The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, John Edward Huth

A practical guide to the ancient art of navigation

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 11:59


Book Title:
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way


John Edward Huth

Harvard University Press

Guideline Price:

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.

Avoidable tragedy
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.

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