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
But though Huth would like to help us all find our way, his book will never be mistaken for Navigating for Dummies. It is instead a fairly technical manual for finding your way – a book you might refer to as you would an encyclopaedia or a How-to guide.
It contains sections on such topics as the process of dead reckoning (how we find locations on a mental map using a history of travels); why different sorts of waves behave the way they do; and what cloud types and formations will reveal about the coming weather. Interspersed with these explanations are practical lessons on navigation.
One can imagine the technically-minded might enjoy this book (though anyone I know who is technically or mathematically minded loves, above all, his gizmos), but those Huth seems keenest to enlighten – the amateur hiker or stargazer or kayaker – are probably unlikely to have the stamina for it. The book too often reads like a textbook: “Convection is the most efficient way heat gets transferred from one place to another in the atmosphere. The land-sea breeze pattern of air circulation at the boundary between land and water is an example of a convection cell.”
A few more case studies – like that of the French agent who had been kidnapped in Somalia, escaped his captors and made his way through Mogadishu to safety by navigating according to the stars – would have made the medicine go down a little easier. And there is an enormous amount of good medicine here.
On being lost
The book’s most interesting chapter is ‘On Being Lost’. There are stages to getting lost and, not surprisingly, one of the first stages is denial. It’s called ‘bending the map’ – when we try to mentally force features we see before us to line up with ones indicated on a map, even though the correspondence between them is obviously poor. We pay attention to details that seem to confirm what we already believe to be true, ignoring evidence to the contrary.
When denial breaks down, panic sets in: perceptions become distorted with the flow of adrenaline. (When this happens, it’s best to stay put and engage in a quiet activity to calm the mind.) At some point the lost person will choose from one of a number of strategies, which include route sampling, view enhancing, and backtracking. “The strategies used by the lost mimic how people live their lives . . .”
One particularly interesting fact is that lost people are, on average, found relatively close to their last known position, even though they may have wandered a considerably longer distance, in a convoluted path, to arrive there. The whole chapter is one long poignant metaphor for the way we stumble though life. The rest of the book? All the wise counsel we are prone to ignore.
Molly McCloskey is an author whose most recent book is Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother