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Mappa Mundi


I am a frequent traveler to the Land of Serendip.

At about 5:00 this morning I finished a book (reading, not writing it, sorry to say) and wandered to the shelves opposite my bed for something to tide me over until dawn. Two down from the top of an old pile was Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps, which I had read about eight or nine years ago. Architecture was not my first career choice: I had earlier wanted to be a cartographer.

What was the first map that I held? Our family didn’t subscribe to magazines, so National Geographic was right out. Much more likely were the freebie maps that gas stations once offered for the asking. We had a rack of them just inside the door of my dad’s Phillips 66 gas station (at 6455 South Archer Road, Bedford Park, Illinois; GLobe 8-9563; this was long before either ZIP or Area Codes). In fact, one of my earliest jobs was replenishing the rack from a supply behind the counter. Whatever the source, maps of all sorts filled some deep need within me. Hindsight suggests they did not represent escape so much as exploration. It’s that syzygetic pairing of boundaries and horizons: boundaries are an impediment; horizons an invitation. I am eternally expectant of the surprise that lies beyond the limits of my sight.

Wonderfully mired in Miles Harvey’s second chapter “Imaginary Creatures”—a rumination on maps, seasoned with quotes from various authors—I found a key to the emerging plat of Agincourt.


I thought about the meaning of plan, plat and map—each both noun and verb—and found comfort in Harvey’s observation that “a map provides no answers. It only suggests where to look.” Harvey also adds two revelatory quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Treasure Island was a map before it was a book.

As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods;…they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection….

It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it, his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words…. As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.

Stevenson was right.

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