Magazine article The Spectator

'How to Read Water: Clues, Signs and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea', by Tristan Gooley - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'How to Read Water: Clues, Signs and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea', by Tristan Gooley - Review

Article excerpt

Water accounts for 70 per cent of your planet, and 60 per cent of your body. Yet when do you ever stop to consider it? The quirks and habits and secrets of good old H2O were crying out to have a book written about them. That said, it had to be written by the right person. A subject like this could have attracted a complete dullard, the sort of person you dread getting between you and the door at a party. Fortunately, the job went to Tristan Gooley.

His previous books include The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs and The Natural Navigator. There's more of the same here, like the trick to getting your bearings from the puddles on a path: there will be more of them on the path's south side, as the undergrowth at the edge shields that half from the sun. And before you mention the compass in your iPhone, some of the tips will save you in a way Steve Jobs never could: if you get caught in a rip current, for example, swim parallel to the beach to get out of it. Heading straight back to shore is pointless, as the current will simply drag you out. Gooley learned that the hard way in Indonesia.

Water gives rise to some beautiful words. The smell churned up by rain falling on very dry ground is 'petrichor'. The line of greatest depth along a river is the 'thalweg'. Waves hitting themselves coming back form a 'clapotis' (it means 'lapping' in French). That's the next Farrow and Ball colour chart sorted, but Gooley goes on to explain the difference between flotsam and jetsam. The former is the floating cargo of a shipwrecked vessel, the latter anything that was deliberately jettisoned overboard. A river's 'flashiness', meanwhile, is the extent to which it will rise after rainfall, depending on the land surrounding it. Impervious ground like clay directs the drops quickly into the river, but porous chalk or limestone will soak them up. This is why chalk-stream fishermen say the only useful rain is that which falls before St Valentine's Day. Anything after February won't reach the river until after the season has ended in the autumn.

Gooley clearly knows his stuff -- and plenty of other people's stuff, for that matter -- but always sides with the layman over the expert. 'I rail against the naturalists,' he writes, 'who think that knowing the name of a plant is better than knowing its character. …

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