The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

My favorite poem in the section of Traveling Light entitled “From Walt Whitman Bathing (1996)” is found in “Sequence: Landscapes” and is entitled “Mapmaking.” Like most of my favorite poems it uses nature as a metaphor for exploring human nature.


It's an old desire: a sketch of part of the earth
There in your hands. You touch it, saying, There.
So make your map:
If you have no crossroads, no confluence of streams
To set your starting point, you simply pretend
You know where you are
And begin outlining a landscape, using a compass
And your measured stride toward landmarks: thrusts of bedrock,
Trees or boulders, whatever
Seems likely to be around after you've gone.
You fix your eyes on them, one at a time,
And learn the hard way
How hard it is to fabricate broken country.
You go where your line takes you: uphill or down,
Over or straight through,
Between and past the casual, accidental
Substance of this world. Once there, you turn back
To confirm your bearings,
To reconcile what you saw with what you see,
Comparing foresight and hindsight. These are moments
When your opinion
Of yourself as cartographer may suffer.
Your traverse ought to return to its beginning,
To a known point, though you,
Slipshod, footsore by dusk, may find your hope
Falls short of perfection: remember no one
Really depends on you
To do away with uncertainty forever.
Your piece of paper may seem in years to come
An amusing footnote
For wandering minds, a record of out-of-the-way
Transfixions (better preserved by photographers)
Whose terrain is so far askew
It should be left to divert imaginations
Like yours that enjoy believing they've mapped out
Some share of the unknown.

Perhaps I’m fond of this poem because I taught map reading in the army for a number of years and realize just how difficult it is to accurately map any area. Or perhaps I like it because I’ve always been interested in semantics and “map making” was a metaphor S. I Hayakawa used in Language in Thought and Action, my favorite book from college.

Although it seems at first that Wagoner is merely referring to mapping an area, it becomes clear as the poem evolves that he is really referring to the difficulty of mapping “the unknown,” and all he has said about mapping the land applies to mapping the unknown.

All of us have the desire to know where we are, to look at our lives and say we are “there” or, better yet, “here.” To make that map, you first have to pretend that “You know where you are,” because you always need a starting point for your map. Of course, you also need a landmark that “Seems likely to be around after you've gone.” Maybe that’s why so many people base their life on an eternal God, one they think they can count on to be there when they try to find their way back.

Once you actually begin mapping your life, though, you realize just how hard it is to understand where you are going or where you’ve been because too often you have to go “where your line takes you.”

Often when you look back over your life you have no idea how you’ve gotten to wherever it is that you now stand. “Foresight and hindsight” offer us very different views of the “same” territory. A standard rule in hiking is that a mountain in the distance is always farther than it looks, and it will take you twice as long to get there as you think it will. Standing on the mountain looking back to where you’ve come from, you may very well question your ability to judge reality.

And if you’ve ever been brave enough to try to go cross country rather than retracing your steps on the trail you’ve just blazed, your opinion of your ability to draw accurate maps will very likely suffer. Even with an accurate map and a compass it’s difficult to find an exact spot on a map, and it’s even harder with a map you’ve drawn yourself.

Strange how much harder it seems to map life’s journey than to map those areas I hike regularly. This blog was meant to serve as a map of where I’ve been and where I want to go, and anyone foolish enough to have followed it for even a month or two will realize just how much I’ve wandered lost in the wilderness of my own soul, unable to find my way back to where I began, much less able to see where I’m likely to go in the future.

Perhaps Wagoner’s right and I shouldn’t be too hard on myself because “no one/Really depends on” me “To do away with uncertainty forever.” If my grandson Gavin were to actually read these entries some day, I would be happy enough if they proved to be an “amusing footnote” to him.

Hopefully some like soul who also enjoys trying to map out the unknown will be as diverted by my attempts as I have been diverted by his.

What do you think?