From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Good Sense of Direction

Internal compass, fairly accurate

I've had a good sense of direction since I was old enough to remember. I usually have a strong opinion about where north, south, east, and west lie, and I'm usually right.

Sense of direction is probably a skill I learned from my parents. I grew up in rural Nebraska where section lines and county roads are laid out in a checkerboard of square miles, aligned to the compass. I heard my parents speak of directions every day of my childhood -- the north wind, the cows in the pasture west of the creek, and so on.

Or, my cells may be blessed with a generous measure of magnetite and a genetic ability to respond to it. Magnetite is an iron oxide ( Fe3O4,), and it's the most magnetic substance known on earth. Man and many other mammals, including bats, have magnetite in their cells. Tests that expose bats to strong magnetic fields seem to show that bats navigate partly by responding to magnetism. Cows seem to orient themselves to magnetism, as well.

In a study of bird navigation, scientists exposed migrating birds to strong magnetic fields and then released them at night. All night long, they flew in the wrong direction, but when the sun came up, they did a 90° turn and headed in a different (correct) direction. This suggests that migratory birds are guided by magnetism, but they also orient themselves to the sun.

The position of the sun is an important indicator of direction with me, too. When I lived south of the equator for two years, I was constantly befuddled about north and south. Shadows fell to the south instead of the north, and cold weather came with strong south winds. The directional clue-gathering that I do subconsciously in the northern hemisphere was a mental juggling exercise in the southern hemisphere because the sun was shining on the wrong side of me. Thank goodness for maps!

Nor am I good at right and left orientation. If I ask for directions and someone describes a series of right and left turns, I have to write them down. I cannot remember the instructions, and I can't form a mental map of where they are leading me.

In Kentucky, most of the roads aren't straight. Country roads wind around the hills following ancient animal paths used by the Indians and early settlers. Major highways may be straight enough, but minor highways are just un-straightened, black-topped country roads. In most of the towns, the streets aren't oriented with the compass, and the blocks aren't reliably rectangular in shape. Roads radiate from the towns like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

However, I still drive around here with a good sense of the general compass direction in which I'm proceeding. At least the shadows are on the right side of the trees. Just give me a map, and I can find my way anywhere.

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Related: A website about topographical disorientation (getting lost so easily that it is a serious handicap)


Michael Leddy said...

Good post! Living in a semi-rural area, I have become aware of direction as never before. I'm pretty fair at telling the time from the sun, something I'd never have imagined earlier in my life.

A story you'll appreciate, Genevieve: several years ago, a college student (a friend of one of my students) called me in my office to find out where the sun rose. Why me? I was said to know about stuff like that.

Genevieve said...

Congratulations on improving your rural survival skills. I think that acquiring a directional sense just requires learning to observe, assuming that you have an inborn, latent ability to orient yourself.

At least the student didn't follow up by asking if the sun rises in the east every time, as a directionally-challenged friend once asked me. I guess she thought the sun was like the wind, switching its direction every hour or two.

Mark said...

I don't have a good sense of direction. I have to think it out every time. But I never get lost while driving any more. GPS.

Genevieve said...

GPS is great. After writing this post, I remembered one time in Germany that my sense of direction completely failed me. We got seriously turned around out in the woods while looking for some castle ruins.! We definitely needed a GPS unit or at least a compass!

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