When I read about the author on the flyleaf of this book, I must admit my heart sank: ‘Tristan has led expeditions in five continents and is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed singlehanded across the Atlantic.’ Oh no, I thought, not another gung-ho memoir by some posh explorer, chronicling his adventures crossing the Andes on a pogo stick or paddling up the Amazon in a bathtub.
Thankfully, Wild Signs and Star Paths is nothing of the sort. It’s a thoughtful, lyrical book about the hidden connections between flora and fauna, the landscape and the weather, and most of its wise and wondrous observations are gleaned from the author’s rambles around the English countryside — mainly amid the woods and meadows of his beloved South Downs.
Gooley does include the odd aside about Bedouin tribesmen and Australian aborigines, but his main point is that you don’t need to travel far to connect (or reconnect) with the great outdoors. Indeed, a lot of the animals he talks about live only a short walk from your front door. And who’s to say these creatures are any less remarkable? Wouldn’t you be thrilled to see a fox or badger if you’d never come across one before?
Gooley is full of fascinating facts about such animals and their habitat; but his book is mainly about how the whole picture fits together. He’s learned to pick up all sorts of clues from the natural world, finding his way around without a map or compass and anticipating what kind of creatures he’ll meet along the way. He reckons these are things we all used to know, and can easily relearn if we want to. Indeed, now I’ve read this book I’m seeing all sorts of things I never noticed before, even on my strolls around the scruffy woods behind my boring suburban home.
Gooley calls this a ‘lost sixth sense’; but it’s actually entirely rational — a way of reading how animals interact with the topography they inhabit. This would have been second nature once, way back when we were all foragers and hunter-gatherers. The agrarian revolution destroyed much of this shared knowledge, and the industrial revolution even more, but a lot of it is stuff our grandparents might have known: how to find your way home by the sun and stars, or the lichen on a tree. ‘All shapes in nature have meaning,’ writes Gooley. His book is about those shapes.
For instance, did you know that honeysuckle grows clockwise and bindweed anticlockwise? Or that you can work out the age of a tree by dividing its circumference (in centimetres) by 1.25 in woodland, or 2.5 in open country? My favourite is Hooper’s Rule (after the English naturalist Max Hooper) for calculating the age of hedgerows: count the number of different plants in 30 yards of hedge and multiply the total by 110. Likewise, you can usually work out whether a tree’s indigenous by seeing how many different insects live in it. The foreign sycamore has only 15 while our domestic oak has 284.
Despite all these stats, Gooley’s book is more elegiac than scientific, and it’s all the better for it. It’s a paean to the beauty and majesty of nature, especially the nature we overlook in our back gardens and local parks. And so, amid the botany and zoology and meteorology there are snatches of pure poetry: ‘I let the shadow complete its journey. The sun clung to the treetops on the hills to the west for seconds before letting go.’
And like all the best books, it makes the world around you a lot more interesting. Before I read it I could never work out why my cat Billy would approach other cats side on. Gooley has the answer: it’s the best way to hedge your bets. If Billy decides to attack, it’s easy to turn and face his foe. If Billy decides to flee, it’s easy to turn and run. I was terribly impressed by this and I couldn’t wait to share the news with Billy. But Billy didn’t seem that bothered. I guess he knew about this all along.