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Here Be Dragons

Finding the Blank Spaces in a Well-Mapped World

A couloir in the deserted Westfjords of Iceland, a few fjords over from Captain Sigurdur Jonsson's winter anchor. (Lois Parshley)

[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2017

On a quiet summer evening, the Aurora, a sixty-foot cutter-rigged sloop, approaches the craggy shore of eastern Greenland, along what’s known as the Forbidden Coast. Its captain, Sigurdur Jonsson, a sturdy man in his fifties, stands carefully watching his charts. The waters he is entering have been described in navigation books as among “the most difficult in Greenland; the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous.” The sloop is single-masted, painted a cheery, cherry red. Icebergs float in ominous silence. 

Where Jonsson, who goes by Captain Siggi, sails, he’s one of few to have ever gone. Because the splintered fjords create thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline, there’s been little effort to map this region. “It’s practically uncharted,” he says. “You are almost in the same position as you were 1,000 years ago.” 

A naval architect turned explorer, Siggi navigates by scanning aerial photos and uploading them into a plotter, the ship’s electronic navigation system. Sometimes he uses satellite images, sometimes shots taken by Danish geologists from an open-cockpit plane in the 1930s, on one of the only comprehensive surveys of the coast. Siggi sails by comparing what he sees on the shore to these rough outlines. “Of course, then you don’t have any soundings,” he says, referring to charts of ocean depths that sailors normally rely on to navigate and avoid running aground. “I’ve had some close calls.” Over the years, he’s gotten better at reading the landscape to look for clues: He looks for river mouths, for example, where silt deposits might create shallow places to anchor, so that icebergs will go to ground before they crush the boat. In the age of GPS and Google Maps, it’s rare to meet someone who still entrusts his life to such analog navigation. 

Even when Siggi’s retracing his own steps, the landscape of the Forbidden Coast is constantly changing. “Where the glaciers have disappeared,” he explains, pointing at washes of green on a creased, hand-drawn chart, “a peninsula turns out to be an island. It was actually sea where you thought there was land.” To account for this, he often trades notes with local hunters, who are similarly adept at reading the coast. “Their language is very descriptive,” Siggi explains. “So all the names of places mean something.” Although locations may have official Danish names, they’re often ignored. An island technically called Kraemer, for instance, in East Greenlandic means “the place that looks like the harness for a dog’s snout.”

Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. “The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,” Siggi says. “Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.” These driftwood sculptures were first recorded by a Danish expedition in the 1880s, along with bas-relief versions of fjords, carefully grooved and beveled to represent headland depths. A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, “the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried” when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time. 

As a source of information, a map is always a way of groping through the darkness of the unknown. But locating yourself in space has never been cartography’s sole function: Like these driftwood pieces, maps inevitably chart how cultures perceive not only their landscapes but their lives. 

Photographs by Sean McDermott  “Everything we do is some kind of spatial interaction with objects or ourselves,” says John Hessler, Specialist in Geographic Information Systems at the Library of Congress. “A map is a way to reduce this huge complexity of our everyday world.” For the last few decades, Hessler has been conducting research in the library’s map collection—the largest in the world —in stacks the lengths of football fields. “Geographic information systems have revolutionized everything,” he says. 

Explorers have long filled in our understanding of the world, using and then discarding the sexton, the compass, MapQuest. “The project of mapping the Earth properly is to some extent complete,” Hessler says. But while there are no longer dragons fleshing out far-flung places, a surprising number of spaces are still uncharted—and the locations we’ve discovered to explore have only expanded. “Where we were just trying to accurately map terrestrial space,” Hessler says, we’ve moved into a “metaphor for how we live. We’re mapping things that don’t have a physical existence, like internet data and the neural connections in our heads.” 

From mapping the dark between stars to the patterns of disease outbreaks, who is making maps today, and what they’re used for, says a lot about the modern world. “Now anything can be mapped,” says Hessler. “It’s the Wild West. We are in the great age of cartography, and we’re still just finding out what its powers are.”

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits on the Earth’s axis, at an altitude just above 9,000 feet, smack in the world’s largest, coldest desert, where a small settlement of metal shipping containers takes shape in rows on a windblown sheet of continental ice. Heavy equipment beeps in the polar air. In these harsh conditions, Naoko Kurahashi Neilson has been trying to map black holes. 

