From The Pigeonhole: Sixty Degrees North - an Extract



Readers of Elsewhere will know we are big fans of Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack. First published by Polygon, the book will be serialised to UK and Commonwealth readers on The Pigeonhole, starting from 19 May 2016. Readers will receive one digital instalment every three days via The Pigeonhole’s iOS app or on any web reader. The serialised edition will include extra content such as interviews and maps, and readers will be able to leave comments for each other and for the author within the text itself. To mark the publication on The Pigeonhole, we are extremely pleased to present this extract from the book:

Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?

Imagine yourself stood upon a hill. Or better, imagine yourself stood on a tall hill on a small island, the horizon visible in every direction – a perfect, unbroken line. From early morning until late in the night you stand there. You watch the sun rise from one side of the island and arc its way above, moving slowly and predictably through the sky until it reaches the opposite horizon, where it gradually disap­pears. As the light fades, stars freckle against the mounting darkness. They too turn about you, on an axis rooted at the North Star, Polaris. This great arena of night and day seems to roll over the stationary world and surround you with its movement. And that question rises: where am I?

The universe that we can see is a place of mirrors and illusions, tricks of the eye and the mind, and it takes a great leap of scientific faith to come to terms with the facts as we now know them to be: that nothing is still; that both our universe and our planet are in ceaseless motion. To look upwards and to acknowledge this is to take a nauseating lurch of the imagination. It is to be overwhelmed not just by a feeling of insignificance, but of fear, vulnerability and exhilaration. Amid all this movement, this unfathomable distance, it seems somehow impossible that we could be anywhere at all.

But our understanding of where we are on the Earth has not been built with this celestial motion in mind. Since people first began to use the sun and stars as navigational aids, they have done so by being ignorant of, or by ignoring such disorientating facts. That the North Star is not a stable point within the universe does not matter so long as it seems to be a stable point. That the sun does not turn around the Earth makes no difference if it continues to appear to do so, and that its appearance is predictable. For the roots of that question – where am I? – are not so much philosophical, nor exactly scientific; they are practical. Where we are only truly makes sense in so far as it relates to where we have been and where we want to be. In order to move in a purposeful way, to avoid wasting our time and endangering our lives, we must build an image of our location, and where we stand in our surroundings. We must make maps.

I stared out at the calm ocean, at the tide lines laced like skeins of white hair. I looked towards the horizon – blue fastened to blue – and beyond, towards unseen places: to Greenland, to North America, to Russia, Finland, Scandinavia and back here again across the North Sea. I looked out for several minutes, then felt ready to go. I turned and walked up the hill, alongside the fence. From my starting line at the cliff I made my way back along the parallel, glad to be moving again.

Soon, the lavish green that had fringed the shore gave way to low heather and dark, peaty ground. The land flattened into a plateau of purple and olive, trenched and terraced where the turf had been cut. White tufts of bog cotton lay strewn about the hill. Shallow pools of black water crouched below the banks of peat and in the narrow channels that lolled between. I hopped from island to island of solid ground, trying to keep my feet dry, as a skylark hung frantically above, held aloft by the lightness of his song.

After only ten minutes or so I was walking downhill again, into the lush valley that folds around the loch of Vat-setter and the Burn of Maywick, flanked by bright yellow irises. The thick heather faded back into a lighter, leaner green, and on the opposite slope was a field, striped by cut silage. A gust of golden plovers sprang suddenly from the ground ahead, and curled its way over the valley. Two lap­wings crossed their path above the loch, guttering towards the sea with a clumsy kind of grace. I watched the birds until they tumbled out of view, and then continued to the burn below.

The steep descent into the valley meant an equally steep climb out again, on a gravel track that, according to the map, crossed back and forth over the parallel several times before waning into nothing. I carried on, and was soon back amid the peat. The hill rose sharply to 200 metres, and I was hot from the walking, but it was worth it. As I reached the higher ground, the air opened up without warning, and I could see from one side of Shetland to the other: the Atlantic behind and the North Sea in front. Above, wisps of cirrus cloud were combed across a bold sky, as wide as any sky I had ever seen before.

