When I visit somewhere new, I like to find one of those publicly displayed maps of the area that has “You Are Here” clearly marked on it. An arrow, cross, or dot – often in red – indicates the spot where you’re standing, looking at what’s shown and trying to get your bearings. Sometimes they’re so faded it’s hard to make out the detail. Sometimes the scrawls and gouges of graffiti render them useless. But despite their vulnerability to aging, vandalism, and weather, and although their fixed perspectives may seem primitive compared to the navigational capabilities of mobile phones, I still find such “You Are Here” maps appealing. I like them partly for their obvious utility – they offer a rapid means of gaining a sense of orientation. But their main appeal, for me, lies in another direction entirely: I enjoy the sense of existential absurdity they engender.
“You Are Here” maps offer a reassuringly straightforward understanding of your whereabouts. They plot your position according to a few readily recognized points of reference. Once you’ve scanned your surroundings, noted key features, matched landscape to map-scape, understood the scale and symbols being used, a sense of knowing where you are is fostered. This provides sufficient confidence to set off and get successfully from a to b to c. If these maps had a voice their tone would be like a newsreader’s – calm, unhurried, authoritative. Their assertion of “You Are Here” invites neither doubt nor questioning. To ask “Where?” in puzzlement or outraged disbelief would simply result in patient reiteration. Look at the arrow, X marks the spot, that dot shows where you’re standing. Whatever sign is being used, it lets you see exactly where you are in relation to your surroundings.
In one sense, such maps are unproblematic. They place us in a way we can readily relate to. But their plotting of our location doesn’t bear much weight of scrutiny. Beyond a superficial sense of direction, the coordinates they give are little more than flimsy fabrications thrown over the chasm of a larger truth.
I don’t just mean that “You Are Here” maps are simplifications. Like any map, they’re not attempts to replicate the area they show. Rather, they select and represent. A great deal is, quite deliberately, left out. If everything was included, we would end up with an unwieldy facsimile, not a map. The surreal impossibilities of such a thing – a map that reproduced a territory with flawless faithfulness, a point-by-point echo with everything mirrored in 1:1 scale – is nicely shown in Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “Of the Exactitude of Science” (included in his collection A Universal History of Infamy). Maps are not copies of the world but readings of it that excerpt and emphasize, they show enough of somewhere to facilitate our grasp of it, without bamboozling us by including too much. In calling “You Are Here” maps fabrications, it’s not cartography’s necessary simplification that I have in mind. I’m thinking, rather, of the absence of any indication that there’s a great deal more to the story than the tiny part of it they tell.
It’s easy to be taken in, to confer upon such maps a degree of certainty they really don’t possess. We assume the little fictions that they offer are straightforward facts, slip too readily into thinking that their version of our whereabouts is accurate, that we can accept where they place us as truthful snapshots of where we actually are. Yes, of course, they do provide some passing sense of orientation; they help us find our way around whatever area they’re concerned with. But the pinpointing they offer is fractional, provisional, temporary at best. It gives no sense of the fundamental nature of our surroundings, or their scale, or where we fit into the astonishing picture they are part of.
When I’m musing about the nature of “You Are Here” maps, I often think of snowglobes. A snowglobe is a small transparent sphere of glass or plastic. Within its dome, some miniaturized scene is depicted – a village or a farmyard, a city street, a little rural landscape with hills and trees. Usually a few figures are included, sometimes animals as well. Model vehicles are often placed in urban scenes. Snowglobes are particularly popular at Christmas. Then, their cameos take on a seasonal theme – horse-drawn sledges, red-robed Santa Clauses, snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees. The space enclosed within the snowglobe’s dome is filled with clear liquid and scores of tiny white particles. When the globe is shaken, the particles are agitated and give the impression of a flurry of snowflakes. They make their slow descent through the watery atmosphere that holds them, briefly creating a miniature blizzard-effect. Soon they settle and the scene clears. It stays that way until the globe is shaken again.
Imagine a snowglobe where a fragment of a town has been modelled within the transparent enclosure – miniaturized streets and buildings, with a few vehicles and pedestrians appropriately positioned. There’s a tiny figure standing in a carpark, looking at a “You Are Here” map that’s displayed on a noticeboard. If you shake the globe the usual blizzard would momentarily appear. But instead of shaking, imagine this globe is a projectile that’s been fired into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The little “You Are Here” map that’s within shows the figure’s location with a customary red arrow. It provides the necessary orientation to plot a route through the model town that’s built inside the glassy encasement. The position of anything within this sphere is shown on the map relative to the other features that the globe contains. But there is no mention anywhere – still less any mapping – of the miles of sea in which this snowglobe is bobbing. The depths and distances of the environing Atlantic are ignored. No hint is given of its powerful waves and currents. The few millilitres of liquid within the globe define the boundaries of its cartography. Its “You Are Here” map gives no indication of the megatons of water separated from its world by only a thin, transparent membrane.
Just as the imaginary map within this castaway snowglobe ignores what’s all around it, so the real “You Are Here” maps we consult are similarly blinkered. In fact the coordinates they give are even more curtailed than those within a snowglobe drifting in the ocean. At least the sea, even at its deepest, is something we can fathom; there is the certainty of seabed somewhere beneath us. And, however far from them we might be, there are vessels, islands, coastlines – all known phenomena – that offer the triangulation of familiarity. There are also fish and whales and seaweed we can name. But the snowglobe of our Earth is floating in an expanse that makes the Atlantic seem like a dewdrop, and within the enormous ambit of what surrounds our planet there is little we can confidently label.
The Solar System gives a kind of stay of execution against being overwhelmed by immensities we can’t map, it preserves for a while longer the sense that “You Are Here” is an intelligible concept, that we can weave a comforting cocoon of coordinates around ourselves. Looking at the Solar System may pull the rug away from locally measured estimates of our whereabouts, but it still provides a sense of what we mean by “here.” In pointing to the sun, “Solar” brings with it a sense of light and warmth, the familiar feel of summer days. “System” suggests something ordered and purposeful, a pace of proceeding we can reliably predict and chart. Our family of planets orbiting the sun moves in patterns we can grasp. We can take soundings of Earth’s size and position relative to its nearest neighbours. We know we’re on the third planet from the Sun, 93 million miles from the fiery star that sustains us. Our planet is the fifth largest in the System. As names we recognize, “Sun,” “Earth,” “Moon,” “Mercury,” “Venus,” “Mars,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn,” “Uranus,” and “Neptune” bestow a sense of being in familiar conceptual territory. Seeing them written on the page kindles a homely feeling of belonging and may even provide a bulwark against what lies beyond them. But such reassuring resonances soon fade when we consider the wider picture.
The Solar System is just one small group of planets located in a galaxy called the Milky Way, a disc-shaped assemblage of numerous stars. It would take some 120,000 years for light to travel across the expanse they cover. And the Milky Way is just one among a multitude of galaxies. One estimate suggests there are at least 200 billion of them. They range in size from dwarf galaxies, consisting of just (just!) a few hundred million stars, to giants that contain one hundred trillion. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on all Earth’s beaches, more than every speck of dust we’ve ever seen.
Cosmologists organize galaxies into groups, clusters, and superclusters. Our Milky Way is part of a collection of galaxies in the so-called Local Group. One of these, the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5 million light years from us) is twice the size and four times the mass of the Milky Way. The Local Group in turn belongs to the Virgo cluster (65 million light years from us). Virgo contains at least a hundred galaxies. But this cluster, gigantic though it is, is dwarfed by the almost inconceivable immensity of a supercluster of galaxies that’s aptly named Laniakea (Hawaiian for “immeasurable heavens”). Laniakea consists of more than 100,000 galaxies.
The size of the universe – home to this plethora of galaxies – is not known. The possibility that it is infinite cannot be ruled out. It has been expanding since it came into being and is expanding still, which means that though it would now take light 500 million years to cross the expanse of Laniakea, it will take even longer in the future (and would have taken less time in the past). The universe is not a static entity. The flux of expansion ripples through it. It is not thought to have a centre or an edge. If it was possible to go in any direction fast enough and for long enough, eventually you’d reach the edge of the observable universe. Beyond that lie unobservable realms. They are so far away that no light from them has reached Earth or any of its telescopes. Who knows what such realms may contain? And if you travelled for aeons, on a journey lasting so long it would witness the birth and death of all the stars, it may be – if the cosmologists are right – that you would return precisely to the point you set out from. I like the way that supposition sends a shiver of locational vertigo through our looking at any simple “You Are Here” map. It gives a very different sense of the possibilities implicit in our present position. “Here” becomes a kind of portal into the mystery of time and space.
It’s hard to grasp these stupendous astral distances and dimensions in any kind of meaningful way. They slip through the fingers of what seems credible even though the evidence for them is incontrovertible. They’re not easy to hold in mind as features of existence, characteristics of the reality in which our lives unfold from day to day. Despite the massiveness of galaxies, they seem strangely insubstantial, almost spectral, haunting the edges of belief rather than occupying its centre. Though they are there, now, defining this – as every – moment, these Laniakean vistas lack the impress of immediate sensation. They exist beyond any direct confirmation from sight, or sound, or touch, or taste, or smell. I take Laniakea on trust from those whose calculations and observations have revealed it. I know it’s there; I know we’re part of it. And yet…
In their six-volume The History of Cartography (1987), J.B. Harley and David Woodward define maps as:
“Graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.”
Some indication of the variety this definition can encompass is shown in Stephen Hall’s “I, Mercator,” a brilliant essay that first appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Orion magazine. Hall writes:
“There are maps to anywhere: chromosomes, galaxies, the brain, the cell, the spaces between atoms, cracks in the double helix. The edge of time.”
With each of these maps, it would be possible to introduce a “You Are Here” indicator. But the coordinates it gives take on a quality of mirage as soon as we glance at what they connect to and recognize where such connections lead us.
Master cartographer Tim Robinson’s explorations provide a rare depth of topographical and cultural insight into the ground he studies. In Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) – in a passage that surely applies to any map – he talks about the way in which his careful walking and map-making bring him into contact not just with the obvious ground beneath his feet on Ireland’s Aran Islands, but with nothing less than “the network of being.” It is a network dense with multiple nodes of interconnection. Robinson suggests that it consists of “tangle within tangle within tangle, indefinitely.” Faced with such an intricate series of interrelationships – every feature, place, time, event leading always to others – perhaps all we can do is “tease out a thread or two here and there,” as Robinson does with such engaging elegance. The tapestry as a whole remains beyond our grasp. As Stephen Hall puts it:
“The most important thing a map shows, if we pause to look at it long enough, if we travel upon it widely enough, if we think about it hard enough, is all the things we still do not know.”
The same sentiment surely lies behind the famous line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, when Ishmael says of his friend Queequeg’s island home, Kokovoko: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” The true place of where we really are, beyond the snowglobe coordinates of our quotidian cartographies, is similarly resistant to being pinpointed.
It’s not just a case of disorientation being ignited as our scale of inclusion increases, with distances soon reaching stupendous expanses when we think of stars and galaxies in their scattered billions. Something similar happens if, instead of looking outwards (Earth, Solar System, Milky Way and beyond) we look inwards. Apply microscopes instead of telescopes and you’ll soon discover there’s uncharted space inside us. Think of our multi-millions of cells, think of the atoms that make them, the electrons orbiting the nuclei, the tiny planetary systems of atomic particles that arc their transits through these inner emptinesses. Sequestered within interiorities we rarely consider are nanospheres laden with the potential to corrode the coordinates we use to plot our everyday positions. These nanospheres are as caustic to the certainties of straightforward “You Are Here” maps as are the exteriorities of Laniakean perspectives.
My own snowglobe coordinates are easily enough laid out. Like everyone, I was born at a particular time in a particular place. In my case in Belfast on a cold February morning. There had been snow the night before. The roads were icy. The perils of driving to the hospital became an often-told family story. There was a skid when my father almost lost control. When we passed that spot in years to come, it was always pointed out. I’ve often wondered what different patterns my life might have taken if the car had left the road. For the time between then and now, I could sum up in a paragraph or two the main factors that have given me my underlying sense of “You Are Here,” that foundation-feeling of present consciousness that pulses out its guiding beacon of identity and location throughout a life. I don’t mean by this any self-conscious effort at map-making, but simply the soundings of people, places, times and seasons by reference to which the contour lines on our personal sense of whereabouts are drawn. Wherever we happen to be, and whoever happens to accompany us, provides a background continuum of reference, creates touchstones that offer a sense of everyday orientation. For me, a handful of people and places – my personal polestars – have been welcome constants.
What I find hard to bring into focus is the relationship between my straightforward sense of who and where I am and the wider picture that I know it’s part of. How does the spot on that County Antrim road where, as we headed towards my birthing, my father almost skidded, relate to the enormousness of Laniakea? Can I bring into any meaningful alignment the baby born on that February morning in Belfast with a bloodline that reaches back, through innumerable forbears, not just to recognizable ancestors we can name but to the crucible of creatures that emerged when life’s presence first sparked into existence on this third planet from the Sun? Can my present point in time-space, sitting at a computer in an attic room typing the words of this sentence, look anything other than ridiculous – minuscule, ephemeral, insignificant – when it’s put beside the immensities of time that stretch out on either side of it?
In one sense, “You are Here” is a simple matter. It’s determined by the immediate coordinates – geographical, social, psychological – that define our place and person at any given moment. But there is so much more looming beyond such simple pictures. Even the sketchiest knowledge of it creates such a magnification that ordinary coordinates risk being crushed in the massive atmospheres of cognitive pressure that result. Sometimes I picture myself standing in front of some straightforward “You Are Here” map in a town I’m visiting for the first time, but instead of it offering the ready reckoning I want, its snowglobe enclosure of manageable proximities cracks and I’m left floundering in Atlantic expanses.
In You Are Here (2004), her fascinating compilation of what she calls “personal geographies and other maps of the imagination,” Katharine Harmon suggests that the urge to map, “like our opposable thumbs, is part of what makes us human.” Not every outcome of this urge is expressed through drawing; there are thought-maps and word-maps. Our sense of where we are comes from a range of sources, not all of them obviously cartographical. But whatever form the maps that we rely on take, it’s clear a need for orientation runs clamant in our veins. We are salted with a thirst to know where and who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going between (beyond?) the obvious markers of or birth and death. I don’t think that thirst can be more than momentarily slaked by the kind of straightforward coordinates “You Are Here” maps give.
Harmon’s book presents a richly diverse collection. Not just maps of the world drawn according to expected conventions, but maps that make use of imagination, humour, fiction, that explore ideas, dreams, and emotions as well as well as landscapes, maps that offer pictures of our interior worlds as well as of the external landscape. Among the examples she includes are: a map that shows the incidence of Halloween lanterns in an American suburb; a map of air routes over Britain by day and by night; a map of Srinagar embroidered in fine wool on cloth; Edwin Morgan’s visual poem “Chaffinch Map of Scotland”; Seymour Chwast’s “A Map of Lovemaking,” with the anatomy of a couple in coitus depicted as a contour map. There’s a sixteenth century Tibetan map of the body’s interconnecting blood vessels; prehistoric hunting maps incised on rock; maps of gene expression in the body of a fruit fly. Behind all of these maps is the urge to understand our surroundings. Driving all of them is the thirst for insight into the nature of the things around us, for soundings that will reveal, piece by piece, the coordinates of our whereabouts.
I like “You are Here” maps because they stimulate my sense of what I’ve called “existential absurdity.” By contrasting their everyday positional parameters with measurements that utterly dwarf them, I can savour a rush of vertigo at the vast disparity in scale. Beside the distances I travel in an average day, the “immeasurable heavens” of Laniakea, seem somehow surreal. But there’s another reason I like “You Are Here” maps. They appeal to me because they constitute such an obvious transition between reality and representation. The ones I like best include a representation of themselves – a little laminated noticeboard displaying the map is drawn on the map itself. This makes such maps feel like thresholds where you can almost witness the world metamorphosing into the symbols we use to try to catch and manipulate its elements. A “You Are Here” map pictured on a “You Are Here” map means that thing symbolized and symbol are for a moment co-existent, able to touch hands, exchange breaths, beckon us to walk between them as a kind of transubstantiation happens. Mapping, like writing, lets us translate the surge of sensation and information our existence brings, allows us to channel the raw impress of things upon us into tokens we can trade in the commerce of our cognitive transactions. This symbolic currency enables us to purchase some trace at least of sense – even if our little economies of scale are left bankrupt by amounts that overwhelm all the refinements and confinements of language.
Perhaps on some distant planet, in some distant time, there will be displayed a massive “You Are Here” map of such stupendous size and sophistication that everywhere can be marked, where the tokens of representation will somehow be underlain by a gold standard which means that they can be exchanged for the true coordinates of where whoever stands before them really is. It’s hard to judge whether looking at such a map would do more to terrify or enlighten us.
I realize, naturally, that “You Are Here” maps are drawn for routine, limited purposes – to help us get from the carpark to the bank, or find the track that leads to a mountain viewpoint; they’re not designed to plot our whereabouts beyond that. It would be unreasonable to expect them to show our position in the universe. They’re not interested in galaxies or superclusters, but rather how we can best walk or drive between nearby locations. I don’t doubt the usefulness of that. But, for me, such maps, as well as fulfilling their quotidian function, almost never fail to spark a sense of bizarre limitation in terms of where they say we are. Talk about not noticing the elephant in the room! You’d never guess from their little markers that in fact we’re on the surface of a spinning planet, formed some 4,500 million years ago, that it’s orbiting a giant burning star, part of a family of planets in a Solar System, located in a galaxy that’s one of countless others threaded through the immensity of a 13.8-billion-year-old universe. No, you are here, in the carpark, 500 yards from the bank. It’s maybe just a few minutes’ walk in that direction to the leisure centre – but how long did it really take me to get to this spot? That question prompts the lineage of Homo sapiens into mind, the long bloodline of which we’re a part. Behind any “You Are Here” lurks a journey that has extended over aeons.
I sometimes think of all the different “You Are Here” maps that must exist, how each person has a sense of where they are; our personal orientations of self and place. The maps we carry invisibly within us will be drawn according to the particular life-situations in which we find ourselves. There will, of course, be many similarities – because of the common ground of our essential biology – but considerable variation too. I sometimes think about my grandmother’s sense of where she was, how she would have understood the “You Are Here” arrow that pointed at her life. I doubt if she thought much outside the territory of her strong sense of local and familial placement. Beyond the immediate coordinates that did so much to define her – living, widowed, with three daughters on a farm eight miles from Belfast – did she have much sense of her whereabouts? The unsophisticated theology that informed her faith might have given her a few Biblical pointers. But I think it’s unlikely she thought of being on a planet spinning in space, one tiny particle in a universe of stupendous span and age. Even if she’d had time for star-gazing and daydreaming, astronomical knowledge at the time she lived was rudimentary compared to how it now is.
So long as we can get from one place to another in terms of navigating our everyday needs, does it matter what we think about where we are? How much, if at all, do our different senses of whereabouts influence the lives we lead? If you could lay them side by side, I suspect there would be significant differences between my grandmother’s “You Are Here” map and mine. No doubt mine will seem as primitive to those a century hence as hers strikes me today. But is there any reason to believe that my coordinates serve me any better than hers served the life she led? I’m reminded of the passage in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet when Dr Watson discovers that Sherlock Holmes “Was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.” Challenged about his ignorance of what Watson sees as fundamental knowledge, the great detective’s riposte is: “What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
In The Wild Places (2007) Robert Macfarlane writes:
“Maps organize information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way. They carry out a triage of its aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a landscape is perceived and treated.”
I think Macfarlane is correct about maps creating “forceful biases” in terms of the ways we read the world. He warns that we have fallen under the spell of roadmaps. By ignoring many features of the natural world, they exert “distortive pressure” on the imagination. The land is seen “only as a context for motorized transport” – an outlook that promotes “the elimination of wonder.”
Laniakean perspectives are a long way removed from any concern about our stewardship of the particular habitats we occupy on Planet Earth. They are seemingly remote from the many immediate threats that preoccupy environmentalists. But perhaps the usefulness of cultivating existential vertigo lies precisely in its boosting of wonder, in the way it can recalibrate a sense of just how wild the places are that we inhabit, however much we treat them as domesticated. Stand back from our routine “You Are Here” maps – whether they’re of a city-centre or a nature reserve – and think about where we really are beyond the snowglobe coordinates they give. Yes, that may cause feelings of angst and cosmic lostness, of complete individual insignificance, but it seems likely also to ignite a blazing sense of untamed wonderment.