Let me tell you how easy it is to lose yourself.
I grew up believing that I always knew where I was. I placed my faith in the maps I learned to read as a child; the fine lines of stream and footpaths, the neat precision of churches with spires or towers, or bus stations and railway stations. I imagined the land around me laid as as though from a map: the hills ringed with brown contours, the forests arranged in neat rows of lollipop-shaped trees. I saw the narrow yellow road leading northwards from the village of my childhood, and knew that I could travel that way with certainty, protected by the knowledge folded between the salmon-coloured covers of the map I read each evening. I travelled in my mind.
I studied maps endlessly. I believed that they held some inexpressible truth; that everything we knew and did could be codified by these symbols and colours. I looked for perfection, and found it more clearly in the paper representations of the world than in the untidy, chaotic land which sprawled about me. I wanted a map for every purpose: to find my way in an argument, to find a thing I had lost, to find love.
The more I placed my faith in maps, however, the less they seem to explain what I could see around me. They could not tell me why the walk along this lakeshore can be so different in sun and in rain, or why the path through the little park can seem like an eternity to a child, yet only an instant to a pair of young lovers. They could not tell me how to truly find my way in life.
I know now that the land is made from layers of memory; strata of dreams and regrets, romances and discontents, which accumulate over the years like the soot which blackens the walls of the buildings in this small town. I know that there is a strange and tragic history between its streets, and yet I still listen for its stories of hope, its echoes of love.
I sometimes wished that everything in the world could be mapped, so that it might be possible to follow the traces of tears, the nodes of heartbreak, the thin glowing threads of ambition woven like fairy lights between office and home, between restaurant and hotel. I picture these layers of emotion, stacked one on top of another, so that it is possible to see everything that has ever happened in this place; layer upon layer of meaning, the colours blending softly from marble white to slate grey, from ochre to sienna, like the thin salty residue left when tears dry.
I drew maps of my own. I listened to the whisper of lovers at dusk, and traced the lines of their heartache with my pen. I visited park benches and mapped the people who sat there, their hopes and disappointments. I watched the swifts sketching patterns in the summer sky and imagined that these, too, could be mapped: a web of shrieking, mercurial paths, each one random, beautiful, fleeting. I watched my love walk away from me, and I etched her slow walk across the fields with a line of the darkest grey.
I knew, finally, that I needed to get off the map. I left home without planning a route, walking a path which left the town through dense woodland, shaded from the heat and pungent with the summer smells of moist earth and the citrus tang of resin. At each junction I did not look at my maps, choosing instead the route which seemed the prettiest, the most interesting, the least trodden. By this way I walked towards open country, where no footprints pitted the baked earth. Standing at the edge of an expanse of bog and moss, I saw at last the delicate colours of summer in the hills, rather than imagining the contour lines which I knew would have circled around this basin of land like the remnant paths of circling peregrines.
I slept the night in a ruined sheepfold. It was a mild summer's evening, but as night thickened and grew colder, I unfolded the maps I carried and spread them over my body to keep off the chill of the dew.
When I woke, the sun had risen above the mountains and my quilt of paper had dried and wrinkled. I folded each sheet carefully and left them stacked in a shallow niche in the stone wall against which I had rested my head. I picked up the shallow beginnings of a mountain stream and followed it downhill, knowing that soon enough it would join another, and then another, gathering pace towards the beckoning river.
'Cartographers', a play co-written by Kim Moore, Lindsay Rodden, Joe Ward Munrow and Ian Hill, directed by Stefan Escreet, will be at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick on 7 September 2013. For more details, see here