A field guide to open secrets

Getting to know a place takes time, even with methods like a randomised sound survey. It also takes the courage to throw away your map.

by Jay Richardson
13th June 2022

“Welcome to Google Maps,” a voice proudly proclaims. “Here you can search for places, businesses, directions, and much more, all from one website.” The possibilities are endless: terrain view, satellite view, zoom, pan, turn-by-turn driving directions. “Explore your hometown or the whole world,” the voice says. It even invites you to make and share your own map layers and calls its own example “SF [San Francisco] Fun Day”, which is totally not what a robot would call it.

The voice is from a 2005 infomercial announcing the launch of Google Maps, which Google pulled together from a series of acquisitions made over the previous year. The famous search engine company, in its quest to collect and monetise the world’s knowledge, had turned to indexing places as well as webpages.

Routefinding let maps expand their authority not just over places, but travel too. They began to calculate how we might get somewhere as well as what we would find along the way. Maps can now advise you, dear user, on whether your friend’s place is easy to get to, a right pain to get to, or so inaccessible that “we could not calculate the public transport directions for your journey.” With the power to direct journeys, maps became even more central to our thinking on which places are worth trying to reach and which are not. That is a dangerous power to give over to tech companies and cartographers.

Breaking the map’s imaginative stranglehold requires thinking of new ways to go exploring: ways that challenge the map’s version of reality. And so, in early April, my fellow field recordist and musician Olivia Petryszak joined me on a sound survey field trip. We took three random squares of an Ordinance Survey map, marked the centre of each, and got in the car with a camera, a pair of microphones, a mystifying array of batteries, a laptop, and my dog. No matter how apparently inaccessible the location that we had randomly chosen, we would use any legal means to get there, and when we arrived we would observe our surroundings and see how they measured up to the map.

The observation part was in the tradition of ‘deep mapping’, a practice that makes experimental maps with field recordings, sketches, prose, photographs, and any other object that speaks of experience rather than understanding—Sohei Nishino’s incredible Diorama Maps are some of the best examples. But the randomised location-finding was new to both of us. We were trying to force ourselves outside of the convenient transport network by ignoring it completely. We wanted to know what it was like in those mysterious, far-off fields and wooded copses that had only ever flashed by us in a train window. What we found in our sound survey would surprise and delight us, and it would seriously erode our confidence in the world as it appeared in bird’s-eye view.

A field recordist crouches down with a microphone on a path sided by thick young undergrowth.

Bird’s-eye view would not, it turns out, show you a small reed bed in an old irrigation ditch somewhere between Bottisham and Stow-cum-Quay, rustling and crackling in the strong fenland breeze. We shoved a pair of microphones into the undergrowth and turned the sensitivity all the way up.

A kind of secret inner life emerged. It was like the sound of the sea, but instead of spray and foam, you could hear thousands of thin, dry spindles snapping and scraping against each other. They sounded like Rice Krispies. The reed bed was so thickly populated that you could see almost none of what was happening down at microphone level. We could only imagine the insects that might be making those rustling sounds among the stalks, and the mice and voles that might occasionally pounce on something during a distracting gust of wind. Or perhaps we weren’t imagining it at all.

This is where we got the strongest sense of a magical open secret. Hidden from view on the map, hidden from earshot until you got really close, was this amazingly alive place. It was like finding a £20 note down the back of the sofa.

A single tall reed stalk reaches into the sky.

The main downside of using a map as a way of knowing a place is that it can give you an illusion of knowing more than you actually do. This is what Roland Barthes would have called the ‘mythic’ function of maps, the overview that they give you over a large terrain. Very little under the sun can hide from satellites, but they only capture one angle, and Street View only works on roads. Open-access civilian satellites have limited resolution. They won’t give you a live feed, so what you’re looking at might be days or even weeks out of date.

More than that, there is no way to combine the whole sensory feel of a place, in sight, sound, smell, lighting, weather, air quality, ground surface, and so on, without actually being there. As Denis Wood succinctly puts it, “Maps are used to establish the real”, and yet they are themselves objects. They are not, he says, simple representations of the world, because they change reality by adding and subtracting from it—adding borders, subtracting people, inventing abstract land usage categories that did not exist before they were drawn. We shouldn’t let maps, or even sound surveys, give us such grand illusions of objectivity that we fail to explore the world with our own senses—even if that means fighting for rights of public access.

