migrate. We sort of do it in a daily pattern.
Whereas it might be a six month cycle out in the middle of the Pacific, in a city if you’re completely and hopelessly lost, if you go against the flow of people in the morning or with the flow of people late in the afternoon, you’re going to find the nearest transport hub, the nearest station. Now, that might not form the perfect map for you, but it’s the start of a process where you go, “Okay.” Not everything’s random. In fact, very little is random. You’re just starting to put one small piece in the jigsaw and starting to get a picture of what’s going on around you.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. In your book, How to Read Nature, and The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, what I love about it is you give these specific, I don’t know, tips I would call them or mental models I guess we’ll call them on how to observe nature. If it’s okay with you, I’d love to kind of get into some specifics, because as I was telling you before we started the recording was after reading this book, whenever I go outside now I’m looking at my surroundings in a completely different way because I know these things that I should be looking for. If it’s okay with you, could we go through some of this stuff? Because I think it’s just really fascinating.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. Yeah, I’d love to.
Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about like you start off talking about like kind of big picture getting the lay of the land. You recommend using a method called SORTED, which is an acronym. What is the SORTED method and what are we trying to do with this method?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. As you say, it’s a way or sort of zooming in starting with very broad focus. S-O-R-T-E-D, SORTED. We start with S for shape. Every landscape we’re in, whether it’s urban or wild, we’re going to find there are one or two quite dominant geographical influences. Just once we tune into them, we notice there’s a slightly higher bit of ground, and then there’s a valley, and then there’s a river for example. Once we’ve tuned into that, we’ve actually started to form quite an important map. As I say, the Dayak in Bordeo can find their way, they can walk for literally days just on that idea. It sounds very vague and perhaps not hugely practical, but once you start to think, “Okay. I know which side of the river I am,” and then you start to relate to where various things are compared to that, then you’ve just started to form a very basic sort of map.
The O, I used the world ology in terms of the soil and various other things. It’s really a very broad brush way of saying what is in the ground. If we know for example we’re in a very sort of acidic area, you’re going to get a certain type of landscape. You’d expect if there’s loads of granite around, you’ve got a certain type of moorland. If you’ve got very alkaline soil, you expect different types of wild flowers. If we just start to put two pieces together, we start to think, “Okay. I know I’m on slightly higher ground. I know that the river is out there somewhere, and I know I’m on this type of soil. I’ll be able to tell before I hit the river that there are these certain types of plants, because I’ve noticed when the soil is this type, I get bright purple flowers before I hit water.” We’ve just started to put another couple of pieces together.
Next thing, R for roots. Pretty much every landscape we’re likely to find ourselves in with one or two exceptions there will be some sort of human footprints. There’ll be paths. There’ll be tracks. There’ll be roads. There’ll be rail. They tend to mirror nature’s own kind of. We don’t go and put a road in the hardest possible place. We find there’s a relationship between those and the hills and the rivers and things like that. We’re just starting to put another layer on top of that.
Then we’ve got T for tracks. That’s just starting to tune into who else is out there. We all know what sort of human footprints look like in our various different sort of footwear, but we start to pick up on what the other animals are doing. Again, all these pieces start to fit together, because the relationship between the high ground, the water, and what the animals are doing is all integrated. There’s very, very little that’s random out there.
E is for edges. Whenever we’re walking on a path or a track, we’ve got a huge concentration of things happening at the edge of any track or path we’re walking down. It’s just one of the sort of laws of nature that most stuff happens at edges. If you’re in rural area, you’ve got a few sort of fields and then a woodland, the vast majority of action is going to happen where the fields touch the woodland. It’s the same as drawn paths. You get the greatest number of plants just at the edge of the path. Not in the middle and not way out into the wilderness either, because it’s just that mix of things happening.
Then D is a kind of catch all. It’s details. In The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, there are 850 things to look for. D is we kind of feel we’ve got the broad brush. We know the shape of the land. We know what it’s made of. We know where the rivers are. We know all of these sorts of things. We know what animals are there. Then D is just kind of like, “Okay. I’m now going to try and work something out just from the size of the leaf in front of me.”
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. I love that. This mental model is fantastic, because I’ve been using it the past few days and it’s crazy sort of the map you can develop in your brain just by using the SORTED method. It’s phenomenal. Let’s get into some of these details, because not only can it be useful to navigate, I just think it’s interesting. It’s made me more appreciative or more mindful of my environment. For example, one of my favorite chapters was on how to use trees to figure out which direction is which.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. This is a really good example of how if you haven’t come across this stuff it can seem like the dark arts. It’s kind of, “What? We can use-”
Brett McKay: It does.
