Homing Instincts

*Selected by John Jeremiah Sullivan as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2014

There are five types of navigation, five ways to find your way home: topographic, celestial, magnetic, olfactory and true.

Topographic is used by the lowest forms of life, your mollusks and your limpets. Celestial is the rarest, used by some species of birds, some species of seals, humans, and the dung beetle. Many creatures use a combination: magnetic for broad navigation to general points, then olfactory for specifics.

True can only be used in familiar areas, where one can rely on landmarks: roads, rivers, mountains, buttes, fields, forests, the abandoned house, the one-room Airport Inn, Stauf’s Coffee, the baseball field, the water tower, the corner grocery, the place where this or that memory has imprinted like the fuchsia or the mournful blue on stained glass.

***

I was already taking my first vodka shot in the stuffy dorms of Madison, Wisconsin, while my dad was crying at the wheel on the way back to Ohio. Ever since I’d been old enough–10 or 12–to grasp the notion of real independence, I’d dreamed of escape from the cheery and dreaded Buckeye State.

I had a loving family, a lovely childhood, but I wanted out. I wanted to feel my independence like a train barreling somewhere, anywhere, where I could create myself. Where I would somehow be real, new, free. Where I could, say, do a 27-second keg stand and stay out until 6 a.m., then play delirious racquetball all morning, then run across a frozen lake; or where I could hop in the car and drive to the furthest corner of Texas to chuck pans at javelinas in the night and hike the barren, eerie, purple mountains of the border.

I started small, with Madison, Wisconsin. Then France. Then Mexico, then Patagonia, then Reunion Island and China and Japan. The lines of my journeys tentative and then picking up speed, arching across the planet, pulsing on obscure islands. If I had been tagged, I would’ve been far out of range.

I missed births and deaths and graduations and concerts. I saw the photos, got the calls, sent congrats and sympathies from cramped Internet cafés in Ushuaia and makeshift bamboo rooms by the South Indian Sea. Talk of “family,” “the importance of family,” seemed absurd to me, as if family were an arbitrary and confining circle drawn in the sand within which one had to confine oneself for archaic reasons.

I loved my family, but I also loved the jostling independence of buses in the altiplano, the sense of my self in the world distinct from the inescapable molds of familial roles, and the characters I formed friendships or relationships with over the course of continents and years. The challenges always lay elsewhere, humped in an undulating line like dunes extending into a vanishing point, and my job was to tackle them one after the other. Home was too easy.

***

Salmon are born in freshwater rivers at high altitudes, and spend their first months or years in the relative safety of their natal rivers, camouflaged by vertical brown-black stripes that mimic the moving chaparral cover of the water. Fitting in and staying alive are paramount in these years: only 10% of the young salmon will ever make it to sea.

Those that survive are called smolts, gaining brilliant silvery scales that are easily rubbed off, and moving into brackish waters in order to begin acclimatizing themselves to seawater, where they’ll finally earn the title of salmon. Then, they’ll spend up to five years in the open ocean, gradually reaching sexual maturity. When they’re ready to spawn, the salmon turn around and travel hundreds of miles back to their natal rivers, to the very spot where they were conceived years ago. They form massive salmon “runs” upriver, leaping up to twelve feet over rapids and waterfalls, some snapped up by fishermen and grizzlies before their destination. Once they make it home, they reproduce and then promptly die, their gaping hook-jawed skeletons disintegrating in native waters, and the cycle repeats itself.

The salmon find their way back through all that choppy anonymous ocean to the alpine niche of their creation via a process called magnetoconception, or magnetic navigation. The earth’s equator can be imagined as a bar magnet, which sends magnetic waves southward; these waves then curve back northward and hit the earth at an incline. The waves that hit closest to the equator have almost no incline; those that hit closest to the poles have the steepest inclines. The salmon have “imprinted” the particular incline waves of home, the so-called magnetic footprint of their birthplaces, in much the same way that we are engraved with the sound of cicadas or the smell of a musty basement or the feel of rushing downhill on a sled with a soaring heart. Imprinting requires three factors: it has to occur during a particular, critical period, usually early in the life of the animal; its effects last a long time; and its effects cannot be easily modified.

Singing “America the Beautiful” on our octogenarian neighbor Herman’s doorstep in exchange for hard diabetic strawberry candies, or the view out of our kitchen window into bare branches and that eggshell-thin winter sky, or the scraping of the skateboard as it picked up speed on our sloped driveway. The 100-mile stretch between Columbus and Cincinnati, corn and sky, barn and highway. Backpacking with Dad, the film containers of salt and pepper, the Cheez-it rewards, the revelation of the lake after the long hot afternoon, our giddy limbs flailing in air before the plunge.

