Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Mapping our world

My novel The Scattering Winds is the second of a trilogy, of which the first book (In the Midst of Lions) is scheduled to be out this summer.  The setting of the trilogy is the Pacific Northwest.  In the first book, there's a worldwide collapse of civilization.  In the second, set six hundred years later, what's left of humanity has reverted to a new Dark Ages, mostly non-literate and non-technological.  In the third (The Chains of the Pleiades), six hundred years after that, technology and space flight have been re-invented -- along with all the problems that brings.

The main character of the second book, Kallian Dorn, comes from a people have lost the knowledge of reading, committing all of their culture's memory to the mind of one person, called the Guardian of the Word.  But when they find a girl from a distant town, a refugee, who knows the rudiments of reading and writing, they recognize what's been lost, and struggle, slowly, to reclaim it.  Kallian undertakes a voyage, on foot, to the girl's home town -- and finds there a mostly-intact library from what he calls "the Before Times."

The following takes place when Kallian, who by this time has learned the basics of how to read, discovers a room full of maps in the library:

He went into the first room he encountered. It was labeled “Maps.”  Holding the lamp aloft, he passed into a room filled with odd cabinets, most of which had very wide, shallow drawers.  The nearest one said, “North America,” and he set the lamp down to open the top drawer.

Sitting on top was a yellowed piece of paper, about an arm’s length wide and tall, with a drawing of… what was it?  He peered closer, and read the inscription at the top, written in an ornate, curly script he could barely decipher.  It said, “United States of America, The Year of Our Lord 1882.”  There were names written in smaller, but equally frilly, lettering, and gave him enough information to conclude that it was a drawing of a land, as if seen from above.  The faded blue bits were bodies of water: Lake Ontario.  The Caribbean Sea.  The Atlantic Ocean.  The green parts—well, they were only green in splotches, mostly they had faded to a yellowish-brown—were land.  He saw features like “Appalachian Mountains” and “Great Plains” and “Mississippi Delta.”  The land was divided by oddly artificial-looking black lines, some dead straight, others following natural features such as the course of rivers.  Each of the blocks thus delineated had a strange and unfamiliar name: Massachusetts.  New York.  Georgia.  Kentucky.

Had these been kingdoms of the Before Time?

1882—if he was correct about what the date-numbers signified, this would have been about a century and a half before the collapse, before the floods and plagues that had ended the old world.  And a full 750 years before now.

But where was this United States of America, with its bizarrely-named mountains and lakes and kingdoms?  Without a referent, without having an arrow on the map saying “You are here,” he had no way to know if it was a day’s march away or on the other side of the world.

He flipped through the maps in those and other cabinets, handling them carefully to keep the age-worn paper from crumbling in his hands.  His mind was overwhelmed with how many different lands there were—whole cabinets devoted to maps from places called Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia.  But even looking at them, as fascinating as it was, was not like reading the books he’d found, where meaning provided an anchor to keep him fastened to reality as he knew it.  Without a key, the maps gave him no way to tell scale or location of anything.  Learning to read had unlocked one type of cipher; here was an entirely different kind, one where even though he could read the words, they didn’t make sense.

I was reminded of this scene when I read an article yesterday in Science News about archaeologists who believe they've discovered the oldest-ever aerial-view scale drawings -- in other words, maps.  There are structures in the Middle East nicknamed "kites" that were huge stone-walled enclosures used to trap animals like gazelles, funneling their movements toward waiting hunters.  And a team of archaeologists working in Jordan and Saudi Arabia have found nine-thousand-year-old engravings on stones that appear to be maps of nearby kites -- perhaps made by people strategizing how best to use them in their game-harvesting efforts.

Map-making, when you think about it, is kind of an amazing accomplishment.  It requires changing your perspective, picturing what some thing -- a city, a body of water, a country, an entire continent -- would look like from above.  And even if to our modern eyes, when we can see what things look like from the air, old maps look pretty inaccurate, it's important to remember that they did it all by surveying from ground (or sea) level.

And given that, they did pretty damn well, I think.

A map of the world, ca. 1565 [Image is in the Public Domain]

The fact that we were doing this nine thousand years ago is kind of astonishing.  Intrepid folks, our ancestors.

So many of the things we do today, and consider "modern," have far deeper roots than we realize.  And this ability to shift perspective, to consider what things would look like from another angle, is something we've had for a very long time -- even if to someone like Kallian Dorn, the results look very like magic.


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