‘In this book,” writes John Edward Huth, a professor in the physics department at Harvard University, “I examine . . . the various ways humans are able to navigate, using simple instruments and environmental clues.” That announced purpose seems modest enough, but “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” is, in fact, a rigorously demanding historical survey — a college course in a book — explaining how people have, over time, managed to make their way from place to place.
While there’s much to enjoy in Huth’s anecdotes about Viking voyages, canine trail-marking, the positioning of churches and the development of celestial navigation, his constant (if necessary) use of maps, diagrams, graphs and geometry will challenge some readers. He does, however, write plainly and gracefully (note the understated wordplay of his book’s title). There is, moreover, a good deal of romance just in the terminology of his wide-ranging subject: “Dead reckoning,” “the horse latitudes,” “the westerlies,” “Mercator projection,” “nautical twilight.” This last, Huth explains, was for sailors “the magical time between the world of day and night when both the horizon and the brighter stars would be visible.” It lasts about half an hour.
“Woods shock,” however, is far from magical, being that “state of anxiety induced by being lost in a wilderness setting.” More often than not, increasingly desperate hikers end up walking in circles. At least a few of us, alas, suffer from its more mild urban equivalent. Let me be personal for a moment.
Huth notes early on that there are two modes of navigational understanding: route knowledge and survey knowledge. In the first, we understand our environment by traversing known paths and familiar landmarks. In effect, we learn by rote certain patterns to travel from one location to another, subconsciously ticking off an established order of steps. Turn right out the driveway. Take a left at the Sunoco station. Follow 16th Street to Military Road. And so forth.
This is — as I know all too well — a very limiting navigational mind-set. Make one false step or alter any aspect of the standard pattern, especially at dark, and somehow you’re suddenly lost, driving with mounting wretchedness and confusion, fully aware that the clock is ticking and you’re going to be late for your child’s soccer game or that important dinner party. Most of the time there is nothing for it but to ask for directions from a passerby or stop at a gas station or 7-Eleven. Even then you are likely to slightly misunderstand what you’re told so that you need to repeat the same shameful inquiries once, twice or even three times before you finally find a street or location you recognize.
Fortunately, most people and some animals possess better brains than mine. They display “survey knowledge,” what Huth calls “a complete familiarity with an environment. In your mind you see the region as if you are hovering over the landscape and seeing everything below in miniature.” Those with this more holistic grasp of their surroundings are the people who can take shortcuts, who can respond to a traffic jam by following an alternate route, who, in effect, always know precisely where they are on a mental map.