Read You Are Here Online

Authors: Colin Ellard

You Are Here

For Karen.
Without you, I am nowhere



how our mind shapes the places where we
work, live, and play


There is a ritual that all parents must endure from time to time, known as the weekend camping trip. This involves piling the car high with everything from cooking utensils and plastic tarps to a few spare pairs of Bob the Builder underwear and then setting off for a drive to a local park where, more often than not, visions of campfires under starlit skies are replaced by shivering huddles in soggy, windblown tents. It is a brilliant tribute to the human spirit that we always come home from such adventures with nothing but happy memories and eager anticipation for the next close encounter with the Land. It was on one such excursion that I came into intimate contact with my own fragile grip on physical space.

My wife, Karen, and I had blown off the idea of a simple visit to a friendly park containing clearly marked camping plots, complete with firepits and driveways, user-friendly toilets and nearby convenience stores. Instead, we chose to drive for most of a day with friends of ours and our children to one of the northernmost parts of Algonquin Park—a piece of protected land in the heart of
Ontario with an area that is not much smaller than Portugal. Most of the park, populated by moose, wolves, deer, and the occasional black bear, is accessible only on foot or by canoe. We wanted our children to experience true adventure, so, along with our friends, we ventured into the woods with the barest of supplies and one small canoe. Our destination was a canoe-in campsite on the edge of a small lake. The setting was stunning. Our site looked out on a tiny island with one tall, bare tree containing an osprey nest. We were able to sit on the shore and watch the majestic birds fly off in search of food for their chicks.

Soon after we arrived, the rain began. Determined to make the best of things, we spent as much time as we could hiking, canoeing, and exploring. Between adventures, we huddled under a small blue tarp and wrung out wet clothes; when the children weren’t watching, the adults passed a small silver flask of liquid warmth back and forth. On the second day of our trip, we planned an ambitious journey to visit a scenic waterfall. It was too far for our youngest daughters, Jessica and Rebecca, to walk, so they rode in the canoe with our two friends, and Karen and I set off on foot with our oldest daughter, Sarah. We had warned the children beforehand that there was a remote chance we would see a bear, and that the best deterrent was to make plenty of noise as we walked, preferably by singing and clapping. Truthfully, though, we knew that bear sightings were so rare here that many park regulars went years without spotting a single specimen. As much as anything, our safety lecture was meant to heighten our children’s excitement and enjoyment of the trip.

Sarah was a teenager at the time and was in no temper for either singing or clapping. As she skulked along the trail some distance ahead of the rest of us, doing her best to pretend not to be with us, I ran to catch up to her, and told her that if she was determined to lead the group, she would need to make some sort of noise. She
responded by dropping to the back of the pack, leaving me in front. A minute later, as I sang the theme song from
The Flintstones
, I noticed a sapling swing first toward me and then away. I heard a loud rustle just off to my left, but couldn’t see anything. Whatever it was must have run off. I called back, “I think I just startled a big animal! Maybe a deer!” As I turned back to the trail, my view was occluded by the flank of a very large bear, close enough to me that I could have reached out to touch it. It may have been sleeping near the trail and, despite my racket, I think that I might have startled it. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I told Karen and Sarah to back down the trail slowly. I told them not to turn their backs on the bear and not to run. I did much the same, even though by this time the bear had crossed the trail and disappeared into the thicket of woods.

Much later, back at the campsite, our nerves calmed and our children asleep, we spent much time emptying the silver flask and reflecting on our close call and on our vulnerability to whatever unexpected curves nature might throw our way. Stripped of the normal network of support that urban human beings use to get themselves through a day, stumbling along a marked trail in the woods, every slight misstep might spell disaster. If I had walked at a different pace, in a different direction, or without making such a din, my life could have been ended by a single angry swipe of a bear’s paw. Our fate hinged on a crude park map and good luck. What were we doing out here with our kids?

In the morning, we broke camp. Remembering the four trips across the lake in our tiny canoe to move people and gear between trail and campsite, I pulled out a tattered trail map and argued that if some of us blazed a trail through the woods behind the campsite, we ought to come across a trail that skirted the lake. Karen and I offered to make the trip with a full pack of gear and some of the
children in order to shorten the time before we were all sitting in a dry room and digging into a hot breakfast. The route was simple, and is laid out roughly in Figure 1. All we would need to do would be to walk in a straight line for about 100 meters and then, once we found the trail, make a right turn. It is never a good idea to leave a marked trail in wilderness. Our fragile understanding of where we are can collapse quickly, leaving us lost, disoriented, and in peril. In this case, though, the simple shortcut seemed like such a no-lose proposition that, given the rain, the wind, and the hungry bellies, it seemed a risk worth taking.

Figure 1
: The ideal route away from our campsite in Algonquin Park

About an hour after setting off on what should have been about a 45-minute hike, Karen and I knew something was wrong. We had crashed through thick underbrush, no easy feat while hauling a large backpack, and had found the trail exactly where we expected it. But as we walked along, the terrain looked less and less familiar. New lakes appeared where our map suggested none should exist. One of these lakes even had a small island with what looked much like a second osprey nest. It is a testament to the disorienting
power of wilderness that this remarkable discovery did not give us an obvious clue as to where we were. Our feeling of unease was only increased when we encountered several piles of fresh bear droppings on the trail. After another fifteen minutes of walking, and with little awareness of our whereabouts, both Karen and I fought a rising tide of panic. We were lost. We were convinced that more bears were nearby. We had heavy gear, including some food that might draw the bears closer to us, and we had young children to protect. We stopped walking and did our best to put together a few rational thoughts. Eventually, we stumbled upon the mistake we had made. Figure 2 shows what we had done.

