A 2009 Review of Harold Gatty’s book, ‘Nature is Your Guide’
Surely the most potent books are not the ones that we read the minute after buying? The book that sits aloofly on a shelf, eyeing you briefly on occasion when you are browsing for something else entirely, is the one to beware.
A little over fifteen years ago I bought a secondhand copy of a book by a man called Harold Gatty. It is called, ‘Nature is Your Guide’, and it took its place between a Hayes Land Rover manual and a book about weather. There it stayed, quietly, obediently, respectfully awaiting its moment to change my life.
Not many have heard of Harold Gatty these days, although the name of his fellow navigator, Wiley Post, is still popularly recognized, if not for anything that can be recalled specifically. Post and Gatty set the world circumnavigation speed record in 1931, flying around the world in under nine days and smashing the previous record of twenty-one days. Mr Gatty’s navigational achievements stretched either side of this landmark, he set other records, pioneered new methods, improved devices (including an air sextant), and he wrote a couple of original books. The Raft Book explained how airmen who were downed at sea could survive. It was a big success and became standard issue for Allied airmen in wet places during WWII. It is sitting on a shelf behind me as I write. Perhaps in this age of celebrity the best way to get a feel for Gatty’s achievements is to look at the words of some of his very famous contemporaries. Howard Hughes sent him the following cable in 1938:
‘Greetings and gratitude, trail-blazing pioneer. We only followed where you led.’ Charles Lindbergh famously, at the time, described him as the ‘Prince of Navigators.’ He is as entitled to that label as the Portugese Prince Henry, who never set foot in a boat. My favourite is the following slightly bonkers observation of Will Rogers’,
‘He can take a one-dollar Ingersol watch, a Woolworth compass, and a lantern and at 12 o’clock at night he can tell you just how many miles the American farmer is from the poorhouse. He can look at the Northern Star and a Southern Democrat and tell you if Oklahoma will go Republican, or sane. He knows the Moon like a lobbyist knows the Senators.’
Harold Gatty spent the majority of his final years in the Pacific, where he had sunk his roots with his second wife by buying his own Fijian island, Katafanga. In 1957, aged only 54, he died from a stroke. The book that he wrote was published posthumously months later.
‘Nature is Your Guide’ must have been diagnosed by its publishers as suffering from a vague title and so it lived with variations on a theme of subtitles over the years. The copy that is under my elbow is the one I have read the most often; I have several copies and not enough. It has dropped the original title altogether and adopted an earlier subtitle, ‘Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass.’ What this title has gained in clarity it has unfortunately lost in elegance. This is a pity for me, because I maintain that navigation must not be shackled to the dry science of angles and speeds, it is the respectable face of romantic adventure and creative travel. For those who would argue this point I have only four words: Antoine de Saint Exupery!
Before I go too far I should confess that large parts of this book are too dry to be relaxing for the non-navigator (is there such a person?), but even here I feel a romantic Gatty trying to emerge. It is sometimes when he is recounting tales about others and borrowing their words that you see him for himself, the self-conscious seriousness evaporates, the tie loosens a little:
Some years ago that famous traveler [sic] and explorer, F. Spencer Chapman, was kayaking along the east coast of Greenland with an Eskimo hunting party. The coast was free from ice, and in the heavy swell the waves were audibly beating against the shore; so that when a dense fog suddenly came up and reduced visibility to a few yards the party had no difficulty in keeping within sound of the shore. They were some distance from home, and Chapman seriously worried about how they were going to strike the narrow entrance to their home fjord. But, as he writes: “The Eskimos seemed quite unperturbed… indeed they beguiled the time by singing verse after verse of their traditional songs and occasionally they threw their harpoons from sheer joie de vivre.”
Gatty goes on to describe with childish enthusiasm how the Eskimos used the different songs of the male snow buntings to identify their home fjord and find their way safely back in the thick fog.
‘Nature is Your Guide’, is one of those strange books that becomes more relevant the older it gets. It is about natural navigation, the rare art of finding your way by referring to nature alone, without using a compass or other tools. It is about travel, nature and bringing the two as close as possible by using our senses to their fullest. This skill was becoming rare in Gatty’s day, a time before GPS and other labour-saving gizmos. Today it is rarer still and yet the more we rely on TomToms and electronics the more we risk losing our senses and all that they bring to a journey.
‘Nature is Your Guide’ is a good and fair guide. It also elucidates quite nicely that we struggle to walk in a straight line even when sober. One leg is nearly always longer than the other and will lead us in circles if not checked:
“Practically everybody deviates. Among the majority of people the full blindfold deviation circle is formed in about half an hour…”
Its pages are filled with a quiet wisdom, the strong silent type that is happy to observe, with a wry smile, the glossy nonsense that whirls around it. What wisdom could be more real than learning that in central Brisbane the streets running one way have women’s names and the ones that cross them have men’s names?
For a discipline that few have heard of, natural navigation is a surprisingly large subject, taking in nature, science, history and folklore. This is not the book to lose yourself in, more the book to find yourself by way of moss and termite mounds. It is technical in plenty of places and hard-going at times, but it is also brilliant in the way that so many other posthumous publications are. It feels as though a man who had lived the fullest of lives with all his senses alert foresaw that he had one final chance to put something down that would reflect his unique time on this planet. Like most people of real substance he did not seek fame and although he achieved it for a short while, his work is not well known now.
Sometimes it is easier to testify to the power of a literary achievement with actions rather than words. Nine years after reading it for the first time I gave up my day job.
Like this article?
For a complete guide to Natural Navigation read Tristan’s books.