Human beings have always moved from here to there, from one place to another, with a combination of memory, acquired knowledge and curiosity. We have made use, most commonly, of internal maps – remembered routes from one point of significance to another: a place of food, a place of shelter, a place of danger. Elements of these maps would have been passed from generation to generation, in songs and in stories. They were embellished, updated and, if necessary, discarded. These are living maps, where space and direction are sealed off and separated from the world outside. They can be as intricate and mysterious as the songlines of the Australian Aborigines, or as straightforward as remembering how to reach the shop from your front door.

To build a more concrete image of where we are it has been necessary to externalise our maps: to make pictures of the world. The very first visual maps were of the stars, such as those on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, drawn more than 16,000 years ago. But looking up at the sky is easy. To draw a picture that could encompass a particular space on the Earth, or encompass the whole planet even, is a far greater challenge. The mapmaker is forced to become other than himself, to imagine the view of the birds. The mapmaker must look down from above and become godlike, re-creating his own world.

Unlike internal or ‘story’ maps, early world maps were intended as scientific or philosophical exercises rather than navigational guides. Their practicality was limited by two significant factors. Firstly, the ancient Greeks who pioneered cartography had limited geographical knowledge. Centred on the Mediterranean, their maps extended eastward only as far as India, with their westward edge at the Strait of Gibraltar. Beyond these boundaries the world was more or less unknown, though speculation about the grotesque barbarians dwelling in northern Europe and Africa was widespread. The other major problem for the Greek map-makers was their lack of a practical means of representing distance and shape accurately. What was required to do this was some kind of scale or grid, which could be applied both to the spherical surface of the Earth and, potentially, to a globe or a flat map. That grid was provided in the second century BC, when Hipparchus of Nicaea devised the system that we still use today: measuring the Earth in degrees of arc. Although similar methods had been proposed previously by the Babylonians, Hipparchus’ achievement was to divide a circle into 360 degrees of arc, and so provide the foundation stone for trigonometry.

A degree was a measurement of the angle at the centre of a circle, between one radius and another, like the hands on a clock. If the time is three o’clock, the angle between the two hands is 90°: one quarter of a full circle. On the outside of the circle, the points where the two radii, or hands, touch the edge can also be said to be 90° apart. This measurement could further be applied to spheres, like the Earth, with the north-south angle denoted by one measurement – latitude – and the east-west angle by another – longitude. It was then pos­sible, at least theoretically, to give co-ordinates for any place on the planet, and that information could further be used to represent geographical space accurately on a map. This was a revolutionary step for navigation and for cartography.

Whereas longitudinal lines, or meridians, are of equal length, running through both poles, and dividing the planet like the segments of an orange, circles of latitude are parallel lines, progressively decreasing in size, from the planet’s full circumference at the equator to a single point at the Poles. They are represented as an angle up to 90° north or south of the equator. At 60° north, where I was standing, the parallel was half the length of the equator, and two thirds of the way to the Pole.

For the Greeks, the pinnacle of their cartographic tra­dition came in the mid-second century AD, in Roman Alexandria. It was here that Claudius Ptolemy created his Geographia, a work that gathered together the geographical knowledge of both the Greeks and the Romans. Ptolemy gave co-ordinates for around 8,000 places, stretching between his Prime Meridian at the Fortunate Isles (Cape Verde) in the west, China in the east, central Africa in the south and Shetland, which he called Thule, in the north. This was the known world, reaching 180 degrees in longitude and eighty in latitude, and Shetland then was at its very edge. Despite all but disappearing for more than 1,000 years, the influence of this book, eventually, was immense.

Today, we need only consult a map to learn of our location, or just press a button on our handheld GPS or phone, which can tell us our longitude and latitude in degrees, minutes and seconds of arc. But still somehow that question feels unanswered, still it gnaws at our certainty. Where am I? 

Readers from the UK and Commonwealth can subscribe to the serialised edition of Sixty Degrees North on the Pigeonhole here.

Read our review of the book here.