When I was a little kid, the little wobbly compasses dads put on their dashboards fascinated me. “Which way are we going now?”
My dad never put one in our car. “I know where I’m going.” He had a reliable sense of direction and mom could read a map, but my Aunt Martha definitely needed one — and had one — but she’d argue with it. We spent 30 minutes one rainy afternoon driving around the same four blocks in Colorado Springs because she didn’t believe her compass…
Most of the time I lived where all anyone needed to do to know which way was north was look for the mountains which were always due west. Things got a little confusing in San Diego where the mountains were to the east, and more than once in the first couple of years I lived there, with the ocean in mind (west) I turned toward the mountains (oops!) Now the mountains are in all directions, but the various ranges look distinctly different from each other.
The sun is more reliable than mountains but even that gets tricky when you can’t see the horizon, like in Switzerland or Pennsylvania. In all my hiking years (not including now which is barely hiking) I never used a compass. I knew how — know how — and I carried one but somehow? Landmarks. It seems that all my trails were out, up, down, back.
Early in my hiking life, in a dense forest — Fontenelle Forest — along the Missouri River with my 7th grade science class on a field trip — boys with Col. Smithson, girls with Mrs. Idiot — the girls got lost. Mrs. Idiot freaked out. The class fragile girl had an asthma attack, and woods person that I was, I stepped up, “I’ll find Col. Smithson.” Since I spent most of my free time wandering around in a forest that was part of THIS forest, I’d learned a LOT about getting back home for dinner. Mrs. Idiot didn’t want me to go alone, so she sent a classmate with me. Kathy Keough. Off we went. Kathy was scared. I, the intrepid “Natty Bumpo” wasn’t. This was finally fun! But Kathy insisted we stop to pray. OK. Soon after, we encountered Col. Smithson and the boys. “Can you find your way back to them?” asked the Colonel, beginning one of his interrogations.
“Are you sure?”
People really do like to stop to talk when action might be more the order of the day. I led him and the boys to Mrs. Idiot and the rest of the girls, and became a legend for a short time. “How did you do that?” asked Mrs. Idiot.
What were these landmarks? After we left the main trail, we walked along the river on rail road tracks. About halfway from the main trail to the narrow trail we took into the woods, was a dead skunk. When we left the tracks, we turned right, into the forest and began heading back toward the main trail through the trees. I knew this. I knew (because we had turned back toward the main trail) that if we just turned right, we’d hit the tracks and the river. The dead skunk would let me know about how far it was to the main trail. I didn’t think (with my 12 year old wisdom) we really needed to find the Colonel. We needed to find the bus. It was sheer coincidence that we DID run into Col Smithson. HE was furious with Mrs. Idiot for letting Kathy Keough and me leave the group. She should not have done that. Smart people stay where they are if they get lost, but…
Our nature field trip turned into something else, a lecture on safety in the forest and using a compass. Col. Smithson had been in two wars and had a lot to say about that.
There’s a theory that some people have a bit of magnetite in their noses…
Do humans have a compass in their nose?
Asked by Lee Staniforth of Manchester, UK
Some years ago scientists at CALTECH (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) discovered that humans possess a tiny, shiny crystal of magnetite in the ethmoid bone, located between your eyes, just behind the nose.
Magnetite is a magnetic mineral also possessed by homing pigeons, migratory salmon, dolphins, honeybees, and bats. Indeed, some bacteria even contain strands of magnetite that function, according to Dr Charles Walcott of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, “as tiny compass needles, allowing them [the bacteria] to orient themselves in the earth’s magnetic field and swim down to their happy home in the mud”.
It seems that magnetite helps direction finding in animals and helps migratory species migrate successfully by allowing them to draw upon the earth’s magnetic fields. But scientists are not sure how they do this.
In any case, when it comes to humans, according to some experts, magnetite makes the ethmoid bone sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field and helps your sense of direction.
Some, such as Dr Dennis J Walmsley and W Epps from the Department of Human Geography of the Australian National University in Canberra writing in Perceptual and Motor Skills as far back as in 1987, have even suggested that this “compass” was helpful in human evolution as it made migration and hunting easier.
Following this fascinating factoid, science journalist Marc McCutcheon entitled a book The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts.
Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to email@example.com(Source)
I’ve wandered compass-less in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego County for hours and always got back to my car. Maybe there’s something to the nose-compass theory. Still, it seems to be part landmarks, part sun position, part up and down. It’s cool that now we have these amazing phones that have maps, compasses and GPS. It’s uncool that they can lose their charge.
Featured photo: My brother in our local forest in Nebraska. I think I’m done with the Pearl Buck project — seriously it was getting on my nerves… I found sections that COULD appear sometime in the future — women in Chinese fiction is one of them. We’ll see.