Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Read Nature: An Expert's Guide to Discovering the Outdoors You've Never Noticed by Tristan Gooley

Rating: WARTY!

Note that this is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book was written by a guy who seems quite dedicated to the outdoors and this book is supposed to communicate his love to the rest of us, but I had a hard time with it.

The author is very widely-traveled, I understand, and he seems to know what he's talking about, but for me this book failed to connect or to inspire, and I think it was because he didn’t approach it the right away. It felt to me like a slapdash approach, with scattered thoughts being tossed in almost at random, like the author was merely dabbling here and there without really coming to grips with things. I think he could have done a better job at bringing newbies into his world. He has other books out there along similar lines, and I found myself wondering if this might be a shorter distillation of one of the earlier works.

I kept asking myself who is this book aimed at? To whom is it supposed to appeal? The obvious answer is 'anyone who is interested in nature', which is why it interested me, but the problem is that it’s too invested in 'wild nature' - being out in the countryside - for it to be relevant to city dwellers. Now it’s true that many city dwellers do like to get out into nature, but it’s not so common for those people to be able to devote the time and frequency to getting out into the countryside that it would require for this book to be of any real and enduring value. I kept thinking that a 'Nature for City Dwellers' book might have been of more utility in this case.

For those who reside in, or spend a lot of time in the country, a lot of what's in here will be preaching to the choir, since they already know many of these things. I acknowledge that there's nearly always something to be learned, but it felt like it would be of limited value to them, too.

Is there a segment of the population in between those two extremes which might benefit? I'm sure there is, but how large it is, is an open question. Additionally, the book is very British in its own nature. It’s not that it doesn’t mention other countries and other cultures, and other wildlife, but it’s essentially British at its core, which may limit its appeal.

There is a group of people like me, who are not blind to nature and always willing to learn more. I live on the edge of a city and take care of my own yard, so there is a connection I have that perhaps too many others do not. I don't notice the detailed things he does, because I don't have that kind of time to spend on this, but I do notice things both in the yard, and at times when I do get a chance to be out in the semi-wilds, and to me they're interesting.

On hikes and rambles in the past, I've pointed things out to my kids, but their interest in those things waned as they grew to have other focuses. Maybe that's a failing of mine, but I remain unconvinced that this book, which tries to do the same thing, is a going to draw in very many people who do not already lead, or seek to lead or in some way emulate the same kind of outdoors life to which the author has access. Most people do not have that option very readily available to them.

Yes, these things are interesting, but they’re not critical to most people's everyday life and a lot of the things he talks about are irrelevant or unattainable to most city dwellers. So this begs the question as to why a better connection was not made to the advantages this knowledge would bring, or to the utility it would have or your average person about town (and I mean that quite literally).

A connection with nature is always better - better for the planet if nothing else. If people are made more aware of how critical Earth's health is to us and how delicate aspects of it are, through people being led to feel closer ties to nature, Earth is likely to be better protected, but there are other virtues, mind-expanding ones which, while touched upon here from time to time, felt somewhat glossed over. Which brings me to the photographs included in the book. They are all monochrome, which really divorces them from nature, in its glorious technicolor, so for me they didn’t add anything. More on this anon.

The biggest problem for me though was the apparent random nature of the book. The chapters I thought ought to have been the lead-in: nature's clocks and calendars, all appeared in the second half of the book. This made no sense to me. Starting with the big picture and carefully moving to an ever detailed smaller one would have been the best approach.

To me it would have made more sense to organize the whole book in that way: following the year, and looking at how nature changes during it, with little detours into the other topics he covers as appropriate; in this way, people could jump into the book at whatever season they're in when they get their hands on it, and follow it all the way from there.

Some parts were slightly misleading. For instance, the tale of the Jarawa people who survived the St Stephen's tsunami in 2004 by moving to higher ground before it came. The book implies that they had - not quite, but almost - a sixth sense to read the clues and take action, but the fact is that their folklore told them if there was an earthquake, there often can be a giant wave on its heels. They were merely following word-of-mouth traditions of their people. It was not some magical connection with nature. They would still have moved even if a tsunami had not come, which would have been a waste of their time on that occasion, but still a smart move in the grand scheme of things wherein it’s better to be safe than sorry. Their survival is to be rejoiced and is worth learning of, but it's not worth making it seem like there was something just short of otherworldly going on.

In contrast, other parts of the book were oddly-lacking important details. For example in one section the author makes some observations about how to determine what kind of rock you're likely to find under a piece of land based on the flora that grows on that land. He says pines like acidic soil and beech trees like alkaline, but he doesn't say how to recognize a beech tree! Without that basic piece of knowledge, you’re prevented from anything else in that cascade. That seems like a sorry omission when it would have been just as easy to put it in there. Would a photograph, even a black and white one, of a beech tree have been appropriate here? I think so - or at least a drawing. Such photographs would have made a difference and not at all appeared all-but randomly chosen.

Obviously in these days of Internet searches, you can not only discover what a beech tree looks like, but also feed in a picture of an unknown tree and likely get a result telling you what tree it is, but if you only have the print book to hand, you’re rather stuck! This is part of what I meant when I said this book had a slap-dash feel to it, like a hastily-packed suitcase might be opened at your beach-front hotel to reveal no swim-suit or no sun tan oil! At least most-everyone knows what a beach looks like!

On a more serious note, I do agree that taking a greater interest in nature not only adds to our joy of life, but also helps us become aware of the more important things: that pollution and climate change are real and dangerous. I'm sorry there was essentially nothing about those critical topics in this book. It's a sad omission which brings me to an observation of my own. This book was formatted with very wide margins and a huge amount of white space, and with lines that were not single-spaced. It’s only a hundred-sixty pages but it could have been much shorter, probably a hundred pages or so.

This matters less in the e-version, except in that it still requires energy to transmit all those blank spaces across the Internet. In the print version, however, should this book go to a large print run, it’s an awful waste of trees. I would have thought that someone who boasts a close-connection with nature would have appreciated that and sought to ameliorate it, so this was another disappointment for me.

As was the search engine! At one point I was looking back to the beech tree and alkaline reference to verify I had not misunderstood. When I searched for 'beech', the app (Bluefire Reader) found it with no problem, but a search for 'acidic' crashed the book and brought me back to the screen which contained the list of books in my Bluefire library (which in this case was only this one book). That's not a problem with the writing or book layout, but it is a problem if people want to look up something and the search engine isn’t stable. Again this was an advance review copy, so maybe this problem, whatever it is, will be fixed in the published version. Maybe the problem is with Bluefire reader. I can't say. I can say it was annoying.

There's a practical issue to the book formatting, from a purely reading PoV, which is that the text was very small on the screen of my phone, which is more likely what you'd be carrying on a nature ramble, rather than the book or a large tablet computer. It’s possible to enlarge text on the screen, but then the page will not swipe to the next one (and sometimes it jumps back to the previous one while you're enlarging it, which is another annoyance!).

For each page, you have to enlarge the text to read comfortably, then you must reduce it to its original size in order to swipe to the next page, and finally, you must then enlarge that page to read it. It made for an irritating read. This is a problem with distributing books in PDF format. It’s not e-reader friendly unless you have a large screen. As I mentioned, though, this was an advance review copy, so maybe the actual published version will be in a more e-friendly format.

So in short, while I do believe books like this are of value and it’s important that people read them, I think this one could have done a much better job than it did and as such, I cannot recommend it as a worthy read.