The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - COVER STORY -


Last sum­mer, a friend and I walked from the north to the south coast of Crete, re­ly­ing only on nat­u­ral nav­i­ga­tion. As we scanned parched land for signs of water, rare sprigs an­nounced them­selves as ebul­lient green­ery be­low clouds of keen in­sects. When peck­ish in Mediter­ranean coun­tries, the great frus­tra­tion is the abun­dance of olives – nei­ther edi­ble on the hoof, nor ours to eat. But Crete is a land rich in flavours, scents and his­tory.

Dur­ing our trek, the oc­ca­sional nib­ble of wild mint or oregano was a welcome re­minder that we walked a fra­grant land. I’ll con­fess, there is the odd mo­ment on these ex­pe­di­tions when, tired and hun­gry, the goats ap­pear as more than scenery, when the thought passes through the mind that it would only take a lit­tle sav­agery to feast for a week. The wild idea passes with an­other bis­cuit, glug of water and sprig of wild thyme from the road­side.

The more time we spend prac­tis­ing and think­ing about wild skills and for­ag­ing, the more our senses are reawak­ened. We also come to re­alise they are not sep­a­rate but com­ple­men­tary, each one of­fer­ing its own per­spec­tive of the nat­u­ral world.

There is an adage that bridges for­ag­ing and nav­i­ga­tion: sweet is south. When­ever we en­counter a sweet fruit – and this is a great time of year for that – we are sam­pling na­ture’s sug­ars.

The plants get all that en­ergy from one place: the sun. Once we know that the sun is due south in the mid­dle of the day all year (from Europe, the US, and ev­ery­where else north of the Trop­ics), we find clues in the fruits we see.

All plants grow­ing near their north­ern lim­its have to face the sun: man­gos in Spain, peaches in France, grapes in England and pears in Scot­land will be grow­ing in south-fac­ing places. Away from agri­cul­ture, there’s a chance to darken our fin­gers and taste di­rec­tion: the sweeter wild fruit tastes, the more likely we are to be on a south-fac­ing spot. This makes even hum­drum for­ag­ing more ex­otic.

Recog­nis­ing that peren­nial favourite, the black­berry, as a com­pass makes local hedgerow wor­thy of ex­plo­ration again. Al­though we can choose whether to pluck things from the way­side and put them in our mouths, the smells choose us.

The co­conut scent of gorse is my favourite wild smell in the UK. Gorse grows in acidic grass­lands, heaths and places where many other large plants strug­gle to grow, so if you find your­self in any wild grassy spa­ces with few trees around, it’s worth hav­ing a look for the yellow flow­ers of gorse. Af­ter graz­ing on some com­mon mal­low in Pem­brokeshire re­cently, I found my way to the bi­jou Llangwm Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. It was here that I got to com­pare notes with a local for­ager, Ju­lia Hor­ton-Pow­drill. She was not at all pleased with the way restau­rants lump rock and marsh sam­phire to­gether, us­ing only the one word. They are dif­fer­ent, un­re­lated plants with dif­fer­ent habi­tats. As its name sug­gests, rock sam­phire grows along rocky coasts in the south and west of the UK but, crit­i­cally, above the high water mark.

Any lore blend­ing nav­i­ga­tion and for­ag­ing is a treat in it­self and Ju­lia had some for me: “Ship­wrecked sailors knew that once they’d scram­bled up to the level of rock sam­phire, they were saved,” she said. Walking along the coastal cliffs the next morn­ing, I rev­elled in one of those mo­ments when five senses come to­gether to forge a sense of place. The smell of the freshly ploughed field was joined by the sound of the gulls fol­low­ing the trac­tor. A sea breeze cooled one cheek as net­tle stings warmed one leg.

I tasted bit­ter­ness in the leaf that I’d pulled from the cracks in the long, dis­used air­field that stretched be­hind me. Red Valerian is a plant that loves sunny, south-fac­ing rocky places in the south­west and it takes delight in re­claim­ing our con­crete for the wild.

Tris­tan Gooley is the au­thor of The Nat­u­ral Nav­i­ga­tor and The Walker’s Guide to Out­door Clues & Signs; nat­u­ral­nav­i­ga­tor. com

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