Read an Excerpt
Charts and Other Fiction
Some of my earliest memories are of games I used to play with my father on long winter evenings, the two of us hunched over a table in our living room studying the charts for the next sailing trip he was always planning for the family during his upcoming holiday. Armed with a pencil and a set of parallel rules, we would set sail on imaginary voyages across the bays of summer, marking off distances and estimated times of arrival, checking depths and the location of buoys, poking into coves, making plans.
The thing I remember most about my father's charts was the way they set us free. They were like novels without characters: settings in which we were the actors and the creators of our own episodes. They contained fabulous worlds, and we lived in them like supermen, traveling through their benign geography as if we were invincible.
There seemed no reason, then, to worry about the dangers that might have been lurking somewhere within the games we played. The games themselves seemed harmless enough. In fact, they seemed a perfect way for a little boy and his father to share a few pleasant hours together. I wasn't concerned at the time about the inconsistencies between the charts and the actual geography they were intended to represent. I wasn't thinking about the real bays of summer: the ones with uncharted ledges and misplaced buoys and currents that flowed in opposite directions to the ones predicted by the cartographers.
As a child I learned to roam across the worlds of my father's charts careless and free. But I didn't learn about their limitations. I didn't realize that nautical charts, like all maps, are only guidebooks: fictitious renderings of a world perceived by imperfect human beings, never identical with the actual places they describe. I learned about the wealth of information the charts contained. But I didn't learn that they were also filled with oversights and half-truths and miscalculations. This realization has taken many years to learnyears of trial and error, summers of close calls, winters of near catastrophe when I've made the mistake of trusting the chart spread out before me, only to discover that the cartographer must have been half asleep the day he drew this line or marked that shoal or measured such and such a distance.
Nautical charts suffer from a basic flaw: the flaw of scale. They are complicated, often powerful abstractions of the actual world, but they are notcannot beidentical with that world. The terrain they attempt to map is too large and too complex. To be useful at all, they must reduce and simplify.
The Polish-American mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot once asked an odd question whose implications may have forever changed the face of modern mathematics: "How long is the coast of Britain?" The answer, he argued, is not to be found on any chart. In fact, the answer is not to be found in any conclusive way at all, at least not with the tools of measurement that we have presently available to us.
The reason for this apparent dilemma has to do with scale. Imagine a cartographer armed with a measuring device one meter in length. He paces off the coastline in question one meter at a time, traveling in and out of bays, across rocky headlands, over river deltas, until he comes up with a total number of meters. Now imagine the same cartographer with a much shorter measuring device, say one centimeter in length. This time as he remeasures the distance, his total will include more detail. His new "coastline" will include pebbles and rocks that were ignored in his first calculation, and the resulting answer will be somewhat greater.
What Mandelbrot discovered was that there seemed to be no limit to the length of the coastline, providing only that the scale of measurement could be made smaller each time. A microscopic measuring stick would reveal as yet undetected bays and promontories that would, when measured on a smaller scale, contain ever smaller bays and promontories, all the way down to subatomic scales (and possibly beyond). The point he was trying to convey, as a mathematician, had to do with the tendency of certain apparently chaotic natural phenomena (such as "coastlines") to repeat complex patterns across scale. But what he also managed to show was the impossibility of anyone's ever drawing a perfectly accurate chart of any real coastline anywhere on Earth.
Chart makers, all of them, are the purveyors of our collective nostalgia for order and simplicity. They are players in a con-game whose performance is so convincing that we are, at least momentarily, blinded to the underlying dishonesty of their craft. Each line a chart maker draws is an approximation. Each location is a calculated guess. Each measurement is a hypothetical proposition whose accuracy is based partially on the calibration of the measuring device, partially on the attentiveness of the one who reads the scale.
Even when we know such things, however, we seem willing to suspend our disbelief. We want things simple. We want to think that we can comprehend the world that the chart represents. So we accept the chart maker's fictionwe welcome his lie.
