Some people get lost with a map while others need only glance at the sky to know where they are. As this engaging work on the art and science of navigating capably shows, the better adept at geography wins.
Travel broadens the mind—literally. Writes journalist O’Connor (Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things, 2015) in this lively and consistently entertaining book, the hippocampus, which processes memory, enlarges with our geographical knowledge, such that “the environmental stimulus itself, the practice of navigation over time…showed plasticity, an ability to adapt and change, in structure of the brain.” Over the course of their many interesting adaptations to living in the world, humans have learned to travel great distances not just by making maps and charts or by reading compasses, but also by studying the sky and the Earth itself and, intriguingly, building bodies of song, story, and myth around them—e.g., the famed songlines of Australia, which the author considers at length. Fittingly, O’Connor courses from continent to continent, mining anthropology, geography, neurology, psychology, and biology, and she also looks at odd ethical problems: For instance, traditional Polynesian navigational methods run the risk of disappearing in light of GPS and other technologies, but those very technologies might also be used, properly applied, “to ensure that future minds continue to undergo ruprup jokur and fill with knowledge of the sea." Whether traditional or technologically enhanced, geographical knowledge is strongly linked with memory; an intriguing hypothesis links mental decline due to aging to the decline in navigating from place to place as one’s world shrinks. Throughout her own travels, O’Connor talked to just the right people in just the right places, and her narrative is a marvel of storytelling on its own merits, erudite but lightly worn.
There are many reasons why people should make efforts to improve their geographical literacy, and O’Connor hits on many in this excellent book—devouring it makes for a good start.