It’s a thorny problem: How do you map something you can’t see? Normally, when you look up at the sky and see a star, “the star emitted a light particle called a photon that traveled millions of years and ended up in your eyeball,” Kurahashi Neilson explains. “That’s how your eye knows there’s a star there.” But photons, like almost everything else, can’t escape a black hole’s gravity. One of the only things that can are tiny, high energy particles called neutrinos, which don’t often interact with other matter—trillions of them pass through our bodies every second. So detecting neutrinos requires using a massive object. Kurahashi Neilson, for example, began looking for them by using the ocean itself. “Very high energy neutrinos make a splash when they enter water,” she says. To detect those splashes, she installed highly sensitive microphones in the waters off the Bahamas, but soon realized that she would need much better equipment. 

The answer was at the South Pole Station, amid the summer chaos when scientists around the world flock to take advantage of the short season. Kurahashi Neilson joined the team running the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, where scientists have created a particle detector so large it covers a cubic kilometer, with sensors buried beneath a mile and a half of ice. As part of her job researching neutrinos, she needed to upgrade the computers: When neutrinos are detected, the information is reported back to a massive collection center that scientists around the world can access. However, there is no easy way for scientists in, say, Wisconsin, to communicate with the computers at the South Pole; the internet for the South Pole Station comes from satellites, which, in polar regions, often orbit below the horizon. “Most of the day, you can’t connect from the South Pole to the outside world,” says Kurahashi Neilson. “So even if it’s a simple algorithm update, you have to go do it yourself.” 

As an assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Kurahashi Neilson is using these tiny particles to study the biggest ideas: She hopes that mapping where neutrinos come from will lead to the discovery of new black holes, and possibly explain what physical processes take place inside of them. Because the majority of neutrinos were created around 14 billion years ago, shortly after the birth of the universe, this might help answer a fairly fundamental question: What are the conditions that create energy?

“The only way to study something you can’t go to or touch is to look at it in many different ways,” Kurahashi Neilson says. “The funny thing is, if you map the universe in optical light—what humans see—or gamma rays, or radio rays, our universe doesn’t look the same. That’s the beauty of this. You create a map of the same thing in different light, and when you compare them, you understand the universe better.” 

Photographs by Sean McDermott Whether on the Forbidden Coast or tracking neutrinos at the South Pole, this curiosity—to compare, to see something no one has seen before—is a fairly basic human compulsion. That’s why Robert Becker, a radio astronomer recently retired from the University of California, Davis, got into physics. When he started studying astronomy to stay out of the Vietnam War, the only map of the entire sky was a simple contour map, like ones used for hiking. In the 1990s, Becker decided to conduct a Very Large Array radio survey—using radio waves to map the sky in much greater detail—finding scores of new phenomena. 

In most other areas of science, a question leads to an experiment that tests a hypothesis. In astronomy, you can’t conduct experiments. “We can’t build new stars,” Becker explains. “So we do survey maps.” The goal is to create a catalog of the sky, which is essentially a record of all the ongoing experiments in space. “In an infinite universe, all things that can happen will happen,” Becker says, paraphrasing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

He’s not being cute: This is one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics. We can only observe as far as light has had the chance to travel in the 13.7 billion years since the big bang. But space-time extends far beyond that. Because there are only a finite number of ways particles can be arranged, at some point patterns start repeating, even if we cannot detect them. The principle suggests that, in all likelihood, there are many other universes besides our own, coexisting in a kind of cosmic patchwork quilt. If we could look far enough, we’d encounter other versions of ourselves—actually, infinite versions. “So all the possible experiments are already out there, it’s just a question of finding them and watching,” Becker says. Hypothetically, a perfect map would “facilitate all the questions astronomers have.” Of course, we don’t yet have the equipment to observe even a fraction of the universe we’re in, never mind others. 

In 1995, Becker surveyed 25 percent of the sky with a radio telescope array, making the galaxy accessible to astronomers through an image that was more accurate than what previous arrays could provide. Though a quarter of the sky doesn’t sound like much, it was such a monumental project that, along with the results, he published an image of his head superimposed onto Michelangelo’s Adam touching the hand of God. According to Becker, astronomers someday hope to have surveys like this from every part of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Once you make an image, you’ll find a whole bunch of new phenomena. Every new survey opens new dimensions,” he says, which he means literally. 

In physics, Becker explains, “most of what we take for granted today wasn’t dreamed of thirty years ago. It’s like science fiction—dark matter, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement.” Since he began mapping the sky, for example, we’ve learned to predict where black holes are through their gravitational pull; if they’re orbiting a star, the star wobbles. “Anytime you talk about black holes, you’re on the verge of science fiction,” he says. “Can you fall into a black hole and be transported across the universe? Some physicists don’t think that’s totally far-fetched.” In much the same way that early explorers stretched the human imagination, astronomy continues to push the limits of  our understanding of creation itself, requiring a kind of faith. As Becker notes, more data usually just gives rise to even more questions. “In the outer reaches of even our own universe,” Becker says, “dragons are still there.” 

