I just got back from my morning walk. I’ve been trying to make it a habit to start every day with a hike to get out of my mind and into the world. When I spend too much time in books and at my computer screen, I get trapped in my own abstractions.
Not far from our apartment, at the edge of a super market parking lot, I have discovered the entrance to a network of walking and biking trails that follow retired railway tracks that used to crisscross Edinburgh. Just a few steps behind the shopping-card collection point, I can disappear into a serene realm of urban forest and mossy railway tunnels. These former train tracks run in a hollow below city level and are shielded from the surrounding houses by stone walls, with only very few opportunities for entry and exit. So, once you’ve entered, you’re completely disconnected from the city around you.
What makes it even more surreal for me is that my map of Edinburgh is an automotive map, which ignores pedestrian routes, so that I never know where I am until I find an exit from the trail and reenter a residential neighborhood with roads and street names. I love doing this: getting lost in a city and tracing the connection between map and reality. I’m always thrilled by the contrast between the landscape laid out in grids and colors on paper or screen and my actual experience of a place as I walk through it.
The name “Ocean Terminal” for instance, which appears on my map in black print on a pink square beside the purple waters of the Port of Leith, near the intersection of Lindsay Road and North Junction Street, evoked in my mind the image of distant waters stretching out into the unknown, and - I must have read too much Tolkien –a place for elves to gather for departure to new lands. When I actually reached it, it turned out to be a large shopping center with an attached parking garage and a 12-screen cinema complex. And still I can’t help feeling that somewhere at the essence of the shopping center must lie an elfish harbor.
And then there’s The Water of Leigh, which I romantically imagined as medieval stream meandering through the city of Edinburgh, which, in fact, it is. But in the past two years climate changes have caused it to the misbehave and flood the city, so that engineers have decided to dig out the old embankments and replace them with higher barriers. At the spots where the work is in progress, the water is being diverted into pipes to allow big bulldozers to dig trenches for the concrete blocks that will protect the city from future flooding. In a few years, when the work is completed and the new barriers are covered again in grass and trees, the illusion of ancient stream will be restored. But I now know that every bend and waterfall on that river has in fact been planned by city engineers.
I find it awe-inspiring: this human power to dominate our environment and tame the landscape by building houses, cities, dams, and roads, and then reduce it all to maps that we can put into our pocket or computer.
And nowadays we can even go further and incorporate ourselves into the maps on smartphones with GPS where you can observe yourself moving trough the landscape as a blue dot on the map in real time. That’s when it becomes really unclear where the abstraction ends and reality begins!