Who is ‘natural navigator’ Tristan Gooley?

PUBLISHED: 16:34 17 December 2020 | UPDATED: 16:35 17 December 2020

Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim Holden

Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim Holden

©2020 Jim Holden - all rights reserved www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

Eartham man Tristan Gooley has made a career out of sharing the secrets of the natural world. But in the COVID era, even explorers have had to change their working practices

Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim HoldenNatural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim Holden

Tristan Gooley pops up on my laptop screen sitting at a desk in what appears to be the middle of the woods. This, I think, is the most impressive Zoom backdrop I’ve seen yet. But it turns out he really is outside. His ‘office’ is a converted Forestry Commission cabin in Eartham Woods, which back onto the garden of the 18th century cottage he shares with wife Sophie and their two sons Vinnie, 16 and Ben, 13. “It became a habit in the first lockdown and I’m going to try and stick with it all through winter,” he explains of his al fresco workspace. “It helps me feel less..locked-down.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Gooley is, after all, the UK’s first - and only - ‘natural navigator’. In normal times he can be found guiding groups across muddy land sharing the secrets of the natural world. His books include How To Read Water; Wild Signs and Star Paths, and How To Connect With Nature. The online world is not his preferred environment. But these are not normal times and many of his hands-on expeditions have now morphed into digital ones, including an online version of the Natural Navigation School he founded in 2008. He admits he struggled with the idea of teaching the ‘patterns and shapes’ of nature away from an outdoor classroom. “But even indigenous communities don’t teach on the hoof all the time. The Pacific Island navigators for example teach a lot in their outrigger canoes on the ocean, but a lot of the really fundamental stuff they do on the beach using shells and stones. I realised that actually there are some things you can do better online than outdoors.”

Either way, his work hasn’t suffered from lack of interest. “I’m lucky in that I’m a medium-sized fish in the smallest pond in the world. When lockdown happened, I think almost everyone thought, ‘Right. So we have to walk the same patch of the earth’s surface every day, how do we make that more interesting?’” After all, natural navigation is not simply about travelling from A to B without using a map (although the idea of finding one’s way using only the clouds is pretty cool). It’s an art, he says, as much as a science – “in the sense that it is an interpretive skill that can be honed through immersion and passion.” Suddenly he stops talking and asks if I can hear the birdsong in the woods: “That tells me there’s no one walking behind me.” If there were, he explains, the birds would shift from song to a frantic, percussive sound in what he describes as ‘a sort of Neighbourhood Watch scheme.’ The reason it’s percussive is that chicks have to be able to replicate it as early as possible. “Song is a complex, adult behaviour but alarm calls have to be simple to make and to understand.”

Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim HoldenNatural Navigator Tristan Gooley in woods near his Eartham home. Photo: Jim Holden

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Other observations are of a more whimsical nature. Tristan has been fascinated by the emergence over the past year of what he has dubbed

‘smile paths’ – curved routes trodden into the land as social distancing prompts walkers to distance themselves from those coming in the opposite direction. He has even noticed it near park benches. “There’s a normal distance for people to walk past someone sitting on a park bench and a Covid distance and the two are not the same.”

These are not, he admits, the examples of derring-do he excelled in during his 20s and 30s, when he led expeditions in five continents, climbed mountains in Europe, Africa and Asia and piloted small aircraft to Africa and the Arctic. But then the apparent daring of such adventures is, he feels, debatable. “I stopped climbing mountains when I realised there’s an altitude where it actually becomes quite pedestrian and dull. Once you go above 20,000ft you’re either an out-and-out mountain specialist pioneering new routes, which is an amazing and important job, or you’re following in someone else’s footsteps, pretty much being told where to step.” Roaming a kilometre of English woodland may not have the same exoticism but he found it offered ‘an intoxicating sense of freedom…for the first time I was genuinely choosing my path.” It was at that point he realised it was the shaping of journeys that he enjoyed most and set himself the goal of becoming an expert in navigation. Last year (2020) his efforts were recognised when he was awarded the Harold Spencer-Jones Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of Navigation – the institute’s highest award, given for an outstanding contribution to navigation. I assume, on this evidence, that he is not someone familiar with Google Maps, but this isn’t quite true. “For me the interesting parts of natural navigation are when things are going well. Even I might not reach for natural navigation if things were going badly. If I’m late for a meeting in London, I’m not looking at the clouds or stars, I’m getting my smartphone out.” He tells me a horror story about a trip to Indonesia in his late-teens when he managed to get himself and his best friend lost for three days on an active volcano – ‘rash, youthful stupidity’ but a formative episode no less. It’s surely no coincidence that he likes to get himself ‘partly lost’ and practice an exercise he refers to as locating ’the invisible handrail’ in his surroundings every week. How does he feel now that his two boys are reaching the age when they might start planning their own adventures? “Soph and I joke about this regularly,” he says. “If they’re going to do half the crazy, stupid stuff I did between the ages of 16 and 25, I don’t want to know about it or I’m going to have to be medicated.”

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