Polynesian Navigation

My alarm clock was blinking this morning, but that wasn’t much of a surpriuse, since it was blinking yesterday morning and I had not gotten around to resetting it since the power outage day before yesterday. I had fixed the one in the bathroom, not far away, and that’s the place I always go first in the morning anyway, so there wasn’t a lot of motivation to do anything about the headboard clock right away.

But recently I had been thinking about Polynesian navigation, so my mind returned to that line of thinking when I realized the time was farther from my knowldedge field than a glance at the clock from my reclining position. I knew the clock I’d changed yesterday wound up about two hours different than was on the binking face it had originally presented, so the 3:15 that was blinking at me from the headstnd had to be about two hours off.

But was it coser to 1:00 a.m. or five? I coud see the moon out the window. It was waning, a bit beyond the quarter moon stage, and quite high in the sky. I had learned you could determine waxing from waning a few years back while teaching a class to adults on arithmetic by assessing the side of the moon that faces the sun, and realizing that the actual movement of the moon is exactly the reverse of its apparent daily arc from east to west imposed upon it by the Earth’s rotation. The class had expressed an interest in what math was good for, and I had been attempting to show how analysis of the sky was made easier with a mathematical approach.

In this case it was apparent that tomorrow at this time the moon would show less surface in sunlight and be closer to the sun. I.e., if I were to observe it at the same hour as I was looking at it now, it would be nearer the sun and the portion in light less. That means you can estimate the time to sunrise by how high, how full, and whether it is waxing or waning, the moon is.

A full moon is precisely opposite the sun, so when it sets, the sun rises. A quarter moon that is waning sets about half way through the night, while a waxing one sets half way through the day and rises half way through the night. A moon that is near eclipsing the sun isn’t even visible because the light from the sun blinds you to looking at it and obviously rises and sets with the sun.

The less than one quarter, waning one I was looking at, being high in the sky and with the seasons in the transition from equinox to winter solstice, had to have been up almost six hours, which meant the sunrise was almost due. Hence it must be closer to 5:00 a.m. than 1:00.

All this analysis is somewhat beyond the point, though. The point is that the rotations of the objects in the sky can give you the time, if only you’ve kept good records and have a good model of celestial mechanics. If you are really good at it and the sky is clear, no doubt you can get the time very accurately. And if you know the time, you can get your longitude.

When I first heard of the significance of knowing the time when trying to navigate, we were discussing in a college class the importance of developing a reliable clock in the exploration of the seas by the Europeans. At the time of that lesson, I was a student and we knew almost nothing about Polynesian navigators, except their uncanny ability to get around the ocean without clocks.

How presumptuous of Europeans is our inability to recognize alternative ways of thinking! The Polynesians didn’t have to have clocks because they knew the stars so much better than we Europeans.

I’m reminded of the motivation behind Jared Diamond’s fine book, Guns Germs and Steel. Supposedly Diamond was attempting to find an answer to an indigenous person’s (Yali’s) perplexing question, “Why do white people have so much cargo?” The book is great, don’t get me wrong, and I highly recommend it, but I’ve long wondered if it really responds to Yali’s question at all.

Maybe Yali was really just wondering why we always have so much stuff with us. Maybe he wasn’t so much wondering why we were the ones with so much stuff as wondering why we valued having so much stuff.

That interpretation wouldn’t lead to nearly so interesting a book, but it is so strongly in opposition to the interpretation that Diamond placed on Yali’s question that I have to wonder if it might not have been closer to the true meaning Yali intended. Our every move is burdened by how much we take with us, and this fact was very much apparent when Yali asked the question. Why we want the burden has always been a bit of a mystery to me, too, despite my deep commitment to hoarding.

The Polynesians didn’t need a great marine clock They were able to populate an ocean without it. And they didn’t have to tax Earth’s resources in the process. To imagine the degree of that taxing, realize that clocks are made of metal, metal calls for foundries, foundries call for mining, ore and product both have to be delivered, and delivery needs a transportation system. There’s a great deal of infrastructure called for, if you don’t put some energy into knowing the sky like the Polynesians did. All of our stuff multiplies when you look at it like this.

The Polynesian’s world was always a paradise, even after they flourished there. In fact, the Earth itself was paradise before the people with all that stuff flourished here. But, with our flourishing and with all our stuff, we have taxed that paradise to the verge of exhaustion. Why did we want all that cargo? Why did we think it such a great idea to produce so many of us?

We’re now on the verge of depleting Earth’s resources and, even living in Tahoe, I don’t see the paradise the Polynesians awoke to every day. I find Yali’s question resonating through my mind with as much vigor as it did for Diamond, but with a different twist. “Why did we want all that cargo?” Didn’t we imagine that there would come a day when our habit of dragging it everywhere with us, combined with how many of us there would be, might become as much a problem for the Earth as for us?



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One Response to Polynesian Navigation

  1. Hank Raymond says:

    I think I know why you are asking these questions, (as you prepare to move out of your house.) How much of your stuff are you just going to move from your house into storage and then later from storage into another house and then never use in your new house? Perhaps it’s best to move more of that stuff by putting it in a truck, taking it to the thrift store or library, and continuing on to the dump with whatever the thrift store and library don’t want. I mean, after all, if the thrift store or library doesn’t want it, is it really worth keeping? Does it really have any value?

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