My beautiful younger brother Darren died a few weeks ago.
As I ponder about the ancient practices of wayfinding, I have become newly aware of some of the currents that affect the direction of my travel…
Up until his death, I must admit that I have tended to be much more of a future-oriented planner. If I have trouble living in the present- and I do- it is because I am thinking about the next shiny event ahead. I have not been one to dwell on past events. I am not prone to nostalgia or regret. I do tend to get ahead of myself.
Yet, I now find myself drifting in grief… thinking much more about memories from childhood. Especially in the mornings, in that moment just before full wakefulness, I notice the pull to remember. I find myself daydreaming: recollecting events with Darren and also with my aging parents. The family cabin at Neskonlith Lake… our backyard on Rosewood Ave… hiking trips into Bachelor Heights… As though I am still trying to understand something valuable that is obscured in these memories. As though I am trying to orient my identity and my present from these early signposts.
New insights have been arising from my pondering traditional open-ocean navigators of the Pacific Island- in practices that predate the use of a magnetic compass, maps, charts and GPS. These wayfinders used a variety of practices to maintain an awareness of location and direction.
One practice is described as ‘navigating from astern’.
Navigating facing backwards was contrary to the navigational practices of most of the voyage, in which the wayfinder faced forwards to take in the sensory data. The conventional perch of the navigator was near the back of the boat and facing ahead. This allowed a wayfinder to use the ocean canoe as a compass needle. One could make reference down the side of the boat for noticing speed and direction. This constant data collection and analysis- taking in the boat’s speed and noticing the direction of swells, waves, winds, birds, sun and clouds and the moving star compass and moon of the night sky- helped inform a wayfinder’s sustained internal map and helped provide for a consistent bearing.
However, in the first hours of any voyage, as the boat moved away from the land, there was a reverse skill. Essential information was available to a wayfinder by facing not forwards, but backwards. In the midst of moving forward to new waters, it was facing backwards towards the fading land and to the boat’s wake that provided accurate direction.
At the start of the voyage, the most reliable flow of information came from what was being left behind… from the past.
Looking backwards, a wayfinder used a set of references to create a line or trajectory. It might be a few dominant trees, a cliff or another feature. It might be a deep valley that ran away from the shore and provided a line of deeper shadow. A wayfinder needed at least two objects on the land, or the shadow of a valley, to then extend a line out in the ocean. This imagined line extended through the boat and all the way to the destination island. Imaginle the sights on a gun to help understand this practice. In some navigational descriptions, navigating from astern is indeed called ‘backsighting’.
This line was the known path to the intended island. It pointed out to sea and to where the boat was going. Facing backwards and keeping in alignment provided the necessary starting direction to orient the navigator. This information of what landmarks to use for which island was passed on from elder navigator to younger. It became known voyage after voyage by paying attention. The home island might provide several of these lines of reference to various islands nearby and far away.
As the boat moved away, the visible drift of the current could also be recognized. This was essential information to find an accurate bearing. A constant pull to left or right indicated the presence of current: current that changed and shifted in both direction and strength throughout the year. If the wayfinder noticed that on what should have been a consistent bearing that the landmarks were drifting out of alignment, there was an active current.
As a wayfinder noticed this current, an internal compensation came into play. The bearing was adjusted for what current was evident. If the current was moving the boat towards the left, the wayfinder adjusted course to the right to average out the effect of current.
Of course, backsighting ended when the land was too far away to see the alignment markers. The wayfinder would move to the forward position and continue the voyage on this determined bearing by looking ahead, now that it was no longer possible to backsight.
I think I’m backsighting.
My memories of Darren, moments with my parents, and related recollections up to this present moment are somehow aligning themselves. There is a line of landmarks from which I am moving away. I sense this line continuing through my body and into my life ahead.
I am not ready to return to facing forward- perhaps a glance of orientation is all. I sense I must remain true to the alignment of memories- to this bearing. And this course takes me out to the deep ocean. The land is still visible to me in these precious weeks of remembering… yet I know that soon it will fade from view.
I have detected current as I look back. I can see in my earliest memories of my family, my school experiences and into young adulthood… I see the curve of my wake and this noticeable deep flow of energy for which I need to learn to compensate. I sense this current in my body. It will take me off course- it pushes me off my true bearing- unless I learn to adjust for it.
Some of the current I have noticed:
• An inherited fatalism- not a powerful current of victimhood or the intensity of a martyr-complex… but a more subtle flow of ocean around me… made up of what?… a resignation to the powers-that-be… a powerlessness in the face of these forces… a corrosive cynicism inherited in a shrug and the question not seeking an answer of ‘what can I do?’;
• Developed guilt from my evangelical religious heritage- this current has been stronger in the past;
• My temperament and personality… I am an intuitive thinker who spends much more time and is more at ease in my head than in my heart or my body;
• And just yesterday, in a courageous encounter with a dear friend- I once again detected the old current of racism, colonialism, and fear of the other… and the constant current of my white male privilege.
Years ago, I first noticed these currents. I had hoped to voyage to an ocean in which they were not at work. I thought they were weeds in my garden that I could eradicate with diligence and hard work.
Backsighting is revealing to me that my ocean is my reality.
The currents are not going to go away. I do sense less force from them.
My wayfinding is no longer a hope to live current-free… rather, navigating well involves a simple practice of noticing.Grief is teaching me to stand and look back and notice the wake. And as I become more fully aware of the currents, my practice is to update my inner map. I readjust and compensate and continue to find the true course… a line passing through me and extending out to the world I am sailing towards- within me and around me.