Once while visiting the house of a friend, we took a walk in the woods. It was an area I didn’t know and after a few minutes it became clear that we were lost. There can be nearly no other feeling more frightening for a child. We wandered in the trees shouting for help for what seemed far longer than the maybe twenty minutes or so that my friend was disoriented. The message was clear: never go somewhere unless you know how to get where you’re going. I’ve been lost a few times since then and the gut-twisting fear is the same. Where am I? The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley, is an amazing book for anyone who’s had that experience. We are residents of earth and we should know how to find our way around the place. Instead, most of us live in urban environments and never spend a lot of time outdoors learning that nature provides many, many clues to finding your way. You just have to know what to look for. I found myself wishing I could memorize large sections of this tome, assuring myself I’d never be lost again.
There is an irony about reading such a book during the commute to Manhattan. Apart from his small chapter on navigating in cities, Gooley spends most of his time offering advice on spotting hints in nature. I can’t believe the behavior of the mice, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches I’ve seen in the city is any less neurotic than that of the people. In nature trees, plants, land forms, weather, fungi, and the stars can all be used to guide a person home. There is a touch of quaint Britishness to the book, but the tips included quite often branch out to specifics in the United States, or even elsewhere. What all of this means is that in its own language the earth makes sense. We need to learn this language. Although Gooley doesn’t say it here, when we destroy our environment we’re increasing our ability to get lost.
One of the more interesting sections of the book used churches as a means of orienting oneself in unfamiliar country or a town. Church architecture, at least initially, followed a regular logic with an eastern orientation and opinions about the sacredness of the ground on the north-south axis as well. Knowing this holy geography, along with the ability to read lichens growing on the outside and finding the clues on tombstones, you can often find your way. There’s some poignancy here. There was a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques were natural means of showing people their cardinal points. We’ve come to rely on our devices to show us the way, and it’s a little early to know if that’s been a mistake. And if it weren’t for work today, I’d be outdoors, taking a walk and trying to learn to find my way through nature.