Updated: Oct 24, 2020
The decking bleeds into a darker shade of wood as the rain meets its skin, one large drop after one large drop. It feels like it is spreading instead of falling, seeping out sideways like multiplying cells, a living thing. I’m looking out the window, transfixed. I’ve always welcomed the rain, to which I am accustomed. It seems to me like a thousand little messages sent from sky to earth that say: stay inside, read a book. I love it, but I can’t remember the last time I ever really looked at it. Recently that’s changed. I’ve been learning to read water.
Tristan Gooley is a natural navigator and author of the New York Times bestselling book How to Read Water. He has spent his life recognizing and reading the signs in nature that many of us (myself included) walk right by. He has led expeditions in five continents, he has climbed mountains in Europe and Asia and Africa, he has journeyed to and through some of the most remote regions on this earth using natural navigation, and he’s made me curious. When the rain stops I leave the bookshop and walk the short distance to the trees that line the decking. I look closely at their leaves.
Tristan writes about the resistance of water, it’s stickiness. After rainfall, he points out, water will run down a leaf and cling to its tip for as long as it can. When the water gets too heavy it becomes a drop, and that drop grows a thin neck, one that separates it slightly from the leaf. Eventually, gravity severs this link completely. This isn't a new phenomenon. I am aware that raindrops fall from leaves. But I’ve never really noticed it before. Now I’m crouching in the sand, trying to keep still. I see the neck. I watch it break. When I cycle home that afternoon, I keep to the edge of the pathway. Trees run alongside me, and their long leaves stretch out above to meet the middle of the path. There, it continues to rain.
‘Nothing in nature is by accident’ Tristan tells us a few weeks later. He has come to Soneva Fushi as our Writer in Residence and just before we set off on a mini expedition around the island, we’re encouraged to engage with our immediate surroundings. We do this by simply asking questions. By asking what a tree, or a plant, or an animal needs in order to thrive, we can learn about the environment they are living in. It’s a fun game to play with Tristan, because he can roll fascinating yet digestible facts off the top of his head, but it’s been an enriching and satisfying exercise to practice on my own as well. It’s made me more observant of the world that I’m living in. I feel like I know it better.
Later, Tristan takes us to the beach and we stand right at the edge of the ocean. My feet are planted deeply in the sand. As the water slides in and over our toes, someone else in the group shrieks. They roll up their trousers. Tristan has waded in even further, excited, and he’s pointing out to the middle distance to a ‘ripple map’, something we’ll learn to recognize, patterns we’ll come to appreciate as key navigational tools.
There are five distinct ways water will behave when it surrounds something solid. In his book, Tristan examines these patterns on a minute scale, watching how water in a pond reacts to a stepping stone. Then, he explains how the Pacific Islanders would have been looking out for these exact same reactions, albeit on a much larger canvas. When navigating the enormous, open waters of the Pacific Ocean with nothing but nature to guide them, being able to spot this ripple map of five conflicting wave patterns was an essential skill. It would tell them an island was near. I know I am on an island, but it wasn’t until reading Tristan’s work that I realized the water knows it too. He points to a rock just beyond the jetty and we spot how the water moves around it. I am reading, no book in sight.