Learning the Natural World

Sitting outdoors, or going for a walk, are enjoyable enough pursuits. Breathing fresh air, feeling a light breeze or sunlight on skin, and being in wide open spaces are simple delights in and of themselves. But, like most things, experiences can often be enriched by layering in some understanding of the environment at hand. Lately, as I endeavor to have more enriching experiences, I find myself at a disadvantage. I know so little of the natural world that I find it personally embarrassing. I can identify average trees and common plants, and I’m decent gardener and basic forager. I know a handful of major constellations, and I understand that many plants grow more prolifically in full sun and that water flows downhill. But beyond that, I look at the natural world around me through the most basic lens, though I know instinctively that there’s much more to the story.

And so there is, thanks to naturalist Tristan Gooley, who has written several excellent books on the subject. The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide is perhaps the most accessible to those of us who find ourselves struggling with peripheral connections to nature. There is no end to fascinating knowledge, not to mention real skills, that one can glean from this volume, my favorite of which is the lore and understanding of the moon in the chapter “The Fickle Moon”. The moon is at once both mystical and common – always there, always accessible, yet somehow also shrouded in mystery. Is there anything more engaging than the moon? As Gooley says, “there is both simplicity and complexity to be found in all things astronomical. The moon is no exception. Natural navigators need to be concerned mostly with light, time, tide and direction. Of these, light is the most familiar to us all… we have all experienced the joys of a moonlit world, bright and yet strangely foreign, stark, and harsh in places”.

The moon, as Gooley notes, represents a great relationship between itself, the Earth and the Sun, one that defines our very existence. Something I think we all know, but never really think about is the fact that moon, like the sun, rises in the east and sets in the west. Or so we all thought. In actuality, the moon orbits the earth in the opposite direction, but due to the relative, differing speeds at which both the Earth and moon spin, the visual effect is reversed. Additionally, as we all likely recall from grade school science, the moon emits no light of it’s own – only stars can do that. So the moon glow we see, in various intensities and at varying phases of it’s orbit, is simply a reflection of the light produced by our sun. And of course, the moon has a profound effect on the water of our planet. Noticing the height and force of the tide in a specific locale can inform us as to the phase of the moon, and naturally the reverse is also true – understanding the phases of the moon can let us know the state of the tide.

These tidbits are interesting in and of themselves, but learning them gives us a glimpse into what it must feel like to be Sherlock. Making deductions about the world around us enriches our experience of being in a place and relating to it, while also having some practical benefits as well. It can help us navigate from one location to another, know what to forage and when and keep our feet dry while walking along an unknown trail. In addition to the moon, Gooley also teaches us about the land, the sun, the sea, and the sky. He concludes by summarizing that “there is delight to be found in esoteric connections. We can watch the long straggles of wool on sheep to confirm the wind direction, as the sheep themselves follow the shade of great oaks round the tree on a hot summer’s day, like a clock and compass”. There is no end to interesting knowledge to be gained about the world around us, and The Natural Navigator is an excellent starting point for exploration.

* The fine print – I did receive this book gratis from the publisher, but I only review content that I find thought provoking and worth sharing. The link above is also an affiliate link – if you’re interested in purchasing your own copy, I appreciate you using my link so that I earn a small commission without any additional cost to you.