Back to ASTRO UTAH Home
Welcome to Project ASTRO UTAH
Our Goals

The Coalition

The Schools

Science Snippets

Interesting Links

Von Del's Astronomy Articles

ASTRO UTAH Newsletter

Finding Your Sense of Direction

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Have you ever known a person who had no sense of direction? Have you had the experience of becoming disoriented? How important is the sense of direction to you?

I suspect that direction is important to most people in Utah where towns tend to have streets laid out on grids oriented north to south and east to west. I am certain that direction was important to the Native Americans who resided here long before people of European descent came onto the landscape. For most cultures, direction has been fundamental to life, to religion and even to self concept, as well as to the ability to move about upon the land or sea. In modern times it is crucial to our ability to maneuver in space as well as on Earth.

Returning to the question at the head of this article, I once met a man in California who seemed to have no sense of direction. He had agreed to take me back to the place where I was staying, so I started to tell him which way to go. "It is off to the north east, mostly east," I said, and he replied, "I haven't the slightest idea which way east is. Tell me where it is in terms of subdivisions and buildings." I was amazed! I had never before met anyone like this. He moved about along the complicated highways in the Los Angeles area, from artery to artery, by following signs and recognizing familiar buildings. I suspect that he had a textbook understanding of the cardinal directions, but apparently he really had no personal identity with east, south, west or north.

Now, for the second question, I can well remember how frustrating it was to be some place having lost the sense of direction. Everything seemed unreal and out of place. Looking around at the landmarks, knowledge and good sense might have told me which way to go, but something else inside did not want to follow that advice. When this happens to me, I must stop and concentrate on my orientation until I can bring into harmony my inner sense of direction with the outer world. In my early years this was quite difficult, indeed nearly impossible when I was in an unfamiliar place. More recently, training in astronomy has broadened my concept of "familiar place" so that I can make the mental transition by observing the Sun, Moon or stars when these are visible. I am extremely uncomfortable unless my inner sense of direction conforms to what I know the real directions are.

How about you? Is orientation something you carry about within the upper levels of your consciousness, or are you more like the man in California who was not bothered with such need?

In Webster's Dictionary we find for the word orient: "rising as the sun; the east; Eastern countries; to place so as to face the east; to determine the position of, with respect to east; to take one's bearings." So the word derives from its association with where the Sun comes into our day, the east. Hold on now. The Sun does not always rise in the east. In summer it rises far to the north of east and in winter considerably south of east.

We can nicely define what all this means in neat scientific terms. Earth rotates daily on an axis that is pointed off toward the North Star, and this causes things off in space (Sun, Moon, planets, stars) to appear to rise, move across our sky, then set. But Earth also revolves in an orbit about the Sun, and this changes Sun's path across our sky in a steady progression through the year. Confused? Lots of people are. We shall explore these things in some detail, from month to month, as we go along in this column. But lets get back to orientation.

Orientation is not just the human need to know where we are and the directions we should move to go from place to place, it is deeply implanted within frameworks of cultural identity: Moslems are required to face Mecca in prayer; the Chinese emperor at the forbidden city had rituals to perform while facing specific directions; Pueblo Sun Priests would stand at a sacred place to keep the calendar for the people, and many Native Americans offer prayers, directing smoke, pollen or corn meal to the cosmic directions, often beginning with the east; great cathedrals have been constructed along east-west lines; Mormon temples also, with the Angel Morini facing east; and many orient graves along the east-west axis as well. The list goes on. All of this because of the ways we orient, produced by the ways Earth moves in space.

Some might say this is merely symbolism. It is that, and deeply so. It derives from the observation of the coming of light with the rising Sun, watched by individuals and groups throughout all human time. This one thing has millions of wonderful expressions, in many forms: religion, art, architecture, mythology, cultural and individual histories. Our need to orient our lives is found in the sacred spaces where we grow up, live, work, and worship. Not only humans, but other life also orients to the Sun: flowers do it; birds also; and so do bees.

In the past, whether it was in a tribal society or just in one of our small towns, people grew up learning the things that resulted in orientation: such basic things as how to find the North Star and where the Sun would rise throughout the year. Now, most people of the world grow up in large metropolitan places, quite unaware of such things. I fear that something basic and dear is being lost here. No longer is it considered necessary to have the knowledge and personal experience to understand how directions are established and how they relate to natural change in the world about us. It is possible to walk, drive and fly about within the gridwork build by man with little regard for the greater things that have always moved and continue to move about us. Ironically, these are the very things that fuel our lives: rotating Earth to bring us in and out of the energy flux of a star; revolving Earth to carry us through the seasons and the years; Sun to rise as we rise to the accomplishments of our lives. Orientation is intimately intertwined with who we are, where we belong, and what we are about to do.

Copyright 1999-2002 The Clark Foundation.
Please direct all comments and queries to webmaster@clarkfoundation.org