A pointed finger or a sweep of the hand


When someone is uncertain of their whereabouts or the surroundings, they will use their finger, or any other pointed object, to try to locate a position on a map. It’s odd that the less we know about a place or our place in it, we tend to feign precision. I’ve noticed that with less familiarity of an area, the sharper the pointer and the greater effort to seek certainty.


But every time I see someone who knows their landscape – a farmer, a pastoralist, or any one else who lives or works with a landscape – they rarely point at a map; instead they use an open hand to describe the scene. This doesn’t mean they have only a vague understanding of the processes and locations on the landscapes. On the contrary, they know the way things work on their land, and understand there are uncertainties and interactions.


If you ask them for a location of a water trough, they’ll point to it, but if you ask to be shown where certain plants grow, how water moves across their landscape, or the grazing habits of animals, they’ll use their whole hand.  In other words, they understand the complexities and the presence of interactions, and instinctively describe it with an open hand, a controlled sweep. Anything more exact would be missing so much of the message.


Sometimes, the more single focused we are, the more it reveals that we don’t know very much. I sometimes think that when we see someone focus on a single issue or a single approach with unbridled conviction, we should proceed carefully. It might suggest they are unaware, or worse, deliberately avoiding, important interactions and broader consequences. Look for a sweep of the hand rather than a pointed finger.