Finding Ourselves without Direction

Jack Savage | July 4, 2009

Imagine giving someone directions to where you reside without making any reference to man-made features. No roads, traffic lights, ice cream stands, or town halls--the only landmarks you can use must be natural, like streams and rivers, rock formations, hills and mountains, large or unusual trees. Could you do it?

Concord to Manchester seems easy. Hop into the Merrimack and let the water carry you to your destination. But do you know the bends, the oxbows of the river, or where to look for the falls and shallows? Frequent paddlers and anglers likely have a sense of the river’s moody fluctuations and may well be able to direct a traveler downstream by describing those places along the way.

But what about the trek inland from Portsmouth to Concord? Do you know where the rivers run, where you’d find the drainage divide between the Merrimack and Piscataqua? Could you tell someone how many times the path crossed a stream, and where those crossings were easiest? How the land rises and falls mile by mile? Could you tell them where to look for a stand of sugar maple or oak, or where to circle around a wetland? Most of us still know east and west by the rising and setting of the sun, but how many of us could maintain our bearings by the stars?

Or how about a journey northward—could you direct a traveler through the notches sans highway signs or exit numbers? Could you tell someone how to mark progress by peeking at the visible peaks along the way?

We have lost much of our awareness of natural landmarks. Cocooned in our cars, we cross bridges often not knowing what river flows below, into what larger river it merges, nor where it finally finds its briny mouth. We whiz by forests so fast that we don’t see the bear tree or the porcupine den.

Those natural features are still there, even with encroachment of roadways and rotaries, billboards and bridges, towers and power lines that we find essential to life in the 21st century.

It’s not that we’re any less intelligent today. We know how many toll booths there are between Concord and Boston. We know which exits have gas stations with clean restrooms and where every Starbucks can be found. We know that Dunkin Donuts are everywhere. (Can you believe there was once a time when even “DD” was unseen on the horizon? How did our ancestors ever manage?)

Farmers and woodlot owners still rely on the old ways sometimes—we know every large rock in the field, every groundhog hole, every downed tree. On our farm I tend to associate specific places by the near disaster that occurred there--the exposed ledge where I almost tipped over the tractor, or the stump where I nearly cut my leg off with the chainsaw, or the boulder in the woods where a horse bucked me off into the raspberry bushes. Then again, those events aren’t so rare that they couldn’t describe a half-dozen different places, and none of them would help me give directions to a stranger.

While I am genetically programmed to never ask for directions, I have been trained to give them. But even that skill is leeching from collective knowledge with the increasing popularity of GPS units—plug in the waypoint, and away you go. In another generation or two, we will no longer have the opportunity to tell somebody to head down past where the post office use to be and turn right a half-mile before you get to where the Fire Department held the yard sale last year.

While we might mourn this loss of direction and decry our collective de-sensitivity to the natural world around us, I think it’s ok—as long as we replace those bits of data in our brains with something of equal value. Somehow it seems that knowing where to find the nearest Frappucino doesn’t count.

Filling in for Dave Anderson, Jack Savage is vice president of communications/outreach for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He lives on a Tree Farm in Middleton, NH.