Travel Maps: The ways of the world

Maps can reveal as much about whoever devises them as about what they are supposed to depict. By Nick Rankin
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The Independent Culture
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges has a teasing fable about an antique land, whose surveyors made "a map of the empire whose scale was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it". When later generations sickened of such grandiosity it was abandoned, and now, in some remote western deserts, only tattered relics of the map still survive, "inhabited by animals and beggars".

It's a good joke, making the representation as big as the thing it represents, but maps in history have often been no laughing matter. In the south of Borges' own homeland, near terrains disputed by Chile and Britain, I have seen border guards confiscate and destroy travellers' maps that do not conform to patriotic geography. Countries go to war over the maps that define their frontiers; maps have power because they reflect political power. Every map is a point of view and each choice of the map-maker may reveal far more than is consciously intended.

"A man sets out to draw the world," wrote Borges in 1960. "Over the years, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. Shortly before he dies, he discovers that that careful labyrinth of lines traces the features of his own face."

In fact, there were maps long before writing and printing. The waggle- dance of the honey-bee, precisely directing fellow insects to a source of nectar, is a sort of aerial map; the body movements and pheromone messages of certain ant species are chemical maps. Most creatures on this circling planet, with its gravity and its seasons, its light and its dark, have to have an innate sense of location and direction, because they need to cross space to feed and to breed. Migrating birds and fish and whales, for example, carry no atlases but mostly arrive exactly where they want to.

The history of life, it has been said, is the history of crossing new thresholds, expanding, exploring, evolving. Maps encode the information and memory of that process. In the broadest sense, maps are as old as minds. Making a square map of a round world was one of the lesser problems of those civilisations that incorporated other peoples' territories into their empires. The indigenous inhabitants of Africa, Asia and America had their own maps since those who live off the land know it most intimately, but how they conceived of their space was probably quite different from the invaders' view. Similarly, in Australia, the songlines of the Dreamtime are a different kind of record from a European mineral-prospector's survey of the outback.

Maps are little models of the world. When the writer Robert Louis Stevenson was travelling in the western Pacific in the late 19th century, he obtained some "stick-maps" in Micronesia - frames of interwoven strips of bamboo with shells sewn on to show the relative distances of islands, used by traditional navigators. Stevenson was interested in these artefacts because he loved maps.

He began his first novel in August 1881 by taking over his 12-year-old stepson's painting of an island, colouring and naming it until it began to inspire his imagination: "As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods."

Maps alter our view of reality. The real shape of the different railway lines of the London Underground system was a sloppy tangle of spaghetti until 1933, when a man called Harry Beck reorganised it into a diagrammatic map that has become a design classic as well as an icon of London itself.

Today, on a planet gridded by the meridians of a shared time-space continuum, ringed by global positioning satellites, blinking with interlinked computers, the digital possibilities of depicting the world, and the cosmos, seem limitless. "Net" and "web" and "map" are all fitting together. When children meet maps, and find their place on them, their consciousness expands. It can be true for adults too. As Oscar Wilde once observed: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail."

Nick Rankin's programme, `Mapping the World', starts today at 9.30pm on BBC World Service (repeats Sunday at 5.30pm and Wednesday at 2.30pm). This article is reproduced with permission from `BBC On Air' magazine, the BBC's international programme guide (subscription pounds 18 a year, details 0171-557 2211)