Map by Jenn Boggs If you could somehow drain the seas, scientists predict you’d see not sea monsters but a few volcanoes sprouting from an immense, flat floor, which is hundreds of thousands of hills covered by millennia of falling sediment. Because of these cloaking deposits, developing a better map of the ocean could shed light on the distant past. “It’s one of the most complete records of history on Earth,” says Alan Mix, an oceanographer at Oregon State University. “All of history accumulates in layers on the ocean floor.” The problem is that this wealth of information lies submerged just out of reach. Because satellites cannot read through water, mapping the sea has been much more difficult than mapping land. “The joke,” Mix says, “is that we know more about the back side of the moon than the bottom of the ocean.” In the meantime, we work with best guesses. On Google Earth, for example, the sea floor appears to be mapped, displaying mountain ranges and submerged islands, but these shapes are actually based on inferred data. “It’s an interpreted map,” Mix explains. Because a mountain on the bottom of the ocean has a lot of mass, its gravity pulls on the water around it, causing a dip in the surface that a satellite can observe. “But it’s like looking through a bad pair of glasses,” Mix says. “To really know what’s going on below the surface, scientists must still send out an expedition.”

Deep-sea submersibles, now the tool regularly used to map the ocean floor, weren’t invented until the 1930s. Their utility expanded with the ability to be operated remotely as an unmanned, robotic craft. In the 1980s, the US Navy recruited scientist Robert Ballard to push the limits of remote-controlled submersibles to find two nuclear submarines that had gone missing during the height of the Cold War. They cloaked the top secret mission as an attempt to find the Titanic—which Ballard finally did, during the last twelve days of the expedition, using what he’d learned while looking for the submarines. Since then, Ballard’s idea of deploying remote-controlled robots closer to the bottom of the sea has become standard practice. But the ocean is huge, and submersibles can only travel so far. Even today, only about 17 percent of the ocean has been mapped with sonar, meaning that a ship or submersible has physically driven back and forth over the ocean floor in a grid, like mowing a lawn.

Still, as our knowledge of the ocean floor slowly expands, what scientists learn about ancient history could prove crucial for the future. Mix, for example, has spent the better part of a decade studying the bottom of the sea near the Petermann Glacier, an enormous ice sheet on the northwest coast of Greenland, across the island from where Captain Siggi sails. Ice flows across bedrock as it melts and refreezes throughout the year, draining in rivers off the Petermann Glacier into the sea. One of the largest floating ice shelves in the Northern Hemisphere, the rate of Petermann’s melt over the last five years has changed dramatically. (In 2012, an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan tore off the glacier.) Mix explains that the ice shelf “acts like the flying buttress of a cathedral. The ice in the ocean helps hold ice back on land. So when it shrinks, it’s easier for the ice to go out into the ocean,” catalyzing the already increasing rate of melt. 

“To understand this process, first you have to make a map,” Mix says, although “making a map is more complicated when you’re dodging bergs.” To make his map, Mix sent an icebreaking ship as close as he dared to the glacier, using sonar signals to chart the glacier’s historical path by recording the marks “scraped like sandpaper on steroids” along the bottom. Radiocarbon dating on samples suggests how fast the glacier once moved. These streams of information have been combined by Larry Mayer, director of the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering at the University of New Hampshire, who developed a 3-D visualization tool for the expedition. Like a first-person viewer video game, it takes all the data and turns it into an image “like flying over the landscape on the seafloor,” Mix says. 

The new maps Mix’s team have created suggest that “actual change events [like catastrophic ice melt] may happen on very human time scales. Civilization is built on the assumption that tomorrow will be kind of like today. That’s been true since the advent of agriculture. But if we do trigger the melting of ice sheets, it would change the system.” Once that tipping point has been crossed, the seas will rise so dramatically that for the next thousand years, humans would have to continuously move away from the ocean. 

This summer, Larry Mayer took his 3-D visualization tool on an icebreaker up to the Arctic as part of a project to map the ocean floor for the US government. Under the Law of the Sea treaty, Mayer explains, “you’re allowed to establish sovereign rights 200 nautical miles into the sea.” But if the seafloor has certain morphological characteristics, the country’s territory can be extended beyond that 200 nautical-mile limit, into an area called the extended continental shelf. As the rush to claim the Arctic begins—Russia has symbolically staked its claim to recently discovered oil reserves by planting a titanium flag in the bottom of the Arctic Ocean—maps like this will be a crucial part of the maneuvering. 