Tristan Gooley: Actually, underpinning it all is just some very, very simple sort of nature. All green plants are responding to the elements, in particular things like light and wind. Once we know the sun is due south in the middle of the day every day of the year and that’s when it’s giving us most of its light, we find that of course green plants, light is a huge influence. It’s their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They can’t function without it. Actually, it’d be really odd if any green plants were symmetrical. If you’re getting most of your energy from one side of the sky as it were, it doesn’t make any sense to be symmetrical. We find that the shape of a tree is influenced by that. We find there are more and bigger branches on average on the southern side of trees, particularly desiduous trees, some of the pines are well like the Scots Pine.
The next thing we find is that actually if we zoom in a little bit, the shape of the branches is shaped by light as well. Because the branches are growing towards the sunlight, which means on average they will grow more vertically on the northern side and closer to horizontal on the southern side. What that means is if you’re looking from one side of the tree, you get what I call the check effect. Just imagine sort of drawing a … we call them ticks in the UK. I think you guys call them checks. You just draw a check in the air. You have that sort of vertical side to it and then a horizontal side to it. It’s a subtle effect.
In truth, most of the stuff that I write about and research is obvious when you know to look for it, but actually sits just below most people’s sort of noticing radar if you know what I mean. Because there are certain things everybody sees. Everybody can count the rings on a tree trunk that’s been felled. That’s stuff that’s still obvious, but most of this stuff is really easy to see when you know to look for it. If we then think of the leaves, in desiduous trees we have two types of leaf. We have the sun leaf and then the shade leaf. On the north side of the tree, the leaves aren’t getting enough energy, so the tree has a trick. It sends a sort of chemical message to the leaves, basically says, “You need to sort your act out,” and what it does is the leaves change from sun leaves to shade leaves. They grow bigger, darker in color, and thinner. What we find is the leaves on the north side of a tree are bigger and darker in color than the ones on the south side of the tree.
You get more roots on the side of a tree that the wind comes from. Once you know the prevailing wind direction in your area, and it’s the sort of thing you only need to sort of work out once, it’ll cover thousands of square miles most likely, you can see that these roots … this is a fun thing you can do actually. You won’t be able to do it on yourself, because I’m about to give you the answer, but you can do it on a friend. Just ask them to draw a tree and then ask them to draw the roots.
What you’ll find is they draw the roots underground. But actually if you go out there and have a look at trees, the vast majority of trees you can see the roots where they come up from the ground joining the trunk of the tree above the ground. These are called guide roots, and they are there like guide ropes on a tent to stop the tree being pushed over by the winds. It’s logical. Almost all this stuff is just it’s almost like nature’s common sense. It’s like well if you’re going to have roots to stop a tree blowing over, you’re going to want them bigger, stronger, and longer on the side that the wind comes from. In total, there are 19 different methods, but we’ve got a nice selection there hopefully.
Brett McKay: You even talk about how the bark on some sides are darker or lighter than the other because the tree creates its own sunscreen.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. You get a mixture. Instead of looking for individual alga, lichens, mosses or other effects on the tree, what I recommend to people is, because it will be slightly different wherever you are, is just whether you’re using the sun or a compass or a smartphone, it doesn’t matter, once you’ve kind of got your bearings, just notice how in any light woodland … if you’re in really dense woodland, there’s not enough light to create dramatic effects, but most woodland we’ll find ourselves in, a bit of light’s getting in. You’ll notice the color on each side of the bark, at first it appears subtly different. Then when you tune into it, you start to notice actually it’s quite a dramatic difference quite often.
The more open the woodland is, the more dramatic the effect. Sometimes you’ll get really, really vivid colors. In some parts of the world, I’ve found sort of bright greens and bright oranges on the south side of trees and very dark strips. Sometimes you get this kind of rust color on the north side of a tree, which is an algae called trentepohlia. But actually, people can get put off if they think, “Right. I’ve got to look for this individual thing that’s called this in this situation.” You don’t need to do any of that. You just kind of go out there and you go, “Okay. I’ve got my bearing. It’s lunch time. I know the sun’s south in the middle of the day. Okay, so that’s roughly south. Oh yeah, when I look that way, all the trees are this color, and when I look that way they’re a different color,” and you’re up and running.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s the one that I’ve been using a lot. Because there’s tree everywhere, so you can try this out. It’s hard I’ve noticed in like suburban neighborhoods, because as you said, most trees have this general asymmetrical shape thanks to nature, but in most suburban areas trees are trimmed. They’re more symmetrical. That’s one sign that you’re around human beings is that trees take on an oddly symmetrical shape.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. Even in those ones, it’s worth looking. Look at the very tops of the tree, because you’re right. The more densely populated an area is, the more we tend to bully nature. Yeah, we’ll trip trees right down, but they’re still be a little bit of growth at the top of the tree probably that’s been exposed to the prevailing winds even in the heart of quite big cities. I’ve found it in the heart of London, in Manhattan. You just see a little what looks like a sort of giant’s hand has sort of brushed over the top of the tree, and you just get a very slight bending in the most exposed. The most exposed part of the tree is obviously the highest part. That also tends to be the weakest part. It doesn’t take gale force winds to bend those over. You just need a little prevailing wind reaching it, which you might not get in a high rise sort of street, but in a park in a city you can quite often spot it.
