Many dream of adventure from the comfortable security of their living room. The prospect of exploration stirs the soul and emboldens the spirit, yet few venture beyond their wandering thoughts to follow the primeval call to explore outside the safe confines of the daily routine. For most, the prospect of exploration is both exciting and terrifying. The duality of the unknown is what simultaneously pulls us forward with dreams of discovery and pushes us back with the fear of lurking, unseen danger and mystery.
In this modern age of record setting endurance challenges, the true nature of exploration and adventure has largely been obfuscated. We have come to associate exploration only with feats of derring-do; those of us not able to mountain bike up Mount Everest or snorkel around the world in 80 days are left feeling that the realm of exploration is better left to the professionals. While feats that showcase the resilience, fortitude, and sheer willpower of humans are admirable in their own light, I fear that our obsession with the “bigger, faster, stronger” mentality has caused us to lose sight of the enjoyment that comes with personal exploration and a deeper understanding of our surroundings. Seemingly lost are the days when explorers were little more than ordinary men with a burning desire to understand and see the world that lay beyond the horizon.
Tristan Gooley’s new book The Natural Explorer: Understanding Your Landscape reminds us that we need not set records on the tallest and coldest peaks or possess Herculean strength to explore the world around us. Gooley seamlessly weaves history, science, and philosophy together to demonstrate “how we can unlock the landscape around us in a profound new way by fully appreciating the subtle interplay between the land, sea, sky, plants, animals and people.”
In the same way that fellow author Bill Bryson crafted a masterpiece of enjoyable reading with At Home: A Short History of Private Life, in which he examined the seemingly mundane parts of a modern home and presented their truly fascinating history, Tristan Gooley does the same for travel and exploration. Much as Bryson moved through the rooms of the house, elucidating their individual tales throughout history with an effortless fluidity, Gooley takes us across the natural and man-made landscape and like the most effective of preachers, he does not preach about what we must do to enjoy what we see, hear, smell and touch – he simply explains the joys that come with understanding and perceiving these sensations, leaving it up to the reader to come to that epiphanous moment where we say, “Aha!”
The Natural Explorer reminds us to stop and smell the roses – or perhaps the simple, rich and musky smell of the earth after the rain, a scent which I daresay most have never stopped to contemplate, taking it for granted as just another of the thousands of smells we are bombarded with and disregard. Gooley explains that fresh rainfall churns into the air the spores of actinomycetes bacteria which thrive in warm damp soil, producing that delicious, comfortingly rich smell. With this deeper understanding of the why behind so simple an experience, the experience ceases to be simple at all and becomes something much greater and meaningful. When we ignore what we see as insignificant, our surroundings seem confining and we yearn for that greener grass, not realizing that we are the cause of our own discontent. When the tiny sights and scents that make up our surroundings are pondered and prodded, their significance becomes obvious, and suddenly it is no longer these tiny things which are insignificant , but rather us, once the realization dawns that we are the simple creatures in a vast and complex world.
We need not be microbiologists or philosophers to appreciate the science and history behind our surroundings – a simple curiosity will suffice, a curiosity which once came standard in the humans of centuries past but which has been slowly eroded over time. In The Natural Explorer, Tristan Gooley gently reminds us of what an incredible planet we inhabit, a place where individual exploration can still mean something. He writes not only of the importance of experiencing the beauty of our world, but of sharing it with others, that they too might be inspired.
Gooley writes of how “John Muir became one of America’s greatest naturalists not because of the extraordinary things he saw, but because of his extraordinary desire to see things.” Echoing the underlying philosophy of The Natural Explorer and in Muir’s own words,
Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty. – John Muir, In the Sierra Foot-Hills, 1894
A must have book for every traveler, The Natural Explorer helps the would-be Muirs of the world to find their way in a world filled with common every-day beauty.
About the Author
Tristan Gooley is a writer, navigator and explorer.
He is the author of The Natural Navigator, one of the world’s only books on natural navigation, and The Natural Explorer published in March 2012. He has written for the Sunday Times, the New York Times, the BBC, Geographical Magazine, Yachting Monthly, The Financial Times and many other periodicals.
Tristan has led expeditions in five continents, climbed mountains in Europe, Africa and Asia, sailed small boats across oceans and piloted small aircraft to Africa and the Arctic.
He is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed singlehanded across the Atlantic and is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation and the Royal Geographical Society.