So this magnetic imprint, activated by the procreative nostalgic urge to return home after so many years adrift in the wide beyond, guides the salmon to the mouths of their rivers or the general vicinity, but what takes them all the way back, to the very spot, to the cradle where it all began and will end, is smell.

The air when I land at the Columbus airport, at night, and roll down the window as we wind around the parking garage ramp: in summer, like water fresh from the tap, wet and earnest. In winter, sharp with ice and wood smoke, a little dagger in the sinuses. The Bath and Body Works ginger perfume I used in high school as if it were some sort of protective coating against a deadly virus, leaving the bathroom in a haze of choking saccharine scent molecules. Cut grass. Clover. The faint mud musk of the fall woods. Sprinklers, wet sidewalks, the bitter pollen-heavy scent-shock of a dandelion. The thick sour hops of my niece and nephew’s hair.

***

The hen was not budging. Hell, no. We’d reach out to touch her and get a long peeved squaaaaaaawk, a mulish rustling as she settled herself in deeper. Days like this: not eating, not drinking, plucking out her own feathers to insulate her young. “She’s gone broody,” my stepmom told me and two friends of mine, sadly.

Broodiness is a sort of maternal instinct gone pathological: a neurotic self-flagellation not unlike that of today’s super-moms. My parents put the hen in a dog kennel and dumped a bucket of cold water over her. That was it: she was cured of broodiness. What in the hell was I thinking? we anthropomorphized. So much time with those ungrateful little brats? We imitated her clucky escape from delusion into blithe self-sufficiency, shaking our mock feathers and downing mock cocktails. She went merrily back to plucking at grubs in the grass like nothing had happened.

My friends and I, meanwhile, began using the ominous “She’s gone broody,” to announce those periods when we did not move from our computer-nests, when all we wanted to do was go home and stew over book-babies. What is writing other than brooding, melodramatic clucking and pecking, and how easy it is to hunker down for days without food or light, yanking out feathers with a painful-delightful sting until the husband comes in with the equivalent of the wake-up splash (“I’m leaving you if you don’t get out of the house right now”).

Writing is one type of broodiness, and the deeper into it you get the broodier and more pathological it becomes. And with it comes the urge to return to the roost.

***

The loggerhead turtle, and other turtles, too, and the homing pigeon and the Bluefin tuna and the lobster and the mole rat and the cat: all return after their long, wide wanderings to mate and die at home. All have homing instincts.

The word homing, meaning the act of going home, possibly derived from the old English hamian, to establish a home, came into use around 1765 to refer to the homing pigeon, although the pigeon itself is thousands of years old. In the 1920s it gathered another meaning: to direct a weapon or signal at a target, to home.

Merriam-Webster’s now defines homing as such:

• relating to an animal’s ability to return to a place or territory after traveling a distance away from it: a strong homing instinct

• (of a pigeon) trained to fly home from a great distance and bred for long-distance racing.

• (of a weapon or piece of equipment) fitted with an electronic device that enables it to find and hit a target.

***

There is a particular feeling around family at times, like a miasma. Very delicate, but enveloping. It is the sense that there is no need to talk, the sense that we are all simply being with family. It is a sort of, and forgive me some new age trippiness, family communion in which having the same blood pumping through our veins, or having spent some ungodly number of hours together in all type and manner of conditions, we have to do nothing more than sit and eat baked beans. And it is inherently conservative in that it does not challenge at all, it gives us likeness and ease; the tame, utter un-challenge of literal familiarity.

But perhaps there comes a time when we are not searching for the same types of challenges, when challenge itself is not so deified, when we are not in such restless pursuit of the borders and limits of our own lives, and our priorities shift. The challenges lay not out there, always a little further, on the bright horizon of independence, but closer to home. Familial ease is no longer a given, shrugged off: it is a sought-after dynamic, precious now and rare. Cultivated.

In the twenties it seemed everyone I knew had a gaggle of diverse friends, everyone rushing through identities and career paths and dreams, but as we settle into our ways, become more predictable and singularly focused, many of these connections grow more threadbare, less relevant: they get stuck in the shallows of our deepening and narrowing. Or we simply move away.

There is not the same push for effervescent conversation or novelty or excitement as there is for someone to talk to for hours about fear and hope of babies or the problem of point of view. We couple up, go to graduate school, take jobs: our interests and lives taper from a delta of options into a directed watercourse. We seek friends who will feel like family. Settled now into ourselves, rooting like a river into its banks, we search for what stays, for familiar cartographies.

