A Map of What?

Because I am a lover of islands—I prefer being water-locked to land-locked—this past week I have been paging through with increasing delight Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. First off, her book’s subtitle jumps out at you: “Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.” Some islands, I suppose, are better for piquing the imagination.

And what islands! Scattered across vast stretches of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic oceans, some of them are so remote it’s a wonder they were ever discovered before the advent of the sweeping eyes of orbiting satellites.

An author who is map as well as island haunted, Schalansky opens with a preface on her childhood discovery of cartography and the clarity of its continuing romance as a subject: “In an atlas, the Earth is as flat as it was before explorers pinned down the white spaces of enticingly undiscovered regions with contours and names, freeing the edges of the world from the sea monsters and other creatures that had long held sway there.”

Then Schalansky really gets down to business, devoting two facing pages to each island. On the right, a map of an island is centered in its blue cradle, lovingly but not overbearingly detailed, whether it’s a glorified coral reef or an uninhabited mountainous dot or an ice encrusted bit of land. On the left she offers a page of text, letting the reader know when the island was discovered and by whom, how many inhabitants (if any), and how far away it lies from its nearest neighbors (sometimes quite far), and she expands on some pertinent odd detail she has encountered in her research on each faraway place, a little Borges-like essay. On Macquarie Island a sailor is overwhelmed by an enormous flock of birds. A man spends sixteen years on Cocos Island, digging innumerable holes in search of pirate treasure. Christmas Island is home to 1400 people and a “red carpet” of 120 million crabs. Lonely Island, in the Arctic Ocean, has another name: Solitude Island.

Here is Schalansky’s map of the Pacific island of Pukapuka, whose 600 inhabitants live 700 kilometers from their next closest neighbors in Samoa. The people of Pukapuka, Schalansky informs us, have few social rules regarding sex, except for this curious exception: you can sing before or after sex, but never during. What must these songs sound like, and is it impolite to listen in? Do lovers sing separate songs, or do they harmonize?

Not all of Schalansky’s islands are remote—at least, I happen to have come close to one of the islands included in her book, Brava. It’s one of the ten islands of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, nestled off the coast of West Africa. I’ve visited São Tiago, São Vicente and Santo Antão, strange rugged rocky places swept by the dry winds of the nearby Saharan desert, where every touch of green is an exclamation point. Cape Verdeans struggle to survive from rare rain to rare rain, while accepting the consolations of art: the culture of the archipelago is replete with world-class writers, artists, composers, musicians and singers. I respectfully offer Ms. Schalansky the suggestion that she break the pact of her subtitle and give Brava a try.

Since I’m on the topic of Portuguese islands, there’s no way I’ll stay silent about the archipelago of the Azores, nine jewels floating smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. I’ve only been to one because the island that I have visited (and twice), São Miguel, is so damn beautiful. Those eight other islands will just have to wait. I’m not exaggerating when I say that São Miguel is my favorite place on earth. One of its many stellar sights is the ancient (and seven kilometers in diameter) volcanic crater of Sete Cidades, which includes within it four lakes, pasture land, lush green hills, a stretch of crater wall that rises a thousand feet high, and a small village (complete with bandstand for holiday celebrations).

Tell me that even a cursory swipe of your eyes over the photo above doesn’t make you want to book a flight forthwith. And bring a good map. Judith Schalansky might appreciate this one of the Sete Cidades crater, which shows the roads and trails one can follow, all four of the crater lakes, and the seemingly endless lovely blue veins of streams that lead from the crater walls to the ocean.

Glancing back and forth from photo and map can leave one a little dizzy, offering as it does separate and yet compatible realities of an identical nexus of latitude and longitude. As Schalansky observes, “The two-dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and an aesthetic appropriation of the world.”

Now this is the given of maps, the trade-off of distortion for revelation. But many maps have a built-in deliberate distortion, one that is not meant for you or me. As Mark Monmonier, author of How to Lie with Maps, reveals,

“Though none dare talk about it, publishers of street maps turn to each other for street names and changes. The euphemism for this type of compilation is “editing the competition,” but the legal term is copyright infringement—if you crib from a single source and get caught. To be able to demonstrate copyright infringement in court, and possibly enjoy a cash settlement by catching a careless competitor in the act, map publishers have been known to deliberately falsify their maps by adding ‘trap streets.’ As deterrents to the theft of copyright-protected information, trap streets are usually placed subtly, in out-of-the-way locations unlikely to confuse or antagonize map users.”

