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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 13-Nov-2010

Edition: First

Section: News Review


Page: 18

Wordcount: 1792


The essay


Accuracy matters, as much for charting a dirt track along the dingo fence as for pinpointing a mediaeval English landmark.

THE story starts in the red-dirt border-town of Hungerford, population eight, that clings to the dingo fence like an oyster to your anchor-rope. We’re 1300 kilometres from Sydney, headed for Kilcowera, an organic cattle station (don’t snort; that’s what the lady says) from which we hope to view a massive “breeding event” involving 60,000 pelicans.

It’s August, and by three o’clock the light is weakening. The Kilcowera road is a dirt track off another dirt track off the slightly wider dirt track that is Hungerford’s main street, but it is clearly shown on the map a mere 94 kilometres distant. We have food, water, diesel and swags, and the station owner is expecting us – check – so we head happily off. This is the climax of much dusty travel.

But as the sun falls and the road roughens, the second turnoff, the one to Kilcowera, doesn’t appear. Anxiety starts to niggle. We drive on, as you do, reworking our calculations, until finally, 50 or 60 Ks past where the turnoff should have been, it’s decision point. We’re down to a quarter-tank of gas now and a half-hour of light, and what you don’t want out here is to hit a roo, any time, but especially at night. We turn around and head back to Hungerford.

When we arrive it is dark. The pub is the only lit building and inside half a dozen people are finishing dinner by a roaring log fire. “That road?” they laugh. “That road washed away years ago. The road to Kilcowera goes along the fence.” Next morning, the local copper, who presides alone over hundreds of square kilometres, confirms it. Our road doesn’t exist. “What map are you using?” he asks.

What map indeed. Next morning we lay out our map collection. There are three of this area, and each shows a different version – tracks branching, stopping and continuing – but not one corresponds precisely either to our experience or to the official view that the road we were on doesn’t exist. The two we were not using, however, show an alternative route to Kilcowera, which is how we finally get to our second great breeding-event disappointment.

A subsequent check of the city map shop, with its six other touring and outback maps, reveals a similar split; of the six, half have it right and the other half – the other three – show exactly three different ways of being wrong.

On the face of it, the discrepancies are minute. You have to concentrate even to find the hair-fine, dotted lines that represent these roads. But the principle is significant since, under only slightly different circumstances, or different emotional

frames, these could be the discrepancies – the errors – of life and death.

And it’s this that sets me wondering. Why, in Australia, do we put up with such lousy maps? Britain has the wonderful Ordnance Survey maps whose pinpoint accuracy – mapping every mediaeval barrow and bridle path – gives them the thrill and power of genuine created art. You have to try quite hard to get lost in Britain, so our need is, if anything, greater.

Why – in a land so hostile that getting lost can easily be fatal, where our safety-obsession makes schools think twice about trees and play equipment – isn’t it simply illegal to produce or sell maps that aren’t 100 per cent accurate? What about duty of care? Do mapmakers carry liability? Or is it, simply, that the dead don’t sue?

I know what you’ll say: GPS; maps are obsolete because we all have electronic satellite hook-ups at our fingertips. And that’s fine. No doubt we should have taken one on our Kilcowera trip.

But machines break down. They lose battery power. They get wet. They get dropped. They fall in campfires. They fail. So you’d be crazy not to have hard-copy back-up. And actually, it’s not even that. If maps are being sold, they should be accurate.

There’s also a respect issue. Much of Australia’s history is about mapping. People died getting accurate geo-data of this continent. It wasn’t just Burke and Wills. All the early explorers were mapping as they went. And their motivation wasn’t just the evil urge to colonise. Mapping was, and is, a way of grappling cognitively with the land, of seeing it as a worthy antagonist, of ending its dominion over us, if not necessarily achieving dominion over it.

In this effort to apprehend the land, European mapping traditions – much like traditional Aboriginal painting – depicted world view, as much as world. A stone-carved 6th century BC Babylonian map, or imago mundi, puts Babylon predictably dead centre but vagues-out around its edges to islands “where the winged bird ends not his flight” and “a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer”. Early Christian mappae mundi, drawn on vellum, also look like calf innards, with Britain squashed in like some forgotten stomach at the bottom left-hand corner, Jerusalem at world’s centre and a verdant Garden of Eden nested somewhere in Asia.

The same refusal to separate the physical from the mental, the utilitarian from the spiritual, or the “real” from the symbolic distinguishes Aboriginal painting. It’s not that they don’t see the difference, rather that they do see the continuities. So indigenous paintings of dreaming tracks and waterholes, spirit people and battles and campsites are closer to what we would call “cognitive mapping” – drawings of our mental maps – only richer. Deeper.

