Close the map and open your eyes…

Squig­gles on a page mean noth­ing when di­vorced from the land, writes Ni­cholas Roe

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country -

At the Bear Ho­tel in Crick­how­ell just now, Kevin Walker asked me a sly ques­tion about life, the uni­verse and nav­i­ga­tion: “What’s a map?” Well, let me see. map, in my bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, is a dis­tor­tion of re­al­ity, a ly­ing piece of tosh and a jolly good rea­son to ar­gue with my wife. But given that Kevin was short of time, I of­fered a more con­densed def­i­ni­tion: “A two-di­men­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a land­scape?”

“Love it!” re­sponded Kevin, an ex­pert nav­i­ga­tor who has spent the past 30 years teach­ing map-read­ing in this beau­ti­ful re­gion of mid-Wales. “You’ve just over-com­pli­cated the whole thing. It’s a pic­ture, that’s all — a pic­ture! Ha, ha, ha!”

Now I’m stand­ing here clutch­ing a com­pass — and map — on the high ground of the Bre­con Bea­cons Na­tional Park, about to un­dergo a short ex­am­i­na­tion in find­ing my way in life. “Take me to that pool,” de­mands Kevin, point­ing at a tiny blob on the map, a mark the size of a frag­ment of spit­tle flung from a protest­ing mouth and land­ing amid a maze of coloured lines and squig­gly bits. But off I go, Kevin fol­low­ing. And sure enough, lit­tle by lit­tle, the map swal­lows us up.

Kevin has seen a de­cline in the pub­lic’s nav­i­ga­tion skills over the years, partly be­cause of our grow­ing reliance on tech­nol­ogy. We are the sat-nav gen­er­a­tion, vic­tims of pix­els. Yes, vic­tims, be­cause sat-navvers do not re­ally per­ceive their sur­round­ings — they are told. Add to this a grow­ing ten­dency to­wards couch-potato slob­bi­ness that keeps many of us in­doors of a week­end, and you can see why map-read­ing as a skill is un­der threat. This is bad, for rea­sons I am about to dis­cover.

“The way I teach nav­i­ga­tion makes you look at the land­scape,” says Kevin, who has just writ­ten a book on the sub­ject (see foot­note for de­tails). “It en­hances your re­la­tion­ship with the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Cer­tainly my own re­la­tion­ship needs a leg-up just now, given that 20 min­utes into my search I am ut­terly lost. Kevin is watch­ing me swivel the map this way and that, tramp­ing from out­crop to bog and back again, as if I un­der­stand what I’m do­ing. But he knows and I know, and now you know, that I’m ly­ing.

Yet it should all be so sim­ple. Here’s the land­scape. Here’s a bit of flut­ter­ing pa­per con­tain­ing a pic­ture of this same bit of hill. Kevin told me where I was at the start and the pond was only 1km away so who could get lost?

I could. Be­cause, re­vis­ing my own def­i­ni­tion, a map re­flects what you are and I re­alise be­lat­edly that I’m im­pa­tient, dis­mis­sive of de­tail and too anx­ious to move. A map takes th­ese sad facts, balls them up and tosses them right back, leav­ing me… Where? Help me, Kevin. Do you want to know the se­cret of maps? How to walk through the val­ley of the shadow of your own ig­no­rance and come out the other end know­ing which way is home? “The most com­mon mis­take,” Kevin says, “is that we don’t look at maps closely enough. Most of us were taught the skill in school by some­one who didn’t ex­actly know what they were talk­ing about. So we don’t look in enough de­tail. Se­condly, we don’t look in a struc­tured man­ner.”

A map, he ex­plains, con­tains five lay­ers of in­for­ma­tion. Kevin iden­ti­fies th­ese in or­der of their fail­ure to ap­peal.

First, there are map sym­bols that don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist on the ground but look con­fus­ingly im­pos­ing on pa­per (bat­tle sites, EU con­stituency bound­aries). Then there are signs of veg­e­ta­tion that might change from year to year (woods, bogs). Next, small fea­tures which may be too tiny to no­tice at a dis­tance (trig points; ahem, pools). Then more use­ful lin­ear de­tail such as walls and field bound­aries. But fi­nally, most sig­nif­i­cant of all, there is the glory of map­ping, cap­tured in the un­change­able fab­ric of the world it­self, the im­mutable shape of land­scape: con­tours. The big pic­ture.

What Kevin teaches is to study the land­scape first, look­ing for pre­cisely th­ese lay­ers of in­for­ma­tion. Only then do you re­fer to the map. Life first, then its copy — you see? And do you also fathom its wider rel­e­vance? The un­der­ly­ing les­son?

I look again. And look­ing, I re­alise that I am en­joy­ing my­self. I like de­cod­ing the world like this. Nearby, I see the rounded shape of high ground. Fur­ther off, the line of a val­ley. In the dis­tance, just there — the bare­lyvis­i­ble fin­ger of a trig point.

Re­fer­ring to the map now, I see that ly­ing be­tween an out­crop of high ground and, in­deed, a trig point, at the head of the small val­ley, there is a lit­tle blue pond which seems to be just yards away. We walk… and here is my blob of spit, my neme­sis, my goal.

Kevin teaches that slav­ishly fol­low­ing a map is un­nec­es­sary — con­stantly re­fer­ring to pa­per, or screen, dis­torts our en­joy­ment of the out­doors. What we should do, he says, is walk with our head up, con­fi­dent in the knowl­edge that, when we even­tu­ally stop and check, we can work out where we are. It’s a mat­ter of be­liev­ing in our­selves and then look­ing, not at de­tail, but at the big pic­ture. It’s called map-read­ing. It’s called life.

A two-di­men­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a nav­i­ga­tor: Ni­cholas Roe (white jacket) does his best to lead Kevin Walker to a land­mark on the Bre­con Bea­cons in Wales

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