If you ever ponder a map of the world, one of the little mind games you might play is to look at the most remote places and wonder what they’re like, or why anyone ever lived there. Rapa Nui (Easter Island), or those tinier little dots in the Pacific… Indeed, a lot of the most remote little countries are Polynesian. I have been fascinated by Polynesia since I randomly took a course on Literature of the Pacific at UNSW. An amazing, robust and highly “advanced” culture was established in places like Hawaii, long before a Spanish dude first stumbled across the Marquesas. As emphatically noted in a book I’m reading, The Wayfinders, settlement of Polynesia by its first inhabitants involved determined and visionary exploration by a race of master navigators (although the author of the Wayfinders doesn’t believe in race, so probably wouldn’t use that word). Imagine being part of the group that packed pigs and possessions into catamaran and set off from your island home with the purpose of finding an as yet undiscovered replacement, and never returning. These people had no instruments, no sextants (everyone’s favourite mysterious seafaring term), and a strong Easterly current that persists throughout most of the year that convinced earlier Europeans that the Polynesians must have originated from the west – South America. They did not. They came from New Guinea, but had a better knowledge of the trade winds than many European explorers.
In The Wayfinders, Wade Davis shares this anecdote about that bonza bloke Captain Cook, one of the few earlier explorers, according to Davis, who really “got it” about the Polynesians:
In 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest, Tupaia, who drew a map from memory of every major island group in Polynesia, save Hawaii and Aotearoa (NZ). More than 120 stones were placed in the sand, each a symbol of an island across a span of more than 4,000 kilometres from the Marquesas in the East to Fiji in the West, a distance equal to the width of the continental United States. On a journey with Cook of nearly 13,000 kilometres from Tahiti to New Zealand, he was able to indicate at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.
A map in his mind, that was passed down as cultural inheritance. A different way to learn the world. Looking at the map I’ve posted above, which reconstructs the original journeys to settle Polynesia, I feel amazement that New Zealand was first inhabited only about a thousand years ago, whereas it’s nearest neighbour Australia was inhabited for something like 40,000 years, with the Aboriginal people believed to have been the first group to walk out of Africa. A kind of geographical joke of juxtaposition. But the Polynesians kind of took the long way around.
In my life, I’ve known three kinds of people who love maps. Firstly there are those who “love maps”. They like to say this because it aligns them with some kind of intellectualism. They will often be heard saying that they love maps. Secondly, there are the people who actually love maps, and they’re a bit like the first group, because they say they love maps an awful lot. You will know they are in group two though because they are not wankers. There is a lot to love about maps no doubt, when I think about their appeal, I feel it in the depth and breadth of sheer novelty. I’m of the opinion that the intelligent mind has an endless thirst for the kind of novel information that an array of unknown place names provides. It thrills us to behold, for example, that even if we could never leave Australia again, there would still be Inveresk and Forth and Fingal, and the adventures that could go with them.
The third kind of map lover probably won’t talk much about loving maps, because maps are not a fetish item for them, but as for our friend Tupaia, an integrated worldview. My father-in-law goes in this category. Upon reaching a new place, if there is any map or cartographic resource, he will practically sprint across to it, often seeming to have completed the important part of his experience of a location after seeing its layout. Even in the children’s section of the Botanical Gardens, no map goes unviewed. If asked for directions, he will use terms like “head south for 500 metres” when a simple “turn right” would do. I remember him once saying something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people don’t even know what direction their house faces”, as if to say that they wouldn’t know what day it was. This is a very singular and endearing trait, fuelled by a keen spatial intelligence that eludes me.
I am going to say that I rather like maps. It’s the second category I’d be closest to. The novelty-seeking brain. Today I think I’ve navigated myself out of a mess that that brain had drawn me into. Inspired by Beth and by my own dis-ease with my smartphone-brain augmentation, Richard and I have agreed on a rule of no non-utilitarian smartphone use during the waking hours of the kids. It can be a map, it can be a phone, but it cannot be an open faucet of information and amusement, preventing us from ever experiencing a moment of boredom or contemplation or sub-optimal use of mental faculties. Because if we’ve evolved this long with down time and boredom and not instantly knowing who that guy in that movie was, then maybe there’s something important about not being so mentally stimulated all the time. Survived one day. I wonder how I’d fare on a catamaran trip of 13,000 kilometres into the unknown. The idea captivates me.