Wednesday 9 May 2012

Book Review: The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley

Tristan Gooley’s follow-up to the successful The Natural Navigator is subtitled Understanding Your Landscape and that’s what the book is about, if you take “landscape” in its widest context to include culture and philosophy as well as actual land. The author’s intention is to encourage travellers to be inquisitive about where they are in all its aspects, an intention which I happily endorse. Curiosity is an invaluable trait.

Whilst there are references to many explorers three nineteenth century ones run through the book, linked by their interest in everything they saw – Alexander Humbolt who explored South America from 1799 to 1804, Ludwig Leichhardt who explored north-east Australia from 1844-45 and Charles Darwin, who went round the world from 1831-36 (I recently read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, an interesting and thought-provoking book).

Aspects of the natural world – plants, mountains, coasts, ice, animals, sky, weather and more – make up almost half the book, after which the author ranges widely, covering subjects from cities and worldly goods to beauty, inner time and mood, and imagination and wonder. In all twenty-nine topics are covered, with facts and ideas crammed in, which does give a rather breathless feel to the text in places. Mountains are covered in just twelve pages, rivers in thirteen and time in fifteen. As the information rushes past, the facts piling on top of each other, it’s easy to lose track of much of it. For that reason I think this is a book to read slowly or to dip into now and then, leaving time to ponder and digest.

Inevitably in a book that covers so much so briefly there are some misleading simplifications (the description of the difference between the theories of Lamarck and Darwin is one) and some partial or dubious statements (pre-dawn starts for mountain ascents are not usually to reach the summit for the best views before clouds sweep in – avoiding avalanches and thunderstorms is usually more important!). I don’t think these matter though – in a book so stuffed full there are bound to be some errors. The whole point of the book is to encourage enquiry anyway. Go out and check!

Although designed to cover all types of journeys I think this book is particularly relevant to walkers. Walking is the right speed to see, contemplate and learn about landscapes. This book will help you do so.

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