Book review: The Natural Explorer

ACCORDING to Tristan Gooley, the explorer must do two things: make discoveries and communicate these discoveries to others.

It sounds simple enough, but the problem nowadays is that unless you’re a super-rich Hollywood movie director like James Cameron, able to afford a state-of-the-art one-man submarine to go poking around in the Marianas Trench, there’s not much left on Earth to discover.

That said, Gooley thinks the art of exploration started to lose its way over 100 years ago, long before all the obvious opportunities for bona fide discovery had finally dried up. He cites Shackleton as the man who started the rot, or, at least, as emblematic of a sea change in attitudes. The problem with his Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-17, Gooley argues, was that the point of it was not to make new discoveries but to test human fortitude and ingenuity to the limit. Scott and Amundsen’s race to the Pole was justifiable on scientific grounds – just – because the goal was a point on the map that nobody had visited previously. By contrast, Gooley writes, Shackleton’s proposed journey from one side of Antarctica to the other “promised to deliver a great narrative, but it did not promise to teach us much that was new about the world we live in” .

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Churchill shrewdly referred to Shackleton as an “adventurer” rather than an explorer – to him, at least, the distinction was obvious – but who now could be as clear-sighted about the difference between the two job descriptions? Post-Shackleton, Gooley thinks the field of exploration started to lose its identity, to morph from a form of intellectual enquiry into a sort of high-stakes game.

Certainly, some of our most famous present-day explorers are not necessarily people who have added much to the sum of human knowledge; they’re more likely to be extreme sportsmen and women who continually push themselves to accomplish feats of physical endurance in far-flung, dangerous locations. Inspiring, perhaps, but informative? Not so much.

So, for Gooley, the time has come to reconnect with the original meaning of the word “explorer”. As he puts it: “The person who brings us greater understanding of the role a wild flower plays in the universe … serves us better than the person who finds some novel way to punish themselves by exercising in remote places.” But where to begin? Just as we can’t all be steely-eyed Arctic explorers, we can’t all be award- winning botanists. Fortunately, he has less exacting requirements in mind.

Using a physically undemanding walk in the West Sussex countryside as a framing device, Gooley takes the reader through all the different elements that constitute a journey through any landscape, from rivers, lakes and mountains to native flora and fauna. In each chapter he tries to heighten our appreciation of these things, explaining a little about glaciation here, a little about animal behaviour there. You may think you know your local area, he seems to be saying, but look again, look closer.

The book’s key chapter, though, is the first one. Entitled “The Senses”, it aims to switch on our powers of perception and, with its thought-provoking discussion of the way we sometimes take touch, taste, smell, hearing and even sight for for granted, it succeeds brilliantly. Did you know, for example, that if you look at a landscape from right to left, rather than from left to right, you will become more observant?

Towards the end of the book, Gooley shifts his attention from the world around us back to the inner world again.

In one particularly mind-bending chapter called “Inner Time and Mood”, he highlights how very subjective all our experiences are. Surfers, who have long argued that “time is expanded in the tube”, will be surprised to hear about research that shows a minute actually feels shorter if we are surrounded by the colour blue than if we are surrounded by red. Frequent fliers, meanwhile, might want to consider that jet lag can degrade decision-making ability by 50 per cent, communication skills by 30 per cent, memory by 20 per cent and attention span by 75 per cent. Not only is the world around us constantly in flux, but we humans all view it through subtly different filters.

Gooley doesn’t think a 21st-century explorer needs to discover virgin territory, and he doesn’t believe risking life and limb is a necessary prerequisite either. He thinks it’s time to start engaging our imaginations as well as our senses, and, above all, he believes that the arts have a new role to play in this brave new world of natural exploration:

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“The task of the explorer will always be to search in the places that remain unknown and share what they find. It is just that we may have reached the point where our powers of imagination, combined with the pen and the brush, become more relevant to the task than the sledges and camels preferred of old.”

• The Natural Explorer

BY Tristan Gooley

Sceptre, 368pp, £16.99