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Originally published Friday, July 12, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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‘The Lost Art of Finding Our Way’: navigating by nature

John Edward Huth’s new book “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” chronicles the ways humans have found ways to navigate from nature’s clues. Huth speaks Monday, July 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John Edward Huth

The author of “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 15, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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In 1954, James Lovell took off from the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La on a training flight. Unfortunately, his navigation system malfunctioned, followed by a short-circuit in his instrument panel, which left him without any lights.

Complete darkness, however, was a lucky break, because when Lovell looked out the cockpit he noticed a faintly glowing trail in the water. Lovell realized that he was seeing the bioluminescence produced by microscopic dinoflagellates, which the Shangri-La’s wake had disturbed. Following the light, he returned safely to his ship.

Lovell’s observation and knowledge of his environment in helping him locate his ship exemplify the stories told in Harvard University physics professor John Edward Huth’s new book, “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” (Harvard University Press, 544 pp., $35). Filled with practical advice, scientific descriptions, and historical and modern accounts of route-finding triumphs and failure, the book is a wide ranging account of how not to get lost, and what to do when you are.

At the heart of the book is a simple idea — the natural world is filled with clues to help you navigate. All one has to do is be a good observer and notice the subtle signs, which, of course, is not as always easy as it sounds.

This is both the strength and weakness of Huth’s book. His practical observations are thorough and helpful and his science is understandable and well-illustrated, but unless you are willing to go outside and practice what he describes, and maybe have an elder or expert to help you, the skills he writes about are more fascinating than useful.

I don’t mean this to disparage the book. It is more a cautionary observation about how little most of us pay attention to and engage with the natural world around us. Huth has done a fine job of assembling his information into a well-written account that will keep you reading and learning.

It may not make you better at finding your way, but it will certainly give you respect for those with that ability and perhaps inspire you to take the time to get outside and become a more careful observer.

In this modern age of handheld GPS devices and Google Earth, one might observe that Huth is living in the past and that one no longer needs any of these skills.

He does not address this issue specifically, or even address any aspect of modern navigational technology, but instead opens with a tale of two women who died while kayaking in a dense fog bank. No one knows what happened, but it appears they paddled out to sea and not back to shore. Huth was in the same area on the same day and survived because of his navigational skills.

Seattle author David B. Williams’ latest book is “Cairns: Messengers in Stone” (Mountaineers Books).

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