Following on from his previous, more utilitarian, The Natural Navigator, in The Natural Explorer Gooley pleads his case for ‘the new explorer’. “In this new age neither physical extremes nor those of vainglory are prerequisite, only heightened awareness and honest expression”. His method? “Reaching back to the many who had the spirit in years gone by and out to the few who have held on to it”. So Gooley introduces the reader to a quixotic collection of explorers that they too might learn the art.
The structure of the book is aligned according to a modest walk, which Gooley narrates, through the Sussex countryside. Each prosaic passage gives rise to a new chapter and theme. Thirty chapters, crammed into 300 pages, study subjects from the scientific “The Earth” to the philosophical “Inner Time and Mood” via the less obvious “Worldly Goods”.
Gooley is fascinating as historian; he tells tales of scientific wonder and geographical discovery. Each themed chapter, complete with illustrations, maps, diagrams and literary quotations, stands alone as a mini-museum in tribute to exploration. With a collector’s eccentricity he combines the extraordinary with the arbitrary, whisking the reader through notions of ‘The Noble Savage’, stories of the honey-diviner bird, and the invention of the ‘cyanometer’, instrument used to measure the ‘blueness’ of the sky.
The main cast of explorers, numbering barely twenty, includes Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Henry David Thoreau. But the characters featuring in this book number many more. While this array impresses, the grandeur of the figures that populate the book detracts from the sense of Gooley’s trudge through the countryside, rendering the main theme tangential. The intellectual promiscuity, displayed by insistent references to other explorers and other places, does not enlighten but undermine this ‘new explorer’. Gooley would have better served his end by honing down his troop of players, and concentrating his gaze on the land.
For, he reads the landscape with a genuine perceptiveness. “Beaches are vast graveyards of rocks and animals that have lived and died in company with the waves”. Ancient woodland is telling as to the soil beneath: “these forests have survived by clinging to land no farmer wants”. These reflections are more in tune with the new explorer Gooley heralds: a humble character, mindful, and curious about his surroundings.
The Natural Explorer by Tristan Gooley
Published by Sceptre
978 1 4447 2031 0
This review appeared in the TLS, May 11 2012.