For much of history, humans made no distinction between the cardinal directions and the winds which blew from them. It is uncertain when or why our sense of geographic orientation became associated with the winds. It might have been farming populations, attentive to the rain and temperature for the cultivation of their crops, who noticed the qualitative differences in the winds—some humid, others dry, some hot, others cold—and that these qualities depended on from where the wind was blowing. Local directional names were used to refer to the winds, eventually giving each wind itself a proper name, regardless of the observer's position. Sailors, far from landmarks at sea, nonetheless recognized a particular wind by its qualities and referred to it by a familiar name—Tramontana, Levante, Ostro, Ponente.¹
When traveling north the ring that signifies my marriage is on my western hand. When moving west, it sits on my southern. When south: eastern. When east: northern. There exist languages with no words for left and right, only one’s absolute relation to the world, necessitating that a speaker of these languages remain continuously oriented, lest they lose the ability to communicate basic facts.
For us, it is only with an intention that one can find themselves lost in any geographic sense. Our orientation isn’t a constant awareness necessitated by linguistic constraints, like that of a native speaker of Warlpiri or Wintu or Tzeltal, but rather, something outside of our immediate consciousness, mediated and on demand as a discrete technology. With orientation externalized in this manner, one can imagine it as a material that could be gathered and pooled.
If you are reading this with a mobile device that contains an embedded compass, your orientation is being sampled here, once per second—now a material archived in a database I control. Note the direction you now face. Is it different from when you began moving through this text, reading from left to right?
Of the generations of texts on earth / I will have read only a few— / the ones that I keep reading in my memory, / reading and transforming. / From South, East, West, and North / the paths converge that have led me / to my secret center.²
Not all secrets are information someone is trying to conceal. Some secrets are information that’s in the world, but inaccessible.