A Single Small Map Is Enough For A Lifetime


Alastair Humphreys is a British adventurer and author. He has bicycled around the world, walked across southern India, rowed across the Atlantic, run six marathons in the Sahara and trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter. He was named one of National Geographic’s adventurers of the year in 2012. He is the author of 16 books, including “Local: A Search For Nearby Nature And Wildness,” from which this essay is adapted.

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver

“In the end, I think that a single mountain range is enough exploration for an entire lifetime.”
—Rickey Gates

For more than 20 years, my favorite thing has been to leave here behind, with all its ties and routines. To hit the road and make my way to there. I get twitchy being in one place for too long. I have been lucky enough to cycle a lap of the planet, row and sail the Atlantic, hike across southern India and trek over Arctic ice and Arabian sands. A spin of the globe and off I go on the open road. Home was for family, friends and real life, not for exploration and adventure.

However, my mood has shifted, like many people’s. With the climate in chaos, I can’t justify flying all over the globe for fun anymore, burning jet fuel and spewing carbon for selfies. It feels particularly inappropriate to write books that encourage everyone to get out and explore. If I love wild places so much, I’ve begun to wonder, am I willing to not visit them in order to help protect them?

Flying to distant lands is still a rare luxury. Only a tiny minority of the people on the planet step onto a plane each year; just 1% of us take more than half of all flights. How can more of us enjoy wild landscapes and the mental and physical benefits of getting out into nature without it costing the Earth?

I started writing about “microadventures” more than a decade ago: encouraging people to undertake weekend bike rides, overnight camps and wild swims close to home. Grand adventures shouldn’t just be for people with the time and money to cross continents. Neither should wild places only be for the lucky few with national parks on their doorstep, or those who have the freedom — so often affected by gender, race and other factors — to explore.

Family life also curtailed my own expeditions in recent years, while of course adding many delights. The never-ending merry-go-round of childcare and chores settled us in a less adventurous neck of the woods than I’d ever imagined for myself, on the fringes of a city in an unassuming landscape, pocked by a glow of sodium lights and the rush of busy roads.

It is a strange, in-between edge-land: There are fields but factories too. There are villages and farms, train tracks and tower blocks. I don’t like it. My family does though, and I like them. That’s reason enough. I’d much rather live in their world than alone in mine. Even so, I developed a tendency to blame the area for most of my frustrations, despite being aware of the paradise paradox — the false belief that a picture-perfect place will solve all your problems.

“I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily come across. I decided to treat everything as interesting.”

I felt a need to reconcile my enthusiasm for exploration with my decidedly unadventurous local environment. One morning I set down a heavy laundry basket on top of piles of homework scattered over the kitchen table, carried a pair of abandoned cereal bowls to the dishwasher, and wondered: What if this bog-standard corner of England was actually full of surprises if only I bothered to go out and look? Maybe the things I’ve chased from India to Iceland — adventure, nature, wildness, surprises, silence, perspective — were here too?

The first step was to get a map. Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, divides the whole country into 403 “Explorer” maps at 1:25,000 scale, meaning that 1 kilometer of land is represented by 4 centimeters of map. You can order a customized map with your own home right in the middle. I visited the O.S. website, zoomed in on where I lived, and clicked “Buy Now.”

A couple of days later, I met the postman at the door and eagerly carried the envelope across the garden to an old log outside my shed, where I could spread out the map. Unfolding a map is a ritual that launches all good journeys.

I ran my hands over it to flatten its creases. It showed an area totaling just 20 square kilometers, a tiny place. The map was divided into 400 individual grid squares, outlined in light blue — a single square kilometer each. I could comfortably walk the perimeter of any square in about an hour.

Each week, I decided, I would explore one of those squares in detail, doing my best to see everything there, to walk or cycle every footpath and street, and to learn as much as I could along the way. I wanted it to be serendipitous, not governed by my preferences. I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily come across. I decided to treat everything as interesting. The late Terry Pratchett once gave a lecture on “the importance of being amazed about absolutely everything,” which felt like a fitting mission statement.

(Alastair Humphreys)

“There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.”
—Henry David Thoreau

I studied my map for a while and found what appeared to be its most boring grid square: no roads, houses or rivers, just a single footpath, one pond and the merest flutter of a lonely contour line. Here, it seemed, was nothing at all, neatly outlined within crisp blue lines.

It was the ideal place to begin.

I folded up the map and headed out to have a look at nothing.

Sometime later, my car was being hauled out of a ditch by two construction workers. They were too polite to tell me what a moron I was. I’d flagged down their pickup to ask for help after my front wheel dropped off the edge of the tarmac into a void hidden by the hedge off the side of the road where I tried to park. As their engine revved and bits of my car crunched and cracked and fell off, I reasoned I was here to look for new experiences, so perhaps this was a good start?

