A natural navigator, Tristan Gooley is highly skilled at interpreting the signs that are all around us, whether in trees, leaves, birds, insects, stars, water or clouds. In his book, The Secret World of Weather, he explains that “a person sensitive to their landscape is granted powers of understanding denied to machines.” I asked him to share some insights.

How did you first become interested in using natural signs for navigation?

I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors, and anyone who does that forms a relationship with nature. From an early age I enjoyed shaping journeys, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that! But I worked out that if you can safely get from A to B, you can do more interesting things than if you’re stuck at A. It dawned on me that navigation was the beautiful art that can help you do that, and I learned to use modern tools and traditional ones like sextants.

In my twenties, I realised that the scale of my journeys didn’t determine how interesting they were. When I came home from a 1,000-kilometre expedition, I’d go for walks in the British countryside, and I found that these shorter journeys were sometimes more fascinating and philosophically more challenging. Then the penny dropped that the kit was getting in the way! So I decided to use the trees, birds and stars as my map and compass.

To find my way I needed signs, and I realised that absolutely everything outdoors is a clue or a sign. What is that cloud telling me about direction and place? How is this ivy leaf going to show me where south is? The process of mental map-making became richer and more rewarding. All my professional life, I’ve drawn inspiration by standing on the shoulders of the greats, whether they’re Pacific island navigators, Arab navigators, or Vikings.

How can we interpret a frosty landscape and find our bearings?

In the case of frost patterns, the simplest thing is a frost shadow. Because the sun is due south in the middle of the day – thats when its highest in the sky and does most of the thawing – frost lasts longer on the north side of anything that casts a shadow. If a frost shadow has lasted all day, we can draw a line from the furthest point on the frost, through the top of the obstacle that has created the shade, and it’s likely to be a north–south line, heading south.

In The Secret World of Weather you talk about micro-climates, and how even very small areas have their own weather. Could you give us some examples?

This was one of the breakthroughs I made when I was preparing to write the book. I’d look at a weather forecast and see, for instance, that the wind was going to be 10mph and westerly. After walking outdoors for about ten minutes, I experienced many different winds, and none of them blowing at 10mph from the west! This is because, from the moment the weather touches land, it creates a rich but complex and hyper-local set of phenomena.

For this reason, it’s common to have a rain shower on one side of a hill, and not on the other. The weather changes even as you walk around a tree. You could be walking in a line of people, stretched out for a couple of hundred metres, and the first and last people in that line will have very different weather experiences. Meteorologists do a fantastic job with weather forecasting, but if you ask them whether it will shower in your backyard tomorrow, they’ll laugh at you! They cannot cater to the individual, and we all live in our own world of weather – it really only stretches as far as our fingertips.

How much truth is there in traditional sayings, for example ‘if leaves show their undersides it will rain’, or ‘mares’ tails and mackerel scales make tall ships carry low sails’?

There’s some truth in a lot of them, and if nothing else, they sharpen our awareness. Seeing the underside of leaves is another way of saying that, if you feel a gust of wind, there’s probably a rain shower nearby. ‘Mares’ tails and mackerel scales’ are getting a bit more interesting in terms of meteorology. ‘Mares’ tails’ are cirrus clouds, which tell us there’s a lot of water vapour in the upper troposphere; and there are two types of mackerel sky, caused by cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds. Both tell us that change is on the way.

Another nice expression is ‘clear moon, frost soon’. If we can see the moon clearly, there are no clouds and there must be low levels of moisture in the atmosphere. A clear moon is therefore telling us the air is fairly dry. At night, the ground is going to radiate heat quickly, and in winter that could mean a frost. However, it’s quite rare for one sign on its own to be dependable. They are all pieces of a jigsaw that we can start building to gain a more complete picture.

Are modern-day computerised forecasts more reliable than the old lore?

Forecasts for public consumption are fantastic at giving a broad picture. There have been so many improvements over the last decade in terms of gathering and processing data. I’m not saying it will never happen, but it’s rare that something big and nasty surprises anybody in a developed meteorological world.

However, for reasons already discussed, we can’t turn on the radio and hear someone saying, “It’s going to be weirdly cold in that frost pocket that you go past when you walk the dog later in the day!” That’s the cultural price we pay for technological progress. The available information about what’s going on 100 feet above our heads has never been better, but we’ve started to lose sight of what happens below that, on a more personal level.

Do you think we’re spending less time observing the sky, compared with, say, 100 years ago?

It’s true that computer screens don’t help, but they have a lot of good points. The way I see it, we wake up every morning with, say, 1,000 attention units and it’s up to us how we spend them. We might have to use 600 of them on work, but there are still 400 left over. Do we give 100 to Netflix, or to noticing how the insects change when the sun comes out?

When I was younger, I used to tear around trying to get to the tops of mountains, and I wasn’t really noticing things. One of my flight instructors said to me, “Be sure to stop and smell the flowers,” and I didn’t even understand what he meant. That’s the difference between a youngster and someone in mid-life! I’ve also learned that there’s no point telling someone they should look at the sky more, but if you explain that they can tell if it’s going to rain tomorrow by the way the stars are twinkling, they might think, “I’ll try that because it sounds fun!”

The good news is that our brain architecture is still there; as a species, we’re extremely good at forming ideas and dealing with puzzling situations. Historically, these skills have helped us to survive. We’re all descended from nature’s puzzle-solvers!