Home PageArchivesVolume no. 5Issue 2Nonfiction: Betsy Sharp

Mapping Uncertainty

Betsy Sharp

Our woods are dense, and trees arching over the island’s unpaved roads have hidden them from Google Earth’s all-seeing eye. Not entirely coincidentally, two county mapmakers turn up at our community meeting—the closest thing we have out here to a governing body. They are youngish men, in love with the intersection of land and digital information and pleased to be plying the honorable trade of cartographer in fresh terrain. They come on their own time, not even on the county clock, to offer us a boon through the magic of geographic information systems. In their spare time, they explain happily, they are willing to come out to the island and mark all our roads with GPS coordinates.

“The maps of your island,” the young men explain, “don’t show where the actual roads are, and the roads that do show up aren’t labeled. This is your chance to name them.”

“They already have names,” we say.

“Then tell us the names and we’ll put them on the map” The men clearly feel that offering to use our own road names is a major concession by the county. Give yourselves house numbers, they urge, and then you’ll have real addresses.

One deceptively mild-mannered gentleman, a fiery civil-rights lawyer in ragged farmer’s clothing, speaks up, “Why would we want addresses?”


I scramble through the underbrush with a roll of blue masking tape looped over my wrist, tearing off bits of it and sticking them to trees in an effort to make something imaginary real. I’ve never owned a place before, and even after I hold the actual deed in my hand, my ownership seems only an abstraction unless I can declare with certainty which particular tree, which ridge, which cliff and rock and marshy glen belongs on my side of the line.

There’s a boulder that I saw here once, the size of a Volkswagen, back when the former owner first showed me the place. I haven’t been able to find it since, though I’ve tried a few times. This forest yields nothing willingly, resisting my intrusion with a vigor not unlike intent.

Walking the boundaries, I probe, absorb, soak up the physical sensation of my domain. Proprietary isn’t the right word for what I feel. Fighting through head-high salal jungle, my footing is so uncertain that my entire leg plunges through a hole between downed trees when I thought I was on solid ground. In my other hand I carry a machete, and I wear rubber-coated work gloves as well; Pacific Northwest second growth is all about thorns. The first time through, the loggers took the huge old firs, and the understory that sprang up on the violated ground is armed to the teeth.

I plot a course to walk, using an obsolete non-electronic compass, and I grapple with the confusion of map north and magnetic north. You have to add 25 degrees in this part of the world nowadays to make a map align with real life. How does that work? Apparently the point where all the magnetic lines converge—the pole that the molten iron at earth’s core pulls us towards— doesn’t stay in one place. I find this faintly eerie, since up until today, I had believed the north and south poles to be unchangeable touchpoints. If they can move, I’m not sure what I can depend on to stay put. On the other hand, if there were no charted grids and, god help us, no GPS devices, we would know our place only by familiarity with the actual ground.

I glimpse faded pink-orange ribbons far off through the unmarked wilderness: evidence that someone has done this before, but no proof they did it correctly. The sun is behind clouds, the whole sky luminous grey with no quadrants or lines of rising and setting. It’s so easy to get turned around. So easy not to believe the numbers on the compass when your own convictions point you somewhere different. If you start to ignore the compass headings because you place more faith in your internal sense of direction, you end up disoriented and familiar landmarks turn strange. At least three times I tell myself the compass must be wrong—and so my path makes a huge circle until certainty collapses in the rain. Eventually I stumble onto a familiar driveway, a quarter-mile from where I was sure I was.

So I start over, sighting and walking, leaving tape around trees as I pass. Like Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs. Sometimes the compass dictates a path so resolutely blocked with thorns I can scarcely make a forward move.

When I first bought the land, I contemplated paying for a survey because I believed that it would guarantee me an authorized domain: pure security, the boundaries delineating exactly what was mine, which eagle’s nest and wild lily. I harbored visions of carrying white rocks up from the beach to mark the lines all the way around the property. I’d been deluded as to scale: when you’re talking about 20 acres, that’s a lot of rocks to carry, but fortunately, I never got that far. People who’d lived here for a while told me to save my money. I found out that there are dueling surveys on record, and as a result no one on this part of the island knows closer than 50 feet where their land ends. You just don’t build anything in that margin zone.

My illusions of precision and security crumbled further as I also learned that any survey is only as good as the legal muscle you can call on to defend it. So, I could pay for a survey that shows me as the owner of a certain feature, but if someone else’s survey shows that I don’t own it, my only option is a court hassle. And even then, who knows? The best we’ll ever get is an approximation.

This was useful knowledge for living out here: that some things remain elusive. When I was a child, I was fond of specificity. I used to feel satisfaction on family vacations when we’d stop at state boundaries, and I could stand with my left foot in one state and my right foot in another. The whole world was, I assumed, marked off like a hopscotch pattern chalked on a playground. There’s comfort in believing that when you’re young.


Some urban dwellers still engage in fantasies of perfect margins. My ex-husband once told me he only owns his condo to the depth of the paint on its inside walls. The substance of the actual wall itself, beneath the paint, does not belong to him. Legally speaking, he can’t drive a nail into the wall of his living room because that would transgress beyond the boundary of what he owns. Everything beneath the paint layer belongs to the condo association or corporation or whatever it is. Ownership measured by the millimeter.

Out here on the island, we occupy an older, more approximate universe. The rough dirt roads were cut where terrain permitted, and they meander through various properties regardless of how the easement is worded. The legal description of the easement doesn’t really matter because the road is where it is.