I thanked the men, turned away from the car, squeezed through a barrier designed to keep out dirt bikers, then climbed over a block of graffitied concrete. I’d never been down this way before.

Somebody had planted a row of spindly saplings along the metal fence, tied up by scruffy blue string. Who could have done this? Why had they bothered? There were no houses here, and it would be at least a decade before the trees amounted to much.

Just beyond a discarded burger wrapper, a colorful, leaf-strewn footpath stretched away into the mist beneath a gloomy archway of damp trees. Autumn was making way for winter. It was early November, meaning that we had just entered the period known in the ancient Celtic calendar as the dark half of the year. My breath ballooned in the air and my fingers felt cold even in gloves.

Celts used to mark the turning of the year with four fire festivals midway between each equinox and solstice. Samhain was the most important of these, welcoming the dark winter months. People felt anxious at the weakening sun and lit fires to help it on its journey across the heavens. Samhain celebrations at the end of harvest were rowdy affairs filled with gorging, boozing and sacrificed cattle. Jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips and lit from within by glowing coal embers.

Some people took a flame from the community bonfire and carried it home to light a fire in their own hearth. At this time of year, they believed, the separation between our world and the spirit world dissolved, allowing more interactions between the two. The darkening days brought more concern and foreboding about the hungry months to come and the proximity of a closer supernatural realm. The fires and revelry must have been an intoxicating respite.

(Alastair Humphreys)

Once I can put a name to something, like a bird or tree, I seem to come across it more often, and I also appreciate it more for knowing the word. As Robert Macfarlane wrote in “Landmarks,” “Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.”

Paying attention is what my teachers nagged me to do in what felt at the time like excruciatingly boring school lessons. Now I was walking around a little square on a map, belatedly learning how to be more observant, to fill in some of my knowledge gaps with the help of apps and research.

The Seek app, for example, employs some unfathomable voodoo magic to identify plants and creatures. I pointed my phone at a common reed, wondering what wisdom the mighty AI gods would bestow upon me. I had seen reeds countless times, but I didn’t know their official name. Seek provided it: “common reed!”

But the scaling of its taxonomy caught my eye. Family: grasses. Class: monocots. Kingdom: plants. Domain: eukaryotes. The sprawling immensity of life, too complex for me ever to grasp, had been ordered and tidied and simplified for this single plant in front of me: Phragmites australis.

There I stood on a damp path atop deep layers of late Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks, gawping at a common reeds, surrounded by multitudes. I could glimpse wonder and the connection between everyday observation and the curiosity that spins off into wider exploration of the cosmos.

Questions started to come. Who came to this isolated spot to graffiti so badly, and why? Who made the effort to gravel a small path over to a bench, cut branches to line the path and peg them down? Who built the bench from two stumps of birch and a hefty plank? Did the same person or people lay down a bed of wood chippings too, wood chippings that I could see had sprouted crooked brown mushrooms?

I wiped the bench dry with my sleeve, sat down and rummaged for the flask of coffee in my rucksack. I pulled my hood up over my woolly hat and sipped. My brain buzzed. I stared into the fog. Why, I wondered, did whoever built this bench put it right in front of a tangle of brambles and a massive pylon?

But then I spotted a small plaque inscribed to Brian — “a tireless campaigner for the canal.” I realized I was looking at this all wrong. I swiveled around. What I’d dismissed as a stagnant ditch was, in fact, an overgrown canal in the early stages of restoration. Along its banks were tall bullrushes like hotdogs on sticks, feathery reeds, blood-red hawthorn berries and a spiked metal security fence.

It wasn’t exactly paradise, but this was a framed view of nature, history, conservation and community all rolled in together. Brian’s bench, and the evident fondness and appreciation for this place that had inspired it, helped me cherish the view too.

“It wasn’t exactly paradise, but this was a framed view of nature, history, conservation and community all rolled in together.”

Presently, a man who looked to be in his fifties cycled down the canal path in hi-vis, the tires on his bike squashed rather flat. Tom Waits’s unmistakable gravelly voice played from a speaker on the handlebars, and the man sang along as he rode past without spotting me.

I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night.
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long.

There was little movement or birdsong in the air as I finished my coffee, just the sounds of a forklift truck in the industrial yard beyond the canal, reversing beeps, a rattling train somewhere in the distance. Nature seemed subdued in the morning mist.