Even when not displaying contested territory, making a map is inherently political. Mapping a round thing in two dimensions is difficult: Imagine flattening the unbroken peel of an orange and trying to connect the edges. “In order to make a map, you have to give something up,” says John Hessler. The decision of which variable to hold true—distance or area or shape or scale—is called a projection, and every one of them distorts the surface of the Earth in some capacity. The world maps you likely remember from high school are Mercator projections, where Greenland appears larger than Africa—a continent fourteen times the island’s size—in order to preserve the accuracy of angles. In the 1960s, Arno Peter created a map that looks strangely elongated in comparison, preserving a more accurate sense of scale. Now called the Peters projection, “he thought [it] had a better sense of equality for third world countries,” Hessler explains. Since then, the number of potential projections has only expanded. Which distortion of the world works best depends on what you think is important.

Photograph by Lois Parshley Mapmaking has always served as a tool of definition. Since travelers are no longer sailing off the edge of the known world, it can be tempting to look at maps as static. But even on a small island, change is constant. Geodesists from the National Land Survey of Iceland spent this year’s short summer in the mountain highlands, mapping the island’s movement on the Atlantic Ridge. They set up GPS receivers using a level and an infrared device, and then left them for a few days, periodically checking to see if a horse had run into them or if the wind had knocked them over. Each of these stations determines the precise position of points which are the basis for all other measurements in Iceland. By comparing them, scientists can track not only the growth and decay of mountains, they can see the effect of climate change on glaciers. Because ice is very heavy, it tends to compress the earth it rests on; when that weight is lifted, the land itself rebounds in what is called “uplift.” Meanwhile, other areas of Iceland are dropping. In the southwest, around the capital city, where the groundwater is being depleted for geothermal energy, the ground is sinking by as much as two centimeters a year. “Movement happens in leaps and bounds,” says Magnús Guðmundsson, the general director of the National Land Survey of Iceland.

Not only is the world constantly changing, our ability to record it is too. “In terms of technology, I view it as standing on the bank of a river and watching it go by,” says Jim Herries, a geographer at Esri, one of the dominant geographic information system (GIS) software companies. This makes it difficult to build modern maps that aren’t obsolete by the time they’re finished. But that rapid development has also expanded who uses cartography; the bulk of Esri’s clients are now businesses, not academics. Although it can take some explaining, mapping is now useful for more people than ever before. At a massive agriculture company, for instance, Herries had to show a prospective client how they could map where every single seed was planted, and the temperature and humidity at each location, before something clicked. “All of a sudden mapping becomes relevant to their world.”

Robin Tolochko, a cartographer at Uber, describes this technical advancement slightly differently. “Mapping is often romanticized,” she says. “When in reality, now it’s mostly another desk job.” Cartography, she says, is 90 percent dealing with data, “and it’s usually crappy data.” Uber is just one of many smartphone apps that rely on mapmaking, adding to the vast catalog of cartography that many people use on a daily basis without thinking about it. “We’re moving people from point A to point B,” Tolochko says. “We can’t do that without knowing where we’re going.” 

But finding direction is usually more complicated than it sounds. While maps delineate boundaries and ease navigation, by its very nature drawing lines is complicated—think Mason–Dixon, the Berlin Wall, the South China Sea. Scale is crucial: If you’re walking in a desert without water, for all intents and purposes, the desert is infinite. But from a satellite, you can see its boundaries.

For centuries, maps defined dominion as well as provided access to new possibility. To name something is often to own it. Until recently, the very ability to make a map was proprietary. Esri was the best—and most expensive—source of cartographic software, but in the last ten years, the quality of open-source mapping tools has improved dramatically, as has their accessibility. This is most clearly manifested in the use of mapping software in many popular apps. “People expect everything to be at their fingertips all the time,” Tolochko says. “They’ve become so used to maps they don’t really recognize all the work that goes into making them.” Being on a map has become something we take for granted.

Photographs by Sean McDermott On January 12, 2010, the epicenter of Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake registered just fifteen miles from the capital. By the time the aftershocks ceased, Port-au-Prince was left in ruins. Hundreds of thousands died, and many of the survivors had nowhere to go; 1.5 million people lost their homes overnight. Over the following days and weeks, health-care workers and UN troops from around the world flocked to the country to aid the earthquake victims, accidentally bringing a strain of the cholera virus that ultimately triggered one of the worst epidemics in recent history.

