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Early humans learned to navigate on land and sea by watching the world around them...Huth recovers some of this history by looking at Norse legends, the records of Arab traders moving across the Indian Ocean and Pacific Islanders...Huth's subject is fascinating...We have lost many of our innate abilities on the way to this technologically
advanced moment in time. But John Edward Huth believes, and his book shows, that some of what was lost can still be found. We just need to relearn how to read the signs.
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.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
From Chapter Four: Dead Reckoning
If you were on a desert island, how could you measure distances and communicate these to others? Readily available measures are on our body and in the environment. In ancient Egypt short measures were based on finger, hand, and arm lengths. The ancient Egyptian cubit is the length of the forearm. Longer units of distance were based on travel. The word mile comes from the Latin phrase mille pacem, which means “a thousand paces”. Roman legionnaires kept track of the distance traveled by counting paces. A pace is the distance you cover when the same foot (left or right) hits the ground. Two steps – left then right - equal one pace.
This practice of counting paces isn’t limited to humans. At least one species of ant navigates by counting paces. Harald Wulf studied ant habits by gluing tiny stilts onto their legs or cutting off sections of their legs to change the length of their paces. In Wulf’s study the distance the desert ants (Cataglyphis) traveled was directly related to how many paces they took. Ants with stilts would walk past a target and ants with shortened legs would come up short in a way that was consistent with pace counting.
Another natural measure is based on travel time. If you were giving directions to a friend driving a car, you might say something like “You stay on the interstate for two hours and take exit twenty-seven.” This assumes that everyone travels at the same speed, but it is usually clear from the context how fast your friend moves. Distance traveled (miles) is speed (miles per hour), times time, (hours).
The hour was and is one of the most widely used units of time. It has its origins in the ancient Egyptian use of rising stars to reckon the time of night. They used 36 bright stars in all, which would rise just before the sun in turn at different times of the year. The passage of one night was associated with the passage of 12 of these bright stars giving rise to the night being divided into 12 hours. The day was likewise divided into 12 units. This scheme, dating from roughly the fifth century BC, became widely adopted, but it was far from universal. Medieval Saxons reckoned the length of day in tides, with eight tides in one day.
Three miles per hour was, and is, a good reference for human-powered travel. This is how fast most people walk on level ground, how fast a person can row a boat, and how fast an old sailboat can move on water. It is far from universal. You could be running or limping, but it is a reliable standard shared among travelers and widely understood. If you convert this speed with an hour into a distance, it is three miles. In ancient Persian and Arab cultures, a parasang or farsakh was a unit based on this same combination of speed and time. The length of a league is close to the farsakh and is also based on the distance covered by a person in an hour. Longer distances can be reckoned in how many days or lunar months elapse over the course of a journey. Native Americans used these lengths of time as standards. A marhalah is a day’s journey in medieval Islamic reckoning and is equal to roughly eight farsakhs (24 miles), or eight hours of travel.
These are still viable measures. If GPS devices and odometers vanished overnight we could fall back on human measures instantly. When I tested a group of 30 students, they took 980 paces per mile, which is very close to the one thousand originating from soldiers in ancient Rome! They also averaged a walking speed of 3 miles per hour, so the concepts of a mile, farsakh, and league are true to their origins.
Posted June 2, 2014