The Natural Explorer, Tristan Gooley (2012)

An enthusiastic call to discover that which is around us that is best enjoyed in small bites

Sceptre 9781444720310 360pp Quarto £16.99

Gooley’s central point is as simple as it is compelling. There is a world all about us that is as filled with potential wonder and discovery as were the pastures new revealed to us by Macro Polo, Magellan, and de Gama. Not only that, but for those who are minded to style themselves ‘explorers’, the digital world provides effortless means to share what we uncover.

We have been inhibited from doing this by an idea of exploration that necessarily involves danger and physical exertion – a rot for which he blames Earnest Shackleton and his Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. Gooley wants us to rediscover exploration as the pursuit of everyman rather than the elite and the exceptional.

The chapters are thematic considerations of natural phenomena, ‘The Light’, ‘The Coast’, ‘The Trees’ and ‘The Weather’ among them. Gooley starts each with an account of an undemanding walk he undertook in Sussex – reflecting on those of the phenomena that he encountered. This is followed with a meditation which is part evocation through the eyes of explorers of yore, part observational dissection and part secondary-school lesson in meteorology, geology, fauna and human geography.

Here he is on the beach. “The sound of waves breaking changes with the tides. It progresses from a soft murmur at low water to a rhythmic boom at high tides. On shingle breaches the retreating water drags the pebbles over each other and makes a sound that simmers between a fizz and a roar. Shingle beaches also rescue beauty from ugliness, when we realise that the dark stains that we at first feared were black tar are in fact the tough early colonists of these beaches, lichens such as the hardy Verrucaria maura.”

Try to read the book in one sitting is to be overrun with a flood of lore, science and contextualisation that quickly starts to bewilder. And, it is only at the start and end of the book that the author gives much sense of how one might become an explorer oneself. Perhaps, though, this is the wrong way to approach this book. Consumed occasionally – the chapter on the coast before a ride by the coast, or that on glaciers in preparation for a peregrination around a valley formed by ice, then there are many vistas that Gooley opens up anew.

Gooley is perceptive so endlessly enthusiastic that it is hard to resist is abundant delight – even if it is a dish better enjoyed over weeks and months, rather than in a single sitting.

TD Apr 12

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