Until then, Haiti was an epidemiologically naïve population, an island with no previous encounter with this particular strain of cholera, and therefore possessing no innate resistance. There were many places that medical personnel were unable to reach; where aid workers were able to estimate rates, 5 percent of the population contracted the disease, and without treatment, 40 percent of those patients died. Health centers struggled to keep up with the caseload, triaging people in tents. Those in acute stages of the illness lay in cots with holes cut in them and a bucket underneath.

“Every patient that walked in, we asked them where they were from,” recalls Ivan Gayton, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Haiti during the cholera outbreak. It may seem like common sense, but it wasn’t until 1854 that doctors thought to map disease outbreaks. Like Haiti in 2010, London was suffering a severe cholera epidemic when a physician named John Snow plotted the addresses of cases onto a simple street map. “He went door to door knocking, asked everyone where they were getting their water from,” Gayton explains. When Snow saw the clusters, it became clear certain water pumps were spreading the disease. It was the foundational moment of epidemiology. “It was a stunningly important moment in medicine,” Gayton says. “He was possibly one of the greatest physicians in all of history, and his claim to fame wasn’t a new treatment or a drug—it was making a map.” 

More than a century and a half later in Haiti, MSF doctors couldn’t even do that. Though everyone being treated in Haitian clinics was asked where they were from, the information proved confounding, since none of the informal neighborhoods and slums in Haiti were adequately mapped. Doctors lacked the ability to connect the place names with geographical coordinates. “It was effectively being recorded in random syllables,” Gayton says. Though staff tried to record cases in an Excel spreadsheet, without locations, doctors couldn’t tell if cases were adjacent to one another or on opposite sides of the city, making it difficult to trace or stop the sources of infection. “We couldn’t do our job,” says Pete Masters, the Missing Maps project coordinator at MSF. “We didn’t have the evidence to take the best action.” 

At the peak of the outbreak, Gayton was wandering through the hallway of a clinic and spotted a colleague, Maya Allan, crouched in a windowsill with a laptop. “She was trying to place pins [of cholera cases] on Google Earth by hand,” Gayton says. Frustrated, he thought there had to be a better way. So he called Google, which was “like calling Batcave.”  

A few days later, Google software engineer Pablo Mayrgundter flew to Port-au-Prince, bringing with him portable Google Earth programs and map data downloaded onto hard drives so he could work out in the field without need for the internet. He trained Haitians how to use GPS units, then sent them into neighborhoods to get latitude and longitude coordinates for Haitian place names. Google’s engineers were aided by a group called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) team, “earthquake nerds, looking at the TV, looking at the street map of Port-au-Prince, and realizing there’s nothing there,” Masters says. After the earthquake, the group coordinated with members of the Haitian diaspora to map Haiti’s slums and identify local landmarks for the first time. Within seventy-two hours of the earthquake, search-and-rescue teams were using their maps. Together, Google and HOT worked to geolocate all of the information they’d gathered and write a script to import the case records. Suddenly, the MSF patient list could be transformed into an animated map of cases. “Boom. All of a sudden, we could do what Snow did years ago,” Gayton says. “Hallelujah.”

A couple of days after the Google team left, Gayton was able to pinpoint a water outage in a neighborhood where cholera cases had suddenly jumped. After notifying the water utility, workers were dispatched to the site to make repairs. “Fewer people were dying because a map allowed us to correlate a spike in cases to a specific event,” Gayton says. “That’s the holy grail of mapping—actual lives saved.” 

Following the project’s success in Haiti, Gayton was invited to MSF headquarters in London to try to set up a system for mapping other disasters. It didn’t work, mainly because reactive mapping, it turns out, can’t possibly keep up with the scale and speed of humanitarian disasters. “Because of the horrible earthquake, HOT volunteer mapping got done [before the cholera crisis],” Gayton says. “A map that comes post-disaster doesn’t save lives.” During the Ebola crisis, for example, cases moved too swiftly for maps to be created of all of the areas the virus reached. “We need proactive mapping on a continental scale, of all vulnerable areas,” Gayton says. That’s why he helped coordinate Missing Maps, a collaboration between existing aid groups and volunteers using open-source data to map places where crises are likely to occur. The organization holds “mapathons,” where volunteers connect to people in the field. “Take names of streets,” Gayton says. “You’re on the Avenue of Church—there are 200 of those in Lubumbashi. You have to trace it, have to have imagery, have to go into the field and get names, and then integrate all of that into a nice visual map.” He describes the process as being similar to fitting a Russian doll together. 

