Written By: HJdeblij - Sep• 11•13

THE LOST ART OF FINDING OUR WAY .  John Edward Huth.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2013. 544 pp., maps, diagrams, appendices, glossary, notes, index. $ 35.00 cloth. (ISBN 978-0-674-07282-4)

Reviewed by Harm de Blij

Stand on a city sidewalk near the exit stairs from the subway (for example in Manhattan at Penn Station) as the crowd emerges from the comparative darkness, and you can observe a phenomenon that would have Harvard Professor Huth shake his head in despair. A few arrivals look up and down the intersecting avenue and street, recognize and point to landmarks, and rubberneck their way into the city. Many more, though, have their eyes focused on an electronic gadget, navigating their route from directions on a screen, never checking just where they are in the urban landscape. “As informational technology has grown,” Huth writes, “our ability to perceive and think independently without help from devices may be compromised to the point where we, not our forebears, are the primitive ones”  (pp. 1 -2). This applies to fog-shrouded coastlines as well as tangled urban settings, and with this terrific book he seeks to reverse the trend.

     Professor Huth teaches at Harvard University, but The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is not the stuff of his career as Donner Professor of Science in the Physics Department. An outdoor enthusiast throughout his life, he taught himself navigational techniques and studied the voyaging skills of peoples such as the Netsilik Inuit and the Caroline Islanders. This book, a veritable encyclopedia of advice and instruction for adventurers who may find themselves having to rely on their intuitive skills for survival, had its origins in a dramatic incident in 2003. Kayaking in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod, Huth had taken note of wind and swell and, when a fog enveloped him, could steer toward the shore and follow the coast to safety. But less than a half mile away and unbeknown to him, two young women just offshore became disoriented in the same fog, turned toward the open sea , and perished. The book is dedicated to their memories, and aims to raise environmental awareness that can save lives.

     Even before the book appeared, Professor Huth was teaching a freshman seminar, Primitive Navigation, at Harvard University. He also offered a General Education course on broader topics that seems,  for many geographers, to  mirror the physical geography course that forms part of the core curriculum of geography departments nationwide (though not at Harvard).  Indeed, to scan The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way is to run across numerous familiar geographic topics and illustrations whose relevance to the “lost art” may not be immediately obvious – until the author’s skillful narrative points the way. From map projections to cloud formations and from  cold fronts to warm currents, the basics of physical geography are put in practical context.

     The book’s 18 chapters are divided – not formally – into two groups. The first eight address navigation as way-finding in historic and practical contexts while the last ten “focus on factors that might seem at first blush to be more subtle but that end up being critical to navigation before GPS” (p.  10).  The closing chapter retells the legendary story of Baintabu, a female navigator in the Gilbert Islands of the 1780s, who was thrown overboard from the lead canoe during the return from a raiding party and was rescued by the last canoe, which turned out to be the only one that made it home. The moral of the story takes some time to emerge, but it is a fitting finale to a book full of practical advice, anecdotal information, and sometimes fanciful  tales. The reader can almost hear Professor Huth lecturing as the narrative is in the first person, addresses its audience as “you”, and is, at times, in need of editorial condensation. So much the better: its breezy and conversational style has a way of easing some challenging technical hurdles.

     The crux of way-finding lies in the formation of mental maps, which is why Chapter 2, “Maps in the Mind”, is of special interest. This crucial chapter, not the most successful among the 18, opens with an engaging if not novel description of the way people in certain particular environmental settings “organize their space” (p. 13). Describing Inuit hunters, Norse explorers, and Caroline Island navigators, Huth details local strategies for mental-map formulation, orientation, and way-finding, speculating on the Norse from  strands of Viking navigational lore. Arriving at the key issue, he reports that “some part of the mind is able to assimilate, store, and recall what are effectively mental maps.  How does this work?” (p. 23). The next six pages refer to psychology’s route knowledge and survey knowledge distinction, address some (very few) of the advances neuroscientists are making, comment briefly on mammal territoriality and trail-marking habits, say nothing about non-mammal migration (marine navigators surely find seasonal bird migrations useful  in orientation, a topic not touched on until Chapter 17)  and ignore studies by geographers. A memorable article by C. Trowbridge in Science a century ago set the stage, but author and readers would also benefit from P. Gould and R. White’s 1974 classic, Mental Maps;  R. Kitchen and M. Blades’s Cognition of Geographic Space (2002);  and R. Downs and D. Stea’s Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (2005). This chapter also would have benefited from a more robust introduction to the concept of scale. Much of what follows in this book has to do with distance – from safe shorelines, from remote islands, from dangerous squalls – and chapter 4, titled “Dead Reckoning”, presents fascinating  and practical insights on this. But scale is a crucial factor in the formulation of mental maps, and its implications would seem to merit emphasis here.

