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Book Review: The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill by Tristan Gooley

Review by Sid Perkins

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Before navigation was a science, it was an art — a craft that relied on observing nature’s subtle clues and then deducing one’s location or the best route to reach a destination. Besides obvious directional clues such as the rising sun or Polaris, the North Star, there are innumerable more subtle signposts. In the Northern Hemisphere, for example, branches of many types of trees, seeking to maximize their exposure to light, grow more horizontally on the sunny southern side than on the shade-soaked northern side.

Gooley, a longtime adventurer who teaches what he calls “natural navigation,” has compiled an intriguing trove of tips and tricks from cultures such as the Inuit and Aborigines. As he explains each technique, Gooley reveals the scientific rationale for why it works. For instance, the complex interactions between sun and shade, surface texture, slope, prevailing winds and moisture mean that moss often — but not always — grows on the north side of a tree.

A natural navigator can use all the senses. A whiff of salt breeze can guide a landlubber to the sea as surely as an earthy smell can lead a transoceanic yachtsman to the nearest landmass. And the techniques can be more accurate than modern instruments. While someone using Polaris can determine a path north within 1 degree, compasses point to magnetic north, not true north. GPS equipment is notoriously inaccurate when it comes to finding direction rather than position.

Even for readers who never intend to rely on these tips to find their way through the wilderness, The Natural Navigator is a great primer on how the forces of nature affect the landscapes and seascapes that everyone travels through.

The Experiment, 2011, 304 p., $16.95.

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