words on maps (for peter baka)

The map is (not) the journey. The journey is (not) the map.

I once walked all the way from Gad’s Hill along the Hope Range to look out, off Middle Head, over Broken Bay. From Gad to Hope to Middle to Broken: I saw no names along the way, just rocks and trees and birds and the great river running into the sea.

No matter what you call a place – hill, valley, swamp, river-mouth, beach, headland – it will still be there after the name is forgotten.

A map of forgotten names is the country of another time. If you know the names you can call back the country. Sometimes you can hear the country saying its names so that you can learn how to call it back. These voices rise at unexpected times in lonely places. You have to listen tenderly and move your lips slowly. Even so, you will make mistakes.

Every mistake is an absence that cannot be recalled. Each forgotten name is a hole in the sky. But the nameless land endures.

A map is a palimpsest: writing on the land which is rubbed out and overwritten, names obscuring other older names, which themselves hide even older ones, like tattoo fading under tattoo under tattoo. You cannot excavate names, but you cannot wholly obscure them either: fragments will always show through, like skin showing through under a tattoo.

Land is skin; map is tattoo.

You can sometimes walk off a known map into an older time, when the names were different to what they are now. How do you know when you have strayed? By the way the names have changed - from those which are known to those which are unknown. The unknown names are strange, and they afflict you with strangeness: you become a stranger to a place you thought you knew, and you wander. It is possible to be lost like this even when you are walking from one known place to another. Your return to the familiar map is accompanied by feelings of relief mixed with sadness for the unknown country you have strayed into and are now leaving behind, perhaps forever.

You do not need to know the name of a place to go there; but, having been, you are sure to call it by some name or other, adding it to the map of your wanderings.

When I was younger I used sometimes to imagine my life as a tangle of journeys mapping all the places I had ever been, erasing themselves each time they were repeated. You can do the same thing with a day: picture it as a drawing on a map of where you have been. Some days I do not leave the house; yet still leave a snarl of paths.

The map of names. The names of maps. The names are (not) the map.

No comments: