Close the map and open your eyes…
Squiggles on a page mean nothing when divorced from the land, writes Nicholas Roe
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