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The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

There was no GPS. How did your ancestors navigate?

July 8, 2013

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth, Harvard University Press, 544 pages

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By Peter Lewis for The Barnes and Noble Review

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Maybe you can't get there from here. I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself. Curmudgeon meets comedian, and neither's a geographer, because geographers never get lost. Until they do. Better to be a Pacific islander – say a Lapita, native to what would much later be known as the Bismarck Archipelago – 3,600 years ago. They knew how to get there, hundreds of miles across lonely seas to some tiny island, by reading the water – ghost current, shadow swell, the long fetch  – and birdwatching: boobies and plovers and frigates, all wanderers too.

John Edward Huth likes to wander. He'll wander into a pea-soup fog in his kayak and then find his way home via subtle environmental clues. Taking in the lay of the land, the surface of the water, the feel of the wind, the signs from above: way-finding, which is what his irresistible book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way , covers.

Huth could easily teach geography at Harvard – now that Harvard has seen the error of its ways and shaken awake its geography program – but he teaches physics at the university, evidenced by his tossing out keen insights into the movement of water and wind. But he also has an instinctive awareness of place and its organization – a kind of amplified proprioception, of geography as a way of being in the world – as well as an eagerness to know the space around him as intimately as possible, spending time outdoors and learning the process of finding your way.

Then there are the clues, serving as guides: the sound of a buoy, moss on a tree, the running lights of an oceangoing freighter, a church steeple (churches are oriented to the east), cloud warnings, and stars – Castor, Altair, Deneb, Pollux, Betelgeuse. "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or / loose the bands of Orion? / Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or / canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?" (Huth, reading from the Book of Job.) 

Huth has an affable, smart tone, as welcoming as a Billy Collins poem. His knowledge of way-finding and its history is rangy and detailed, but his enthusiasm never flickers, lifting the educational factor to higher ground: rewarding, artful, ably conveying what can be some fairly abstruse material, the finer points of navigation being among them. There are, by the way, many, many fine points regarding navigation, and if Huth gets a bit windy in pointing them out, well, let the wind blow. It's refreshing.

He delights in storytelling: How the Norse found North America over a thousand years ago, along the way bumping into a small colony of Irish monks living on Iceland; the Polynesians making their epic open-water voyages; medieval Arabs finding Cathay.

So, too, in solving problems: How to reduce a two-dimensional search problem to a linear one or, better, a point. There is the psychology of way-finding, and especially of getting lost. "The strategies used by the lost mimic how people live their lives; it can serve as a metaphor." Some people sample various routes, some barrel ahead, some bounce around randomly. "Others just want to get high and take in the view." Maybe René Descartes couldn't relate, but I suspect many of us do.

Then there are those who get lost and die. Happens all the time; the dock was right there, the hut a stone's throw away, but fog or night or a blizzard had set in.

Though the spirit of Huth's book is light and learned, there is something ominous playing in the background. When you can't find your way, take a breath. Huth's advice: "It's best for the lost person to stay where he is and engage in a quiet activity, such as making a small campfire, which can alleviate anxiety."

Sounds like a plan. Bring matches.

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