Imagine that you’ve strayed into an unfamiliar forest, all alone. There’s no obvious path, night is falling, and you suddenly find yourself in darkness, surrounded by a chorus of unidentified grunts, hoots and howls.
For most of us, such scenarios are instinctively terrifying. The fear of getting lost is deeply embedded in the human psyche, to which unknown places hide unknown threats. The earliest stories we hear, from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, ingrain the message lostness means danger, especially when Mother Nature’s involved.
It is little wonder, then, that navigational systems feature in human beings’ oldest social platforms. The famous painted caves of Lascaux – spaces which provided a rare opportunity for Paleolithic man to shelter from imminent dangers and gather as a community – show a 16,500 year old map of the night sky, while the Cueva di El Castillo cave in Spain bears a 14,000 year old painting of the constellation we call the Northern Crown.
With their accompanying images of beasts and hybrid creatures, the paintings represent, according to German researcher Dr Michael Rappenglueck of the University of Munich, “a map of the prehistoric cosmos. It was their sky, full of animals and spirit guides.”
A few millennia on, our hunger to map our world remains undiminished. While the first golden age of cartography was driven by Dutch merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the second is being spearheaded by twenty-first century technologists. Apps such as Google Maps, Citymapper, TomTom and new Israeli contender Moovit - which secured an impressive £33 million funding early this year – have ensured that getting lost in the city is becoming impossible even for those of us with a talent for wrong turns. And sophisticated mapping technologies are roaming beyond urban streets to colonise our wild places, too.
The fear of getting lost is deeply embedded in the human psyche, to which unknown places hide unknown threats
Komoot is a Europe-wide app which pulls data from sources such as OpenStreetMap and NASA to provide hikers and bikers with topographic maps tailored to their fitness levels, which can then be synched with a smartwatch to provide turn-by-turn voice navigation. Other apps are turning to augmented reality (AR) to conquer the great outdoors. Theodolite turns your smartphone’s camera into an interactive compass, GPS, map, rangefinder, data log and two-axis inclinometer; Peaks recognises mountains; Star Chart turns the night sky into a star chart; while Sea Breeze 3D superimposes animated wind and weather conditions onto your view.
These tools are surely cause for celebration, if they give people confidence to venture out beyond their boundaries, and help them to better appreciate and understand the natural world. But there is, as with all technology, a flipside. If we remain continually ‘geolocated’, always safe in the custody of our handheld digital spirit guides, do we miss a different, deeper sort of understanding that only lostness can provide?
Once you get out into the natural world you learn that it doesn’t follow your rules
Naturalist and poet David Whyte believes that we can only really get to know our environment, and our own place within it, by dropping our preconceived words, images and maps. “We have this evolutionary necessity to name things,” he explains over the telephone from Connemara, where he is about to lead thirty-two writers from across the world on a walking tour. “It is actually the same mind that helps us to be good scientists. But when, freshly graduated with a degree in marine zoology, I went to the Galapagos Islands, I found that none of the birds and animals had read any of the books I had read. Once you get out into the natural world you learn that it doesn’t follow your rules.”
It was an epiphany that launched Whyte’s exploration of the world as a poet rather than a scientist, and he now believes that we can only truly come to ‘know’ nature by learning to pay attention to it - exactly the skill that most of these apps encourage us to outsource.
“In the Galapagos, I realised that my identity did not depend on my beliefs, scientific, religious or otherwise,” he says. “My identity depended upon how much attention I was paying to the world. And of course, you pay much more attention to the world when you don't know where you are.”
In other words, the map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski famously told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans in 1931. Anyone who spends time in nature realises that maps are, however sophisticated, only pictures. However real-time, 3D and high-res the updates on the screen, things look different on the ground.
“The thing about the natural world is that it's multi-contextual, which is deeply satisfying to human beings,” Whyte explains. “It's got depth, horizon, ground beneath your feet, smells. It's living and dying all at the same time. It's both beautifully arranged and very messy, all at the same time. But a child can become afraid of that multi-contextual nature, when they're used to being allowed to tidily arrange their life in boxes on a screen.”
It’s certainly wonderful that, thanks to Google Maps’s new venture Street View Treks, we can all now enjoy 360 degree views of remote wildernesses such as Angkor Wat and the Amazon in our lunch hour. But if we want to actually experience wonder, Whyte believes that we might be better simply wandering off into an urban park without our devices, or taking an unfamiliar route home.
“The natural world can be deeply frightening when you first go out into it. But once you stop trying to name it, you can allow it to speak back to you in its own voice. You can walk out to the edge of your village or town, or even along the canal in London, and if you're paying attention, you can get lost there and then, in a beautiful way.”
Grimm tales have always reflected our desires as well as our fears, and in an age where 200 million Facebook users are tagged by their location on a monthly basis, the idea of lostness can inspire a sense of exhilaration and freedom rather than anxiety. The popularity of last year’s Oscar-nominated film Wild suggests an awareness that the alternative is much more frightening; as environmental activist and journalist Rebecca Solnit puts it in her collection of essays A Field Guide To Getting Lost: “Never to get lost is not to live.”
Concerned like Whyte that digital connectedness reduces our exposure to the unknown, Solnit explains that the word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army. “This origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world,” she writes. “I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.”
Of course, it is extremely useful to be able to identify the quickest commute to work on a Monday morning, or reach your summer holiday camping site without a four-hour detour. Navigation technologies have made our lives more efficient and more pleasurable.
But we should also set aside some time to practice lostness now and then, even if it just in our backyard. By losing our bearings once in a while, we give ourselves the chance to discover more about the Earth, and ourselves, than a thousand pieces of data might ever convey.