Cartographic omissions

The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers. But maps organise 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.

It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exercise a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas. The first road atlas of Britain was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby. It was a six-volume work, which claimed to be the only ‘Ichnographical and Historical Description of all the Principal Road-ways in England and Wales’. Ogilby’s maps showed a scrupulous attention to landscape detail: they depicted not only roads, but also the hills, rivers and forests that the roads ran round, along, through and over.

In the centuries since Ogilby’s innovation, the road atlas has grown in ubiquity and influence. Over a million are sold in Britain and Ireland each year; twenty million are thought to be in circulation at any one time. The priorities of the modern road atlas are clear. Drawn by computers from satellite photos, it is a map that speaks of transit and displacement. It encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.

Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, pp. 8-9) discusses how maps can impact the way we perceive a place. This goes well beyond the map not being the territory. A map, like any good model, is wrong, but useful. For driving one place to another, a road map is a useful model. But maps are also a sort of language, and the language we use can influence the way we think.

Road maps are designed to be task-focused. They allow you to plan a route from Point A to Point B. Turn-by-turn navigation does this job even better. Road maps and turn-by-turn navigation are successful because leave out a great deal of information, but what is left out changes our perception. Instead of being aware of the surrounding landscape, we’re aware only of our own route through it, focused only on the blue line that draws us forward toward our destination. Everything else drops away.

The road map is only one way of representing a landscape. For the traveller who merely wants to move through the landscape, it is probably the right tool. For the traveller for whom the journey is the landscape (perhaps this is an explorer, not a traveller), there are other maps that show what road maps have left out: the topography, the history, the ecology, the geology. Of course, there is also everything that no map shows, and that’s where things start to get exciting.