Maps of Experience

by Jess Dandy

In episode 3 of Podpath, Martin Roscoe talked about his fascination with maps, and how as a young boy he loved to copy them in minute detail, trying to replicate the exact contours, the colours, the triangulation points, the fields, the footpaths, the bodies of water, the follies, the castles, the churches, the bridleways, and as I'm saying all of these things perhaps a landscape is forming in your mind's eye – images of those things from your own experience, fragments of maps, imaginings of the adventures that Martin has described. And you'll know that those fragments, those pieces of your own jigsaw puzzle, will overlap with others' to some extent, but will ultimately remain your own jumbled, imagined cartography.

In the first two episodes of PodPath, I spoke to psychotherapist Rufus Harrington about just how central journeying is to the human condition, and how our psychological experiences can be interpreted, and better understood through topographical metaphors: prisms of landscapes, mountains, obstacles, paths, routes lost and found, through which to see better the potential of our own lives. Dante’s Inferno begins in the dark wood – the sheer, primal terror of seemingly unmappable uncertainty, life irredeemably obscured; Frodo and Sam must climb Mount Doom, casting the One Ring, the concretisation of all that is dark about the world into its volcanic fires. Orpheus must journey through the Elysian fields down into the Underworld, down into what we might now see as The Cave of the Unconscious, to recover the beloved, or what he has projected to be so.

I love the taxonomy of maps; I love the clarity; the order; the attention to detail, the way in which I feel helped on my real journey by a sense of being enmeshed in the care, attention, and exactitude which has gone into the creation of an Ordnance Survey Map for example – even the soft creaking sound of its unfolding, the feel of its waterproof paper on my fingertips, the irritation of fitting it into a map holder, all of this is an automatic, learnt, almost ritualised reassurance.

The psychologist and trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk proposes 'that people carry an internal map of who they are in relationship to the world…that the brain continually forms maps of the world – maps of what is safe and what is dangerous. That becomes our memory system, but it’s not a known memory system like that of verbal memories.'

This cartography of experience, lived and ongoing, is not something an OS map can offer. Legend, from the latin ‘legere’ – to read – a map legend to read the landscape, but also a life legend, to read our inner landscapes, to find narrative arcs, meaning, complication, resolution, shape, pattern, interest, to become literate of our own lives. By telling these stories, by finding our way through, looking out for the Rufus’ Golden Thread within the labyrinth. Psychologists talk about our schema – those stories deeply embedded, buried in our experience, which underpin what happens on the surface, become our inadvertent means of navigation, the myths and legends of our own lives. What happens if we excavate those underground happenings? How might we create Maps of Experience, Wiser Mind Maps, if you like, which integrate all parts of our experience, which add new routes, and combine and revise the more well-trodden paths? Is there also a way to bring back the magic of the imagination, transforming space, allowing it to hold at once all times, all places, all lives.

The Cumbrian poet, Neil Curry, a fellow SongPath traveller, begins his poetic and lived pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela with a poem called 'New Maps for Old'.


While once they were allowed

Some flighty bits on the side,

Maps now look to be meaning

At its most monogamous:

No cherubs; no Here be Lions;

No galleons tilting in the bay.

Holding an increase in fact

To equal an increase in truth,

They ignore the traveller's need

To tell the lie of the land.

The traveller seems to be caught between a need for security, clarity, fixity, and the call of something far more nebulous, rhapsodic, amorphous – “the lie of the land” – our very boundaries pre-empting the irresistible act of crossing. Losing ourselves, abandoning ourselves, throwing caution to the wind, an unmapping of sorts, but a way down to a deeper kind of tethering.

So I'm inviting you to draw your own maps: to create your own legends. You could take as a starting point a very limited area of land – perhaps an area in which you grew up for example – map your experiences onto that topography. The formalised, consistent scale we associate with a standardised map will quite quickly become redundant, and that’s okay – this is a different kind of navigation. So which places or sites are particularly charged with resonance? What route did you take to school? You might remember a car journey you took with your parents on holiday – does Bognor Regis therefore somehow bleed into the white lines on the tarmac of the school playground, or the smell of museum sit in the corner of your dining room? What about your first trip on an aeroplane? Where did you go? And maybe you just can’t fathom the curveball significance of a blackberry bush at the end of the lane, a graphite stained pencil case, the smell of your first exercise book, the grass on the football pitch, one single leaf of grass and the miraculous viscosity of its ephemeral dew, how a particular cricket ball felt in your hand and the red stain that it left, your first tooth that fell out and where you were when it did so – how can we reconcile this topsy, turvy interplay of an infinite number of scales into our reality, and how might that look on a map? We’d love to see what you come up with – send your Maps of Experience to us via the form below or

stay connected, follow your thread, and keep walking the SongPath

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