Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

Waterstones Paperback Interview

There was a special edition paperback of How to Read Water published only for Waterstones. It included an interview that was added to the back pages.

Here is a transcript of the interview:

Q: Do you write with a particular reader in mind?

Tristan Gooley: I teach and write books for, and give talks to, quite a broad group of people. At one end, there are what you might see as the hardcore survivalists – and also the military. And at the other end it’s anybody who enjoys the outdoors and is looking for another layer of understanding, a deep connection, things that you can notice that the person next to you might not.

Q: It’s a big jump from running expeditions to writing books, so how did that that happen ?

I suppose like a few people, I’m outdoors because I love it and for decades, I’ve been building this knowledge and using it and enjoying it without a great sense of it leading anywhere. And then I got to the point where I was teaching people informally and then that became formal. I set up my Natural Navigation School. And then I got approached to write and so there was actually quite a backlog of stuff, burning to get out. Quite soon, instead of teaching you know one or two people, or on occasion 20 people, it became talks to quite a large numbers and then books read by tens of thousands – and that’s been a fun ride.

Q.What was the real key motivation for you to sit down and write a book?

There were several steps, none of which were part of any grand strategy. I think when anybody does anything that has a degree of success, everybody including themselves, has a temptation to go, “Well, that was where we were aiming,” but that wasn’t what happened. I really enjoyed navigation long before I even understood what the word navigation meant. You know, I was very much enjoying the process of going, “Right. I am here I want to get there and I want to be the person who shapes that journey.” I’ve always been the person who’s been frustrated by following. You know, I have to switch off completely. I’m actually… it sounds like I’d be a nightmare to be led on a walk, but actually I’m quite good because it’s the same on a boat. You’re either skipper or you’re crew, and as long as you know which you are, and I have to flip a switch and go, “Okay, I’m now following,” and I have to slightly resist the temptation to try and shape a journey at all, otherwise it becomes frustrating. But that’s, as a young kid, that’s what I was doing and the hills became mountains. And what I found, the really shaping force for me, was that the journeys, you know, by the time I was 30, I was taking on some quite ambitious journeys, and the irony was they were bigger, bolder and more adventurous, more dangerous than the stuff I was doing as a 10-year old, but they weren’t more interesting or fun.

Q. What got you to the point where you had a repertoire of navigational skills that you’ve actually used on very big journeys?

The hills got bigger but they only got big to the point where I was still fully in control of the navigation. So a good example is when I went up Kilimanjaro during a holiday from university when I was 19 or 20, that was the last I had of any interest in altitude. I realized that once you start going above that height, unless you’re an out and out mountaineer pioneer, you end up following somebody else’s route, which was very much the case on Kilimanjaro. So I found, at that point, that actually the enjoyment wasn’t going up as the altitude went up. So I stuck to the mountains where I felt I was actually going to be able to shape the journey entirely myself. And sometimes it went well, sometimes it went very badly – like when I got very badly lost on 14,000-foot active volcano in Indonesia. But that was the limit for me in terms of where I felt I could genuinely be picking the route myself.

And then after the little messing about in little dinghies, the boats got a little bit bigger, the ponds became lakes, the lakes became oceans. The sort of thing I would do when I was working full-time in a travel company was booking a couple of weeks holiday from work, telling my wife I was going to play golf, which she knew was a lie because I don’t play golf. And then I tried to get from the South Coast of England to the summit of North Africa and back without buying a ticket. So it was little boat journeys, little aircraft journeys, and back. This built towards flying solo and then sailing singlehandedly across the Atlantic, which took seven years of preparation and planning.

Q: How did that lead you to embrace the idea of Natural Navigation?

The irony was that by the time I was crossing the Atlantic solo in a plane and a small boat I realized I’d committed to myself to doing it so I carried it through, but I’d realized, perhaps four or five years before actually doing it, that I could have as much fun trying to find my way for a mile or two across the woods using trees as my compass as I could 10,000 feet above the North Atlantic staring at the latest electronic navigation equipment in the world.

Q: Was there one moment or event that crystalized that feeling?

