The advantage of writing from experience is that it often provides you with details that you would never think of yourself, no matter how rich your imagination. And specificity in description is something every writer should strive for. – Christopher Paolini
Geography is a subject I never connected with at school, although you could say that for most of my other subjects as well. Memorize the text, ace the test was my approach. And then forget it all.
I do remember drawing on and colouring in a sheet of paper with a border and symbols that represented things. Trees, roads, rivers, bridges. And contours – those lines that said you had come across a slope and the closer the lines the steeper the scramble.
Maps seem important to people. A book on the war in Burma described how a General would draw a map by hand of the terrain so he could understand where things were. O.G.S Crawford, in his book Said and done: The autobiography of an archaeologist writes about how “maps are an alternative mode of expression, a method of conveying information that cannot be conveyed by any other means.” In our world of global positioning we rarely use maps as they were intended – when did you buy your last map?
Perhaps having a map helps you find your way but making a map helps you see. I started reading the Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S Beagle which, if you recall, was published in 1846 by Charles Darwin.
Have a read of the following extract:
“The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires of a past age, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun, have in most places rendered the soil unfit for vegetation. The country rises in successive steps of table-land, interspersed with some truncate conical hills, and the horizon is bounded by an irregular chain of more lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”
That is a map in words, and Darwin’s descriptions continue, intricate and detailed, using the right word in the right place to the right effect. Reading Darwin, one wonders whether modern writing will ever read this way – it’s hard to imagine anyone dedicating the time that’s needed to describe what they see to this level of detail.
They don’t need to, you might think. In those days all that people had were the words they put down and the drawings they made. Now we have photographs and video and everything is recorded. But although we have it this media we also have nothing at all. If you stood where Darwin stood on the 16th of January 1832 and took a picture of Porto Praya would anything in that picture have conjured up the image that the extract above brought to mind? Do we need the description, the map, to really see what is in front of us? Do we need to draw it for ourselves to really pay attention?
Good description is about attention. About seeing what is really there rather than what you assume is there. I walked up my road the other day and looked around and up and realized I had no words to describe the things I saw. There were gates – but what kind of gate, what sort of design, and what do you call those spiky spear like things they have? There are trees, but what kind of trees.
Of course, you don’t need to know. Google will tell you that pickets are the vertical rods, and finial tips are the spear points on the top. And there’s an app to find out what that plant is. But is being able to find out anything the same as seeing what’s around you and really appreciating it? Is the capacity to do something enough? Don’t you need the experience as well?
Learning how to describe what is around you is a process that starts with just looking and collecting data – noting down what you see, making sketches. No tools or devices other than pen and paper. And perhaps one should start even without that – just with what I’ve heard called a Mk I Eyeball. And from there it’s a matter of drawing, map making and vocabulary building. Draw what you see, draw maps that relate the features you observe and write word pictures. This skill is not just for explorers but for all of us in our daily lives.
Living is an exploration. Learning how to see what’s around you will help in the journey.