An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

I can’t remember when was the last time I “ran out” of reading material.  I have always had a pile of books I haven’t read somewhere at hand, it just gives me peace to know there’s something to look forward to. I usually have at least three books I really want to read, and there’s a lot of research, conversations, Goodreads browsing and recommendations that influence my tbr pile, so when I buy a book it’s usually a title I’ve had in mind for a while. But a few times a year I’ll go crazy and buy a few titles I have never heard about, I just let them find me. This was the case of George Michelsen Foy’s Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. 

I saw this book at Chapters, Ottawa and I just had to buy it. Partly because lately I am obsessesed with travel writing, and partly because the cover is so beautiful. So I bought it with no other reference, and for four months it just accumulated dust on my nightstand. But now I finally got to reading it, and it was a pleasant surprise.

The book is part memoir, part a rollicking reflection on the very intimate link between navigation and humanity. The book begins thus: “‘Where’ is the primal question, rather than ‘when’, ‘how’, or ‘who’ because for any animal, figuring out where to move in defense or attack relative to the forces around has always been the first step to survival. From the start, staying alive has depended on navigation, the art of figurin g out our position and in what direction to travel”. And Michelsen goes beyond that affirmation, he even visits a neuroscientist that explains to him the fragile yet indispensable links between memory and the ability of locating oneself in a certain space, and how that happens in the human brain.

The book is not, however, just a collection of fun facts about navigation, there’s a story guiding the plot. Michelsen teaches creative writing at NYU, and the hero’s journey is easily discernible along the book. His concern with navigation goes beyond simple curiosity, he’s obessesed with maritime navigation and sailing because his Nordic ancestors were in the trade before emigrating to America. One of his ancestors was the captain of a vessel called the Stavanger Paquet, which sank in a journey from Stavanger, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany. After the incident, every other member of the Michelsen family who ventured into the sea met a similar fate, so the family abandoned their trade.

And it’s this family curse, a legend that has passed from generation to generation of Michelsens, that obsesses our hero. Michelsen feels particularly attracted to navigation and ships since he was a boy growing up in Cape Code. What dazzles him is that “navigation of the kind my ancestor practised was not just a skill but the roughest of magics: a spell cast in the face of mystery and fear against the near certainty of loss”. In explaining his obsession, Michelsen strikes a feeling every traveller has felt before, the need to go places, an innate wanderlust that prevents people from staying where they are in search for who knows what: even if the seas are believed to be plagued by krakens and monsters, they have to sail. This innate wanderlust, a nomadic instinct is what Steinbeck called “the urge to be someplace else“, a charming urge which has motivated thousands of pages in literature.

Sadly, part of the charm and danger of traveling, of navigating, has been lost recently because of technology. We know now that Google Maps actually makes us worst at navigating, and Michelsen not only criticises and explains this, but takes direct action against it. That’s where things get interesting, for we would not have a hero without a task.

The plot of the book is basically Michelsen trying to recreate the trip which took his ancestor’s life, that is, in as much as possible the same conditions: a similar ship, no modern technology, in a trip from Cape Cod to Maine. In preparing for the trip and actually setting out to it, Michelsen reflects on various topics related to navigation: the biology behind it, old methods of celestial navigation, history and family history. He’s constantly trying to understand what lies behind the human need for travelling and how it may have transformed now that we are so dependable on GPS technology.

Finding North is a curious book. It is uneven, gripping at times, exasperating and even boring at times. Michelsen introduces himself as a very likeable character—that is perhaps what I found annoying in the book— and tries to use a personal plot—his quest to recreate his ancestor’s trip— to unite a series of topics and interviews that seem not to be related. While everything is about navigation, there are parts that work more like independent essays but are forced into the general plot, so that might prove anticlimactic at times.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. When I bought it I thought I could learn some things about navigation, and I was not disappointed, there are plenty of facts and interesting data in the book, along with a Selected Bibliography at the end. It is obviously a very well-researched book, one that raises important questions about our current relationship with technology, and that moreover seeks to answer from personal experience the old question of why we travel. If you’re into travel writing, I’m sure Finding North will prove a delightful experience. You can get it from Amazon here*.

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