What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.
~ Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
It was a smell I had forgotten: low-pressure, bluebird-late-summer-New-England-day sunshine. Green hay standing in the fields. Ripe goldenrod. Woods filled with pitchy white pine and red oak. In the shade, damp earth.
I had forgotten this smell in the five years that my family and I had been away from the Northeastern US. The scent, when I first caught it breezing in through the window of our eastward-bound moving van, came weighed with twenty-seven years’ worth of sudden remembrance.
But my youngest son, Everett, just three, missed his home, and he was worried. “Are there going to be bears there”? he asked as the four of us drove across the country. “Are there going to be bears”?
During the era of exploration, European cartographers would populate the far corners of their maps with fantastical monsters and beasts, angels, Fates, and headless Blemmyes, imagination filling in what terra incognita concealed.
Five years before returning to the East Coast, my wife, Talia, our then only son, Wyeth, and I packed everything we owned into our station wagon and drove a thousand miles west, from Ithaca, New York to Madison, Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin, where I was to take up a prestigious two-year postdoctoral fellowship, under the oversight of the brightest scholar in my field, and launch what was supposed to be a career as a professional historian. I had just finished my PhD, had spent the better part of a decade piling the shelves of my mind with well-thumbed books on the history and theory of cartography and surveying, books about how empire and capital shaped the earth and books about how humans have resisted the gridding of their land and lives. The drive, as I remember it, felt like assuming an inheritance. My dream of spending my life in a dusty seminar room, alive with the smell of old books – dry leather, rag-paper pages, rusty oak-gall-and-iron-filing ink – together with students and scholarly ideas handed down carefully from generation to generation: it was all coming true.
Supposed to never happened. I chose not to navigate by the great lights, preferring instead to reckon my own way, but you can’t spite the sun, and when the lights turned away their attention, I was left in darkness. You can’t see the stars in Madison, and I lost my way.
“Every story is a travel story” runs a line from one of my favourite books from those days, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.
Everett is now five years old, and he’s lived in five different houses since he was born. The move east was hard on him; the shift from his Midwestern city, with its reassuring sounds of traffic, its low-slung, few-storied, ranch-housed landscape, its playgrounds padded in shredded tires, its neighbourhoods awash in the smells of grilling food, the move from what he knew to our home in the Northeastern woods, where we now live, was disorienting. He lost his world.
Talia and I tried to help him link what was to what will be by explaining our journey, but distance, and the concepts we adults use to tame it – town, city, state, travel time in car versus airplane – proved too abstract for a three-year-old.
So Talia bought him a map, a plastic placemat on which was drawn the US, each state named and given its own colour. “This is where we lived”, we’d say, at dinner, pointing to the green silhouette of Wisconsin, “and this”, slowly tracing a finger east a few inches, “is where we live now”.
You can’t really explain something like that to a young child, not in a way that makes sense.
For five years, my family and I drifted.
There was the apartment we brought Everett home from the hospital to, a cosy two-bedroom on a quiet side street, only a mile from campus, but with no yard, and too-little space for a family of four.
There was the small grey house we rented, a little farther west, on one of the city’s busiest streets, so loud we found it hard to talk during morning and evening rush hour, and expensive, but which had a beautiful, maple-and-pine shaded yard – and, we discovered after moving in, a severe lead-paint problem. “I wouldn’t live here” the county health inspector said when he came to survey the flaking poisonous paint. “Not with my kids.” So, three months after moving in, we moved out.
Then, a third place, out on the edge of the city’s skirts, a small, dark basement apartment, its carpet soggy with mildew, its communal dumpster a cesspool of rotting trash and dog shit, an apartment overrun with millipedes when it came time for them to breed in June. But rent was cheap. It had a yard. And it bordered a prairie.
Our family loved that prairie, loved how, after the city’s Park’s Department burned it every spring, to mimic the lightning strikes that kept the aboriginal prairies tree-free, an incredible, Technicolor carpet of green emerged from black ash. We loved how the prairie grasses with names like big bluestem and blue grama arced well over our heads in summer and how the milkweed erupted into downy-white every fall, how the last aster kept its purple and the black-eyed Susan its yellow even after the first frosts fell. Our family would stand in the prairie and inhale deeply its wild astringent smell.
