I’m reading a delightful little book by Harold Gatty called Nature Is Your Guide: How to Find Your Way on Land or Sea by Observing Nature (1958). Dover found that title unwieldy and retitled it Finding Your Way without Map or Compass. Neither title does justice to what Gatty gives us. He describes navigation by the Polynesians, the Arabs, and the Scandinavians using migratory routes of birds as guides—and sometimes the birds themselves, as in the land-finding bird releases described in Gilgamesh and Genesis—as well as observations of stars, the use of sea movements such as swells, and the construction of a pre-compass directional device called the pelorus, like a compass card without the needle, that could be oriented by the stars and used to steer a very accurate course over long distances.
Gatty emphasizes observation more than its practical use in navigation. He praises the lifetime habit of seemingly aimless poking around and looking that turned Gilbert White into the prototype of the naturalist and Charles Darwin into the preeminent biological thinker of the nineteenth century. Baden-Powell and the whole scouting movement also come in for admiring notice. This section reminded me of Russell Hoban’s character Tom, who just looks around and messes around and eventually beats the professionals in Hoban’s delightful children’s classic, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (1974).
When Gatty is describing all of the methods one can use to keep from traveling in circles when in the wild, he mentions a navigational trick long-distance flyers can use when their destination is on a natural line such as a river or coastline. The method is one of intentional error: purposely steering to one or the other side of the target far enough to overcome an error that might occur through wind, for example. Then, when the river or coast is reached, the flyer turns the other way along it and soon encounters the target. This reminded me of a harrowing experience Ernest Gann describes in Fate Is the Hunter (1961): he and a copilot were flying toward Corumbá in Brazil using a map with few details over jungle that had no landmarks anyway. They headed straight for the city, which is on the River Paraguay, knowing that winds could push them off course one way or the other. Short of fuel, they come upon the river, but see no town or airfield. Which way to turn? They have fuel enough to explore only one direction. They choose, for no particular reason, south, and they land safely at Corumbá. The episode illustrates Gann’s thesis, expressed in the book’s title, that only fate kept him from joining the 400 dead flyer friends to whom he dedicates the book; listing their names takes four pages at the beginning.
Why didn’t Gann use the intentional error technique Gatty describes? Gatty was Wiley Post’s navigator in their 1931 round-the-world flight and used the technique to find an airfield on the Amur River in Siberia, where they needed to refuel. Gann’s flight was some years later. Wouldn’t he have known about the method? Or perhaps he did know about and used it, but thought the “which way?” narrative had more suspense and more of the fateful in it.
Gatty’s book will tell you about the orienting power of shrubs and trees, hills and rivers in ordinary terrain, as well as how to read ocean swells and the color of the sea, finding direction from sand dunes in deserts, and a good deal more particular information. He has a detailed section on sea birds, especially the pelagic ones, complete with pictures. My favorite part of the book is its last chapters, devoted to what can be learned from the moon and the sun, as well as how to find your way around the night sky.