     Reflecting on this chapter I was taken back to an incident following a May, 2013 public lecture in Oklahoma City where, as usual, I had made mention of mental maps and their cultural, age, gender, and other manifestations. Following that lecture a listener approached me and stated that he had what he called an infallible “sixth sense” of direction. I stuck out my arm and asked him to tell me where it was pointing, and he said, “just off WNW. “ In a subsequent interview (Smith, 2013) he reported that his “mental compass” was so accurate that he would know, for example, that a ship he was on had changed direction by a few degrees during an overnight sail. It made me think of the impact of perfect (absolute) pitch in the Western population – one in about 10,000 but with disproportionate impact on the evolution of Western music – and might such instilled directional knowledge have been more common in ancient times, and might seafarers possessing it have led some of those expeditions we now seek to understand?

     If this early chapter raises some unanswered questions, the next one, “On Being Lost”, sets the stage for an information-packed, awareness-raising traverse so intense and comprehensive that it defies summation. In “Urban Myths of Navigation” the topics range from the orientation of churches to that of satellite dishes; if you think there’s little that could be new in “Maps and Compasses”, think again. Professor Huth may not have intended it, but I am going to put a compass and a flashlight in the trunk of my decade-old sedan, just in case.  I now know how to use a compass for more than routine purposes.  And if there is much that would be familiar to geographers in the chapters on the stars, Sun and Moon, well, prepare to be surprised as well as entertained. There is an explanation for that Arab city my mother and I saw vividly, camels, palm trees and all, on the horizon from a beach on the Dutch island of Terschelling on July 17, 1947. Escape from a prison in Mogadishu, and you can walk your way to safety … if you can “read” the night sky.                                                                                                                                                                   

     But here is something  less surprising: in 1987 filmmakers interviewed a group of 23 graduating Harvard seniors and faculty members, asking them “why it’s cold in the winter and warm in the summer” (p.163). Twenty-one of the 23 gave the wrong answer, saying that the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer.  The producers of the film suggested that this had to do with significant flaws in the way science is taught. More likely, it reflected the absence of physical geography from the Harvard College curriculum, an absence for which Professor Huth’s General Education course obviously was a welcome remedy.

     The second set of chapters ranges even farther afield. Anyone teaching a physical geography course will find marvelous nuggets of practical relevance to enliven topics that can so easily mire in technical detail, but there is much more: on the physics of watercraft and the speed and stability of hulls, historic and modern; on sailing against the wind and the evolving design and current near-extinction of sails; on aircraft, their prominent routes and navigation lights, revealing directional information to someone lost on the ground; on “glowing” planets and “twinkling” stars. Throughout, the message is: be aware of your environment! Pay attention to nature’s signals! Don’t rely solely on electronic gadgets and devices to guide you!

     To return to those New York subway stairs, the easy answer to Professor Huth would be that we no longer use the abacus but can still add and subtract, and that the calculator and computer have not extinguished knowledge of mathematics. I am not sure we can in fact still add and subtract, and international tests show that Americans’ knowledge of mathematics is somewhere near that of geography, in the dismal range. But a bigger issue arises from this book. Our dependence on power-based technology is not only individual and gadget-scale; it is also collective and universal.  We are creating a total dependence on power systems without backups and at times we are reminded of the risks when storms cause relatively brief and local power outages. But the greatest potential danger to the entire system (greater even than looming cyber attacks) is solar, not planetary. It’s not that we have had no warning; it’s just that life spans and memories are short. On August 28, 1859 the Sun smashed a billion-ton ball of protons through the Earth’s magnetic shield at several million kilometers per hour, a solar superstorm that repositioned the northern aurora over the Caribbean, created a fantastic light show, and disabled elementary telegraph systems worldwide. Were such an event to occur today, it would melt satellites, immobilize computers, neutralize cell phones, cancel GPS navigation, eliminate television, ground airliners, and generate worldwide blackouts. Cost estimates range into the tens of trillions; estimated recovery might take between four and ten years. It would be a good time to light a candle and re-read The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way.


De Blij, H. , 2013    “An Unusual Aptitude”.  Interview with Carl Michael Smith. AAG Newsletter, August (?).

Downs, R. and Stea, D. (eds), 2005.  Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Gould, P. and White, R.  1974.  Mental Maps.  Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Kitchen, R. and Blades, M.  2002.  The Cognition of Geographic Space.  New York: Tauris & Co.

Trowbridge, C.  1913.  “On Fundamental Methods of Orientation and ‘Imaginary’ Maps”. Science, 38 (990), 888-896.

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