I remember the first time I was forced to question the chart maker's world. I was eleven years old. For two summers I'd been learning how to sail with my father and uncles and older cousins in a small wooden dinghy in the river in front of my grandmother's house. Finally, I was given permission to sail the boat on my own. I wasn't allowed to venture out around Stone Point into Buzzards Baythe seas were too rough out there, my father warned, and the afternoon winds were too strong. But I could sail in the river and investigate its creeks and coves to my heart's content. I was given the key to the boathouse where the dinghy was kept and a chart of the river, and I was set free to unravel the mysteries of a miniature world that seemed to me as large as all the seven seas.
The river, at first, felt strange and dangerous. Directly in front of my grandmother's house, between her beach and the cottages on Cromeset Point, was an irregular heap of broken granite rubble called the Channel Rocks. A quarter mile upriver was Indian Cove, marked on its southern flank by a sentinel boulder and surrounded by a series of shallow underwater ledges. In the first bend of the river was a low, muddy island of eelgrass flats that I had visited several times in a skiff to collect fiddler crabs for fishing. Beyond the island lay a series of shallow bays fringed with scrub pine and marsh grass, and beyond these were the twin highway bridges, a broken pier, and a half dozen gray shingle buildings: the last signs of human habitation before the river narrowed and twisted into a dark, unruly forest of pine and beech and pin oak.
My first attempts at navigating the river were tentative in the extreme. I studied my chart and kept as well as I could to mid-channel. All the obvious dangersthe Channel Rocks, the boulders and ledges at Indian Cove, the eelgrass shallows near the muddy islandwere marked on the chart, and I gave each one a wide berth. I sailed on mornings when the weather was clear and the winds were light, increasing the range of my travels only as I grew familiar with major landmarks and with the look and feel of the river.
Familiarity is the enemy of care, however, and my boldness grew with the summer. The inevitable day of reckoning came in the last week of August when a cousin arrived at my grandmother's house for a visit. He had seldom sailed the river and knew even less than I did about its secrets, yet his presence gave me courage. He took the chart, I took the tiller, and we set off on the bottom of a flood tide one windy afternoon to explore all the way to the river's headwaters, promising our parents only that we would be home by dinnertime.
The upriver leg was easy. The wind was at our backs, and the current flooded strong in midstream. The boat seemed to fly on invisible wings as we ran past Indian Cove, around muddy island, under the highway bridge, past the last of the summer cottages, and into the cool shadows of the river's upper reaches.
But the homeward leg was a different story. Now the wind was ahead, and the only way to work the boat back downriver was to trim the sheet close-hauled and sail in a zigzag course across the channel. In the deep water the flooding tide now became our foe, and whatever progress we managed to make while we were in the relatively still water near the shore was quickly negated each time we were forced to cross the stream. It soon became apparent that if we hoped to get home by the time we'd promised, we were going to need to keep to the shallows and short-tack down the edges of the river.
The first rock we hit resounded against the wooden dagger board and sent a shudder through the hull that threw me forward against a thwart and skinned my knee. My cousin laughed; I got angry. "Watch the chart," I yelled. "You're the navigator!"
The next rock glanced off the dagger board and caught under the heel of the rudder. The boat stopped dead in the water, and I hollered out my anger again.
"Okay, you read the chart," my cousin cried. "I can't figure it out."
We changed places, and I stared at the map as the boat gathered way, pointing my finger in a direction that I thought would lead us out of danger. A minute later we bounced off another rock, and another. My anger turned to frustration, then confusion, then fear. I stared at the chart. There were no rocks indicated in this cove, just a broken line where the marsh grass met the water and a single sounding somewhere in the middle. I began to suspect that nobody had ever really tried to map this part of the river. Either thator else we were lost, and I was looking at the wrong section of the chart altogether.
"Try over there," I said, pointing across to the opposite shore. "I think we might've missed a turn." My cousin's laughter trickled to a groan as the boat shuddered and ricocheted off another boulder.
An hour later, after the dagger-board trunk had split apart and a seam had started to open along the keel, neither of us was laughing any longer. The dinghy was sinking. I had long since discarded the chart in favor of a bailing scoop. I tried to keep ahead of the leaks while my cousin sailed randomly among the shallows at the river's edge and the boat literally beat itself to pieces against a maze of hidden dangers.
