The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs | Book Review

“I do not go walking with the purpose of staying within a world of perfect safety and comfort. Personally, I would rather die walking than die of boredom reading about how to walk safely.” –Tristan Gooley, xi

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I don’t remember how I came across Tristan Gooley. It must have been through YouTube or an online reference, but somehow I was led to buy this book and his second work on Kindle. I’ve always wanted to be able to navigate through the natural realm and know exactly where I’m going. This idea kept coming back every time I remembered My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Robinson Crusoe, John Locke’s character on LOST, or Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. I re-read Walden a few times and enjoyed that Nature-savvy protagonist so much and realized that as much as I like hearing about nature and surviving in it, I myself know nothing about it. I knew how to use several teas and herbs, some essential oils, but that’s pretty much it. The trigger was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer where for the first time I realized that my idealized and romanticized notion of nature has a dark side. So I turned to Gooley.

lost artThis book is a ‘how-to’ manual but told with the storytelling skills of Thoreau. He takes breaks through the instructions to share anecdotes or personal stories of how that specific skill has helped him in navigating or explains how it would have come in handy to know before. Some of his stories really keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Sense and thought, observation and deduction, this simple two-step process is the key to transforming a walk from mind-numbing to synapse-tingling.”

The first four chapters focus on getting grounded and sorted (the latter used in this book as an acronym: Shape Overall character Routes Tracks Edges Detail). He discusses the ground, soil, trees, and plants as ways to find your bearings during the day. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Mosses, Algae, Fungi, and Lichens (my personal favourite) as well as rocks and wildflowers (to a botanist or geologist this may be elementary but here we are learning how to navigate using clues from them). Lastly, chapters 7 through 11 focus on navigating the sky and weather. He writes about constellations to look out for, alignments, the sun, moon, and general sky details that can help you navigate if you are lost at night.

After reading this I found myself sounding like a know-it-all scout:

“did you know that grey soil is usually wetter than the red to yellow shades and is often a symptom of leaching?”

“did you know that where there is limestone we also sometimes find holes, caves, and stone pillars?”

This book made me feel like Sherlock Holmes outside. And here is where things get interesting. What makes Gooley different for me, is that he takes into consideration the things we have like GPS, and the metropolis, and synthesizes the two with nature. This way you don’t feel like you’re reading an 1800s manual, rather it feels very present and in tune with our days, our hobbies, and the tools we have at our disposal. For instance, chapter one begins with the explanation of smelling smoke on a cold morning (in the city!). I always thought something was on fire, but Gooley then explains that it’s the effect of temperature inversion and that “the smoke from factories and home fires gets trapped near the ground and spreads along under the warmer layer, giving the air a musty whiff of smoke.”

This book for me is a solid 4.5-5 stars in the non-fiction realm because it delivers what it promises in the title and it’s told with such great skill. There are sprinkles of science (i.e. Latin Linnaean terminology and classification) but it’s carefully placed among many practical, ‘how-to’ passages, and personal anecdotes. Gooley has five other books out: The Natural Navigator, The Natural Explorer, How to Connect with Nature, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs and How to Read Water. The last I’ve already purchased on Kindle and can’t wait to get started.

The book is printed by The Experiment in New York, and the illustrations within the book as well as the front cover are done by Neil Gower. Gooley can be found at naturalnavigator.com

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Book Covers for Gooley’s works with the exception of The Walker’s Guide.

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