It’s a really exciting time in any outdoor person’s experience when they realize that scale of what you’re doing does not correlate with satisfaction or fun. And it’s really nice for me now because I’ve got two kids, both boys and I genuinely have as much fun doing a sort of two-hour thing in the woods with them as I did, as a 25-year old in the jungle somewhere. So all these pieces gradually came together into a very exciting realization. And now people say to me, “Where is the most exciting place you’d like to go?” For me, it’s the place with the most variety and the most life.

Q: Does that mean you’d rather be in the UK now?

I’ve spent time in a fair few remote regions that are very exciting when you go to them for the first time, but it makes you come back to your home patch with renewed excitement and passion. You realize that in a few square metres in Britain, you’ve just got a feast of opportunities. Even the smallest plant is trying to tell you something – it’s trying to make a map for you, it’s trying to give you a compass directions, and all sorts of other wonderful things as well. Even our back gardens are absolutely rich with opportunity.

Q: Can you explain that in more detail?

What I like to do is take a different lens (not a real one!) on each trip outdoors. When you’re new to any area it’s very hard to take it all in on one go. A little trick I’ve used for years is to stick one particular book in my backpack when I go out, and I quite often I don’t even look at it. But it’s reminding me the things not to overlook. So it might be a book about trees, it might be a book about wildflowers. I’m saying to myself, “Right, I’m going to just keep my focus in this area,” and then the lovely thing is you do that in lots of different areas, and you don’t lose those different abilities. It means the next time you go out, you notice the tree and you notice the wildflower that you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s like practicing anything. If you think of perhaps a football player, you know they’ll be practicing their sprinting one day, their fitness the next day, the dribbling the day after that, and then it comes to the match, all these things come together hopefully. And I think it’s the same for us outdoors people. We shouldn’t try and do it all in one day. We just sort of shape one bit one day and then the pieces come together.

Q: How do you know that this works for people without your skills?

One of the most common compliments I get is people emailing me saying, “I’m completely addicted. My other half is being driven up the wall.”  And I start a lot of the talks I give with a line, “Over the next hour, I’m going to attempt to change the way you see the world forever,” and that’s true. Of course, people can still go about their normal lives, but once you’ve shown somebody that you can find north or south looking at the shape of tree branches, and that resonates for them, they do look at trees differently, or so they tell me.

Q: Has this kind of feedback changed the way you write your books now?

It’s been interesting because The Natural Navigator did quite well, then both The Walker’s Guide and  How to Read Water are doing very well so I’m in an interesting situation now. When I started my courses seven years ago, I could be relaxed about how I presented information because I was very confident that I was the only person in the room that knew any of it. I’ve now got this strange situation where I run courses, and a few of the people on the course have read the books. I’m not saying everything in my books is original, but quite a lot of what I do is take information that perhaps exists but has never been presented to somebody in this way.  A good example would be, for example, trees. If you ask somebody to draw a tree the first thing they’re quite often to do is draw a symmetrical tree. Symmetrical trees don’t exist, and once you’ve explained that to people, you ask them “So why aren’t they symmetrical?” And then you’re into using light and wind to find your way. Another example that tree roots aren’t symmetrical either, and on my courses I say to people, I say, you know, “If you’re in a tent in a moderately exposed area and the wind picks up, what’s the first thing you do?” Most people say, “Oh, you tighten the guide ropes and you put a few more pegs out.” I go, “Okay, well, that’s what the trees are doing.”

Q: So you’re saying the information is there for all of us, but hasn’t been presented to people in the way that you do?

Yes – I make an observation, then I check whether my observation has been spotted by anybody else, and quite often it has. What I’m doing is marrying, say, research in forestry with a navigation interest and presenting information that technically existed before but to a new audience in a new way.

Q: What do your readers find the most surprising?

I generally take the view that everything outdoors can be used to help navigate, even if it’s in a very vague sense.  People are gradually realising through my books and courses that a lot of plants and a lot of animals can give us direction, but every single plant, every single animal through an understanding of ecology is making a map of some sort for us. Very simple examples like beech trees are telling us that the soil is not water logged. Whereas willows are giving us a clue we might be getting close to that stream. Or a more subtle example is how the behaviour of butterflies can start to paint a map for us.