“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.” 

To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value. 

It isn’t coincidental that humans have been drawn to maps for almost as long as we’ve had written records. “Our best way of sharing knowledge—whether it’s a physical representation of land or an energy space variable—it’s a map,” says Naoko Kurahashi Neilson. “Every scientific analysis produces maps or visual plots to look at. That’s the way we intuitively understand the best.” 

According to Bruce McNaughton, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, that may be because mapping is actually a critical component of how your brain works. The hippocampus, a small region of the brain responsible for learning and forming new memories, provides information about the spatial context in which experiences occur. The reason, for example, that you can stand in your kitchen and close your eyes and still walk to your refrigerator without bumping into anything is because your neural circuitry actually processes the world with a coordinate system. The brain keeps track of your motion through space, and certain cells in the hippocampus fire as you move. “When an animal gets to a location and discovers food there,” McNaughton says, “that information gets added to these spatial coordinates in much the way a mapmaker would make a Cartesian grid.” Essentially, the brain records your entire experience of the world through relative positions, much the way sailors used to find their way to foreign shores. “This is a way that neuroscientists believe your brain begins to assign value,” McNaughton explains. The brain explains our very existence by making a mental map. 

By building narratives that orient us—not only where we are physically standing, but in the past and future—maps are an instinctual way of ordering chaos, of turning stars to constellations and glacial scratches to predictions. “A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony to a man’s faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust. It is not like a printed page that bears mere words,” wrote Beryl Markham in the 1940s, shortly after becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from the east to the west. “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.’” 

The daughter of a colonial horse trainer, Markham grew up hunting barefoot with the Nandi, and learned to fly a plane when there were only a few in all of Africa. In early September 1936, Markham took off in a turquoise-and-silver Gull, with what she hoped was enough fuel to make it across the Atlantic. She flew for more than twenty-one hours across the open ocean, mostly in the dark. Recalling those interminable hours, she later wrote, “Were all the maps in this world destroyed and vanished…each man would be blind again, each city made a stranger to the next, each landmark become a meaningless signpost pointing to nothing.”

Since Markham’s record-breaking flight, we’ve sent a spaceship to the edge of the solar system. As technology shrinks the world, the concept of nothingness can feel obsolete; our very understanding of distance has fundamentally changed. But that doesn’t mean small spaces can no longer be large enough to get lost in.  

Several fjords over from Captain Siggi’s winter anchorage in Iceland, a potholed gravel road winds steeply up a mountain. Beyond the summit, a valley plunges into the sea. An Arctic fox pads silently downhill. Sheep graze over the moss and late blueberries. On the beach, waves eat away at the walls of an ancient sod-and-stone house. After generations of farmers plowing a living into this stony plain, only a single woman, Betty, remains.

The road to her valley is closed for half the year; the rare visitor arrives only by snowmobile. Betty’s TV cable went out two years ago, and the telephone doesn’t work in the rain. She cares for the family church, where baptisms and deaths have been recorded for centuries, an imposition of will into a world that will exist without us. On winter nights when the northern lights come out, she piles on handknit sweaters and stomps down to the beach to watch the sky perform. 

“The notion that place is capable of imparting its qualities to people may sound a little fanciful,” writes geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “so let me say, first, something that is merely commonsense, namely good soil yields good crops, bad soil poor crops.” In humans, the phenomenon is subtle, but place just as surely molds what used to be called character. 

When Betty leaves the valley, these hills will be mapped, though no one will know their wind and their weather. Until then, when the sheep give birth in the spring, she’ll watch over the miracle. If one day the distant universe is as mundane as the road that leads to our doors, even in the most familiar, there will always be wonder. It’s where all exploration begins.


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Harini's picture
Harini · 2 weeks ago

“When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.”

I can think of a lot that's wrong with this sentiment. For starters, it implies that the people who live there, with those people, don't count. They know who they are and where they live, and they help or hinder each other as people do anywhere. It smacks of colonialism to say that only when the outside world gives you an outside name and dockets you neatly do you exist. Secondly, people got along nicely for millennia without being studied and written about. I'd rather live a good, obscure life myself than a bad, visible one.

thisamericanfox's picture
thisamericanfox · 2 weeks ago

Not a single picture of the ship?

dbroward's picture
dbroward · 1 week ago

Just lovely. Thank you.


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