The anthropologist Peter Sutton writes that in traditional Aboriginal thought, there is “no nature without culture”. No distinction between domesticated landscape and wilderness, or between inside and outside. “This type of art,” he says, “is centred on linked points marked by their social and religious significance in human affairs, not on their appearance.” He quotes a Cape York man insisting that “the land is a map!”

The land itself is an artefact of mind. The land is story. Hence the idea of song lines, mapping the lines of energy in the land just as acupuncture theory maps them in the body.

Dr Vandana Shiva, this year’s Sydney Peace Prize laureate, puts the “rape and torture” model of humanity’s relationship with nature on Francis Bacon, whose book The Masculine Birth of Time (1603) set out to establish “a new masculine science of the scientific revolution”.

But, for at least a couple of centuries before Bacon, attitudes had been shifting this way, from land-as-mother to land-as-property. Edward I’s land statutes, in particular the Quia Emptores provision of 1290, had made land transfer suddenly commercial, rather than feudal. And to be sold, land had to be drawn; by the early 15th century, Britain had full-time land-use lawyers and a proto land-use map of grazing rights. Mapping had moved from the subjective and impressionistic to become an exercise in objective, shared knowledge.

In 1575 Lord Burleigh and the Privy Council commissioned Christopher Saxton to survey the whole of England and Wales. Conferring rights of access to “unto any towre Castle highe place or hill to view that countrey”, they produced the series of cadastral maps that, showing clear and accurate land titles, quickly formed the basis for a system of development applications.

And much as postmodernism might argue that all maps are constructs and that accuracy is illusory, it is quite clear that, for us, a map is not just a diagram. Accuracy is all. Indeed, accuracy can feed imagination quite as much as hinder it. Dr John Snow’s famous 1854 map of cholera clusters around London’s Broad Street water-pump was instrumental not only in ending the outbreak, but in developing germ theory.

Of course, there’s accuracy and accuracy. Maps of Australia typically show a continent a-shimmer with rivers and streams and Lake Mungo – dry as – surrounded by wavy blue “swamp” lines. But in fact, 99 per cent of the time, such drawings are nothing but charming (or perhaps wishful) lies, even when the symbols are keyed as, say, “intermittent watercourse”. Poetic licence be damned; in a map, accuracy is all.

And yes, I suppose this is where I confess. I’m a mapaholic, and it is absolutely the objective nature of the thing that attracts me. I once tried to persuade the City of Sydney to produce an underground map, showing the vast and mysterious network of caverns and tunnels beneath our city, like the catacombs map of Paris, and of course it proved impossible. But still, wherever I travel – asphalt or dust, train or car – I like to stitch the sense-data of hill climb and river crossing onto the abstraction on my knee.

Part of it is what maps are seen to be for. The British Ordnance Survey began in 1791 in response to a feared French invasion. Not just any invasion, either; revolutionary invasion. The survey was an immense undertaking but only accurate geo-data, realised Prime Minister Pitt-the-Younger (after whom Pittwater was named), would allow them to mount a reliable defence.

These days Ordnance Survey, although still government-owned, is a self-funding £100 million ($160 million) organisation at the forefront of ebusiness, offering base maps for everything from London bicycle hire to bird watchers to secret army bases. You can even build your own digital map from existing data layers.

But the point is that clear, accurate and detailed mapping – showing every building footprint and fence line, every well and windmill, every bridge, track, scarp and contour, so that you can read at a glance not only where land is occupied but how it is occupied and (this is crucial) how it feels – is more than just a rich store of shared information. It is a communal poetic, facilitating an intimacy between humans and their substrate that is unique and, in its minute adoration of detail, almost mythic.

The intimate knowledge represented by OS maps underlines this interiority. Obliterating the distinction between map and plan, such maps make the land conceivable, mouldable, loveable and contestable as artefact, the record of time past making a guide for time future.

Can such an approach work in a country like ours that is largely wilderness? More significantly, can we afford to leave our country inadequately mapped?

Aboriginal paintings are, in essence, a system of title, establishing totemic boundaries that were defended against all comers, sometimes to the death. The song lines cast across the landscape a net of knowledge that was intimately known and bequeathed: forgetting was a mortal crime because ignorance was a mortal error.

By contrast, our casual approach to mapping the continent suggests a thin and perfunctory sense of ownership. Perhaps a deep connection with this country will continue to elude us while “she’ll be right, mate” remains our anthem.




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