Tristan Gooley, to my knowledge the world’s only professional Natural Navigator, has just spent an enraptured morning studiously examining Brighton & Hove’s assorted walls. “If you told someone you can actually enjoy two hours looking at walls, they’d think you’ve gone off the rails,” he says with a laugh. I’d hesitate to judge anyone so quickly, but I’ll freely admit my sense of curiosity is buzzing. This might be someone to watch.
With modern lifestyles increasingly robbing us of time, anyone could be forgiven for not realising the subtle joys presented by an innocuous wall. No, really. Simple colour variations and plant growth can indicate some interesting clues about the surrounding environment. Natural Navigation is about finding your way using only the information before you. Its core principle is that the sky leaves footprints across every landscape and almost anything can help make a map.
Across his work, Gooley aims to attribute such observations with a personality, understanding that the human mind is better triggered by relationships and stories than by sterile facts. “I see it like taking people to a party and introducing them to a lot of characters, perhaps a few hundred. I don’t expect every reader to think they’re all amazing, but they should find a few interesting.” It makes sense. I’m not internationally renowned for my recognition of complex biological networks, but most of us can understand a good party.
There are plenty of naturalists using compelling and educational methods to spread their message, but perhaps they operate at a slight disadvantage. If you’re wholeheartedly enraptured by something from an early age, it can be difficult to emphasise with those who don’t instantly see the value in the object of your obsessions. “I was into journeys, and I always used to joke that nature was something which got in my way. Now, I won’t ask someone to just look at a wildflower, I’ll give them a reason to do it.” Gooley’s own journey to becoming a naturalist traversed a slightly unorthodox route. Crossing various landscapes as part of his former jobs, he slowly grew to love his subject. This in turn has helped develop an alternative understanding of how to inspire the layperson.
Working in travel industry during his 20s, he’d set out on his own adventures – like taking two weeks off to try and reach North Africa’s highest point and return without buying a ticket. Across this time, he started to appreciate the wealth of signals nature was presenting. “By my early 30s, there were three things in my life. The day job, my family and friends and Natural Navigation, and all three of them were expanding in their demands. So, I had to get rid of one.” Now he’s forged a livelihood from making people aware of the signs scattered across any nearby environment. His home in Eartham sits among the foothills of the South Downs, offering ample countryside for him to explore and inform his work.
He was undertaking wide-ranging navigation tours around the world, which were helping hone his craft. But there was a definite moment when he realised it wasn’t as satisfying as it should be. “I flipped to doing very short trips, just a couple of miles across the countryside. I will do longer expeditions if there’s a pot of ‘knowledge gold’ at the end of it. If I need to find out how the Dayak find their way across the heart of Borneo, that’s not something I can do on the internet.”
It’s clear Gooley passionately believes you can’t have an interesting journey without some thought about any clues and signs along the way, which has inspired him to write a series of books – each looking at the world from a particular perspective. Released earlier this month, the latest is The Secret World of Weather, which offers an astounding look at what familiar natural sights can tell us.
“I do see it as a holistic enterprise, with all the things overlapping. A cloud, a star, the Moon, an animal, you can connect all these things.” His philosophy evokes something he calls the ‘House Of Wild Truth.’ Every time we go outdoors, it presents a metaphorical table inside a mansion. All you can do is walk around the property, peering in through the various windows for a fleeting glimpse of this. Every window offers a different perspective on reality.
Natural Navigation is likely the most sustainable hobby you’ll find today. Even activities like foraging, which were considered entirely harmless a while ago, can become victims of their own success. There’s also lots of ‘eco-friendly’ hobbies requiring the purchase of kit, which will leave a certain footprint.
The whole venture has grown far beyond entertaining his children with interesting facts about the striped grass at football matches (when the mower has moved towards the spectator, the grass appears darker, as it doesn’t reflect the sky). The big shift has been from knowing there are several clues and wanting to better understand them, to realising every single thing can offer a clue.
It’s not just the countryside where Natural Navigation can be practised. Town centres can offer a variety of clues to the order of things. Satellite dishes will be pointing roughly South-East, while foot traffic will tend to move away from stations in the morning and towards them in the evening.
Urban landscapes also create their own cloud cover, so essentially draw a map in the sky if you know what to look for. And it’s worth remembering that weather reports concentrate on wind patterns hundreds of feet above you, not what’s immediately affecting our daily lives. “If you walk around The Lanes, in the space of five minutes you’ll feel at least 20 different winds. The forecasts on TV are covering the whole of the south of England, whereas the local landscape is having a huge impact on us. The way the Sun or the rain behave is all related to that small patch of land you’re on.” Much of this is covered in The Secret World of Weather, taking in the effects of ground level micro-climates and collecting every little indicator which has worked for him.