Figure 2
: The route we actually took from our campsite in Algonquin Park

We had made critical errors: not only had we somehow crossed the trail without noticing that we had done so but we had then made a complete turnabout, all the while believing that we had been walking in a straight line. Anyone who has tried to walk in a straight line through a cluttered environment like a forest will not be surprised by this error. Even with extensive training, this is a difficult task. Try it. Close your eyes and walk in a
straight line. Surprisingly difficult, isn’t it? As if this wasn’t bad enough, we had compounded our error by failing to recognize that the lake we saw with the second osprey island was the same lake that we had just spent two days camping beside. In fact, from the vantage point of the trail’s edge where we stood trying to orient ourselves, we ought to have been able to
our old campsite. Eventually, after much head-scratching and a few more pauses to reassure ourselves that we now had our bearings, we stumbled into the parking lot at the end of the trail and drove, humbled, following an abundance of clearly marked road signs, to the local diner for a restoring feast.

What kind of creatures are we that we can design technology to navigate across oceans, continents, and even the forbidding reaches of space, yet we become hopelessly lost in a small forest? Why can’t we walk in a straight line for more than a few steps or recognize landmarks that we’ve lived among for days?

You might say that what I’ve described is nothing more than the fumbling of a longtime urban dweller, off on a weekend lark with no training, no compass, and perhaps a bit too much good whiskey in his bloodstream to be able to keep his bearings. Yet both the lore and the science of human navigation suggest that compared to most other animals, human beings are mere beginners at navigation. In my laboratory at the University of Waterloo, the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments (RELIVE), we have spent many years studying the performance of both animals and people in a great variety of navigation tasks. Some striking differences between species have emerged.

There is something of a paradox here. Our ability to
physical space, the lengths and widths of objects, places, and even entire planets, is unrivaled among all of the animals. We make maps, draw graphs, and design sophisticated measuring machines. We have
even launched arrays of satellites into outer space that we can use to guide the movements of everything from a jogger in the park to a jumbo jet or a gigantic cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

As preponderantly cognitive beings, we bring our staggering intellect to bear on the technological conquest of space, yet we become lost in tiny patches of green space. We are forced to take frustrating interludes from our busy lives trying to locate our own car in a parking lot. We can even become lost in the spaces we build, such as office buildings, shopping malls, and hospitals. How do we reconcile these two basic facets of the human relationship with space and place—our theoretical mastery of abstract space and our ineffable clumsiness in finding our way? Is it possible that there might even be a connection between the two? Have we been so successful in building an environment that relieves us of the need to find our way from place to place that we have fundamentally changed our nature?

A black bear, like the one that I disturbed in the woods, can find its way home after being displaced distances of hundreds of kilometers using methods that have rebuffed the efforts of scientists to understand them.
What do bears know that we don’t? How do monarch butterflies or migrating songbirds navigate even larger distances, thousands of kilometers in some instances, to targets that they might never even have seen before? How is it that a homing pigeon can be driven halfway across a continent in a light-proof box and then, on release, find its way unerringly back to its loft? How do newborn sea turtles waddle off a beach in Florida and migrate thousands of kilometers through ocean depths to rich foraging grounds near the coast of Africa? Perhaps most interestingly of all, how is it that the only existing animal that has come
to understanding how some of these magnificent navigational feats are performed is rendered helpless by a confusing thicket of woods or an unexpected hallway in an office building?


Considered as a purely physical thing, space is the set of dimensions that defines locations, distances, and the relationship between one thing and another. Mathematicians and physicists tell us that there are many possible different kinds of spaces, each with their own set of dimensions and rules, but the space that operates on our biology is much like that envisioned by Euclid in his version of the geometry of space that we all learn in elementary school. Like all other animals, we live with the everyday reality that the dividing line between those things that are possible and those that are not is sharply drawn by the nature of space and time. I cannot be in both Chicago and Toronto at the same time, and my ability to move from one place to another, and the route that I must take to get there, depends on mathematical geometry and physical law.

There is, of course, much more to space than the pragmatics of getting from place to place. Since the dawn of thought, philosophers and scientists have struggled to define and to understand what space is. Our creation stories, whether they come from the ancient Greeks, the Indian Rig Veda, or the Old Testament, help us to come to terms with the idea that something came from nothing, and in managing this gigantic mental step, we have no choice but to ruminate on what the real difference is between nothing and something. Modern philosophers have had to struggle with such basic metaphysical questions about the nature of space in a context that is increasingly constrained by the discoveries of science.
Some physicists now tell us that spaces with twenty dimensions, in which parallel lines might curve and meet, may be much more than the fancies of mathematicians and philosophers, and may be physically real, whether we are able to perceive them or not. Classical ideas about time as the gatekeeper of events and the arbiter of simultaneity
are also becoming frayed at the edges, as new discoveries in quantum physics suggest that there can be connections between objects separated by vast expanses of physical space, as if information can be passed from place to place through the universe with
intervening passage of time.

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