Q: So how would you like people to try what you’re doing for themselves?

I’d encourage everybody the next time they’re outdoors to have a go at the two broad parts of natural navigation. So that’s establishing direction, so north, south, east, west and that can be as simple as, “Which way am I looking?” And if you’re actually on a walk and you’ve got a map and compass, or GPS, or iPhone, or whatever it is you’re used to using, you can carry on using that, but what I’d encourage is before you go to one of those bits of kit for reference and that feeling of security that all walkers like – and I understand that.  But just try and test yourself. Before you look at the compass, going try and work it out, and if we’re wrong it doesn’t matter.

And then there’s the second whole area which is the ecology. And a really fundamental, fun, easy exercise for everyone to do is either design a walk that goes from an area next to water by a river, or by a lake, then through a slightly higher area that’s not got any standing water there, and then drop down to a lower level. It can be a very short walk. You go from wet to dry to wet, and the challenge is to see if you can spot, when you’re getting close to the wet area from the plants, and if you’re lucky the animals, because that’s the start of the map making using nature. To begin with people will think it’s difficult, but as soon as you stop and you go, “Okay, we’ve got a lot of splashes of purple vegetation here.….” Even if you can’t identify them, it doesn’t matter. You just go, “Oh, we’ve gotsome purple flowers.” You don’t need to know if it’s Himalayan Balsam or anything like that. You just walk away from the water, and that purple plant disappears. And then suddenly in the distance you pick up that hint of purple again, and you go, “I wonder?” and the when you get there you realize there’s water again. When you spot those little things, it’s a very exciting moment. It’s when they go, “This isn’t rocket science,” and I think that’s the beginning of quite a fun journey with natural navigation.

Q: But don’t we need to know the names of plants and trees before we can enjoy the outdoors?

No, and in a few of my books, I make the point that it’s not about names. There’s a rather, I think, slightly sad tradition that natural history and exploring the outdoors is all about identification. But what I say to people is that purely for your own personal enjoyment, especially to begin with, you don’t have to know the names of anything. Later you’ll find it does accelerate your learning because you can take shortcuts once you know the names of things. But if you make an observation, the colour of flowers next to water, you can have that whole satisfaction without ever knowing the name of it. For example, I’ve used countless lichens to navigate when there are 15-16 thousand in the world and I regularly use half a dozen that I know the names of. But I have used dozens if not hundreds more that I may never know the names of because they’re in areas that I’m not that familiar with. But all I’ve done is I’ve spotted, say, that they’re thriving on the northwest side of an igneous rock as was the case in La Palma, and I was able to use them for a whole day, but I never learnt their name. I just got to know them and got to know their habitat and their preferences. And that’s the way I approach it. I don’t like people who think nature is all about names and it applies to every area.  In astronomy, how many people have been put of using the stars in a fun and practical way because they think it’s all about memorizing the names of 2000 stars? You do need to recognize the odd shape. But you can call it what you want. You can call it the Saucepan, you can call it the Big Dipper. Every northern culture has its name for it. Which one is right?

Q: Do you have a mission to educate people?

Well, natural navigation is a beautiful subject and I personally find it very enriching and people who get into it, I think, get a lot out of it. But the one thing I will never argue is that it’s essential to survive anymore. You know, we can get through life without it. And so whether it’s my courses, or my books, or the talks, or anything I do together with the subject, I hope I come from viewpoint that this is a choice people make to enjoy something, to feel enriched and satisfied by it. All I can say is that it’s great fun and it’s really enjoyable, and I hope my books convey this to people.

Q: And how do you set about writing your books, now you’re a full-time author?

I’m all or nothing in absolutely everything. I can’t write casually. So I tend to research intensively and then look at that intensively and then go away from it intensively and walk up a mountain or something, and then come back and write intensively, and then edit intensively, and take breaks from all of those things. I think I’d find it less exhausting if I could do a few hours every day for a couple of years. But I’m not like that by character. And I don’t think there’s any point trying to change it.