The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, John Edward Huth
A practical guide to the ancient art of navigation
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
John Edward Huth
Harvard University Press
For a long time, I avoided Stephen’s Green, or if I did go in, I ventured only into the shallows, never so far that I couldn’t retrace my steps to the gate through which I’d entered. To go deeper was to invite frustration. If I attempted to use the Green as a shortcut from, say, the Grafton Street corner to the Earlsfort Terrace corner, I would invariably become confused by all those curly paths, and wind up emerging on a side of the Green which was not the side I’d intended. It wasn’t the lost time that bothered me – these were minutes spent in a park, after all – it was the repeated sense of defeat.
Over the years, the Green became, in my mind, proof (as if I needed more) of my utter inability to navigate the simplest non-grid terrain, of my complete lack of an inner compass, of my propensity for sinking into daydreams. And then, some months ago – and here comes the really embarrassing part – I thought that if, instead of gazing at the ducks or the people or the curly paths, I would pick a building visible above the tree line and, as I moved through the Green, I would track my position relative to this rooftop. Having to do this made me feel even more foolish, but it worked. I got where I wanted to go.
Reading The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, I wondered whether John Edward Huth would be heartened by my little exercise in navigation, or horrified at the elementary context in which it had taken place. Huth’s book begins with an image of the now proverbial iPhone user, the commuter glued to his device, oblivious to his surroundings, unable to tell you, without resorting to Google, tomorrow’s likely weather, the direction of north, or the name of that bright star in the sky – unable, in fact, to read any environmental clues subtler than a road sign.
Huth touches on the ways in which new technologies may be reconfiguring the brain’s way of conceptualising its environment, citing a study on rats which revealed that cognitive concepts of scale are related to mode of transportation. He wonders whether, in the era of the GPS, the ability to visualize large distances will atrophy or even fail to develop in generations raised with such devices.
But Huth, a professor of science in the Physics Department at Harvard, has not written a book on neuroscience or with philosophies of space, with what it means to be lost in the 21st century or with how our relationship to such a concept might be changing. (For a more meditative exploration of being lost, try Rebecca Solnit’s The Field Guide to Getting Lost.)
Instead, he looks to ‘cultures of navigation’ – particularly the Norse, medieval Arab traders, and Pacific islanders, as well as western Europeans – to illustrate how the reading of environmental clues and the use of basic instruments guided our forebears over land and sea, and he explains the science underlying navigation.
His aims here are decidedly practical. The book is dedicated to two young women who drowned while kayaking off the coast of Cape Cod on a day Huth himself was kayaking there, a day on which a dense fog descended. Because Huth had noted the wind and swell directions before setting out, as well as the sound of a buoy two miles offshore – fairly simple navigational indicators – he had a way of orienting himself when visibility became nil, whereas the two women, who were not inexperienced kayakers but probably hadn’t thought to take those sorts of readings, were unable to get their bearings and paddled out to sea and to their deaths.