Huckleberry season is coming up. Are your navigational skills in good order?
Studies show that women, the traditional gatherers, are more likely than men to use landmarks to prevent themselves from being lost. A looming tree, a particular rock, or the unusually, brilliant-green reflection at a stream crossing are the kind of markers that help a female relocate the places that they remember having found good berries, herbs or mushrooms.
Men’s navigational skills are equally good, but different. The theory is that men — having primarily been hunters — had to follow the erratic course of prey and keep a sense of the direction and the distance that they had covered. Seemingly unconsciously they can maintain a mental image of their position in relationship to the terrain and compass points. If they were standing in a meadow, they might use the warmth of the sun on their shoulder and the slant of shadows to construct the map. As they walk across that meadow and down a ravine, they calculate and remember a loose estimate of how far they have gone and how long it took them to traverse that distance. Granted, men and women have some skill in both modes of navigation, but each technique is unique and useful.
Enter GPS devices.
The area of our brains most closely associated with map reading and navigation is the hippocampus. As humans use navigational skills, the anterior portion of the hippocampus increases. However, recent studies indicate when individuals rely on their GPS devices, they no longer use the mental skills associated with the hippocampus, and this area of the brain does not grow as before.
It may be too early to surmise how this will contribute to the early onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s, but the functioning or lack of proper functioning of the hippocampus is already known to be an early indicator of these two medical problems.
When I recently examined a map of the Blue Mountains (purchased at the Umatilla National Forest - Walla Walla Ranger District office at 1415 W. Rose St.), I thought of how many ways our society uses the verb “to navigate” or makes references to maplike tools. We navigate the emotional terrain of relationships, the corridors of power, political waters, computers and spiritual tests. We use flow charts, mind maps and hierarchy diagrams, and make note of landmark failures and successes.
Maybe — and this is only a suggestion — we should keep our GPS devices in a zippered pouch of our backpacks more often, and go sit in the woods to meditate on our place in this world, in our relationships and in our spiritual positioning. We will be operating our brains as their own global positioning systems.
Then go gather huckleberries. One benefit of eating them, by the way, is that they are high in an antioxidant called anthocyanin. Multiple studies listed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information show this particular chemical protects against Alzheimer’s disease and mental decline.
Kathy McConnell is a local writer, photographer and former educator. She writes a blog at boxoftales.com. Her manuscript, “Mapping the Topography of Grief — A Memoir,” was shortlisted by Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association in 2017. She currently is working on a memoir about living in American houses. Online see