Sign Language

Review: Tristan Gooley, ‘How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea’

water lake
• September 30, 2016 4:55 am


It is a recurring joke between my wife and me that I approach the straightforward task of highway navigation in the manner of a Revolutionary War general. Rather than simply do what the GPS tells me to do, I like to maintain a broader sense of situational awareness as far as my route is concerned, including the presence along it of significant terrain or water features. "There," I’ll say, pointing down the road in the direction of a pass in the Pennsylvania mountains. "That’s the gap where the Susquehanna comes through ridge line, and Route 15 goes right through there." The tone of my voice will combine self-satisfaction with a touch of relief, as though without this insight we might just have lost our way and been reduced to eating the Havanese, just like the Continental Army at Valley Forge.

I’ll concede that this approach is unnecessary from the point of view of getting where one is going, and I’m not really an evangelist for it. It’s mostly a predilection that goes as far back as my suburban childhood, during which I was lucky enough to grow up with a wooded county park behind my house. Okay, the park was dominated by a causeway for two high voltage power lines, at no point anywhere in it was one fully out of sight of a housing development, and the principal feature at my family’s end was the stream of storm drainage that emerged from a culvert next to the neighbors’ house. (We called it "the creek.") But my mental universe was small enough to consider this highly constricted patch of Virginia oak to be quite grand until at least the middle of adolescence.

Wandering it was a major pastime, and the fact that "the creek" trickled into Pohick Creek, which drained into the Potomac, which flowed to the Chesapeake and thus the Atlantic dawned as an exciting revelation. Yosemite was for suckers. It’s no surprise that after joining the military, the part of training I enjoyed the most was land navigation, and not just because the solitude it involved offered some necessary satisfaction for my streak of introversion. To be out finding my way in the Virginia woods, and for the skills involved to be considered central to my profession, seemed like great luck—and the military’s endorsement of my preoccupations locked in for good the habits of mind that now test the tolerance of those who travel with me.

It is thus with some delight that I follow the career of Tristan Gooley, an Englishman who has written books about getting around without a map or compass, and who appears on TV from time to time to explain the tricks of such a trade—and amazingly, seems to have turned the entire business into something profitable. Again, considering the lack of necessity for any of this in the twenty-first century, the whole thing can seem pretty goofy. But one of the things I like about Gooley is that he goes light on the evangelism, something that cannot be said for, say, advocates for locally sourced food. Gooley’s advocacy is more or less restricted to the pleasure he displays in mucking around doing the things he loves, which come down to reading the signs that nature provides, and which we no longer pay much attention to.

His latest book, How to Read Water, opens with a retelling of the Persian tale of Abharah, who, legend has it, saved a crew of traders in the Indian Ocean by persuading them to throw overboard their main mast and cargo and cut loose their anchor, despite the fact that the weather seemed perfectly lovely. Shortly thereafter a typhoon struck, and the ship didn’t sink. Abharah could see the storm coming because only he had the Isharat, a word that can be translated as "the signs," or perhaps "the knowledge," in the sense used by London cab drivers—the awareness of the patterns and indications that, among other things, could foretell bad weather.

Taking the task of "reading water" in a broad sense indeed, Gooley ranges from the open seas, including a fascinating discussion of how Polynesian boatmen canoed hundreds of miles through the open Pacific and reliably hit their mark at the next island, to a discussion of angling in upland streams, to beaches and tides and much more—all with frequent recourse to the behavior of puddles and the contents of tea cups. At the heart of the book is the rather Aristotelian doctrine that nature speaks to us constantly and intelligibly if only we would listen. Those Polynesians, for example, relied on the fact that islands interrupt the prevailing waves around them—watch the patterns created by a rock in a pond when the wind blows for an example of the same phenomenon. Like harbor pilots familiar with the shorelines and currents of their home ports, as late as the early twentieth century some in the South Pacific were expert in the prevailing wave patterns in this or that portion of their network of islands, knowledge they combined with how far certain birds could be found from land—each species has its own range—and other information detailed by Gooley.

Not that one should prescribe these techniques in 2016: I’m pretty confident that even in its heyday this sort of thing had a pretty high failure rate. But useable knowledge is only part of the point here. Sure, Gooley’s chapter on angling could be useful for beginners looking to understand how to catch trout (basic principle: the fish are seeking shelter from predators that is simultaneously convenient to their prey) and his discussion of rip currents could prove useful in a hairy moment at the beach. The same goes for the extensive discussion of tides, if you are planning on sailing anywhere. But the deeper causes of the tides, about which Gooley goes into in some detail—did you ever wonder why, if the moon only goes around the earth roughly once a day, there are two high tides daily?—are pretty useless, strictly speaking. So is the knowledge, except in some very arcane circumstances we are unlikely to encounter, of variations of color and reflected light in the water, a discussion for which Gooley enlists Constable and Rubens.

But it is a very modern belief that knowledge exists for us to do something with. Gooley’s book is a decent compendium of tools and tricks pulled from a variety of different crafts, and even some lost arts—though, as I’m sure he would concede, there are much more detailed guides that focus individually on angling or sailing that one ought to consult before setting off. Where this book is a treasure is in its un-ironic display of joyful curiosity, and its serious pursuit of this curiosity to knowledge that is a pleasure in itself. The language in which nature constantly whispers won’t only tell you where you are, and how to get where you are going, but will also remind you that you have a place in something ancient, vast, and coherent. It must have been something like this that I sensed as a boy exploring by the creek that led away from our backyard.

Published under: Book reviews