Walking off the map

Maps give you seven-league boots – allow you to cover miles in seconds. [...] On a map the weather is always good, the visibility always perfect. A map offers you the power of perspective over a landscape: reading one is like flying over a country in an aeroplane – a deodorized, pressurized, temperature-controlled survey.

But a map can never replicate the ground itself. Often our mapping sessions would induce us to bite off more than we could chew. At home we would plot a route over terrain that would, in reality, turn out to be sucking bog, or knee-high heather, or a wide boulder-field thick with snow. [...]

Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move – is constantly revising itself. Watercourses are always transporting earth and stone. Gravity tugs rocks off hillsides and rolls them lower down. Grouse swallow quartz chips to use in their craw, and excrete them elsewhere. There is a continual trafficking of objects, of stones. Other changes occur. A sudden rain-shower can transform a tiny tributary stream into an uncrossable torrent. The meltwater outflow from the mouth of a glacier will sculpt silt into ceaselessly changing patterns of abstract beauty. These are the dimensions of a landscape which go unindicated by a map.

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Galton believed that maps should convey more than just spatial information about terrain. He wanted to give travellers a phenomenal impression of the lands they visited. Maps, he felt, should somehow duplicate the smells, scents and sounds of a place:

that of the seaweed, the fish and the tar of a village on the coast, the peat-smoke smell of the Highlands, or the gross, coarse and fetid atmosphere of an English town ... the incessant and dinning notes of grasshoppers: the harsh grating cry of tropical birds, the hum, and accent of a foreign tongue.

Galton’s multi-media map was ill-conceived, for what he was proposing was nothing less than a facsimile of the world itself. But a map is an abbreviation: this is its definition, its strength and its limitation. To know a landscape properly, you must go into it in person.

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(emphasis added) exactitude-in-science

naming things

This obsessive naming was a form of commemoration. It was also, unmistakably, one of colonization: a thwarted expression of the Victorian drive to bring the Empire home. That acquisitive instinct – which reached its fullest expression in Britain with the Great Exhibition of 1851 – didn’t work as well with mountains as it did with, say, flora and fauna. The Victorians transported their mountains symbolically, of course, in the form of rock samples. But properly to prove where they had been, they left their names behind. It was a form of imperial graffiti.

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For the explorers, names gave meaning and structure to a landscape which might otherwise have been repetitively meaningless. They shaped space, allowed points to be held in relation to one another. They provided a stability – the stability of language, of narrative, of plot – to the perpetually changing upper world of ice and storm and rock through which they moved. Naming was and remains a way to place space within a wider matrix of significance: a way, essentially, to make the unknown known.

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functions: imperialism, "giving points a point"

the third pole

The only region which apparently remained pristine was the Tibetan plateau, on the southern edge of which was Mount Everest: the so-called ‘Third Pole’, the last fastness of the unknown.

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the third pole = 第三极 [dì•sān•jí] / 山脊 [shān•jí] = mountain ridge


mapping-lava Gillsepie, Ed, and Dougald Hine. “Mapping Lava”. Podcast. The Great Humbling. ↩︎ 1

exactitude-in-science Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science”. ↩︎ 1

mountains-mind Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind. ↩︎ 1 2 3 4 5