Off The Map

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Original Air Date: 
December 09, 2023

Maps, whether drawn by hand or by satellite, reflect the time they were drawn for. How will the next generation of cartographers deal with challenges like a world being reshaped by climate change?


Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson was born and raised on the island of Savai'i. Rising sea levels washed away the small barrier islands that protected her home, eventually, forcing people to move — just one example of climate change disappearing islands in the South Pacific.

Google maps versus paper maps

The debate is cartographer today is about which is better — a paper map, or a digital one? Cartographer Mamata Akella argues that there are merits and downsides to both.

Anne's mental map.

Bill Limpisathian is a professor of cartography and specializes in a brand new field – map cognition, or how we use and see and think about maps in the brain.

phantom islands

Uzbekistani electronic musician Andrew Pekler is fascinated by "phantom islands" — islands that 15th and 16th century explorers made up to please wealthy patrons of their expeditions. So, he built an digital map of them, and added a soundtrack.

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- It's "To The Best of Our Knowledge," I'm Anne Strainchamps. In this hour, we're gonna be talking about cartography, about maps, which have been largely unchanged for a long time. But here in the 21st century, something new is happening. For the first time in history, we are taking land off the map. In the South Pacific, entire islands have disappeared thanks to climate change. Here's Samoan journalist, Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson.

- Lagipoiva means the sky of nine nights, so "Langi" is sky, "po" is night, and "iva" is nine; sky of nine nights. It signifies the number of nights that Tagaloalagi, who is the traditional creator of the Samoan lands, had to sleep to gather the strength to build the island we're from, which is the island of Savaii.

- Lagipoiva was a child when the local cyclones started getting worse. Rising sea levels washed away the small barrier islands that protected her home. And eventually, people were forced to move.

- A more recent example of communities in the Pacific that have migrated or disappeared due to sea level rise and the climate crisis would be in the Solomon Islands where six islands disappeared due to sea level rise. There were about 20 to 25 families that were then migrated to Honiara, which is the capital of Solomon Islands.

- The negative effect of intensified storms, rising sea levels, and ocean temperatures is being felt all over the world. But nowhere as strongly as in the South Pacific. The Marshall Islands are struggling to build new artificial barriers to block storms. Tuvalu's groundwater is contaminated by sea level rise. Most of the land in the Maldives is now less than three feet above sea level. Throughout the South Pacific, villages and entire tribes are being forced to abandon their ancestral islands, which brings us back to Lagipoiva and the Solomon Islands.

- They only depend on fishing to sustain themselves and for livelihoods. So when you move them to a town area that doesn't have the same type of fisheries resources, you're basically taking away a lifestyle, and also changing their diet and changing the way that they interact with each other. Because in fishing communities, there's a whole culture surrounding it, women go out at 6:00 AM and sit in the water and dig out the they're shellfish, right? And that's where they exchange information and they bond. So when you no longer are able to do that because you're now living in the slums in Honiara, or in really close quarters in Honiara, you've essentially lost that part of your community and who you are, and your children will never live that experience. And so therefore, you've changed their lives from there onwards due to sea level rise. There's this particular fish that they like to eat, that they like to catch off the coast of their island, but they're no longer able to do that in Honiara. And now they have to buy like tin fish. I mean, you lose these cultural practices that are built in to maintaining that fabric of that community. You no longer have that when you don't have the activities that go with it.

- Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson is a Samoan journalist native to the island of Savaii. She's documented the effects of climate change on the islands of the South Pacific in her podcast called "An Impossible Choice." And she sat down with Shannon Henry Kleiber to talk about what it means to be what she calls "an island journalist."

- Because nature is intrinsically part of you and of your upbringing, our names, everything that we do as Samoans goes back to nature. It was only then very natural growing up and finding my passion in journalism to then view it from this perspective of nature and of conservation and of, you know, saving the precious resources that give life to the culture that we have. So without all of the natural interactions of nature, say the trees, how the wind caresses the leaves of the trees, how the sun glistens on the back of fish as they jump and turn in their natural migration. All of those things are part of the metaphors that make up our language in Samoa. And so therefore, without those natural things, without nature operating on its own natural progress, we wouldn't have those metaphors. And so it was natural for me to then focus on environmental reporting and climate journalism. So my perspective is different. It's unique in that as an island journalist I can share the experiences of islanders, and those living, let's be real, on the front lines of the climate crisis on a daily basis, in a way that my colleagues in the Global North may not necessarily be able to share.