Private land ownership is only a few hundred years old in Britain and its advent roughly coincided with an explosion in the popularity of maps as colonial land-grabbing tools. Private landowners in the UK and its empire, though, kept their identity mostly hidden even as they used cartography to enclose public lands. Today, you can buy land ownership records from Her Majesty’s Land Registry—£3 for the name of the owner and another £3 for a map of what they own—if you have a specific address to search for, or if you can pick out the area from a list of such infuriatingly vague items as “Land lying to the north and south of Church Street”. Private land ownership is hard to trace and even harder to predict: nobody warns you not to trespass until you’re about to. It’s not on the map.

When our sound survey inevitably came across a randomly chosen location we couldn’t visit without trespassing—which is now an actual criminal offence, by the way—we surveyed whatever we could find around the perimeter. As it happens, borders and gates can hold incredibly rich collections of sounds because they’re so rarely soundproof: crowds of protestors on one side and police megaphones on the other, for example, or in our case a construction site and a dense woodland. Half the time, we could only hear the wind murmuring in the trees, and for the other half we could only hear a van’s engine, buckets and scaffolding boards being tossed around, and people shouting indistinguishable construction-related things. And the neighbour, who emerged to greet the dog.

The soundscape felt disjointed and jarring, not just because of the sounds themselves but because we were walled in with them. We couldn’t explore, seek out the sounds and find their sources and nuances, and we couldn’t wander about to listen and look from different vantage points: slim pickings for a sound survey. All we could do was go back the way we had come.

Other places we tried were less gated but even harder to get to, like the chalk upland at Fleam Dyke, which required us to park a mile away, walk over the A11 footbridge, past the place where Google Maps said an outfit called Barry’s Snack Bus should have been (top review: “Lemon drizzle cake highly recommended. Compliments to Sharon.”), and up the densely overgrown hillside path on the other side. The hill turned out to be a famous and rare habitat for several species of bird, butterfly, wildflower, and the common lizard. Nestling the microphones in the undergrowth once again, it felt alive and intricate in spite of the almost overwhelming presence of traffic just a few hundred metres away. An insect was making an incredible dry flickering sound right in the bush where I had stopped. The place was beautiful. And if we hadn’t chosen it at random, we would probably never have known it was there.

Maps quite literally shape the world’s sites of interest by listing them. The most infamous example is Sandy Island, which first appeared on naval charts in the late nineteenth century and survived right up until 2012, when an Australian research vessel sailed right through the area where it was supposed to be. Not only does the island not exist, but the sea floor at its alleged location is over 1.4km deep. An unknown cartographer fooled Google, National Geographic, and countless others for over a century by drawing a blob on a nautical chart.

Sue Clifford wrote about this cartographical disconnect as a problem of removal from the human dimensions of things: “With each level of abstraction, we feel less able to argue what we know, and less sure in our valuing of the unquantifiable smallnesses which can make everyday life a delight and help nature and culture to interact benignly.” Maps have what Les Roberts calls a “disembodied gaze”. He means the lack of a fixed viewpoint, placing the creator of the map beyond view, making them everywhere and nowhere, there to survey but not to take an identifiable position of their own—like, one might add, a private landowner. Roberts calls it “the disembodying of the gaze from a spatio-temporal locus of being,” which I suppose he can if he wants to. The point is that maps are just like photographs and sound surveys in that they take subjective positions, even if they pretend otherwise.

Knowing a place takes time, but it also takes respectfully creative ways of exploring. None of the places we visited looked like anything much on any of our maps, but a half-day’s sound survey revealed two unexpectedly beautiful locations and another that was pleasingly bizarre, and that’s heartening. People have fought bitterly for their rights to hold this land in common with each other, to survive by it and to know it and share it, ever since landowners have enforced its privatisation. Maybe curiosity can turn the tide.