• The Natural Navigator; Tristan Gooley (Photo: Ben Queenborough)

Reading the land

There are two key foundation stones to reading the land. One is learning to interpret the effects of sun, wind, and water. The other is gaining an appreciation of the importance of scale. Useful clues can be on a distant horizon or just inches away. This means that it is necessary to keep the senses scouring, shifting focus constantly, which requires conscious effort, but yields plenty of rewards. The natural navigator puts more into a land journey than other travelers, but returns with a basketful of observations and sensations that pass others by: the valley that comes to life with the sound of water over rocks being carried by a breeze—all of this has been felt, has been understood.

The effects of sun, wind, and water are ubiquitous. Sometimes it is obvious: the outline of the coast, seen from a hilltop. At other times their effects are harder to glean—the infinite number of subtly different shades of bark color. This is where science and art meet, at once tantalizing and frustrating. However hard it might be to decipher the complex information being delivered by our eyes and other senses, it is crucial to remember that within a seemingly random series of events, there will almost certainly be some order, some beautiful, if hard to fathom, logic to it all. All living things rely on the sun and water, even if indirectly, and if their behavior does not reflect the need to harness these two elements, then their chances of survival are lower. Keeping this in mind and using all the senses can help solve many enigmas. A tree on the edge of a city park growing in a way that appears confusing initially may start to make sense when the sunlight bouncing off the tall mirror-glass building on the other side of the road is felt on one cheek.

Hills, rocks and rivers

The search for distant and closer clues should start from the best position possible. This usually means finding the highest vantage point and then looking all around, as well as up and down.

A good view will help to form a picture of the shape, the patterns, and grain of the land itself. Studying the land will reveal whether it consists of flat open plains or gentle undulations, or perhaps steeper, more dramatic rises and falls to the Earth’s surface. High ground will tell a story of geological formation and erosion. In the south of England there is a range of hills called the South Downs, mounds of chalk that have determinedly weathered erosion over millions of years. They form a range that runs broadly west to east, near parallel to the south coast. Once this alignment is understood, one can make simple deductions. If the sea can be seen, then there must be some south in the view, but if the land  slopes away continuously to low country it must be close to north. To the east and west the ridge continues across rolling summits without losing height. I use this example to demonstrate how it is possible to learn the characteristics and features of a range of hills, to read their text. Some, like the Biligiriranga Hills in India, follow a very straight line, others are more sinuous and therefore present more of a challenge. It takes time to become familiar with a new range of hills, but they all yield their secrets eventually. When they do, it can become possible to walk a long way in a chosen direction with no other aid.

The shape and alignment of hills and valleys can yield directional clues, but the character of the hills themselves can also be influenced by aspect. The southern side of any range of hills in the northern hemisphere will experience a greater variety of temperature than the northern side. In winter, the southern side of a hill may go through repeated frost and thaw cycles, while the northern side, hidden from the warmth of the sun, remains consistently frozen. In mountainous regions like the Alps this difference is drawn by the varying heights of the snow line. This leads to greater erosive forces on the southern side, often giving it a different look and feel.

An excellent way of holding onto your bearings once you’ve got them is to observe rock inclines. The way geological forces tilt rock layers will not tell you direction, but once you have noted that the exposed rock in a mountainside is, for example, angled up toward south and down toward north, this can be hugely helpful for miles around. It can even be used underground, as I discovered much to my delight deep in a slate mine in Wales.