Tag Archives: maps

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.

Map to Eternity

One of the most remarkable things about Christianity is its fascination with the end of the world. Far from being the obsession of nineteenth-century dispensationalists alone (the other Mr. Darby), the earnestly anticipated end goes back to Paul of Tarsus, the first known Christian writer. Before even a Gospel was penned, this sect was expecting the end to come any day now. It still is, at least among many sub-sects. My wife, however, recently sent me a story on National Geographic about a map collection from the 1480s that depicts a geography of the apocalypse. If you were wondering where to make that left-hand turn, this book may be for you. One wouldn’t want to drive a German mile into Hell without an indicator signal on.

The story by Greg Miller describes this late Medieval manuscript and its assurance that the world will end in 1651—talk about your great disappointment! The unknown author of the codex feared Islam almost as much as Donald Trump but instead of running for the GOP nomination he wrote a book showing just how the end would take place. Illustrated, of course. Map is territory after all. I grew up reading fundamentalist tracts that did essentially the same thing. The more progressive bits of the propaganda left out the actual dates because an earlier Miller seems to have missed the doomsday boat, along with various and sundry telltale timekeepers. There in front of me I could nevertheless unfold the future and once the European Common Market gets its tenth member—wait, what? Has yet another head of the beast been lopped off?

Maps give more than directions.

Maps give more than directions.

Ironically, early Christianities were anti-materialistic. Money was considered the root of all evil and communism was the ideal. If you doubt me ask Ananias and Sapphira. They thought long-term investment was a bit of a foolish notion—something that I have somewhat naively, if unintentionally, followed my whole professional life. You can’t be vested without three years of servitude after all, and I was expecting the Second Coming after one year. Two, tops. If only I’d had a roadmap. It’s only 1777 German miles from Lübeck to paradise, so maybe I can catch the next doomsday boat and still get there in time.