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The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

There was no GPS. How did your ancestors navigate?

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The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth, Harvard University Press, 544 pages

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By Peter Lewis for The Barnes and Noble Review

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.) 

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