Molly Ames Baker, an outdoor educator and place-based education consultant writes about reclaiming the lost art of knowing north with kids in this reflective essay. Find directional tips and activities at the bottom of the article, the original feature story was published in the April 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
“Ok everybody, close your eyes. Now, on the count of three, point to north.”
Within seconds, there’s a tangled mass of arms, fingers pointing in most every direction. A resounding “Hah!” comes from this group of middle-school students, quickly followed by a collective “Huh?” It’s mid-April, and we’re standing atop Mt. Baldy, a forested backdune in Petoskey State Park, catching an early-spring vista of Little Traverse Bay.
As they turn around for another look, a few pull out their iPhones in hopes of settling the 180+ degrees of discrepancy. But, I make it clear we don’t need any apps to get oriented; we need only take a closer look at the landscape. “What do we know about this bay and the sun?” I ask. A single, tentative hand is raised: “Umm, it sets over there, I think …”
“Yes!” Assuming that “sunset” and “west” are synonymous, I prod, “So, which way is north?” But for most of these students, the daily path of the sun, let alone how it’s tied to the cardinal directions, is anything but common knowledge. Finding north is not a skill they need to know, and understandably so. They’re a generation growing up with Garmin and Google Maps. As my sixth grade son reminds me, “Mom, compasses are old school.”
Old school! Now it’s my turn to say “Huh?” For centuries, we’ve been facing east to greet the sun at dawn and using map and compass to navigate both woods and water. But the fact is, dagnabbit, he has a point. Whether we’re middle-schoolers or middle age, we can go about our daily lives without a passing thought to the compass rose. That said, can we set Siri aside and re-embrace the need to navigate?
Can we reclaim the lost art of finding north?
So, I put you to the task. Wherever you find yourself reading these words—on the sofa, in the car, at the beach—get ready: “Ok, close your eyes. Now, on the count of three, point to north.” Go on, take a look around—out the window or in your mind’s eye—and observe the lay of the land. Where’s the sun? What time is it? Which way are the winds blowing? Where’s the lake? Now, make a guess.
Turns out, this age-old tradition of finding north is a practiced skill. And the mere act of questioning our whereabouts, then slowing down to engage with our surroundings, has value, especially in this fast-paced, wired world. Heading down the trail to the foredunes and beach below, I’m downright flustered; these students are growing up on the biggest lake America has within its borders (the other Great Lakes are shared with Canada), and yet many don’t even know that big and basic geographic fact. Just pointing to north is not enough to make this lake, this bay, this landscape, a more integral part of their lives.
Enter triangulation, the skill of locating oneself via two known points. When practiced with an intentional twist, triangulation can help us to know, truly know, a place and think,“this is my home.” The process is called “homing triangulation”—that is, making a conscious connection between ourselves and the landscape by 1) searching for, and acknowledging, a landmark that is significant in our everyday life, and then 2) linking it to a cardinal direction, which always leads to something more …
So, here we go: think of that tree out your kitchen window, the statue at the end of Main Street, that sandy stretch of road on your running route, or any other reference point that has personal meaning. Now, consciously link it to N-S-E-W, and something begins to happen. Instead of “that tree,” it becomes a white pine with the sun’s first rays from the east bouncing off the bark. Go on; give it a try. It’s April, after all.
Know Your North
Try these simple activities to help you and your family not only find north, but also come to better know a place you call home.
Divide your paper in four quadrants, labeling them N-S-E-W and drawing your house (or school, or playground) in the middle. Now make observations from your house by looking out the window (or walking outside) in each direction. Record your observations in each quadrant by either drawing or writing (e.g., list adjectives, write a poem, create questions). Do this on a regular basis—every day, week or month—so you can notice changes over time/seasons.
Set out in your backyard or on a trail, and every so often ask: “Which way?” Pick N-S-E-W (kids like making a spinner to use) and head off in that direction, making observations along the way.
Pick a meaningful reference point, such as your house, office or park. Now start creating a map by drawing that point in the middle of the page. From that point, identify landmarks (e.g., a special tree, a favorite store, a rock) in every direction including NE, SE, SW, and NW. Be sure to include a compass rose on the map. This creates associations between your favorite spot and significant things around it in terms of the cardinal directions.
Search for, and acknowledge, a landmark that is significant in your everyday life (e.g., tree out the kitchen window, your mailbox, statue in town, the lighthouse). Now link it to a cardinal direction, so that as you stand at the landmark (or think about it in your mind’s eye) you associate it with N-S-E-W, thus making a conscious connection between yourself, the landmark and the landscape.
Point to North
Wherever you are—in the car running errands, on your regular running route, eating an ice cream cone in town—stop and think, Which way is north? By doing this regularly, you create a mental map of your surroundings and a conscious connection with the landscape.
First, know that it’s a widespread misperception that the North Star is one of the brightest stars in the sky; it’s actually the 45th brightest star. Find Polaris, aka North Star, aka Pole Star, by first locating the Big Dipper. Imagine a line created by the two stars that make up the outer side of the dipper. Follow that line to the star that is the first star in the handle of the Little Dipper. That is the North Star.
Locate a constellation in the night sky and then create a story about how it came to be relative to the landscape around you. For example, “One day Orion, the great hunter, was walking behind our wood shed near the big maple tree, when suddenly…”