You don’t really get it — why this city, why you in it — but after a couple decades among its people, trees, schools, and buildings, you come to the conclusion that your job is to map it. It
is a tremendous task, and, you see now, it is the only task. Your
map will be a tribute to the city, because for all its su=ering and
hardships, you love it.
You’re not alone. The city has many, many mapmakers — and
there are many disagreements among them. The primary disagreement is whether you are ultimately to detail a copy of the
city exactly as you see it, or whether you are to make the city as
you map it, mapping the city as you make it.
For example, one of your fellow mapmakers sees, say, a
crushed sparrow on the sidewalk. A small yet poignant loss.
There was an accident, or it fell ill — these things happen. The
mapmaker in question sketches it out, beautifully. Such verisimilitude. She is, everyone knows, a world-class cartographer.
Anyone who sees the fallen bird on her map will see it in the
world, too, and know exactly where they are. Or find the bird in
the world, and immediately locate their own place on the map.
You have another colleague, however, who takes a di=erent
approach. He sees the crushed sparrow, and gently sets the
bird’s wings, soft and gray and brown, in the crook of an oak
tree lined with a thin white snow. He cleans up the rest of the
small spill with his sleeve, collecting the bones and brushing
what remains under the young evergreen beside the walkway,
where on a warmer day the ants can gather in relative safety.
Then he polishes the little bones and carefully strings them
together into a necklace, a treasure that he hands over to a boy
playing adventure with his brothers in the city park. In this cartographer’s map, he sketches the boy and his game, the bird’s
wings in the branches. He also picks up a broken bottle. When
he is finished, this spot on his map is a clean, smooth sweep
Sometimes the inventory of the city, and hence the things
you must map, come to you in glances from other people or in
lights in the sky. Sometimes in metaphor. Today, the piece of
inventory you must map is, of all things, an hour of time. Your
map of the hour can include much:
Words you don’t say.
Your loose change.
A pain in your head, or in your neck and hands.
art l Edward Fairburn
Ultimately, you are the one who gets to say.
There are beautiful things in this city. Mountains, rivers, little
painted houses, stone avenues lined with bakeries and bookshops. There are distant fires eating trees, houses, entire towns.
There are earthquakes and floods. There are crooks behind some
of the most elegant doors and honest men dying alone in the
shadows. Sometimes you smell smoke in the wind, and some
days in the city the air makes you sick. Occasionally you hear
the sound of a flare gun fired by someone else lost in this same
metropolis, and the beauty of its illuminated rain burning across
the sky makes you want to throw your own city map in the trash;
you have no such signal, and wonder how, with your dim little
sketches, you will be found. Isn’t that, somehow, the point of
In such moments, as today’s, when you’ve been called upon
to map an hour of time, you must remember that everyone else
is here in the city with you. There is no one flying overhead
looking to rescue you, or orient you, or to later provide you with
a map of an aerial view. There is no one to make a note of it if
you give up and remain lost. You are the witness. You.
How overwhelming that is. To chart the minutes of this
hour, when time itself is so mysterious a thing — it’s very di;-
cult indeed, too much responsibility to wrap your head around.
Much as if you were called upon to create the very fabric of the
It strikes you, correctly, that this is not something you can
do on your own. In fact, boundless collaboration is as pervasive
and automatic as breath. It couldn’t be up to you, alone, if you
wanted it to be. You smile a bit to yourself, at your own self-importance, your own presumptuousness and worry. But it’s
okay. Mistakes, pride, self-righteousness—these things, too,
are pervasive and automatic.
It’s a beautiful, cool morning. The early light is hitting
the bare tree branches just so. Your heart is full. Outside of a
crowded café, it occurs to you that within the best map, the real
map, there are many mapmakers, and they are forever changing and adjusting the map that contains them.
You stop midstride and stand very still to absorb the impact
of this thought. As you take a deep and even breath, the wind
blows your hat o= your head, and a stranger—a young man
out with his wife — retrieves it.
“What’s up, man,” he says, as he hands it back to you.
“Not much,” you say.
The woman smiles. You thank them, each, and head in for
your co=ee. A