Our progress was snail-like. The sun dropped below the tops of the trees, their long, purple shadows growing across the surface of the water, and I began to cry. Not so much out of fear, I think, as out of frustration and shame. I had placed my faith in a tool that had failed me. I had broken the trust I'd been givenand now I'd broken the boat as well.
When my father showed up just before dark in the fishing skiff to tow us back home, I could barely look him in the eye. But for some reason he didn't seem angry. He throttled back the outboard engine as he pulled alongside, and he peered down at the water rising in our bilges. "Looks like you boys have had a pretty rough afternoon," was all he said.
I started trying to explainabout the headwind, the contrary current, the chart that didn't work.
"Seems you've learned a lesson or two," he observed, nodding his head in sympathy. He tossed me a short length of towing line to tie around the cleat in the bow. "Sit in the stern and bail while I tow you slow. It's time to get home. Your mother has dinner waiting."
I've learned a few important things about nautical charts in the forty-odd years that have passed since that difficult afternoon in the river in front of my grandmother's house. I've learned that in order to use charts properly, you must be willing to move through the world they describe with a fair degree of uncertainty. You must treat the charts with respectfor often they contain the only available clues as to the shape of the territory ahead. But you must also learn to regard them with a lively skepticism: a kind of buffer zone of doubt that you wear about your being like an invisible suit of armor and that you use to test the actual data of your experience.
Credulity and skepticism: strange bedfellows. Taken together, they often result in an even stranger cast of mind, an irreverent perspective on the world in which the things you presume to knowall of themtake on a kind of compelling beauty and internal logic even as they also smack of the irrational and the absurd.
Nautical charts were my introduction to just such an irreverent cast of mindone that I've lived with, for better or for worse, ever since. They were the first maps I ever came to love, and the first I learned to mistrust. To this day they contain an irresistible magnetism for me. They describe a world full of mystery and truth, a credible world that I find myself voyaging across with careless abandon on dark winter eveningseven as they also describe a world flawed and incomplete, of places that have never been and never will be.
And what about all the other maps that we as human beings have created in our efforts to make sense of our experience? What about the empirical maps created by our scientists? Or the temporal maps drawn by our historians? Or the metaphysical maps described by our philosophers? Or the spiritual maps preached by our ministers and rabbis and systematized by our theologians?
Are these maps any different, really, from the nautical charts I learned to love and mistrust as a child? Are any of them to be accepted, uncritically, as statements about what is rather than as propositions about what might be? Are any without error or omission? Are any so carefully wrought as to be able to stand the tests of time and experience without need of revision?
For one with an irreverent cast of mind, the answer to such questions is obvious. Once you've started wondering about maps, once you've started testing, comparing, editing, revising, the need for such a process becomes increasingly apparent and the process itselffor all the maps you usebecomes inevitable. You affirm and you doubt. You accept and you question. You defend and you challenge. You study each new map with all the care and attentiveness you can, and you proceed like a blind person stumbling down a twisted path littered with all manner of dangers and booby traps and dead-ends.
Tonight I sit in my study and unroll a new set of nautical charts that I've just purchased for an upcoming voyage, and I begin the process once more. As the last of the winter light disappears from the window before me, I sail north, relentlessly north, across a fantasy landscape that I suspect may not exist, searching for the bays of next summer.
I wonder what stark and beautiful places I will visit in the coming months. I wonder about their color, their texture, their scale. I wonder what songs the wind will sing in their empty hills and what rhythms the surf will beat against their shores. I wonder what dangers will be hidden in their bays and sounds: both the ones the chart makers have already determined and the ones they have not.
The real voyage begins in June. Just as others that have come before, this one, too, will be an opportunity to encounter the worldnot only the world as the chart makers would have us understand it but the world as it actually is. It will be a time for me and the others who sail with me to touch and taste and listen and watch: to gather the evidence of our own senses, the way all sailors must when they journey to a new and unfamiliar coast. It will be a chance for us to test our nautical chartsalong with all the other maps our culture has provided to help us make sense of our experienceand to assess for ourselves their truth.