Photo of the cover of the book 'Personal Geographies'

Maps to the Treasure

Last night something reminded me of hand-drawn treasure maps. X marks the spot. And Here be Dragons. I used to see them a lot in the sort of books I read as a kid in the sixties and seventies. Pirate maps, fantasy maps (Hyboria, Lemuria, Middle Earth…), science fiction maps (Barsoom and others), tropical archipelagos with seaplanes flying the mail routes between them. And especially the maps in Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons stories.

I could draw maps like that. Maps to places more exciting than where I lived. The sort of maps I drew in school when other kids were drawing the perfect wave, or hairstyles, or were passing embarrassing love notes.

Photo of the cover of the book 'Personal Geographies'
Personal Geographies By Jill K. Berry

On my to-be-read shelf is a book called Personal Geographies – Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, by Jill K. Berry. It’s been up on that shelf for several weeks, and all I’ve done is flip through it and look at the pretty pictures.

Today I took it with me to the beach in case it was too rainy to get out of the car, and I’d have some time to at least start reading the words.

Well, it was rainy, but I sat in the car and watched people taking learn-to-surf lessons in the rain (in the very spot where I had first learnt to ride a long-board back in the seventies). My wife skimmed the book while I watched the waves. She loved the pictures too.

Then the rain stopped and we went to Flat Rock and the light was gorgeous, and the waves rolled in green and perfect and smooth, and no-one ever surfs the south side of Flat Rock because the waves are too full. So I stood right out on the edge of the rock platform and gazed out at nothing but rolling sea, and cloudy rainswept sky, and I was happy.

Flat Rock beach in winter when the rain has driven less soulful people back inside
Flat Rock beach in winter when the rain has driven less soulful people back inside

When we got home, and finished dinner, and the TV news was on as (annoying) background noise, I tried the book again. I didn’t get very far this time either because when she started talking about Cartophiles, people who love maps, it reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

I remembered that my Mum used to send me postcards of maps when she was away on holidays, rather than pictures of people or buildings or whatever else most postcards show. She tells me that was the sort of postcard I liked most.

A small map postcard collection
A small map postcard collection

So I rummaged through the back of my wardrobe and found a stack of old cards and postcards. I really try not to hoard stuff, but some stuff is worth keeping. I found eleven map postcards that she sent me in the years 1988 and 1989, from a couple of long holidays she took after my sister and I had both left home to go to the big city to study.

Then I rummaged through my filing cabinet, and found an index-file labelled Maps of Home. All it contained was roughly drawn but obsessively dimensioned sketches I had made of the insides of various buildings I’ve lived in, and the sizes of the furniture that I was trying to somehow fit into the rooms. And a rough map of the garden plot where I now live, from when I was working out how much fencing wire to buy.

I had hoped the folder might have the hand-drawn map I remember making in my thirties when we first moved into a strange block of nearly 200 units in an old dockside inner suburb of Sydney.

Our 3rd floor unit faced into a narrow, sunlit and grassy central walkway with equally tall blocks of units facing us across the gap. At each end of the massed ranks of buildings were the main freeway overpasses into the center of the city. The sound was more like the wind, or the waves than anything resembling traffic.

I remember that I gave fanciful names to the different things I discovered while I explored our new surroundings. It was one of the earliest parts of Sydney to be settled by the White Colonial Invaders (i.e. us), and the peninsula had all sorts of old wharfs and warehouses and tiny ramshackle worker’s cottages, separated by winding backstreets.

The place I found the feral cat litter got a name on my map. The four small bushes we could see from our balcony were grandiosely labelled as a forest. The disused railway cutting got another fantasy-inspired name. These names wouldn’t mean anything to anyone but me, and the map wasn’t to scale anyway, but the names reminded me of my experiences in my new home turf. I hope I find that map again someday.

I haven’t got far through Jill Berry’s book, but it is inspiring me anyway. I’m thinking of drawing up a map of my childhood adventures, labelling all the special places that things happened to me. Places I learnt stuff. Places I did stuff. Places I found stuff. Where the villains hung out, and where the hiding places were.

This map won’t be to scale either, because the physical direction or distance between childhood places has nothing to do with the emotional relationships between them. These sorts of maps are more like journalling, or those crazy magical maps the early christian kingdoms used to draw, which always had Jerusalem in the centre, because that was what mattered, and monsters around the edges, because you can’t trust strangers.

What would you discover about what matters to you, if you drew it all out on a map like that? And if you followed your map to the big X, where might you end up?

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