Upside down maps, reverted horizons

mcarthurHave you ever tried to walk on a beach at sunset and then look back to the road you have just walked? As far as we go ahead we feel smaller and perspectives change. We can walk east or west, but we will always have the sea at one side, and the land on the other.

And it is surprising to think that, anyway, all this is totally arbitrary. East of what? North of what?

Maps are one of the things that fascinate me most. They tell the history of people, peoples, cultures, life intertwined and stories that cross along some lines, often drawn by hand.

We cannot understand the history of a people without knowing its geography. If Swedes, Australians and Ghanaians have different economic and cultural situations this is partly because of the territory they live in. If our newspapers are full of dramatic news of wars every single day, this is also because of the geography of the countries.

Nature shapes geography, geography shapes territories, territories shape the people and the people generate culture. But what happens if we turn the map around? Apparently, nothing.

The idea of having the North on top of maps is totally artificial. The convention came a few centuries ago when Northern hemisphere, European navigators started using the North star and the magnetic compass. Before that, the top of the map was to the East, which is where the word orientation comes from. And it might not be a coincidence that Europe is central in these maps.

But actually, everything changes. Setting Australia or Chile on the top north of the world, and Norway at the extreme south, means to turn upside down our scenarios and perspectives. It means to look at reality, being aware of relativism of the conventions. It means to look at others without calling them “different”, because we can also be different. It means to recall our sense of belonging, learning to shift our roots when necessary.

Turning upside down maps, and our gaze. Walking on a beach, learning how to shift the sea, if this helps us to navigate to new horizons.


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