Finding your way in the woods without a map or compass can be a daunting task, yet our ancestors travelled their wild world, sometimes hundreds of miles on foot, without a breaking a sweat… How the heck did they do it??
Being guided by nature is based in reading the subtle patterns in nature that modern domesticated humans normally ignore. The directions of the world are worn into the very rocks, reflected in the undergrowth leaves reaching towards the sun and in the gnarled branches of trees twisting their way to the sky. Our ancestors could read these natural patterns as easily as you read a street sign, guiding them to their destinations and back again.
So how do we (re)train ourselves in this ancient human skill? There is no one fail safe, true in every location “trick” to natural navigation. Finding your way naturally relies on understanding of the larger natural patterns of the area you live in- the amount and direction of light, prevailing wind(s), level of moisture… These cumulative forces cause subtle asymmetries that you can learn to interpret. In short, you must spend time out in nature, observing and interacting.
Here are some handful of rough directional patterns to get you started:
1. “Into the light”. In an effect known as Heliotropism many plants orient themselves towards the greatest source of light. In our forest one of the more sensitive (and obvious) Heliotropic flora would be our lovely fiddlehead ferns. Ferns in direct sun will tend to orient much of their growth southwards to catch the most light. Note: make sure to look for obstacles to light that can change the fern’s orientation. Under heavy tree cover, heliotropic plants will orient towards the nearest bright opening in the canopy, no matter what direction it is. Open meadows may be your best bet.
2. Look for a tree’s “Heavy Side”. Lone Trees tend to be “heavier” with more leaves and branches to the south side (in our northern hemisphere) in order to catch more of the life giving sun. Take the time to walk around the tree and view it from multiple angles. Note: this effect can be muted or overridden in a grouping of trees as their shadows interact with each other.
3. Branching out. Sunlight also directs the growth of individual branches. Southern branches tend to grow more horizontally (towards the sun), while the shaded northern branches tend to grow more vertically in their quest for more sunlight. This can be most easily seen when observing the tree from East/West. Once again, individual trees are easier to read than groves.
4. Moss and moisture. Isn’t moss supposed to grow on the north side of trees? Yes, but… for the record, moss does not always grow just on the north side of trees. Where moss grows depends mainly on the level of moisture, and this is not always on the north side. Also, disregard growth in the first 2 feet up from the ground around the trunk – which tends to be influenced by the evaporating ground moisture.
Interested in exploring this further? For an engaging guide to these skills look for Tristan Gooley’s book “Natural Navigation”. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of more tips to explore and many more of your own to discover as you go out and start looking for your own patterns in nature.
(NOTE: This does not give you an excuse to go out into unfamiliar territory without a map!)