At this point his curious obsession strikes that personal chord for me, as Gooley explains how air quality can greatly vary between either side of an urban street. If the wind is blowing across it, say left to right, the left side will have the most pollution. This because wind hitting buildings, gets forced down and then out again, effectively shepherding all the CO2, dust and car fumes onto the more sheltered side. If you have even the slightest awareness of the world around you, it seems Natural Navigation will find something to intrigue you.
He freely admits it all sounds like an eccentric pastime, especially to the uninitiated, but the British have a proud history of obsessively charting the odd little intersections between natural sciences. Compelled only by the reward of discovery, poking about in esoteric fields has long been a noble pursuit for polymaths. During the early 19th-century, the nation’s scientific community was dominated by landed gentry and clergy. Blessed with abundant free time, a comfortable income to facilitate their whimsey and inquisitive minds, they had a momentous impact on society’s knowledge of self and surroundings.
What Gooley explores is very much in this vein of practice, pulling together different strands of ecology, metrology, biology and astronomy to create his own unique and fascinating view of the world. At its core, Natural Navigation deploys almost anything you can sense outdoors to create a tangible chart of the nearby environment. Even those city walls can offer a visible indication of what the atmosphere is doing. The Sun creates a disinfectant effect, so south-facing facades present a cleaner appearance with less moss or algae build-up.
Britain obviously provides a diverse range of landscapes, perfect for Natural Navigation. And Sussex hosts a particularly fascinating biosphere. Its two major water influences, along with interesting chalk and clay geology, establish four major variables across the county. In some parts of the world, such as Australia, you would have to drive for hours to see each of these. “It’s true of Britain as a whole. You can pack a lot of variety in. And where there’s variety, there’s opportunities to understand how these things influence each other.”
Gooley says he’s felt a little guilty during this era of social distancing. While most businesses have suffered, he’s seen a sharp upturn of interest in his books. As part of our recommended exercise, many of us have been walking the same patch of land for months, so any way to make this more interesting is warmly welcomed. “People are also reading a lot more. Weirdly, I’d never have considered running an online course before lockdown. Now, I’ve had people emailing from places like East Africa, saying they’d followed my work for years but never been able to really engage with it.” It’s another demonstration of how the World Wide Web can create pan-global communities, no matter how esoteric their unifying interest. It’s ironic, as what Gooley does exists very much in the physical realm.
There’s maybe a few million people everywhere who are interested in this subject, but not enough in one place for any other means of communication to work. The Internet is perfectly suited to anything which is a bit niche. Just 15 years ago, any kind of esoteric interest would likely be restricted to being pursued only as a hobby, as it was still difficult to build audiences. You might be reduced to ordering books from a bookshop or library to access information, with the occasional conference to meet like-minds. Back in 2021, the trapping of a modern age means anyone can turn fascination into business. “Now, if you woke up one morning and decide all you care about is 16th century Dutch porcelain, you can set up a website and realise you’re not alone.”
A typical week will involve at least one short exercise for Gooley, where he’ll find an unfamiliar patch of countryside, then literally just wander off into the woods. “If you’re being really precise and sometimes I’m training people who have to be – like the military – it’s a very different thing. It’s like the difference between picking blackberries on a Sunday afternoon and trying to prepare a meal to impress a chef.” He says the subject is the most fun when he can pause to examine anything he wants to, instead of having to efficiently travel between two exact points.
It does seem like a pastime which can easily scale up or down. You can throw a loaf of bread into a bag, jump over the garden wall and navigate your way to Wales, if you really want to. But you can also use it to liven up a well-trodden walk to work or a saunter round the local park, better understanding how everything works together. “Like everybody, I never have enough time. In one of my books, I say it’s better to go for a walk which takes half an hour, than go for a half hour walk.” Perhaps we’re in danger of losing a precious contact with nature as we become more hurried, isolated and technologically dependent. Many of us can even be accused of taking nature for granted or ignoring the profound impact brought by human activity. The discussions around this could be endless, but Natural Navigation seems to provide a simple, personal and humanistic route to taking a fresh look at the world around us. “The psychology in that area is very interesting. You can’t change people’s behaviour by telling them what they ought to do. What you have to do is to rewrite their own desires, and that is what stories are very good for. If you give people the tools to forge a genuine relationship with a patch of land, they will start to notice change.”
Tristan Gooley’s The Secret World of Weather is available now from all reputable bookshops.
To find out more about courses run by The Natural Navigator, HEAD HERE.