Book World: ‘The Lost Art of Finding Our Way’ explores in-depth the many ways to navigate

June 12, 2013

‘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.

One of the repeated themes of “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” is that even the most confused of us can improve our navigational understanding by paying closer attention to the world around us. We can check our direction by the sun or flight of birds or the movement of waves, note whether we are going up or downhill, confirm our location in myriad ways from details around us. Still, we should always be wary of what is called “bending the map.”

This phrase describes the initial response of those who, having gone astray in an unfamiliar environment, initially deny that they are lost, even though things around them do not seem quite right. People, it almost goes without saying, stubbornly search for those details that confirm what they want to believe, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Huth tells the story of the “Hubbard-Wallace-Elson Expedition,” in which three explorers in 1903 Labrador disastrously mistook one river for another, then persisted in believing they were on the right path, despite every evidence to the contrary. By the time the three decided to retrace their steps, they were starving. The weakest man was finally abandoned and, essentially, left to die in his tent.

As Huth stresses, again and again, our world is packed with directional information, if we only know how to see and grasp it. He discusses navigating by the sun and the stars; the use of the compass, sextant and marine chronometer; the determination of latitude and longitude; the flight of birds; the nature of currents and gyres. He touches on the refraction of light on the horizon (“looming”), the creation of mirages and even offers an explanation for the universal myth of the Great Flood: When you travel away from the shore in a boat, the land eventually seems to sink below the horizon. When you return, the highest elevations appear first as the boat approaches land. To those who believed in a flat Earth, the visual effect must have been one of the ocean engulfing the land and then of the waters receding.

This taste for thoughtful speculation reappears in the last chapter, when Huth slightly fictionalizes the legend of Baintabu, a female navigator from Abemama in the Gilbert Islands. In Huth’s source documents, Baintabu was said to have accompanied a raiding party to Tarawa but on the way back was “unceremoniously thrown off the lead canoe and rescued by the last canoe in the flotilla. Only the last canoe with Baintabu on board made it back to Abemama.” Huth’s story imagines the young woman’s family background, education and nautical accomplishments. Late in life, she reminds a disciple: “You must remember that no one sign in navigation is reliable, but several signs in combination are. You must always ask yourself, ‘Are there other ways I can prove to myself where I am, and where I am going?’ ”

“The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” is, as I said, a learned and encyclopedic grab bag, packed with information drawn from study and Huth’s own experience. Still, it may be too technical in places for practical use. For that, one might prefer Tristan Gooley’s “The Natural Navigator” (2011), enthusiastically reviewed for The Post by my colleague Tim Smith and just published in paperback. After all, you might forget your smartphone one day, or your GPS device could go haywire, and before you know it, you find yourself alone in the wilds of Northern Virginia, with night coming on. Now, which way is the Potomac?

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

THE LOST ART OF FINDING OUR WAY

By John Edward Huth

Harvard Univ. 528 pp. $35

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