I love the idea of this, fictional streets and small towns dotting the landscapes of maps, hiding from our unsuspecting eyes. I couldn’t resist giving a character, in my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, this devious job of planning trap streets. Oddly enough, when I later lived with my family in Lisbon for a year, our apartment stood one block away from an undeveloped field that, on one popular map of Lisbon, featured not one but two trap streets. Whenever I passed by, I’d give a silent nod to those invisible false roads.

Finally, since I’ve been rambling on the topic of islands, it would be remiss of me not to further ramble my way to a mention of Stephen Marche’s Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, an anthology of the little-known but excellent short fiction of the Atlantic island of Sanjania. As Leonard King rightly asserts in his preface to Marche’s anthology, “Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth.”

And I appear to have one last bit of ramble in me, this time on the topic of maps. Dinty W. Moore’s “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” is an essay that is laid out as an evolving Google map, the geography of memory and landscape moving in tandem—may it spawn an entire new genre!

Map of Pukapuka, Judith Schalansky, from Atlas of Remote Islands
Map of Sete Cidades, from Landscapes of the Azores, A Countryside Guide

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October 22nd, 2010 by admin

Oranges, Oranges

Summer has faded away, though warm days still linger, and I find myself marking how fresh figs, peaches, plums and nectarines vanish from the market. Of these I miss figs the most, their season is so short, and the dried version of a fig is such an inadequate substitute—it’s almost a slur on the original. Yet thanks to California and Florida, as well as some far-flung regions of the world, oranges will always be with us.

In the morning, in the absence of summer fruits, I begin to fully appreciate an orange cut in quarters beside a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. Or if not an orange itself, then a small glass of orange juice, part of an ideal breakfast. But as John McPhee, in his book titled simply Oranges, reminds us:

Bolivians don’t touch orange juice at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day.

McPhee’s book is, as the title suggests, all about oranges, and the first few pages take the reader on a breath-taking tour around the world, elaborating on the various ways an orange can be enjoyed:

In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vendor cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them.

Salt! I never would have thought of doing that (still haven’t tried, either). But why not? Meanwhile, at the other end of the taste bud spectrum,

The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream.

Like some sweet glacier atop the Alps, it seems, dessert as a geographical metaphor. In Ireland, oranges serve as an unlikely (to us) snack food:

Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at people on the screen.

What must Irish movie theaters smell like, by the end of the film? A tropical plantation, perhaps, the scent—as well as those flung peels—adding its own commentary to the goings-on flashing across the screen. It seems there’s no end to the human imagination, always on the lookout to transform the potential in anything ordinary, even a piece of fruit:

Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice.

When I lived in the villages of the Beng people of Ivory Coast in West Africa, I was stunned at first by the local way of drinking orange juice. With a sharp, short knife, a Beng child (usually surprisingly young) would pare the rind off an orange carefully, so as not to nick the whitish skin beneath, but also swiftly—there seemed to be a certain amount of pride connected with this. After the orange had been shorn, a complete rind would fall to the ground, like some colorful Mobius strip.

Once I picked up one of those rinds and held it tentatively back together, though now it circled air, only the idea of an orange. Anyway, when the orange had been sheared like a sheep the thirsty child would cut off a thin slice from the top, exposing the moist fruit within. Head raised and holding the top to her mouth, she’d squeeze the orange until the juice poured out—instant orange juice from an all-natural cup. Once done, the scrunched orange would be discarded on the spot, having served its function, where the nearest hungry goat would snap it up.

In time, I managed to learn how to strip the rind off an orange, though painstakingly slowly, and I never managed to slice it to a single unbroken curlicue. I also nicked the pulpy skin often enough to make for a messy experience when I finally squeezed that orange for the juice. Some people just shouldn’t be trusted with a knife.

I think the prize for the most inventive use of an orange must go to the Saramaka people of Suriname in South America. The Saramaka are the descendants of slaves who escaped into the interior of Suriname three hundred years ago and forged a rich amalgam of culture out of their mixed-ethnic African heritages. The Saramaka are famous for making art out of anything: intricate architectural features on their buildings and doors, delicate patterns baked into cakes, elaborately designed decorations on chairs, combs, even bodily scarification marks. And the children can peel an orange into a very cool, sci-fi looking mask:

So that quotidian orange you and I enjoy for breakfast has a shape-shifting pedigree, a transformative potential that won’t easily fit in a juice glass. Add the salt, pour the cream, fling the rinds, and strap on yer goggles!

Saramaka boys photo courtesy of Sally and Richard Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest.

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October 4th, 2010 by admin