***

Herpetologist Archie Carr, who ended up being a key figure in Caribbean conservation projects and in the establishment of Costa Rican national parks, was one of the first to recognize homing instincts in turtles. His book The Windward Road recounts a story he heard from several turtle fishermen, which got him interested in turtle navigation. The fisherman had captured several green turtles in their feeding grounds, branded the turtles with their initials, and put them on a boat headed for Key West. The boat capsized in a storm, and months later, the fisherman discovered the branded turtles back in the same spot off the Nicaraguan coast. Carr stipulated that green turtles had an “extra sense,” what we now recognize as a homing instinct, “that lets them make long, controlled journeys in trackless seas.”

The homing instincts of the eponymous homing pigeon–a crucial historical figure that has announced the results of Roman chariot races; relayed updates throughout Genghis Khan’s empire; spied for the Germans and saved French battalions in World War I; and today spots shipwrecks from U.S. helicopters and ferries blood samples across Europe–are still not well understood. The pigeons might use the sun, but when it’s cloudy, rely on magnetic navigation; they have small deposits of iron in their beaks that might act as a compass; they might navigate using sound or odor.

And they might just take the damn highway. A 2004 Oxford University study, the culmination of 10 years of careful tracking of homing pigeons with tiny GPS devices, concluded that the birds aren’t using the mystical powers of magnetoconception but are instead sailing right along the road.

“It is striking to see the pigeons fly straight down the A34 Oxford bypass, and then sharply curve off at the traffic lights before curving off again at the roundabout,” Professor Tim Guilford told the Daily Telegraph. “It really has knocked our research team sideways.”

***

You know you’ve been in the U.S. too long when you have a wispy, romantic moment in the Target parking lot. You’re looking left, out of the garage and over the nearby Family Dollar, and you see in the distance a hazy summer-green hill and you think fondly and half-consciously of going home to mash up cheerios for a baby and sit around in the warm fading light doing little other than being home.

And then you open the car door for your husband and say, “We should move to Burma.”

It’s hard to tell how much all of this is purely biological. It has the intensive swelling of a biological urge, like thirst or the pressure to urinate. It is not necessarily related to one particular place–I certainly have no fantasies about living more than two months longer in Pittsburgh–as it is to the idea of a place that would be mine. Of a familiarity that wouldn’t be based on ready-made nostalgia from the anticipation of leaving. Lately, on these cornflower-and-hay Midwestern evenings with a train shuddering under the pedestrian bridge and the water tower a robin’s egg blue on a forested hill, I’ve realized how much of the thrill I get from being here comes from projecting myself into the near future when I will not be here and will be looking back.

Years of traveling make excellent training for such instantaneous forward and backward-looking projection. Maybe all of this travel has been, at root, an evasion of time, an evasion of the flat line on the heart rate monitor by creating so many spirited bumps. Summiting one after another I’ve avoided the fear of boredom, the fear of banality, the fear of mediocrity, but after awhile it also seems I’m avoiding the risk of more sustained, exigent, meaningful connection, subtler perhaps, less immediately self-congratulatory, but enduring. I’m not ready for death, but I might be ready for a kitchen table.

I envy writers like Joan Didion, who belong so clearly to and are so clearly of a place. I’m not sure yet that I know how to do or to write that. I’ve lately spent time perusing Audubon guides to eastern trees and birds and moths – a blue-winged martin here, a downy woodpecker there – as a sort of grappling for local subjects. I fear trying to see home – the unseen blue screen behind all the travel narratives that’ve made me a writer – as I’ve seen abroad. Where Mexico offers up its bloody crucifixion scenes and its bawdy teenage clowns in a screaming panorama, Ohio is hard to see at all: I need fussy nature books – barn swallows and nighthawks – to bring it into relief.

Didion’s relationship with California was complex and wrought–it can be as sour and acrid as the burning Santa Ana winds, but with a bittersweet and tender nostalgia for those winds. I wonder if part of this complexity doesn’t stem from the career girl’s shame at returning to the nest, although I suppose that shame is blunted when the nest is New York or Los Angeles, perfectly acceptable places to return to in our culture.

Ohio, meanwhile, is a place the ambitious and creative and talented are meant to escape from and then perhaps look wryly back on or write about from New York or Los Angeles (or Mexico). But I think regardless of the cultural acceptability of one nest or another, it is still the nest, and the singular aim of ambitious young travelers is to escape it. So when the homing instincts kick in, they are bound to come with radiating undertones of capitulation and failure: I didn’t make it far enough, didn’t push or try hard enough.

