Recently my brother gave me a present of Tristan Gooley‘s The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Tracks and Signs. I have read various Gooley books over the years, and to some I have given the signal honour of losing or getting ruined by rain. I have also found they are books which work much much better in physical form that as eBooks.
Gooley’s books are deceptively digressive – there is a firm structure within which a vast array of knowledge from eclectic sources are displayed. This leads to learning an awful lot of what, in other hands, could be off-puttingly didactic material in an entertainingly brief time.
As well as this, just-one-more-bit quality, there is a generosity to Gooley’s prose which the following passage exemplifies:
Everybody will have seen treasure hunters on the beach at some point: solitary figures with headphones who march silently up and down the beach swinging their metal detectors. These hunters get an unfair press generally, because most people fail to appreciate that in every activity that seizes a person’s interest there must lie an artistry. The metal-detecting part of treasure hunting is far from the whole process.
Gooley seems very far from the kind of moral one-upmanship which is so prevalent these days, facilitated greatly by social media.
The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs considers, in turn, various outdoor settings interspersed with narrative pieces that describe a particular walk or experience of Gooley. For instance, the very first section is on “Ground” – getting a sense of how terrain and observable geology can give clues to direction. This is followed by sections on trees, general plants and mosses/algae/fungi/lichens. Then we have “A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers” which unobtrusively helps synthesise this information.
Gooley is not just focused on what we usually think of when we think of “the outdoors”, but on urban environments too. Here he is astute in observing the ways in which towns and cities are shaped by the same forces of geology, wind, rain and light that apply in rural settings.
Gooley’s work has got me thinking again on bias. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman have greatly popularised the concept of cognitive bias, and the many ways we humans can Get Things Wrong – especially when we Know We Are Right. Time to re-embed this tweet:
— Ross Scrivener (@Scr1v) September 9, 2016
As may be clear from the blog post I linked to above, I have some sense that the hunt for bias has rendered us all too suspicious of our amazing ability to observe the world, and make generalisations from those observations that may not be perfect, but are incredibly useful in navigating the world – literarlly so in Tristan Gooley’s work. Gooley’s books are, as well as everything else, something of a corrective to over-suspicion of human observation.