I hear chainsaws on days when it’s not raining. A young couple has bought the land on the next ridge, and they’re busy with the task of taming a piece of ground on which to nest and reproduce. When I visit, the flannel-shirted bride is seated on a stump in the circle of slash and mud, feeding branches into the bonfire and penciling her vegetable seed order onto a catalog page. They are clearing to build the house they hope to move into before the baby comes, and already her shirt won’t button across her middle.

Together we walk along the zone in which our common boundary floats, to agree on what separates us, and create a flagged line together to pin down the edges. Although no building will be constructed near this line, they too crave definition, even if homemade.

Once we’ve set the line of blue masking-tape flags, I suddenly have the power to make a gift: two cedars, declining but still hale enough to yield decent lumber, stand on my side of our newly defined border. Now that they are mine to bestow, I am able to say yes to something I couldn’t ten minutes ago: a bit of open sky and some solid cedar beams for the new family.


This is a season for checking perimeters, and I do it a second time in the same month, on a different side of my land. The reason this time is to define a tiny bit of ground, a quarter acre, I’ve agreed to sell, so that the woman who owns land adjacent to me on that side can buy it. Once she adds the new fraction to her existing piece, she will own a legally divisible parcel, important for purposes of future lucre. The sliver I grudgingly pare off to sell is a long skinny strip which she will never be able to use in real life because it’s only roadside. In any case, the sale is barely meaningful because the margin of surveying error may be wider than the actual strip of land.

The money from this small sale lifts the weight of debt off my shoulders during a hard winter. The economy is giving way, the market for my artwork collapsing underneath my feet, and fueled by panicky media reports I tell myself that this real estate transaction does actually make sense.

Losing title to that scrap of earth bothers me for months afterwards, though, even though it’s only a loss on paper. In reality, I still collect firewood from trees that fall into the road from that strip, and when I order bay laurel seedlings I plant some amid the prickly roadside brambles. The land’s future official owner will never notice or care. I chasten myself with reminders that in the larger scheme of life my loss doesn’t count for much, and I work on accepting what’s already done, but I also make a vow to never part with another square inch as long as I live. It turns out that I have an internal map somehow indistinguishable from my body, and I still feel that small modification deep within me, even though nothing on the outside changed. You might not notice any external change if you sold a kidney, either.


The young surveyors are honestly befuddled when, without even conferring with one another, our often contentious circle unanimously declines their offer. They persist for a while in trying to explain themselves, apparently on the assumption that we simply don’t understand.

“It’s not necessary,” we repeat. “We already know where we all live.”

“But what about fighting fires?” argue the young men.

We patiently explain that street addresses won’t change the fact that outside help can’t get here soon enough to be relevant. That’s why we have our own Fire Brigade, minimal though it is. Nobody needs to know where we live, beyond the ones who already do.

What we all know but don’t say is that there is also a crucial subversiveness to living in a place with no street names or addresses. During the Vietnam era, when the draft authorities came for one island man, he received word that they were on the island long before they figured out where his house was, and by the time they arrived, he was up a tree in the deep woods. Without a place to spend the night, the authorities eventually left.

Our collective relationship with outside officialdom hasn’t improved greatly over the generations: we’re an ornery lot, many of us on the radical pacifist side of back-to-the-land ideology. Nowadays, ironically, we have more than a few things in common with the gun-toting, Armageddon-awaiting “preppers,” even though we arrived at that side of the circle by traveling counterclockwise.

Here on the far edge of the nation we can look across the ridged grey waters and see the trees in Canada. Boundaries between countries, but no boundaries of sovereignty that stop at our boats, our wallets, or our skins. The Coast Guard and Homeland Security stop the farmers repeatedly as they head home exhausted after Market Day on the nearby (American) island. Routine cat and mouse game: check everyone’s IDs, ask where they’ve been, why they’re out, where they’re headed, even if all the players recognize each other from the previous round.

“By naming things, you possess them, and we lose control,” one woman with a particular flare for drama announces to the mapmakers. What’s interesting is that the roads and paths here ARE named, or are at least describable. We do actually give each other directions fairly often, since new arrivals tend to find themselves disoriented for the first few seasons, but our addresses refer to trees, corners, stumps and fields, everything descriptive; even (classically) properties named for owners two generations removed from the present day.

Maybe the point is that we experience the land here as a seamless entity, of which we human residents form an integral part. When a group of island children once embarked on a 3-day trek around the island’s entire periphery, they were exploring the limits of their small universe. Property lines were irrelevant in their hike, except in the eyes of one family who fussed about not having given permission before the little band trekked across their domain. This was heartily resented by the children—and by some of the rest of us, when the story spread—but we can’t fence out the neighbors we disagree with, even if momentarily we’d like to.

The concept of desirable ambiguity is alien to the mapmakers, and the culture clash feels palpable in the meeting room even though nominally we all belong to the same society. It’s hard to convey that there is no necessity for the naming of places. In the end, the fiercely mysterious woods hold sway. The land lives, it resists and absorbs, it feeds and engulfs us in spring’s green flood. Within our sweet sea-bounded circle, much of what’s here is left to the language of wind through fir needles and the slanting warmth of sun in the evening. It is left to a glance, a shared history, a knowing. It forces us to create and work with intuitive boundaries which grow as imperceptibly as our flesh. We find only an approximate use for maps and lines and coordinates. Instead, we trade on deeper systems. Uncertainty becomes one of our working materials.

The mapmakers leave the community meeting defeated, even though there is a courteous smattering of applause for them at the end of their presentation. They head out to walk the pretty, nameless road back down to where their boat is tied up at the dock.

Betsy Sharp lives in the woods on a small island and writes as much as she can stand. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Quiddity.

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