WayfindingPosted: August 25, 2021
Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
M. R. O’Connor
St. Martin’s Press (April 30, 2019), 354 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $22.29
These days we take for granted access to GPS navigation, whether with a GPS device or, more likely, via the Google Maps or Apple Maps app on our iPhone or Android smart phone. Of course all of us have experienced the reality that these tools often do not select the optimal route to our destination. The interim rector at my church a few years ago did not know our area. He was going to a diocesan conference in a city on the other side of the mountain in the desert. Had he asked anyone in the congregation they would have told him to simply take state Highway 79 to Interstate 10, drive through the pass, and shortly after exiting the freeway he would be there. Instead, he relied on his GPS app which took him on the two-lane Highway 74 up the mountain and down the other side. Definitely not the most direct nor the easiest route.
In her book Wayfinding M.R. O’Conner investigates how humans navigate not only without a GPS, but without a traditional compass or sextant. She begins by investigating the Inuit people in the Arctic. This was a particularly good place to start because in that region people don’t even have the stars for navigation throughout the summer. In winter the sun is of little use since it is always below the horizon. Instead people use both the subtle clues they know how to find in the flat, white landscape and their own innate sense of direction.
O’Conner also discusses how animals find their way about. On her visit to the Arctic she learns that sled dogs too have an innate sense of direction. They can get their driver home in whiteout weather conditions with minimal effort. O’Conner describes how migratory birds seem to use the hippocampus portion of their brain as a navigational tool.
The author visits Aboriginal people in Australia to learn how they navigate the outback using dreamtime. She meets Pacific islanders to find out how they navigate the ocean. During these travels she discovers how colonization has done considerable damage to such cultures and their ability to use their traditional methods of navigation.
Near the end of the book she discusses GPS and its limitations. She quotes one arctic native who describes how GPS would have taken a rescue team via a dangerous route over thin ice (literally) while his innate navigation skills got them to their destination in safety.
The book was published in 2019, but I do wonder when it was written. O’Conner states, “The race to fill the world’s roads with driverless cars is well underway. Some ten million are predicted to be in use by 2020.” Obviously, one year past that mark we are nowhere near that number. But that is a minor complaint about what is a fascinating and readable book.
Wayfinding is a reminder that technology is not always the best solution.