The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way
TEN YEARS AGO I WAS WALKING along a beach in Brittany, relaxing after a tiring journey. A young couple emerged from what appeared to be an upmarket hotel and crossed in front of me. From their choice of swimwear, their hairstyles and their body language, they gave the impression of being Continental Europeans. The few words of conversation I overheard confirmed them as Italians.
The couple paused as the first wave washed over their feet and then they did what a lot of people do at this point: they subconsciously checked their valuable items of jewelry. Both their right hands moved to the fingers on their left hands and it was this that drew my attention to the wedding rings. It did not take a huge leap from there, given their age and the luxuriousness of the hotel, to surmise that they were probably on their honeymoon.
I had built a limited picture of this couple in less than ten seconds, using very basic techniques of deduction that are fairly familiar thanks to the countless detective stories that rely on this type of observation and logical thought. These simple thought processes have earned the nickname “Holmesian,” after the fictional detective who exemplified the art of analyzing strangers in this way.
Toward the end of the day, I saw the same couple again. They had started building a fire on the beach. Using the clues I could see on the beach, including the birds, the lichens on the rocks, the insects, the clouds, the sun and the moon, I worked out that the sun would set in forty minutes, the sky would cloud over shortly after that, rain would follow soon after and the tide would extinguish their small bonfire half an hour after sunset.
If the couple had plans of a night of stargazing by the fire, then the sea and sky had other plans. They’d be forced to retire early, which in the circumstances would probably be no great tragedy. A pair of astronomers may have been disappointed by the passage of events that night, but a pair of honeymooners might well be delighted.
I walked off the beach, so I cannot tell you exactly what happened on the sand that night. There are limits to our powers of deduction, but they lie far beyond the place most of us imagine. In truth, we rarely focus our powers of deduction and prediction on the natural world. But that is about to change.
In my mid-twenties I had some time between jobs and an appetite for a serious walk. I met up with a friend, Sam, who felt a similar restlessness. During the second minute of our discussion, we decided that a walk from Scotland to London sounded about right, and by the third we had settled on walking from Glasgow to London. We averaged over twenty miles a day and arrived in London five weeks after setting off, having seen a good slice of Britain and no shortage of ugliness and beauty.
I remember one day of that walk very fondly indeed. We were into the third week of our journey, and had just begun walking up a hill in the Peak District, in Northern England, when a pair of dark silhouettes appeared on the horizon. A few minutes later we could see that they were serious walkers. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we could see that they were walkers with serious budgets. They had pieces of kit that I could neither afford nor spell, draped all over them and hanging down toward their gleaming gaiters. Their walking poles looked like they cost more than our rucksacks and their contents combined. The two premium walkers paused opposite, looked down their noses at us in our T-shirts, shorts and £19 trainers and said, “You don’t want to go up there dressed like that!”
It was a forgivable sentiment; we did doubtless look like a pair of clueless fools. They followed up with a question and a patronizing smile.
“Where have you come from?”
“Glasgow.” Sam and I replied simultaneously.
They fell silent and we continued up the hill.
Most of the walking books I have come across over the years get bogged down in obsessive attention to safety and equipment. I have rarely found myself enjoying these books, because I do not go walking with the purpose of staying within a world of perfect safety and comfort. Personally, I would rather die walking than die of boredom reading about how to walk safely. This is a theory I have experimented with over the years, as you will see.
In this book I will take the original approach of assuming that you are capable of walking safely and with roughly the right socks on. If you are the sort of person who likes to go ice-climbing in a nightie, then you probably don’t read many walking books and I suspect it would take more than a book to mend your ways. With a handful of exceptions, my advice in the area of safety is three words long: don’t be daft.
That said, everyone needs the right tools for certain jobs.
In the Appendices, you will find a series of methods for working out distances, heights, angles and so forth. None of these involve buying anything or carrying anything, but they are nonetheless remarkably useful.
Most guidebooks for walkers give the reader information about a particular location. This one does not; instead it lays out techniques that can be applied on any walk in almost any area, and demonstrates how these techniques can be combined to make the walk more interesting than the sum of its parts. Where it is not specified, it should be assumed that the techniques will work in the northern temperate zone, which includes the UK, as well as most of Europe and the US.
This is a book about outdoor clues and signs and the art of making predictions and deductions. The aim of the book is to make your walks, however long or short, eminently more fascinating. I hope you enjoy it.
A Note to Readers
1. Getting Started
5. Mosses, Algae, Fungi and Lichens
6. A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers
7. Sky and Weather
11. A Night Walk
13. A Walk with the Dayak—Part I
14. City, Town and Village
15. A City Walk with Invisible Snakes
16. Coast, Rivers and Lakes
17. Snow and Sand
18. A Walk with the Dayak—Part II
19. Rare and Extraordinary
20. The Breakthrough
21. Your Invisible Toolbox
Appendix I: Distances, Heights and Angles
Sources, Notes and Further Reading
About the Author
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