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Sense of Direction

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

In the northern reaches of South America, there is a cave-dwelling species of bird called oilbirds, or guácharos. They are long birds which sit with their breasts nearly to the ground, pitched like a crooked painting, with an elongated hooked beak. They are the singular species of bird that is nocturnal, flying, and fruit-eating. They navigate by echolocation, just as bats do, emitting high-pitched clicking sounds which reverberate off terrain to create a mental map of their surroundings. However, unlike bats, oilbirds’ clicks are audible to humans. In Trinidad, the cries of the oilbirds earned them the nickname diablotin, or “little devil,” due to the close resemblance of their screeches to that of tortured men.

Historically, the indigenous peoples of Venezuela would collect their bodily oils into pots and make fuel for torches. During the oil harvest each year, they would use poles to destroy oilbird nests, littering the floors of the caves with thousands of bird carcasses. Guácharo Cave, where these slaughters would occur, is now a protected national monument. Visitors travel from all over the world to witness the cryptic birds, their screeching cries and their peering eyes.

Perhaps what is so attractive and memorable about the oilbirds is their unique gift for finding their way in the dark. As humans — somewhat bumbling creatures prone to fear of darkness — we are easily impressed by creatures that can furrow and forage in what feels like nothingness. But these birds fascinate me for another reason: how the environmental feedback from their calls orients them in space and time. They cry against the walls of their covert dwellings, Are you there? Are you there? And the cave sends their voices back to them, telling them where they need to go. Yes, I’m here. I’m here.

Thinking of the oilbird, I wonder: how much of navigation is innate?

I got truly lost for the first time at the age of 18. I had driven to a remote campground in northern Maine to explore a nature preserve that boasted a cluster of over 25 miles of hiking trails webbed along Damariscotta Lake. It was an earnest August day, the sky alive with the clicking and humming of insects. The only other souls I encountered were a family in a cabin on the lake, during the first hour of my hike. They were shouting and grilling meat as their children dove off the dock into the pond, one after another, like seals dropping into the bay. They took no notice of me as I hiked soberly past, my mind riddled with the usual tangle of thoughts that slowly unwind themselves throughout a long hike. The air coming off the lake was splendid — cool and fresh, wafting mosquitoes away with a sharp, clean smell that broke against the pines and released summer into the air.

This serenity was cut short by my decision to take a detour and loop around a small pond a few miles north. To walk along this trail was like entering another world. The trees hung low and damp around my head, intercepting the sun and shading me in a haze of dim, diluted light. The earth was soft and waterlogged, home to large puddles of still-lying water which produced the fecund scent of decaying life and festering invertebrates. For an hour, maybe more, there was nothing but the resentful suction of the earth under my feet and whining black flies bumping against my face. When I finally made it out, I was exhausted and relieved. The dark gumminess of the bog gave way to a clean gravel trail embraced on either side by tall, welcoming oak trees. I thought the worst was over, but as it turns out, I had just begun.

Humans, purportedly, possess a more sophisticated system than animals when it comes to navigation. However, after learning more about animals’ sense of direction, I can’t help but question whether complexity is superior to primal instinct. Animal navigation falls across different scales and employs different mechanisms. For long distances, animals are guided either by internal or external compasses. Fish, insects, and bats each have iron oxide particles in their cells, allowing them to detect the earth’s magnetic fields. Migrating songbirds rely on external signals, such as the arc of the sun or the patterns of the stars, to travel long distances. At medium distances, or in the 'homing phase,’ animals such as pigeons may use environmental factors such as scents or sounds to find their destination. In the final steps of their journey, the ‘pinpointing-the-goal-phase’, animals like foxes and even certain wasps identify distinctive landmarks: a cave entrance, a unique tree. If the interconnectivity of all living things seems elusive to you, consider how the environment is entwined in animal bodies, pulling us where we need to go. For instance, the crystals of magnetite in the cells of salmon are also flecked throughout the landscape, in rocks and stones, like tiny cairns drawing them home.