We lived in our prairie home for almost two years, the longest time Everett has lived anywhere.
New York, USA
Back before either of our children was born, back when I lived mostly in my head, I discovered an idea, in a book called Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and British El Dorado, by the historian of science D. Graham Burnett, that I’ve been carrying around with me for more than a decade. The idea of metalepsis.
If, for literary effect, a writer replaces a word with another that expresses a closely linked idea, that’s metonymy – calling a map a journey. Metalepsis is metonymy twice-removed, a double substitution, a way of disorienting one’s reader by further attenuating the connection between expectation and what comes to pass, like a half-remembered dream. In the metaleptic moment when the expected world fails to materialize lies the hope of every essay: the possibility of seeing something new. Metalepsis is calling a map a history.
Maps aren’t supposed to be histories. I consult a map to know where I am, right now. And when I consult that same map tomorrow, I expect to be in the same place, not lost somewhere in a narrative’s arc.
This was Burnett’s jumping-off point, and he borrowed the term metalepsis to express how, though every map pretends timeless perfection, each is a revision of something older, which was itself a revision, based on a revision, all the way back to the mythical first encounter between mapmaker and territory. Every map is mostly a patchwork inheritance of previous mapmakers’ ideas about what the world contained. But to recognize this, the cartographer would have to recognize error, would have to recognize the certainty that his own plot also distorts because it is built from inaccurate shards, just as the maps that replace his will also be off – and if a mapmaker were to capture all of that, then how would navigation be possible? So cartographers erase their histories. They still their stories. This, their maps tell us, is the way the world works. That’s how we can drive across the country with nothing but a map, confident that wherever we’re going is the place we’ve chosen to be.
Burnett used his theory of cartographic metalepsis to spin a complex and beautiful argument about maps and power and colonial knowledge and violence, but I found myself taking away something in addition: a dual message of imaginative possibility – we make our own worlds – and also humility – whatever we make will ultimately fail, because the shards never precisely fit and the story is never ours alone to tell.
We live now in a little clearing in the woods, in a house we bought last fall, up on top of a mountain, just off a dead-end dirt road. There are bear here. Bear and barred owls – a friend has even seen a bobcat in her yard. At night the only sound is the wild one of the wind in the pines, and it’s so dark I can see the Milky Way and the North Star.
Everett still uses his plastic map placemat, faded by hundreds of washings, some of its place names scrubbed clean. I travelled to Phoenix, Arizona for a few days last year, for a conference, soon after we moved East, but I hadn’t realized that Everett thought I was abandoning him until, months later, he began pointing out that since Phoenix no longer exists on his map I can never again leave him behind.
“I am trying to hear these fragile ways in which the body makes itself heard in the language,” de Certeau wrote, though he was thinking of the spoken word, thinking of how our physical bodies affect what each of us can say and how we can say it. But what is language, I want to ask de Certeau, if not a map that we use to imperfectly emplace ourselves, to mark ourselves so that we may be found?
Everett can run, hard and fast, and when his eccentric ambit brings him blazing back into my arms, I find every excuse to bury my nose deep in his tangle of blonde curls. He smells innocent and sweet and free, of sweat and sunshine and freckles, leaves and moss, and it feels good to hold him. He and his brother are making their own map of their surroundings: Thornbane Valley, where our prickly wild roses grow, and the Wild Woods, where they adventure on their own, free of parental oversight. When I ask if he feels at home Everett answers, with his deep-blue earnest eyes, no. I’m not home yet. And then, with a giggle, he’s off, into the ferns.
Cover image: Kari Cahill, Of Wind Blown Husks (detail), oak gall, ash, charred oak, walnut, iron, rusty dust on printmaking paper. This is a detail of a single work from a larger series, Arboreal Bind, by artist Kari Cahill. The primary ingredient for the series is oak: first as bark, scorched by fire to make charcoal black, then as ash deposited below the flames, which makes a light cream hue. Oak galls are taken from the young oak trees and soaked for months to make a golden brown tint, which, modified with iron and exposed to oxygen, turns an indelible green-black.
This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.