July 20, 2006

The Big Here 01: Point North

This begins the first of series of ruminations, discussion on method, and answers to Kevin Kelly’s The Big Here, a query and challenge to know the space we live in, in its shape and relationships.

1) Point north.

I have what I like to think of as a good sense of direction. I think I came about it naturally, but I’ve learned, through some disruptions, that what we call a sense of direction doesn’t just happen. It has to be grown and refreshed.

My original sense grew as a result of the strong environmental cues in where I grew up. Seattle has a regular grid of streets, with the avenues running north-south. It also has salt water to the west and fresh water to the east and distinct mountain ranges to the east and the west. As a result, direction was well-imprinted in my mind, even when I ventured over those bodies of water and into those mountains.

My complacency with regard to direction was shaken somewhat when I moved to the Bay Area for college. The street grids on the peninsula south of San Francisco were not laid out north and south. Everything was a little off, although I could maintain my general sense of which way was north, I carried a sketchier idea of directions for those months.

The next location I spent any time in was in west central Nebraska. That required more attention to rebuild my sense of direction. There was the river, but it didn’t take to much travel to leave it behind the last hill. And, north of town, the Sandhills spread for hundreds of square miles, with nary a directional cue, except the ever-present sun. So, I began to rely more on the sun as reinforcement to my sense of what direction was what.

I finally settled in Olympia which, though it’s near Seattle, has a different set of cues. Here, the water it to the north, I-5 runs east-west (at least north of Tumwater), and the mountains you can see are to the north. Just as with the other two examples of being out of directional sense, I remember the period where, in spite of the fairly regular street grid, I had some trouble rebuilding my sense of what direction is which way.

So, in answer to the question, I rely on my internal map of my local world to find north (or the other directions). It’s quite reliable, because I regularly refresh it with observation. That same process becomes, clearly, more important and explicit when I’m in a new place. The tools most useful to me in rebuilding my sense of direction are maps and observation.

Maps help me to understand the relationships of the major features in the area and help to identify the things I should look for as I move about. Topography is especially useful. On foot, especially, it’s hard to ignore whether you’re moving up or down and that can help you to know, if you’ve been able to gather that information, which direction you’re traveling in.

Observation is critical in three ways. It’s an important means of gathering information about the space I’m occupying. It serves as a means to integrate the information I collect through the visual observation. Most important, though, is that the observation itself actually builds my internal map. I can sketch out a place in my head by looking at a map, but it doesn’t become useful until I actually see the place.

In thinking about this question and reading the recommendations for this query, I noticed the mention of the analog watch method. I found a description of it in this WikiHow entry. Since I always have a watch and can usually tell where the sun is (we learn how to do that in the cloudy Pacific Northwest), it seems like a useful tool for recalibrating the internal map.

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