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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    1. Levi Stahl says:

      Isn’t it a stunning book? A bookseller friend pressed it into my hands the day it arrived in the store, and I’ve been marveling at it ever since. A great conceit, splendid anecdotes, beautiful design, and lush production–everything you want from a book!

    2. I also have a fascination with islands. I was born on a large and not at all remote one (Australia) and my favorite TV show is Lost but it is more than that. I think islands may have the highest story per area ratio of anything on the planet other than a human being itself.

      Each one of a remote island’s few hundred inhabitants is in some way part of a very interesting story of why a person would end up there at all. The vast immutable ocean surrounding each one makes its actual land space hyperdigestible – what a deep sense of place its inhabitants must have, knowing the character of every hill, cove and endemic creature. To look at a map of someone’s isolated island home is probably more informative than looking at their family tree.

      Island ecology also brings a lot of narratively intriguing principles to the table. They tend to have high speciation, i.e. the inhabitants are starkly different from each other. Creatures on islands also tend to be either way bigger (Komodo dragons) or smaller (Homo floresiensis) than their mainland counterparts. So I like to think that islands amplify important traits or cast them into relief. A good person is able to self-actualize in a balmy, romantic paradise… but a bad person is left unchecked and with a map in his hand can easily chart what he wishes to take from others.

      and also they look cool

    3. admin says:

      Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Matt.

      I was born on an island too, Long Island, which includes two boroughs of New York City, Brooklyn and Queens. Funny, I never quite felt as if I grew up on an island, not until I moved to the Midwest and then began feeling uncomfortably landlocked.

      And that’s a fine website you’re involved with.

    4. Marta Reis says:

      Hi. I’m writing from a portuguese newspaper called i. I’m preparing an article about foreigners that spent their sabbatical year in Portugal. Are you available to speak with us?
      Kind regards
      Marta Reis

    5. Kathie says:

      Philip: As you suspect, the other eight islands in the Azores are also lovely. My own ancestors hailed from the sparsely-populated Flores and São Jorge, which are among the two most popular for hiking, owing in part to their breathtaking scenic vistas. (Of course, I can likewise understand why you’re reluctant to leave your beloved São Miguel, once you arrive). Another enjoyable thing to do in the Azores is to take a ferry among various islands — I’ve taken the passenger ferry that shuttles among Faial, Pico and São Jorge — as they afford views unavailable from land. Hope you’ll venture out to some of the other eight Azore islands sometime. Boa viagem!

    6. Stan says:

      Sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve requested it from our library; thanks for the tip!

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