Monday, January 7, 2013

'It's a map of the world'

During our brief family holiday in Hawke’s Bay, we drove up Te Mata Peak and looked down on Hastings and out to the sea. ‘It’s a map of the world,’ Ambrose exclaimed. He was right.

A map is a vantage point. You climb a tree or the top of a hill and look down on a territory that you think you know intimately only to find that it looks different, is different. A new set of spatial relationships becomes apparent: this is the best way to go from there to there; that is the most favourable ground. A rich layer of information that was hidden from view at ground level can now be read at a glance. From the top of Te Mata Peak you can’t see the whole world, this is true, but what Ambrose understood is that the view that one gets from the top of the hill is already a map. It just hasn’t been traced yet.

As to the origins of this intuition, I can only speculate but it seems to me that it could have come from any number of sources. At four years of age, our boy has been exposed to both physical and electronic maps of various styles. He has learnt that the world is a ball full of brightly coloured nations from an inflatable toy much like the one recently acquired by Scott’s young son. At Te Papa he has run and jumped on a backlit interactive satellite map of New Zealand. At Te Manawa in Palmerston North – a museum that we also visited on the trip – he has walked on a very large carpet depicting a satellite image of the entire course of the Manawatu river. He has been on Google Earth once and experienced how from a view of the entire planet you can zoom in onto a single point and then zoom out again, a powerfully evocative visual effect that wasn’t available to me in my childhood. Consequently, he knows that the world is as small or as large as you make it out to be.

The history of cartography is the history of technologies and ways of seeing that have gradually increased the human capacity to control and manipulate our environment. The maps designed to re-establish the property boundaries along the river Nile following its annual floods are one of the most ancient examples. Today it’s Google Earth, SatNav, the real-time reconnaissance maps employed by drones – take your pick. The English verb ‘to overlook’ is best translated into Italian by the idiom ‘to dominate with one’s gaze’, underscoring how seeing from above is already a form of control. A map is a vantage point and a vantage point – as the military origin of the phrase suggests – is a source of power.

(My own small epiphany concerning the bird’s eye view and geography came during another summer holiday. It was at Cape Palliser, in the southern Wairarapa, ten or so years ago. From the top of the lighthouse I looked down at the road that left the small village, turned into dirt and then disappeared into the tussocks. Then I turned to the promontory to the East.

Recalling a map of the region and of the whole of the North Island, it’s only then that I realised what the end of that road meant. In the hundred or so miles that separate Cape Palliser to Riversdale there is no coastal road because there are no settlements, no people, nothing. The absence of the standard marks of human presence on the map – place markers, place names, the familiar lines that universally denote railroads and roads – only started to stand out and make full sense to me once I captured the real-world image from atop the lighthouse, and it’s only then that I grasped just how sparsely populated and un-civilised – strictly not in a pejorative sense – New Zealand is in comparison to my native country.)

Something else that Ambrose said during the holidays, when beckoning us to look at a cirrus cloud: ‘It’s the breath of the Earth.’ Again, I can only speculate as to where he might have got the image from. The most likely source, to my mind, is a book of Māori legends encountered perhaps at kindergarten, as children of his age group are well served with illustrated versions of local creation stories. Plus I’d be happy if one of those books were the source of that line of poetry. I’d envy him for it, for going through a time in his life when an implicit yet sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the physical world and our technologies of representation coexists with myth-based explanations of what nature is and of how it works. I’d envy him for living in a world at the threshold between geography and magic.