But perhaps, also, these guilty desires for all that would’ve seemed lamentably tame years ago are the acceptance that screeching novelty can only be novel for so long, and the awareness of a certain self-deception or ironic ease in the mantra that only the unfamiliar, changing, distant can pose a challenge. I have spent my twenties in flight from easiness, throwing hurdles at myself just for the joy of scissoring over them.

Why else would anyone chose writing but to be perpetually challenged, to know that on the relieved denouement from one success or project there lies another nauseating, terrifying, potentially devastating risk? I wonder, then, if writing has come to be risk enough: if I don’t need reckless Mexican taxis or unmarked Chinese trails as much anymore because the act of putting the words on a page before a discerning editor is hair-raising enough. I can go home now, and defy and frighten the wits out of myself just by sitting down at my desk each day.

But I don’t want to go broody; I still want my curiosity, want to roam. I recognize now, however, that interior mechanism pointing back home: its stubborn innateness, the map that defies all maps. I turn back with more regularity, more gratefulness, for longer and longer stretches, letting myself go.

***

Dung beetles are highly competitive; when one encounters a pile of dung, it has to roll up a little ball and move that ball away as fast as possible or other dung beetles will come along and swipe it (it’s far easier to swipe someone else’s ball then to roll your own, and courtesy has not been evolutionarily rewarded in the cutthroat world of dung beetles).

The fastest route away from macho dung-robbers-in-waiting is a straight line. “If [you] roll back into the dung pile, it’s curtains,” biologist Eric Warrant warns in National Geographic. Scientists, wondering how the beetles –who push their balls while facing backwards – could stay such a direct course, designed an experiment to test their navigation. The scientists built tiny cardboard and plastic hats for the dung beetles, like miniature visors of the type seen on clueless dads at amusement parks. The beetles with the cardboard hats took far longer to navigate at night than those with the transparent ones, and even in a slightly cloudy or moonless sky the transparent-visored beetles rolled faster. The beetles, the scientists concluded, navigated using the Milky Way.

The scientists also discovered that whenever the beetles hit snags on their routes, they stood atop their balls of poo and “danced” to the stars, turning round and round until they oriented themselves by the Milky Way’s light.

Unlike other animals, which might simply give up after a certain number of pokey scientific intrusions, the dung beetles will keep on trekking even when scientists put them on rolled tracks or drop them off ledges.

“They are so tenacious in what they are trying to do. They cannot be distracted, they don’t get frightened, they don’t change their minds, they don’t get stage fright. They are so, so, so determined,” zoologist Marcus Byrne told The New Yorker. For what is at stake is nothing more or less than home: the secure ball will attract a mate, who will lay an egg inside it. When the egg hatches, it eats its way out, emerging from its snug dung-home to face the fervent competition of the wider world, and the cycle repeats itself.

Swedish scientists, mesmerized by the dung beetles, spent weeks on end in the Kalahari, where they constructed a wooden table surrounded by a moat. The beetles walked across the table in straight lines, stopping when deterred, then dancing to reorient themselves, then continuing, until they fell into the moat with wet plunks that marked the end of their journeys.

The scientists themselves, far from their homes, would eat and drink under the spell of the Milky Way, waiting for the sound of a watery arrival, the surprised splash of one more beetle dancing its way home.

***

Humans, too, may have homing instincts. Beginning in 1976 and throughout the 1980s, biologist Robin Baker conducted experiments that suggested humans also navigate using magnetoconception. Baker wanted to understand human behavior through the lens of evolutionary biology, which would explain an inborn tendency to find home even when twisted and turned and confused and dropped onto an unexpected hilltop. If so many animals had such a built-in evolutionary mechanism, why wouldn’t we?

He began with his “bus experiments,” blindfolding students at the University of Manchester, driving them on what a November 1980 article in The Evening Standard called “torturous roads” to unfamiliar landscapes, and then asking them to point back towards Manchester and identify its compass direction. He discovered that far more people noted the correct direction than would be expected by chance, and so he repeated the experiment using magnets: with a local TV station in tow, he brought 42 blindfolded high school students – half of whom had functioning magnets strapped to their heads, and half of whom were equipped with “dummy” magnets – far from their town of Barnard on Castle, guided them into field or forest, and asked them to aim for home.

The students who wore the real magnets were disoriented and had lower success rates than those with the dummy magnets, suggesting that the magnets had interfered with some sort of natural mechanism of magnetic orientation. The results were published in Science and Psychology Today and repeated at Cornell, SUNY, and Princeton – so many blindfolded youngsters driven so far from home and plunked atop mountainsides with magnets to their skulls (will they come back to us?)– but the results proved controversial. The American experiments were not nearly as successful; explained biologist James Gould to the Standard, “We’re not sure what’s wrong…It may be us, it may be our subjects. Perhaps Americans are just rotten navigators.”

