Of Songs and Maps

A few years ago while rabbit hunting on unfamiliar territory less than an hour from home we made a bad judgement call.  We had been following a creek through the woods which serpentined its way through the trees.  Having followed it for some distance with little or no action we decided to head back toward the trucks and instead of following back the path we had travelled we took a more direct route – so we thought – back to the parking spot.  What we didn’t realize was that while the creek was snaking its way through the woods it was also steadily curving away from us.  We realized our error when five camouflaged men with shotguns and a pack of hounds turned up behind a residential neighborhood.  It took some gumption for two of our number to go and knock on someone’s door and admit that we were lost.  The lady of the house (after enjoying the humor of the moment) was kind enough to give them a ride back to the trucks a couple of miles away.  That was the moment that I first decided to buy a GPS unit.

It’s not only helpful, it’s important to know where you are.  So now, wherever I am, I pretty much know exactly where I am within about 30 feet.  I have a hand-held GPS for the woods, a dash mounted GPS for the truck and a GPS App on my phone.  It would be pretty hard to get lost now.

Knowing one’s place in the world has always been important for mankind for numerous reasons.  As nomads it was important to know routes and mountain passes and pastures and water holes.  As settlers it was necessary to know one’s boundaries.  Good fences, it is said, make for good neighbors.

This month our Reading Group read Bruce Chatwin’s unique travelogue “The Songlines”.  It is a fascinating book – partly a fictionalized account of his experience and part ruminations from his years of journaling about nomadic people, which at one point in time, he was trying to organize into a book.  Sadly he never did.

ImageThe songlines are also known as The Way Of The Law to the indigenous people of Australia known collectively as aborigines but as diverse as the nations of Europe or Africa.  It appears that the main songlines originate in the north or northwest of the country and weave their way southward across the continent.  Chatwin speculates that these lines represent the travels of the first settlers who came to Australia.  Whatever they represent, however, one thing is certain; the traveler moving along a songline knows exactly where he is at any given point in time.  They are called songlines because the journey is undertaken by song.  Every part of the song represents a specific feature of the landscape during the journey.  The song is passed down from generation to generation and the songlines (which often intersect) represent territorial boundaries also.  These songlines were also the means of trade between various people groups.  A fascinating and complex system of mapping one’s environment and interacting with one’s neighbors in a way that is baffling to the western mind.

Conversely, we are used to seeing printed maps which would be meaningless to the Australian Aborigine.  In my early years I was (and still am) fascinated by the detailed maps of Britain know as the Ordnance Survey maps.  A book “Map Of A Nation” has recently been written by Rachel Hewitt on the creation of these maps.

Image The OS maps found their origin in the effort to subjugate the Scottish Highlanders after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie etc.).  The efforts of the map makers were further encouraged by the threat of Napoleonic invasion and ultimately the whole of Britain was mapped in remarkable detail.  Like the songlines traveler, a person armed with an OS map of the area they are in, a vantage point from which to see the lay of the land and some basic map reading skills would be hard pressed to get lost.  I recall using OS maps as part of our fieldcraft exercises on the moors of Devon during my years in the Air Training Corps.  Streams, woods, hills, churches, farmhouses, roads and even footpaths are clearly marked.  The maps are a delight to use and to study (well, maybe I’m just a wee bit geeky like that).

This particular sample even shows the individual trees!  Seriously – how could you get lost?  We’ve come a long way from the songlines and navigating by the sun and stars to global positioning satellites and GPS units with the ability to see aerial views of our friends homes on the other side of the world, but the one thing that has remained constant is our need to be able to answer the question, “Are we there yet?”