Maps

Renata is not a map person.  She has other skills and interests, but maps is not one of them.  Many a marital squabble has germinated and brought forth a bountiful harvest in the fertile loam of  “Howie will drive; Renata will read the map”.  Come to think of it, “Renata will drive” is pretty rich soil too.  I suppose that’s the reason satellite navigation systems are such a hot sale item: at last men can safely take command of both activities at once, driving and map-reading.  And the device doesn’t second guess or make irritating, irrelevant and entirely irrational remarks if the driver somehow takes a wrong turn.  The sat-nav voice is always patient, always kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth….

Yesterday I went to visit a young couple who want to have their child baptized.  Their street in Amsterdam, one of the main canals, is a long one, so before leaving on my bicycle I consulted Google Maps to find out which end of the canal their house number was located.  I noticed there was a link to “Street View”, and when I opened it I found not only a photo of the house itself – number quite visible – but also of the man of the house, whom I had never met, sitting on his front step reading the paper.  So an hour later, when I arrived and he opened the door, I was already completely confident I was at the right address.

As in so many areas of life, technology is having its impact on our use of maps.  In a moving box in my office, still unpacked after the last house move, is a smaller box, filled with old maps.  The collection was pared down considerably the last time we made a major move – “Can I live without a map of SixFlags Holland?” – but still includes a good number of maps, most of which I will surely never use again.  There’s a survey map of a small corner of Scotland where we had a holiday in 1994.  There are tourist maps of Swiss communities showing all the bus stops and cable cars.   (As in most things – except naval warfare and soccer – the Swiss are good at maps.  Here’s something I can’t find on internet: by how much would the land area of Switzerland increase if it were all flattened out?)

The desk I’m working at is covered by a large plexiglass sheet, under which is a colorful reproduction map of the world dating from “MDCLXV”, or 1665.  “Men Vintse te Coop tot AMSTERDAM op ‘twater in de vergulde Sonnewijser.”  (“One can find them For Sale in Amsterdam by the water in the Golden Sundial.”)  Renata gave me this map as a birthday present some 15 years ago and I never tire of it; still I pour over it at times, curious about how our perception of the world has changed in 350 years.  The top of the map has a large border with paintings of the European dandies of the day; front and center is a devilish looking Pope Innocentius XI holding sway over the world.

According to my desk map there is a lake, as large as any of the Great Lakes in North America, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, somewhere in the region halfway between the Amazon river and Venezuela.  But a quick look at satellite images from Google Earth shows that either the folk back in 1665 had it completely wrong or the lake has dried up and disappeared in the meantime.  I vaguely recall hearing my father tell me of, or perhaps myself meeting, a man who came to the Amazon while we lived there in the 1960’s, whose purpose was finding the “lost lakes of the Amazon”.  A kind of Indiana Jones personality, but without the heroics, good looks, or whip.  In any case, I’m sure he failed in his endeavor.  Odd, isn’t it, how rumors can end up becoming hard facts if enough people believe them.  And quaint that, only 40 years ago, we lived in a world where it was believed there were still extremely large geographical features to be discovered on foot.

Not everyone is good with maps, or even knows what they are.  We got lost once on a family holiday in Brazil, on our way to Iguacu Falls, by taking a short-cut to the town of Cascavel.  We took a wrong turn and before we knew it were on a vast network of dirt roads that were not on the map.  Hours later my father spotted a man on horseback, and pulled our muddied Ford Willys jeep up alongside to ask the way.  He got out the map and spread it on the hood of the car for the man to have a look.  He might as well have been putting an order sheet from a Chinese noodle factory in front of him.

The Bible is completely devoid of the word “map”.  The ancients seem to have gotten along pretty much without them, though obviously they must have had some concept of the lay of the land and the direction of larger communities near and far.  The scriptures are full of references to geographical features, nations, peoples, and roads to and from various places.  People knew where they were, and how to get to where they needed to be, but their experience was horizontal, not vertical.  They weren’t used to looking at their world as if from above, as if they were demigods or masters.

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