Alternatively, we humans may fall into one of two approaches to navigation: egocentric, in which we relate our environment to our personal position in space, or allocentric, which employs pattern-finding to make sense of the landscape as a whole. However, this is less about decision-making than it is about the structure of our brains. The egocentric approach relies on the caudate nucleus, which governs movement control, and the posterior parietal cortex, which is involved with spatial reasoning. The allocentric approach is endowed to those of us with more grey matter in our hippocampus, allowing us to conjure maps in our heads. It has been said that those who exercise the latter approach more often are better suited to finding their way around, due to their strengthened spatial reasoning. My passage through the Maine woods taught me that I’m primarily an egoist — too absorbed in the small novelties of shelf mushrooms growing on a birch or the cry of an osprey overhead to map out the grander picture.

In the hot, endless sun, the trails seemed to fold in on one another, imbricating and separating before my eyes. I had surfaced from the bog for no more than twenty minutes, but I had already managed to lose my way. The trails were not well-maintained, having long been devastated by hard winter snow and heavy spring rains. Each guidepost had the comical effect of pointing straight down the middle of a fork in the road. I stopped in my tracks when I found myself at the centre of the nature reserve, a small clearing that connected 25 miles of trail, like the beating heart in the fractured branches of a nervous system. Again.

The first time this occurred, it was amusing. But as time passed and I continuously found myself spat back out into the clearing no matter how many routes I tried, I began to feel as if I had entered a cursed region of the forest. A hot, rising panic began to seal itself around my throat as I assessed my situation. It was nearing four in the afternoon; I had been out on the trail since ten that morning. My water was running low. I had no cell service. It was the first time that the unease of being lost had metabolised into a primal fear — I had never felt such a deep tug of wrong. I hurriedly ran through my options, trying not to let the needles of fear inhibit my thinking. One possibility was to backtrack completely, but the thought of trudging through the bog again for at least a dozen miles made my stomach constrict. I was getting tired, and my footing was less steady. It would be much harder this time.

I folded my map and tucked it in the side of my backpack. It wasn’t helping me. I had to trust myself. I closed my eyes and pressed my hands to my stomach and my heart to steady my breathing. I tried to envision the way I had travelled: the air wafting off the pond, the shouts of children diving into the lake, and the gleam of my car in the parking lot.

When I opened my eyes, I felt a calm settle over my shoulders as I began walking. I was moving quickly now, no longer stopping to enjoy the smell of the pines or the warblers twinkling in the trees. I didn’t know it then, but I had placed my ego to the side and spread out my mental picture of the trails until it became a legible whole, just as one might smooth a map open on a table. I was taking an allocentric approach. With near tunnel vision, I travelled down the trail as if an animal had taken over my body and was nosing her way toward her den.

In her pivotal work, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit mourns the decline of society’s ability to get lost. She writes, “I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.” There is a beauty, and an urgency, behind this sentiment — the necessity for us to hesitate, pause, and consider our landscape before it consumes us. Solnit worries that perhaps we have lost the ability to be lost, and asks: then, how can we manage to lose our way? This question, however important, interests me less than the way the practice of finding my way facilitates an understanding of how it is I keep showing up to the right places, day after day. The answer for me lies in the salmon, the bats, and the oilbirds; those creature cartographers, making maps in their minds. It is a knowledge of where I come from, and what the trees might tell me. Are you there? Are you there? Yes, I’m here.

The sight of my car under the sloping shade of an oak tree was like a blessing. I was exhausted, both from the hike and the sheer urgency that banged in my throat and my chest as I tunnelled through the forest looking for something familiar. I had meant to hike five miles; I ended up hiking 18. I got home in the near-dark, when the peepers had already started their symphony in the woods, and the foxes had begun to frisk together along the roadside. I slept strangely that night, my dreams thick with images of the earth swallowing my limbs one by one and flies blackening my vision. I startled awake, the moon like an oyster above the pine trees, and cracked my window open to get the night breeze. Somewhere, bats were flying silent and curious through the night, asking questions of the woods, and finding their way home.


Riley Mayes is a writer, hiker, and lover of the outdoors from Portland, Maine. She is currently pursuing her Master’s from the University of Edinburgh where she studies Environmental Literature.

Image from Wikimedia


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