- Let's talk about geography and how climate change is altering the way we live. And I'm thinking about some maps I have. I have some historical maps, and throughout history, we think of things as adding, and now things are being subtracted, right, in maps? And we thought we were getting this clearer picture. And now this picture doesn't seem as clear anymore in maps. What does it mean for our culture and our society that places could be disappearing?

- I mean, if you look at a map and if you look at an island in the Pacific, a droplet of water is larger than your average island in the Pacific if you drop it on a map. As kids, we used to experiment and say, "Okay, the size of Samoa is maybe equivalent to maybe a Gecko pool." As kids, you're trying to like compare the sizes. And for a long time, our islands were not on the maps to begin with, because they were too small to begin with because they were too small And then it's only in the past, say, 20 years, And then it's only in the past, say, 20 years our islands, small as they were, on large world maps. To then get to the point where there is a very real possibility that we will once again not be on the maps and not by an oversight of cartography, but that of the reality that these islands, especially atoll nations of the Pacific, could viably disappear as a result of sea level rise and climate change. That is scary. Not just scary, but also extremely unfair for those who reside on those islands.

- But what happens, I'm trying to picture, an island doesn't just collapse on itself and fall into the sea, or does it? What does that mean when an island disappears from a map?

- But what does it really mean? Shannon, that is such a deep question. What it means is that you not only, it's not just a physical movement of a people away from their homelands, it is the loss of ancestral knowledge, of a spiritual sense of belonging, and often, identity of a people.

- Mm-hm.

- And it's just not one race. It is thousands of intrinsic and entrenched knowledge handed down by our ancestors. Those too will be gone if the lands go with it.

- So if the people leave and the animals leave, where do they go?

- So currently, international law has not set forth a precedent or a natural avenue for the people of the Pacific or those in atoll nations to find refuge. So there is no simple answer to that. Island nations have sought solutions for themselves. Some have created migration patterns uphill, where they do have places to go to. Other islands, like Kiribas and Tuvalu, have bought land in, you know, bigger islands, like Fiji, where they have larger land masses. So the volcanic islands, like Fiji and like Samoa, they are secure to a certain degree. But your atoll nations, like Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Kiribas, they are the ones who are having to come up with solutions, with temporary measures to see where their people can go.

- If the people leave, if they even think it's gonna be uninhabitable, then it almost makes it uninhabitable, because if they leave, then there are no people there.

- Exactly.

- So can you tell me about someone, maybe one particular person who had this experience and whose story really sticks with you?

- Vanessa Neuhausen, she's a mother who's entire home was wiped away in a matter of seconds during Cyclone Evan in Samoa. She lived on a floodplain with her husband and their children. And they had built for many years this small business. They had little warehouse. And when the flood waters came in, she had a moment where she had to decide, where they both looked at each other as they were grabbing their children, and the flood waters were rising so fast, and they were trying to climb up to the top of the building, she had a moment where she considered letting go of one of the children. And she didn't know, you know. As a mother, she was, you know, it's one of these things. And every time she tells me the story, she cries, and as any mother would.

- She had to choose. She thought she would have to choose one of them.

- Yeah, there's a split second where it's like, "I can't carry both kids. I have to let one go in order for the other to survive and myself to survive." And she shares this story in the most heart-wrenching way. And so it was then as they were sitting on the roof of their house, as the winds bellowed around them and as the floodwaters took away their life's work that they decided they were going to migrate to Australia. She lives there now with her children and her husband, but every day she says it's just not the same. You stand there and you just don't belong. But it is a conscious decision that she and her family made for the safety of their children, but also for a legitimate future that will continue to thrive without the threat of flood waters or extreme weather events taking it away from them.

- What do you wish more people knew about what was going on in those communities? You're bringing these stories to the forefront, but as we talked about, you don't hear it that often. What do you wish more people would know?

