Could you find your way using the sun, lichens and a satellite dish? On a day exploring the South Downs with chief natural navigator, Tristan Gooley, we learnt that there are clues in everything (if you know how to find them).
Since the advent of Google Maps, I’ve spent my life on autopilot. Without having to look out for specific roads or landmarks to find my way, I often arrive at my destination without any recollection of the journey I’ve been on. I completely zone out, focusing more on shaving precious minutes off my ETA than on the path in front of me.
I rely almost entirely on digital maps to get me around. Even when I’m cycling or running anywhere new, I use my Garmin computer or Suunto watch. It’s practical, efficient and helps me to plan better. Plotting out a route before setting out means I know that I have time to fit it into my often hectic life, and knowing that I’ll be able to find my way back again if I ever get lost makes exploration a little easier. While efficiency is sometimes necessary, however, it’s not necessarily always for the best.
I first heard Tristan Gooley on The Adventure Sports Podcast when I was feeling particularly non-present. I was driving to work with with one eye on the road and one fixed on Google Maps (yes I still use Google Maps even when driving routes I’ve done a thousand times). He explained that natural navigation is the art of finding direction by using clues in nature and that we can find clues in everything if we know what we’re looking out for.
Natural navigation sounded like the antidote to a life on autopilot – the cure for an over reliance on technology and a way to become more present. Perhaps I was over-romanticising it, but while driving on the M4 en route to an office in an industrial estate, I was looking for an escape. I reached out to Tristan to see if he’d like to teach us the basics and, graciously, he agreed.
We met Tristan in Arundel and he led us on one of his favourite natural navigation walks – a 10km loop on the South Downs. He taught us how to navigate using the sun, lichens and the prevailing wind. He also helped us to identify natural shades that are missing from today’s maps; the wildlife and plants that live between rural and urban areas, and the clues that show man’s impact on the natural world throughout history.
Tristan was a great teacher and a fascinating man to go for a walk with. At the end of the day, we asked him to explain how he got into it, the tips he’d give to beginners and why he thinks natural maps can rival the accuracy of Google.
How do you define natural navigation?
Natural navigation has its roots in a practical skill – it’s the art of finding our way using nature. To me though, it’s much more about finding the most interesting journey between two places. I take the view that I might not do a specific walk or a journey again, so it’d be a shame to not take notice of the things around me. Simply saying ‘I might only go through here once so I need to appreciate it’ might not be enough. Natural navigation tempts us into noticing these things and being present.
How did you get started?
I was a restless kid. I have fond memories of exploring my back garden and beyond without a map. I was always climbing up hills, convinced that the top would be more interesting than the bottom, and crossing bodies of water to see what was on the other side. Over time my journeys got bigger. In my mid-twenties I set new goals, new challenges and started to mix up navigation techniques. I was using natural navigation on the water before I knew what the words really meant, driven predominantly by the shape of the journeys I was creating. I was much more interested in how I was joining the thread between A and B than simply getting to B, and relied more heavily on conventional (ancient) navigation techniques as a result.
What were the first signs you started to look for in nature?
The excitement I felt at the beginning came in two stages. The first was when I learnt how to find the North Star, and how to use the sun to navigate South in the middle of the day. The second was when I realised that those things are direction. Instead of thinking ‘this is a trick that will tell me what my compass will tell me’, I started to realise that they were the true source and it’s more likely that the compass will be inaccurate than these natural signs.
How does natural navigation enhance your experience of the outdoors?
Natural navigation has three levels:
1. People who are new to it tend to think of it as a bag of tricks. There are hundreds of ways we can use nature, plants, animals, clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon, building or people to find direction. It’s fun to find a quick trick that works, like the fact that TV satellites point South East.
2. The next level is trying to understand nature, and gaining a sense of direction through that, so understanding that flowers are trying to attract insects and therefore more likely to face towards the sun. Therefore, flowers generally point South. At this point, we’re building an understanding of nature and becoming curious about it.
3. At the third level, our relationship with nature becomes deep and infinitely fascinating. It becomes possible to make a map using nature when you accept that nothing we see outdoors is random. Everything can be used as a sign and can build a part of our map. Every animal and plant has a habitat. Once we know that a certain species of tree might thrive in water, we can assume when we see it that there will be water close by. This third level has no end of things to connect to and discover. It doesn’t take long to get to this stage, but can take a lifetime to really grab a hold of.
Could you make a map to rival the accuracy of Google Maps?
I would like to think so. Every map that gets made reflects cultural choices as well as serving a practical purpose. Ordnance Survey maps list all churches, but might miss Zen Buddhist Centres, for example. Natural Navigation creates maps with infinite shades; where Google Maps might show rural or urban spaces with great levels of detail, it won’t show you that jackdaws live in the areas between urban and rural, or the fact that more lichen and ivy grow at the edge of woodland.
Every plant and animal can grade a map for you, which is detail that’s missing from an electronic map. This is where the purpose of natural map making shifts from doing it because it’s the most practical way of understanding the landscape to doing it because it’s the most interesting and intriguing. To me, it’s just a beautiful puzzle.
When you go on walks, do you find yourself making maps constantly?
Yes and I still delight in, and struggle with, nature. The richness and abundance of it even in heart of city is such that it can be overwhelming, and when you’re looking for clues and signs in everything, there is a slight danger of information overload. Our brain receives over 11 million bits of information from our senses every second, so I try to limit my focus to just one area. For instance, on one walk I might look to see if the insects are telling me anything. On the next I might focus purely on the clouds.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into natural navigation?
I’d say have fun and don’t make it too tough to start with. Get used to the idea that, in northern parts of the world (like all of the UK and Europe), the sun is pointing south for you. Then start to have fun with the question ‘which way am I looking?’ Every single time you go on a walk, or even when you’re killing time on a smartphone, ask yourself ‘which way am I looking?’, then use whatever clues are around you to work it out before checking on your phone’s compass. Clues could be anything from the shape of sand dunes to the way people are walking on a pavement a couple of floors down from you. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, because our brains take pleasure in just attempting to solve mini mysteries. We evolved by making sense of the things around us, and the second you reward yourself with this kind of exercise you’re well on your way to forming a deep interest.
Do you think we’ve lost an understanding of the world that was held by our ancestors?
I think we live in an exciting time. We’ve not lost anything permanently, and we no longer need to regard the skills our ancestors had as necessary. Take food for example. For tens of thousands of years, humanity’s struggle was to not starve. And then, in the space of a few decades within industrialised societies, we created an obesity problem. When you can buy a burger for £1, the fascination with food’s importance and rich culture disappears.
When it comes to navigation, Google Maps is the burger. We’re in danger of going in the same direction, but we can choose to have the best of both worlds. If we’re running 10 mins late for a job interview that’s going to change life, I won’t advocate that you spend half an hour trying to navigate looking at lichens on the pavement. We can use tech to save time and natural navigation as an enriching, enjoyable experience.
What’s so exciting is that we can actually do much better than our ancestors. We can use the stars to navigate just like the Ancient Greeks did, for example, but we can also do things that they’d find mind-blowing. All the research that’s happened since in areas such as botany, that shows us how plants grow, can teach us so much more about the world we live in. Natural navigation was a purely practical thing for the Ancient Greeks, but we can take the practical and make it cultural by adding so much more information. We can make maps today that our ancestors would have been bowled over by. ▲
To learn more about Natural Navigation visit Tristan’s fantastic website & Books www.naturalnavigator.com