In his latest book, natural navigator Tristan Gooley helps readers find their way using stars and plants, woodland noises and animal behaviour. The wild signs are out there – we just need to remember how to follow them. In the extract below, Tristan explains how to navigate a forest
We can think of deer as having two broad types of habitat: open or closed, moorland or forest. Most deer use scent to monitor their surroundings and any threat that might be near, but a deer’s habitat will determine the sense it pairs this with. Deer in moorland rely on scent and sight mainly, whereas forest deer rely more heavily on scent and hearing. Our sense of smell is not strong enough for it to be such a powerful tool, but we can still take a lesson from the deer: in dense woodland, we need to use every clue our ears offer.
During my crossing of Kielder Forest, I was helped near the end when I noticed a gentle eruption of birdsong and that it was only coming from one direction. A sharp increase in bird numbers, varieties and song could mean only one thing: I was nearing the edge of the forest. I emerged into moorland after scrambling towards the birdsong for five minutes. There is also a rise in the sound of the wind on the trees when you near the edge of woodland. It is a sound I think of as ‘the fizz’.
Beyond a general aim of trying to listen actively in woods, a more practical suggestion would be to practise identifying trees by their sounds. Identifying the tree itself is not the aim, but this is an effective way to practise active listening. If there is enough wind, each tree has its own sound and some are easier to recognise than others. Start with the ash, whose signature gentle clacking is hard to mistake, then progress through the radio static of a beech and the whispering of an aspen towards the more taxing conifers. Once this collection of sounds is feeling healthy, you can add another: the sound of each tree in the rain. Logophiles might like to know that there is a word for the rustling sound of the leaves in wind: psithurism.
Long- and middle-distance vision is of limited use in dense woodland – in fact those who live exclusively in such forests lose a normal relationship with this type of sight and can struggle with scale and perspective on emerging. In the Congo, decades ago, a Pygmy stepped out of the forest onto open plains where he confused distant buffalo with nearby insects. Those who work in forestry sometimes talk of ‘wood blindness’, a temporary condition where everything appears identical.
In less dense woodland, or deciduous woodland in winter, our sense of sight becomes paramount. Look across the wood in all directions and you will notice how the light levels fluctuate. It can be surprising how great the variation is. It is caused not just by changes in the density and depth of the forest but also by the shape of the land: where it rolls downhill, light increases, and vice versa. If we practise looking for changes in brightness, we can develop a type of X-ray vision. We start to sense sudden changes we may not have noticed before and, through this, pick up forest edges, clearings, hills and gradient changes that previously went unseen.
Paths, tracks and firebreaks in woodland create a surge in light along their length from the opening in the canopy and also because the ground around the track tends to be of a more reflective colour. Forest floors absorb light making them dark, while paths and tracks reflect light more effectively. Grass is a much better reflector than the undergrowth and plant litter of the forest floor.
After you have been looking out for these shifts in light, you will start to notice the firebreaks and wider tracks at greater distances than you may have thought possible. Standing in the wood and picking up bands of brightness you may feel fenced in by light. After lots of practice, smaller paths appear too, and even animal tracks emerge.
Remaining aware of shifts in woodland light levels also makes us more sensitive to weather changes: we are less likely to miss the dimming that heralds any deterioration. And tuning to the sounds and light of the wood adds a richness to the changing of the seasons.
If we have been crossing woodland for a while and notice we are about to step onto a track, firebreak or other natural parting of the trees, it is a good idea to slow right down and move silently. These breaks allow us to see long distances and offer rare opportunities to slice through the woods with our eyes. If we have been struggling to spot wildlife, despite having the breeze on our face, it may be because the sounds we make as we travel alert the animals before they come within sight.
At breaks, though, we can turn the tables – if we move slowly and quietly. Stepping carefully out of the edge of the wood, we may suddenly see ten times the distance we were able to a moment before, which lifts the likelihood of spotting animals by a similar factor.
Extract from Wild Signs and Star Paths: 52 keys that will open your eyes, ears and mind to the world around you by Tristan Gooley (Sceptre). Buy a copy here.
Tristan will be speaking at this week’s Drink with the Idler. Register for free here.
Check out Tristan’s website here.