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Stick Charts, Waves and Remaining True

I have been thinking about stick charts. I discovered some information about them in my reading about traditional wayfinding practices of voyaging in the Pacific Ocean. The exposure to these charts and how they served a navigator has made me more aware of how my body and my heart knows what they know… and how better to challenge myself and to also trust myself.

Stick charts,or wave charts, were fabricated by traditional wayfinders to navigate the Pacific Ocean between the Marshall Islands. Charts were made from coconut fronds tied together to form an open framework. Island locations were represented by shells tied to the framework, or by the lashed junction of two or more sticks.

The charts visually represented local wave patterns and the major ocean swells in that part of the Pacific Ocean. There was also information in the charts about the ways the islands altered those wave patterns by their presence. Thus, these charts of coconut fronds and shells were a representation of a very complex set of predictable swells and also several local wave disruptions within the island group. They provided information about the wave-crests formed by the ebb and flow of breakers.

Individual stick charts were the product of one navigator. They varied so much in form and in personal interpretation that the individual navigator who created the chart was the only person who could fully interpret it or explain it to another navigator.

They were not carried out to sea. These charts were not maps to be checked in transit. The navigator referenced the charts on the beach, or discussed the chart with a navigator-in-training, before the voyage. They helped to visualize and memorize the rhythm pattern of wave action and thus provided a direction of travel to the intended island. It served as a representation and reminder of ‘a path’ through the sea: a path sensed in subtle visual information and felt physical movement of the boat through the various swells and waves.

Once in the boat and voyaging, the navigator stayed true to the path: to this complex rhythm pattern and to the visual references of breakers provided by wave action and the presence of more predictable ocean swells. Keeping true to this bearing- remaining ‘in the groove’- allowed navigators to arrive at the destination island. If it felt right, then the boat was on course. If it suddenly felt wrong or looked off, then an adjustment back into the correct pattern was needed. A navigator, with a memory of the stick chart in mind, felt and saw a road to the next island.

And the islands themselves were visible in the wave patterns long before they were visible to the eye. Their ‘fingerprint’ was evident in the disrupted wave action.

I wonder about my own ability to navigate my life in this way: an art of deep awareness and developed skill.

Turbulent experiences arise from a complex interaction of people and tasks. These waves of fluid life energy are disrupted by islands of thought, institutional pressure, and by the lives of other people who send out their own wave disruptions my direction!

Nearby storms and their temporary wave patterns challenge me… whether I can trust what I think I know about the swells and waves of my experience.

Yet I have come to believe that there is an underlying wholeness- a matrix of moving reality that is consistent beneath the chaos. These are the deep consistent ocean swells. If I can only see it and recognize this deeper truth.

And yet these questions continue to come up as I consider this:

What stick charts of the soul have I been able to create… to serve as a reference for my life?

What rhythm pattern of wave action can I sense in the fibres of my body?

What patterns have I learned to see in the breakers?

When do I adjust to this rhythm when I am no longer on course? What do I do when the visual data streaming into my eyes is telling me that I have strayed from my path?

How do I remain true to course? How close am I to the next island and can I detect it and sense it beyond my vision?


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