Cultures that grow up in close correspondence with a particular terrain often develop innovative methods of representing that terrain. In 1826, at Cape Prince of Wales in the Canadian Arctic, a British naval officer encountered a hunting party of Inuit. Unable to communicate directly with the officer, but comprehending his desire for orientation, the Inuit created a map on the beach, using sticks, stones and pebbles ‘in a very ingenious and intelligible manner’ to build a scaled replica of the region. The Inuit people are also known to have carved three-dimensional maps of coastlines from wood. In this way, the maps were portable, resistant to cold, and, if they were dropped into water, would float and could be retrieved. Inhabitants of the Marshall Islands used sticks and shells, bound together with plant fibre, to create similarly buoyant accounts of the ocean currents which ran between the islands of their archipelago.
The Inuit have also developed a portfolio of sky-maps and cloud-atlases; a knowledge of the moods of the sky so precise that it allows them to infer the quality of the ice beneath the clouds, as well as future weathers. The Koyukon people of northwest interior Alaska developed superbly intricate ways of mapping their landscape through story. To the Koyukon, the landscape was so filled with memory and event that they navigated themselves through it by telling stories, by plotting up details and memories into the form of a spoken map. Narration was their navigation.
To contemplate such ways of mapping is to understand something of what the grid-map leaves out. In such maps, human memory and natural form recoil into one another. Carried in the head, story-maps are infinitely exible, always available, and invulnerable to the tattering powers of wind and rain. They are deep maps, too, which register the past, and acknowledge the way memory and landscape layer and interleave. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, proved upon the pulses of a place.
We would do well to recall these dreamed maps, these felt maps – for they are born of experience and of attention. Such maps, held in the mind, are alert to a landscape’s changeability as well as its fixtures. They tell of the inches and tints of things. They offer knowledge that might be found, as it were, off-grid. And they are sensitive to the mysterious fourth and fifth dimensions of cartography – the relationship of mapmaker to landscape, and the relationship of map-reader to map.
For as long as I can now remember, I have been set dreaming by story-maps both real and make-believe. From Stevenson’s sketch of that treasured island, to the fold-out map of Mount Everest and its attendant peaks that concertinaed from the back of my grandfather’s copy of Edward Norton’s The Fight For Everest: 1924, to the map of the Suffolk coast that forms the endpapers of the German edition of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, through to the ‘fantastical field guides’ written by two- and three-year-olds exploring the woods and meadows of a country park near my house in Cambridgeshire: these are among the many maps that have, over the years, set my feet moving across the land and my pen moving across the page.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands is out now.
Off the Grid © 2018 Robert Macfarlane.
All Rights Reserved. With thanks to the British Library.
pg. 94, Map from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cassell & Co.: London, 1899. British Library, London.
pg. 95, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cassell & Co.: London, 1899. British Library, London.
pg. 97, Map by Munro Orr from from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Frederick Muller: London, 1934. British Library, London.
pg. 99, Chart of the coast-lines of part of Europe, Africa and America. by Bastian Lopez, 15 Nov. 1558. British Library, London.