Brett McKay: You can also use not just individual trees but like how trees grow together to figure out if you’re close to humans or a city or not. I think you talked about in the book if you come upon a wooded area and there’s just a really fine, like a detailed line where the forest quote/unquote “starts”. That’s something you should tune into, because that might mean you’re close to a city or a farm or something.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that we can build quite quickly and it sort of appeals to our ancient view of nature is when other human beings are involved, have been getting involved in the landscape. Because if we think historically, it was quite an important sign. If you’re walking across an area that you think is total wilderness, going back many thousands of years now, and actually it’s a place that’s been occupied by other humans that you don’t know are there, that’s as great a threat as anything nature’s going to throw at you probably.
My theory, which I can’t back up with any science, it’s just a gut feel is that we are particularly sensitive to any signs of human sculpting of the landscape. As you say, straight lines on forests, nature doesn’t create that many straight lines. If you talk to indigenous people, they’ll go several years without seeing a right angle. These straight lines we tend to pick up on. Our eyes and our brain work together to notice shapes really, really effectively. Once we know that certain shapes aren’t natural, we sort of start to go, “Okay. We’re getting close to a town now.”
Again, a lot of natural navigation is shape recognition. If you notice there’s a copse, there’s a small sort of woodland on the hill and you just happen to notice, “That’s an interesting shape. The trees are shorter on one side than the other,” that’s not going to be random. That’s because there’s more wind coming from that side. Again, you’ve got a compass on the top of a hill that might be four or five miles away.
Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier that you were observing some mushrooms, some fungi to figure out if that could be of any use to you in your natural navigation. Are there any things you’ve come across with mushrooms, or mosses, or algae where they have a particular pattern that can lend clues to know where you’re at?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. The golden rule that sort of underpins all of this is no organisms live in isolation. They all have some relationships with other things. If we take the idea of every animal is dependent on plants at some point in its future, and even if it’s a carnivore it’s going to eat something that is then eating plants, every single plant is sensitive to what’s in the ground, what’s happening in the sky, temperature, air quality, all of these things. What we find is actually it’s a totally interconnected jigsaw. If we take the example that every tree is part of a map, beech trees don’t like waterlogged soil. Alders, willows, trees like that, quite happy in quite wet ground. From the top of the hill if we’re looking out there, we go, “Okay.” We can choose those trees for a dry route, those trees if we’re looking for a river.
Then there are other trees which help us in a different sort of map making, and they are some trees need to … they establish themselves very slowly. Trees like oaks, they don’t just pop up randomly all over the place, whereas trees like birches do. They have a totally different strategy for survival, which is millions of seeds on the wind popping up all over the place. Very, very few of them survive past the first 10 years of life, but there are so many out there that it kind of works for them.
In a map making sense, what that means is they tend to do really well at the edge of forests. They’re kind of first in. They like the advanced party. They go in there and start. Over many decades, the slower trees like the oaks will start to bully them out because they have a better long term strategy. In map making terms, what we say is, “Okay.” We feel a bit lost in the woods, and you were just sensitive to the fact the trees have changed. We’ve been passing a few oaks and a few beeches. Suddenly were seeing birches. “Ah, we’re getting near the edge of the woodland.”
Now all we do is bring in an extra piece, which is fungi don’t live in isolation. They have quite often essential relationships with other organisms, not the least trees and tree roots. We quite often right these if not symbiotic than certainly sort of partnership relationships where a certain fungi will mean a certain tree. There’s a fungi I see around here a bit and there’ll be an equivalent where you are. It’s called the fly agaric, and it’s bright red with white spots. It’s probably the one that inspired the fairy tale toadstool. You know the one I mean with the bright red and the white spots. That is a very strong indicator of birch trees.
