Saturday, August 9, 2008

wilderness: the edge of the map is in the middle

I've just read Shaun Tan's latest book, Tales From Outer Suburbia. Lovely! It is so strongly reminiscent of suburban Melbourne I can't help but feel Shaun was brought up down the street from me. One of my favourite stories tells of two young boys off to seek the end of the street-directory. What is beyond the edge of the map? After travelling for hours into outer, outer suburbia, past countless shopping plazas and endless suburban streets, as the sun sets they find out. I won't say what they find out, you can read the story yourself.

The edge of the map is a fascinating concept. Behind the cricket nets, the Antarctic, a secret passage, the ocean's depths. Maps don't reach everywhere. Has Google ruined this? Of course I am amazed at the technology that allows me to zoom in to satellite images from a computer anywhere in the world, or to trace a path I have followed through the wilderness or the alps. I am slightly unsettled by the view of suburban streets Google offers. It seems like every place is Google-able, even my front door and private (!?) back garden.

On more careful reflection, even Google stops somewhere. For instance, where are the web pages that a Google search doesn't find? When I search for a document using an English keyword millions of non-English pages are ignored. They lie in a document-wilderness, a hidden place or faraway space. This is true of all literature, all communication, and all ways of thinking that I am unable to interpret. All this information buzzes around my head but I am blind to it.

Whilst it may show the South Coast track in Tassie from above, Google is blind to the muddy creek crossings, the bountiful waterfalls, the massive towering gums. Google misses the subterranean drains, the hollow trees. In fact, Google Earth misses so much of the Earth. If its not on the map is it there? What is it? I'd say this is wilderness.

Wilderness then is all around us, especially under our noses. It is right in the middle of the maps we view. Wilderness lies in between things on the map, as well as off its edges. An evocative book by Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, travels the UK in search of local wilderness. These are places that have fallen off the daily map. As people become dependent on different maps, the places unmapped become wilderness left to discover. Wilderness lies between your home and your workplace... when was the last time you stopped your car, got out, and walked around out there? I bet you travel through this wilderness every day, never stopping. Can't see wilderness? Just take a look at the end of your street.

Afterthought: If something isn't mapped but it needs looking after, who will do so? Who will look out for the unclassified organisms? The unmapped forests? Will they die a lonely, quiet death under the developer's bulldozer?

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