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Wayfinding

I have been encouraging you to reflect from home upon some of the key themes that I have spoken about in recent assemblies – namely ‘choosing your attitude’ and making full use of your time. Mrs Cooper’s assembly last Wednesday explored our key value for this term – self discipline and she made some suggestions in relation to what this may mean to you at this time. This morning I want share some thoughts that have occurred to me inspired by a book I am reading at the moment called Wayfinding – The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way by Michael Bond (please note, not the author of the Paddington series!).

In this fascinating book, Bond writes about our human gift for what he calls wayfinding, our ability to get from A to B, finding our way along with the inherent skills we have to orient ourselves in a whole range of physical spaces. He also explores the theory that we acquired speech in order to communicate about the nature of our physical surroundings and the whereabouts of food, shelter or other resources. For example we have a wealth of prepositions and other elements of language to describe spatial relations between places and objects – just think of “in front of”, “besides”, “to”, “from”, “in”, “under”, “above”, “below” and so on…

I am sure that, like me, one of the main things you are missing during this period of lockdown is the ability to travel and to visit places. A normal part of life that we are denied at the current time.  I am sure that we all have our favourite places and spaces that we enjoy for particular reasons and are special to us. In the current lockdown our geographical areas have shrunk – I have been cycling most days and really enjoying some glorious early morning weather and light but at the most I have only travelled about 4 km from home with Regent’s Park being a natural limit (although I did work out that if added all my trips together I would be just entering Edinburgh this morning!)

Within these restrictions, you might, like me, have become an arm chair traveller – through reading about or watching television series that allow us to experience even if it is at second hand, places around the world.  I have particular enjoyed Simon Reeve’s The Americas; the first series is focused on North America, from the icy wilderness of Alaska to the tropical heat of Costa Rica. He starts in Alaska, and visits Denali National Park, where he witnesses first hand the impact of climate change on a glacier. He also hunts caribou with native Americans, explores a conflict over a controversial oil drilling plan in The United States before travelling to Central America.

I also must admit that I have become slightly hooked on Race across the World. You may have seen the race which consists of five teams setting off from Mexico City in a race to the most southerly city in the world, Ushuaia in Argentina, covering a distance of 25,000 km in 2 months, passing through 7 checkpoints in Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile without taking any flights. Each racer was given £1,453 for the whole trip, roughly £26 per day. The no-fly rule of the race had to be broken just once due to civil unrest in Ecuador which made land travel through the country unsafe – all the teams were flown from Colombia to Peru to continue the race.

For me the main enjoyment of this series has arisen from seeing such incredible scenery and diversity of landscape as the travellers journey southwards. One team ventured to a very unique place in Peru, Rainbow Mountain, which was discovered four years ago when the snow covering it melted, revealing the natural beauty of the rock beneath. Formed by weathering, environmental conditions and sedimentary deposits over time, the mountain’s unique minerology created a marbling effect, with layered hues of gold, lavender, red and turquoise towering into the sky. A truly amazing landscape….

Like the teams in Race across the World we all have a need to navigate and find our way. Using modern neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been able to identify a suite of specialised components in our brain; “place”, “head direction”, “speed” and “grid” cells for example, have been located in specific areas of the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. When these parts are regularly exercised they become supercharged and increase in size. 

Bond’s book reveals that the navigational abilities such as those now identified by neuroscientists are most brilliantly demonstrated in practice among groups of the Earth’s first peoples. He tells the story of an Inuit party kayaking off the coast of Greenland in the 1930s. We know the details because also present was Frederick Spencer Chapman, a British explorer and noted survival expert of his day, who freely admitted later in his diaries, to being totally disoriented when thick fog descended on their location. 

His Greenland companions, however, were unfazed by the fog and worked out their precise whereabouts by listening to snow buntings on the shore. Each of the males of this small pied bird has a springtime song that is highly individual to the bird, but there are also phrases associated with flocks living in certain physical areas –quite amazing really!  By noting these site-specific sounds, the Inuit were able to fix their place and as they sailed along, so the snow buntings “sang” them from one bird’s territory to the next. 

Bond explains that while this was little more than a daily act of wayfinding for the Inuit, it would have been impossible without their exceptional ability to ‘tune in’ to their immediate surroundings. The author explains that those individuals who have developed this gift for navigation are known by an Inuit word Aangaittuq, meaning “attentive”, which speaks of more than just the person’s wayfinding nous and describes “their whole attitude to life”.

In a way, this same skill set has shaped how all of us know and see the world. Via indigenous peoples everywhere we have inherited a multitude of place names that reflect those traditions. Bond cites toponyms created by the Western Apache in central Arizona, for example. Almost every landscape feature they encountered was given a hugely evocative and precise name, such as Goshtl’ish Tú Bil Sikáné (“water lies with mud in an open container”) or Kailbáyé Bil Naagozwodé (“grey willows curve around a bend”). 

In the last part of the book, Bond looks at how we might be losing such navigational skills due to our modern reliance upon digital technology, especially the mobile phone and satnav. He asks whether, over time, a reliance upon such technologies will have a detrimental impact upon our innate ability to navigate and how we perceive the world around us:-

“We lose a great deal by relying on GPS.  It turns the world into an abstract entity embedded in a digital device.  In exchange for the absolute certainty of knowing where we are in space, we sacrifice our sense of place.  When we navigate by GPS we no longer need to notice contours and colours, to remember how many intersections we’ve crossed, to pay attention to the shape or character of landscape or keep track of our progress through it.  We can afford to be indifferent to it, and our detachment makes us ignorant.  Without a story to tell, we cease to be wayfinders.”

Perhaps you might think about this.  For now, I hope you manage to keep travelling even if it is only small distances and stay positive while enjoying the world around us.

Michael Bond, Wayfinding; The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose our Way. (Pan MacMillan, 2020).

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