It feels ridiculous to admit, but I still had not actually entered my first grid square. It was on the other side of the canal, which was too wide to leap over. I retraced my steps to try another way. Walking back down the lane, I picked up the burger wrapper I had stepped over earlier.

I pushed through a narrow gap between some bushes and a chain-link fence onto a narrow footpath, taking care not to snag my coat, then followed the path until I reached a gap by a fallen fencepost. I stepped over the tangled loops of wire and dropped down a wooded slope to a stagnant green pool. The surface was covered in duckweed, a tiny, quick-spreading plant that I later learned was being tested in the U.S. as a treatment for human sewage.

It was peaceful down there among the hawthorn bushes: a no man’s land littered with Carlsberg Export cans wedged between a railway line, industrial units, marshland and a Ministry of Defense firing range. Nobody knew I was here. Nobody I knew had ever been here. Why would anyone come?

I stirred the pond with a stick and its stinking mysteries bubbled up from the black depths. I picked an apple from a tree by the railway line and popped it into my rucksack. Then I climbed into a field and waded through wet, knee-deep grass, among what Seek taught me were yellow common toadflax flowers and purple thistles bejeweled with droplets of dew and strands of silk webs.

I headed toward the grazing meadows — once a marshland — that make up most of this “empty” grid square today. Gigantic electricity pylons marched across the land and the grey sky was striped with lines of cables running from an old coal-fired power station down on the coast. The station’s 200-meter-tall chimney gained some notoriety a few years ago when protesters climbed it to write a message to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. They only got as far as a colossal “GORDON” before being caught and summoned to court. They admitted trying to shut down the station, arguing that sabotaging it would prevent further climate warming.

Nobody had used this claim before in a “lawful excuse” defense, meaning they acted in with lawful justification to protect life. An Inuit leader supported the activists, arguing that climate change was affecting his way of life. The New York Times featured the story, listing the eventual acquittal in its annual list of life-changing influential ideas. Later, the plant would be decommissioned, its enormous chimney blown up.

“Nobody knew I was here. Nobody I knew had ever been here. Why would anyone come?”

Here on the meadows under the power lines, the land was strikingly flat. I could see an elevated embankment far in the distance that protected the marsh from the wide river that fanned out toward an estuary. A silhouetted pony grazed on the grass bank and a dirt bike revved up and down it, having somehow found a way around the preventive barriers.

The noise, the movement and the human all seemed incongruous on this empty morning. I watched a ship slide down the river, heading out to sea with smoke streaming from its funnel. “Where are you going?” I called out. Which foreign port will you make landfall in? What will you see there? How will it smell? What cafe will the crew go to for a beer and a smoke, to stretch their legs? I used to travel to those far-off ports. I wondered if I was missing out. I continued walking, making a rough lap of the grid square, heading down toward its third corner.

One feature marked on the map was a tiny mound that had been defined with its own diddy contour ring, rising a whopping five meters above sea level. It appeared to be nothing more than a grassy wrinkle on the flat counterpane of the marsh. But I had learned it was an ancient barrow, a Bronze Age burial site constructed over a stone coffin that once contained a crouched skeleton and a necklace of beads made from fossilized sea sponges. Visible ancient history added a sense of awe to the innocuous mound and its empty metal cattle trough.

From my vantage point on the “hill,” I looked over a field of black cows and another of white sheep. The fields were separated by drainage dykes. The livestock were the only clue that this drained marsh was anything other than forgotten ground: in between, left behind. The animals play an important role in maintaining it and preventing it from being engulfed in scrub.

Two crows dipped overhead, calling out as they tumbled and rolled through the cold grey sky. Were they courting? Fighting? Playing? I could hear them swoosh as they dropped. I heard, also, the creaky wings of a pair of lumbering white swans flying by, then the begrudging, cranky take-off of a heron whose frog-hunting I disturbed in a ditch covered in neon-green algae.

I was hungry now, appreciative of the apple I’d pocketed earlier. It was huge, red and flecked with yellow. Lemony sunlight was burning off the morning’s mist. The apple’s crunch sounded loud in the quiet. I saw the distinctive swoop of a woodpecker and listened for its laughing call. Less easy to identify was either a weasel or a stoat that scurried across my path and disappeared into the long grass.

And then I was back to where I began, the lap of the square complete. I finished the sweet apple and tossed the core into the hedge. I took home a dinged car, a bunch of photographs and pages of notes.

I had selected the most empty-looking location as the beginning of a journey across a map of an area I’d often dismissed as boring. Three hundred and ninety-nine grid squares awaited: abundance and possibility.

It was a fine beginning.

This essay is adapted from the author’s recent book “Local: A Search For Nearby Nature And Wildness.”

(Alastair Humphreys)