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Book review: ‘Wayfinding’ by Michael Bond

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The art and science of how we find - and lose - our way.

“If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be lost, my advice is, don’t try it.” That is how Michael Bond, an acclaimed science writer, E&T contributor and my former colleague on the staff of the now-defunct newspaper The European, begins his latest book, ‘Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way’, now available in paperback (Picador, £9.99, ISBN 9781509841066).

Well, I beg to disagree with this statement. Let me explain.

In my travel-writing lectures and seminars, I have always told students that the best quality of a travel writer is lack of a sense of direction and the ability to get lost. It is only then - when you are seriously stranded - that you open up your eyes and start noticing and registering in your memory every little detail of the surrounding landscape. As for myself, I have that quality (no sense of direction) in abundance and have experienced multiple incidents of being totally lost in such seemingly small and straightforward locations as Liechtenstein (one of Europe’s smallest states, where - without realising it - I ended up in neighbouring Austria during a short walk in the woods) and Sark (the tiny Channel island with a population of 1,000 and no mountains or cars).

Then there was the occasion on an even smaller Great Barrier Reef island. I cannot recall its name now, but I do remember how scared I was by not being able to find my cabin after a late supper in the island resort’s canteen. I had to scream for help at the top of my lungs to wake up a staff member, who angrily escorted me to the cabin, which was no more than 50 metres away.

On a more serious note, I have to admit that the ability - or lack of it - to find one’s way in an unknown environment is one of the most essential qualities of the human mind and it is still a mystery why some of us can do it with ease, whereas others (like myself) get easily lost, as the Russians say, “among three pine trees”. Some animals, it seems, are way ahead of us in that area and scientists are still unsure as to how and why migratory birds always succeed in reaching their exact destinations.

This well-written and long-awaited book looks at the history of human ‘wayfinding’ and the origins of spatial neuroscience: the study of the mechanisms of spatial cognition. It tells the stories of several of history’s greatest navigators: Harold Gasty, Francis Chichester, Frank Worsley (a member of Ernest Shackleton’s historic expedition to the Antarctic) and others. In the end, Bond returns to the question of why we keep getting lost by looking, among other things, at certain manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease, which, “unlike other forms of dementia, disrupts the brain’s spatial system long before the disease takes hold”.

The arrival of ‘Wayfinding’ cannot be timelier when, as Bond himself acknowledges, “the threat from GPS may be affecting our cognitive health at a deeper level than we have previously understood.” If so, the preservation of the ancient art of finding directions – as opposed to the sheer science of the latter (pace the book’s subtitle) - becomes the matter of primary importance for the survival of the species known as homo sapiens.

How do we achieve that goal or reach that destination, if you wish? How do we make sure that our innate sense of direction does not atrophy like scales on our ancestors’ skin under the pressure of the burgeoning weight of GPS gadgets and technologies?

Bond does not provide the final answers to what he considers “crucial existential questions,” but simply stresses the urgency of finding them. “There is still a world out there to explore and we need to find a way through it”, is his deeply persuasive conclusion. It’s one with which nobody – not even aspiring travel writers – can seriously argue.

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