If we started bringing all of those pieces together, we feel a bit lost in the woods, the only thing we can remember to do is, “Right. We just mustn’t walk in circles,” so we’ve decided to try and use whatever method we have, maybe the feel of the wind. We’re going to try not to walk in circles. Because we’re sensitive to the nature, we notice the trees have changed. Then suddenly we spot the bright red mushroom in the distance. Yes, it’s a fly agaric. Yes, there are the birch trees. It’s all part of that map of things getting a little bit better.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Everything builds upon it. You can’t use these things in isolation. Oftentimes you have to use them interconnected, because nature is interconnected.
Tristan Gooley: Absolutely. It’s to do with the size of jigsaw pieces. If our aim is for people to get up and running, to be honest they’ll just want tricks. I try not to teach tricks, because in a way it’s stripping out some of the interest. Sun due south in the middle of the day, if nobody’s used that for a while and you just start using it, you start to notice other things quite quickly. That’s like one big jigsaw piece. That’s giving you a really dependable bit of direction. At the other end of the scale, we might have the way a certain butterfly has a relationship with a certain plant, or perhaps it only flies in certain temperatures. That’s quite an arcane bit of knowledge that is unlikely to be your biggest piece of the jigsaw, but it could be the piece that makes a difference. It’s quite often the small jigsaw pieces are the ones that give us the confidence to then actually bring some other ones in.
A good example might be I say to people if you feel lost and you’re starting to get that quite normal, natural feeling of panic, start seeing if you can work out north or south from temperature. Just start feeling two sides of a rock or two sides of a tree. What happens is probably 9 times out of 10 there isn’t a big enough temperature difference to give you a really strong fix on direction. You’re not going to feel two sides and go, “That’s so much warmer. That’s definitely south. Off we go.” But actually what it does do is it kicks your brain, it gets it away from panic into a kind of, “I’m not totally out of control here. I’ve got some information.” The second you start doing that, the number of times I’ve done that and I’ve spotted something on the ground or nearby, and you very quickly go from that feeling like you’re falling down into this sort of valley of panic, you suddenly get pushed back up to this feeling of like, “This might not be easy, but I can do it.”
Brett McKay: One of my favorite chapters was the chapter on the sky, like a blue daytime sky. I think it’s something we take for granted. Also, I liked it because I was able to finally know what to tell my kid when he asks me why is the sky blue. It’s one of those things you learn when you’re in elementary school or primary school and then you forget as an adult. What are some things that people take for granted about a blue daytime sky, and how can we use that information that we take for granted to get our bearings in the world?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. It’s a good example of how our brain’s never idle. It’s taking in stuff all the time, but in the modern lifestyle we’ve kind of shifted that focus. We now see a new email popping into our inbox the way an ancient person would have noticed a slight change in color in the sky. One of the exercises that doesn’t necessarily give you a huge amount of useful information but it starts to sort of show you what you’re perhaps not seeing is that we go out and we see what we think is a pure blue sky. If you go out there and look there and scan all around the horizon and above you in all directions, not staring directly at the sun because that’s obviously not good for us but in every other direction, we suddenly notice that there are a hundred colors there. The horizon is never pure blue, unless you’re at the top of a very high mountain.
You’re going to look out and you look at the horizon and you’re going to see a color that is much closer to white than the blue of the sky above you. If it’s the start of the day and you’ve got the sun in the eastern sky, you’ll notice an awful lot of brightness reflecting back from the west as well, because the air actually reflects light back at us. You start to realize that there’s this kind of tapestry of shades and colors that have always been there but we haven’t necessarily noticed them. Once you start tuning into that, you start to notice that, “Hey, wait a minute. That little patch of whiteness up there isn’t explained by sunlight reflecting. What is that? Ah, that’s the wispy, candy floss type cloud. That’s cirrus. That’s interesting. Well, I’d better keep an eye on that, because I know that cirrus quite often comes at the leading edge of a front.”
Okay. A few hours later, there’s a little halo around the sun. “That’s cirrostratus. I know cirrus followed by cirrostratus, the weather is about to deteriorate.” One simple example raises the awareness, and it’s the raised awareness that makes us notice the signs of coming change.
Brett McKay: Right. Then also you can use some of this information to figure out if there are particles in the air, like man made particles like pollution. The sky changes color or the smells are more strong because of things like that.
