navigation map

How much do you rely on GPS, and maps on your phone to navigate? Once upon a time, we didn’t even use paper maps very much. We relied on environmental clues and simple instruments.

Some of the more popular posts here have been about variations on getting lost and being found , so I know there is an interest in this topic.

I read an excerpt of a book by John Huth called The Lost Art of Finding Our Way and it got me thinking about this topic again.

Huth was kayaking in Nantucket Sound in 2003 when a fogbank rolled in and disoriented him. He didn’t panic because he knew some basic navigation skills and returned safely to shore. But he found out that only a half a mile away, two college students in that fog mistakenly turned their kayaks out to sea and died. That day got him into exploring the principles of navigation, from ancient times to modern.

In his book, we learn about how the Vikings used the sunstone to detect polarization of sunlight. Arab traders learned to sail into the wind. Pacific Islanders used underwater lightning and were able to “read” waves to guide their explorations.

All of us – land dwellers and sea-goers – have lost the ability to make close observations of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents and weather and atmospheric effects in order to read the plnet and find our way.

Lavishly illustrated with nearly 200 specially prepared drawings, Huth’s compelling account of the cultures of navigation will engross readers in a narrative that is part scientific treatise, part personal travelogue, and part vivid re-creation of navigational history. Seeing through the eyes of past voyagers, we bring our own world into sharper view.

An article I found online asks, “Do our brains pay a price for GPS?”   There’s no doubt that GPS is a useful technology, but does using it interfere with our ability to do “mental mapping?”

Mental mapping and spatial memory is what allows us to remember where we have put things in our home. It helps you to lay out a garden plan a trip, pack a suitcase, arrange furniture ann navigate our neighborhood and office building.

Can you give clear directions to someone to get to a place in your hometown? When I was a kid riding my bicycle all summer, I knew almost every street in my hometown by name and location. Now, I don’t even know all the streets within a mile of my house.

John Huth is a professor, a high-energy physicist, and teaches a course in “Primitive Navigation” about the rudiments of the analog methods of wayfinding using sun, stars, tides, weather and wind. He certainly is not anti-technology. He is an experimental particle physicist and was involved in the discovery of both the top quark and the Higgs boson. But he does question our reliance on smartphones and GPS.

I ordered his book, which sounds quite encyclopedic in its coverage, touching on astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography and telling the ways of early navigators whose lives depended on paying close attention to the environment around them.

Reviewers of the book point out that he is not interested in junking the technology, but relearning the old ways. One reason is because it’s still unclear what losing the old skills has done to our modern brain.

Many of my posts here are about maintaining touch with our natural world, and I would agree that losing our visceral connection to the natural world is a tragic loss with broad repercussions personally and globally.

I doubt that I would find many people in a crowd of any ages who know what “dead reckoning” means or how to use a map with a compass. Would you be able to point out major stars in the night sky and use them to find your way?

I used to teach classes in map and compass and basic land navigation at the Pequest Education Center in New Jersey, but I don’t see any offered any more. Maybe it’s time to do it again. But are people interested, or are they satisfied with the tech doing the work for them?