Eventually Baker’s research, unable to be successfully reproduced in many places, was faced with intense skepticism, but Baker kept on, expanding to include “chair studies,” in which the subject puts on a blindfold and earmuffs and is rotated and then asked to identify the compass direction he or she is facing; and walkabouts, in which subjects are given real or dummy magnets and sent off somewhere in the woods, then asked to point back towards their starting points. Baker worked with subjects of all ages and nationalities and, according to his website, included “specialist groups” such as nudists, dyslexics, orienteers, and “trans-equatorial travelers.” (It remains to be told whether nudists have superior navigational abilities.)

Baker’s research has never been fully accepted, which he attributes to the marginalization of magnetic navigation as a sort of imagined science of the occult. He defended his work in a 1982 interview on the BBC show Naturewatch by saying,

“All of the techniques that other animals use to find a place to live are effectually the same as ours – it’s exploring, it’s judging habitats using its memory, it’s making decisions, and all of the time it’s keeping an awareness of how to find its way back.”

***

When I was young I used to travel each weekend from Columbus, where I lived with my dad and stepmom, to Cincinnati to visit my mom. The Ohio landscape was a flat canvas outside, sometimes minimalist in Rothko squares of hay and navy, sometimes dramatic Constable-inspired landscapes of clouds: massive ivory ships with green-violet underbellies sailing against the gunmetal of thunderstorms. These panoramas were interrupted, here and there, by the outlet malls and DQs and reminders that HELL IS REAL. I remember once being in the backseat of the Toyota Tercel – sticky pleather seats, two doors, one of Dad’s $2000 finds – in the middle of a summer storm. I don’t remember which way we were going, north or south, towards or away from Washington Courthouse where Dad handed me off to Mom and vice versa, but I remember feeling safe. Not the kind of safe that is pitted against danger, but the kind of safe that is cozy and secure, existentially safe as if nothing else – school or dinner or leaving one parent behind for the other – mattered, because I was in this moving car with someone who loved me and whom I loved and there was a vibrant storm outside.

It is the kind of safe I feel now in the summer in our boiling apartment, when I go upstairs after I’ve spent the morning writing and open the door to the cool bubble of the bedroom, where the ancient air conditioner throbs with its expellation of chill, and where Jorge and the dogs lie in a cold mess on the rumpled sheets, into which I throw myself. It is a sensation that comes only with being closed in, homed in, the boundaries between myself and the world very clearly defined, narrow, containing only me and my family.

I have spent so much of the last decade searching for this sensation’s polar opposite – the sense of vastness, wideness, the enormity and potential for infinite variation of the world. Backpacking alone in Patagonia to feel not safe but free, discovering my small, fleeting insignificance in a huge world of gray stone and pink sky and blue ice. Throwing myself at mountains and rugged shorelines, at the unknowable, in order to sense the tininess of my own existence, in order to blur and render insignificant the intricate roots and details that bind me to everyday and to home: to feel, in other words, the big picture.

***

Now, I open the fridge and root around for leftover brownies. Now I stand by the windowsill drinking a cold glass of water and smelling the sour tang of the mulberries finally ripened, I take a walk in the afternoon with the dogs to the big grassy hill at a nearby university, I sit and watch the same minor duckling dramas in the same small koi pond, I lie in bed all afternoon reading Lolita and enjoying the whiff of barbecue from a backyard grill nearby, I stand on the pedestrian bridge and watch the trains hurtle by beneath me.

Adulthood, it seems to me, is about narrowing. The salmon roams the vast Pacific and then, to the thrum of its own programmed brain, begins its journey in a shrinking triangle closer and closer to the river mouth, then up the river, then over the falls, then into the forest to that one tapering stretch that is now its focus, center, and range.

***

E.S. Starr wrote in The Century Magazine in 1886,

“My long experience with the homing pigeon in its vagaries and its methods leads me to rank its performance as the highest act of which an animal is capable, and to believe that it is not to be ascribed to the blind guidance of instinct or intuition, but that the bird is entirely dependent upon its intelligence; that its superior organization of brain permits some sort of mental direction to its actions of which others of the animal creation are not capable; that it is by its keen sight and wonderful memory, directed by its intelligence and poised by perfect physical condition, that it answers to the demand of the governing impulse of its nature – the love of home.”

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About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is the founder of Vela. She recently completed her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh. Before returning to the U.S. for graduate school, she spent six years living, teaching and traveling abroad. She is currently at work on a book of narrative nonfiction about Mexico's returning migrants. Read her full bio here. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMenkedick.

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