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. One of my favorites is the way temperature, smell, and sound can all connect. If you wake up in the morning and it’s a sort of cool morning, quite common at sort of fall time, and you just suddenly pick up a sort of musty smell in the air, it’s like smoke but it’s not that sort of powerful acrid smell you get if there’s a fire near you. You’re just picking it up, because again we’ve evolved to pick that. That’s a really important smell in a sort of evolution context. You go, “I wonder what that is.” If you then, having picked up that smell, just have a really good listen, if you’re in a place you know well you’ll start to notice you can hear things that you can’t normally. You also start to notice that visually things are a little bit different at the horizon, because what’s happened is there’s a temperature inversion.
Normally, as we know, the air gets cooler with altitude. It’s colder at the top of mountains than the bottom. But occasionally, a layer of warm air will sit on top of cold air and trap it like a sandwich. We’re in that cold layer of the sandwich, and sound and light is getting trapped in there as well. We hear things, loud things, whether it’s an airport, a road, a train station, an explosion. Something like that will travel much further under an inversion. But also in the horizon, particularly if you’re anywhere near water, you’ll notice these wonderful optical effects, things like there’s an Italian name for it called the Fata Morgana, which it’s a type of fairy is the idea, but it makes things appear to float. It’s similar to sort of mirage, but a little bit different. What we start to realize is the smell we smelled when we walked out in the morning is actually connected to the way that we’re hearing a train we can’t normally hear. Yeah, just part of the interconnectedness.
Brett McKay: I love that. There’s so much more we could talk about. How many things did you say you’ve collected that you should look for out in nature? It was some 800?
Tristan Gooley: In that book, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, there are 850 or a few more. But the way my work generally goes is I’ve probably collected, if I had to guess, over 10,000, but my job as a writer is to act as quite a stern filter. Pretty much every day I’m gathering a few, but it’s the exception when it feels powerful enough that I’m still using it a month later. If it’s absolutely brilliant, I’ll find I’m using it three months or six months later, and then it makes it into a book. My kind of job is to go out there. It’s like sort of foraging for clues. As I said, there’ll be a few each day, but it’s a good week if there are two or three that make it into the following week. It’s quite a brutal pruning process to get the ones that are good enough for the book.
Brett McKay: Right, Darwinian. Well, I’m curious, Tristan, since you’ve been doing this natural navigation, how has it changed the way you look at other parts of your life, right? In your personal life, whatever, has that carried over, sort of the observation and the mindfulness?
Tristan Gooley: Yeah. I think I’ve realized that I can probably go a day without being in nature and not notice it too much, but if I go a whole week without it I definitely don’t enjoy that. I think exercise is a good analogy as well, because I think we all by trial and error find that there’s a certain amount of exercise that we not just want but need. Some people get away with not very much. Some people feel the need to run a marathon a week. I think fresh air and nature immersion is a similar thing. I think we all need some, but it’s not for me to say how much.
In a sort of slightly broader sense, I think taking an interest in navigation and having a bit of fun with it can actually help in terms of decision making, because I think one of the things that we’re all capable of and isn’t necessarily the strongest side to all of our characters is this feeling that life forces us down this trajectory and we’re just going to grumble about it, and just 10 years are going to go by where things don’t go exactly the way we want and it was just life dealing me bad card after another. We all kind of know that’s not true and yet we do all sometimes, I’m no exception, we do all sometimes find ourselves going down a track in life as it were and you sort of go, “This isn’t going exactly the way I want.” It’s very tempting to sort of, “Well, somebody forced me down this track,” but actually the more interest you take in navigation, the more likely you are to go, “Well, maybe I should take a different one. How difficult and scary it feels now, those one isn’t working. I need to take a different one.” I think that’s for me navigation start when you choose which side of bed to get out of, and it doesn’t finish until you’ve found a path that’s satisfying and edifying.
Brett McKay: Well, Tristan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work.
Tristan Gooley: Thanks, Brett. There’s lot of information on my website, NaturalNavigator.com. There’s a whole section explaining about the books I’ve written and what they contain, but you can also explore the subject through the different areas. People have different interests. You might want to look at the plants. You might be more interested in the stars. Down the left hand side, there’s a menu so you can just go in through those and just have a bit of a play and pick up a couple of techniques to have a go at.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Tristan Gooley, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Tristan Gooley: Thanks, Brett. Really enjoyed it. All the best.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Tristan Gooley. He’s the author of the book How to Read Nature. It’s available now for preorder on Amazon.com. Also, check out more about his work at NaturalNavigator.com. When you go there, he’s got information about everything. You can pick any topic, how to be guided by the sun, the moon, stars, plants, animals, you name it. he’s got articles on there all for free, so go check it out, NaturalNavigator.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/readnature where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoy this show, you got something out of it, I appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.