- To be very honest with you, after spending the last three years in the US, I see a very, almost like this sense that the nuanced experiences of those in small island nations, or communities that are very far from this place, they are not necessarily valued. And I understand that there's no validity or connection to, say, a New Yorker or someone from Wisconsin. But the reality is learning and knowing that there are entire villages, say, in Tuvalu, once or twice a year, they have to carry their children, their pigs, their furniture; all their electronics, like the fridges and ovens and so forth. They have to raise them up and put them on roofs and on tables for a few days or up to a week because of King Tides. Understanding that there are people who live within the parameters of the climate crisis, that the climate crisis has been real for many on islands for many, many years, but have never really been logical or a meaningful concern for the Global North because we don't hold the same influence in international spaces. You know, Pacific Islanders have been experiencing climate change and climate crisis for a long time, but have done the least to contribute to the problem.

- Mm, mm-hmm.

- So if knowing these stories can make a difference, I really feel that's something that's powerful enough that climate journalists can do.

- Right, and that it's not an answer just to say. "Migrate, move, leave."

- No, it's very nuanced. In my work of interviewing people who are cultural leaders, ambassadors, political leaders, people don't want to move.

- Yeah.

- And it's not fair to suggest or provide a simple template for islands to move. It's not a natural thing to say to the high chief who has governed his tribe or his village for years, following the footsteps of his father and his grandfather and so forth, it's not fair to tell him, "Okay, now you can come live in an apartment in South Auckland in New Zealand."

- Hmm. No.

- That is well being that person, not just of their house, of their land, but of the mana or of that spirit that they have to protect and to continue handing over the ropes of leadership and of chiefly knowledge and of cultural knowledge to those who come after him or her.

- If you move, it kind of feels like at least you're alive, but you've really lost enormous, enormous history and enormous cultural importance.

- I mean, in the series I did with "The Guardian" on "An Impossible Choice," we really looked at that question of it is an impossible choice. And Shannon, you put it really well in that you will live physically, right? You will be standing and walking and eating and doing the things you do as a human being to survive, but you will not have your family and your ancestral values and the spirit of the land that you come from.

- Mm-hmm.

- And I've written about this in the past. When someone dies in your family in Samoa, and many other Polynesian cultures, we bury them on our land. And in some cases, in many cases, they bury them in the house, because the dead is still a part of us. They're still a very much a part of us. And the land houses all of those spirits. If you can't move the ancestral bones, you also cannot move the spirit that comes with them. And so that's something you can't, that no scientist or anthropologists can gauge the level of loss when it comes to that sort of tangible cultural assets.

- Right. And still, I think there is a lot of climate denial now and a lot of climate grief. A lot of good people just cannot get their mind around it. And it's too sad and too complicated. But in your work, what I think is so interesting is it still sounds very hopeful. How do you keep that hope in the face of it all?

- There's two things you have to understand about Pacific Islanders. Now, first of all, our cultures are governed by laughter and sarcasm, and really inappropriate sarcasm sometimes. But two things come out of that, very light spirited people, is that, one, we don't necessarily grieve like the Global North does. Or we don't necessarily have this like sense of great loss or trauma associated with the climate crisis. Because when you live in that reality, you kind of just exist and survive each day as it comes. And you don't really have the luxury of time to question or to call power to account, or to do all these things that come with the Western approach to grief or protest and so forth. So that's one, that grief is not necessarily associated with the loss because that's the lived reality at this point.

- Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson speaking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Lagipoiva is a Samoan journalist native to the island of Savaii and creator of an extraordinary podcast series about climate in the South Pacific called "An Impossible Choice." The link's on our website at Coming up, wanna get some cartographers all riled up, ask them which is better, a paper map or a digital one? Don't go away. Our show on maps continues right after this. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We are at such an interesting transitional time in terms of maps and map making. Those of us who grew up with paper maps are still, I confess, struggling to adjust to digital maps. Meanwhile, our own kids can't even read paper maps anymore. Sometimes you can feel really stuck in between. Like every summer I drive from Madison, Wisconsin to Vershire, Vermont. That's a pretty straightforward route across Indiana and Ohio until you get to Utica, New York, at which point the geography makes the navigation a whole lot trickier. And there was a point this year where I found myself going back and forth between my old printed map and Google Maps on my phone. And the whole thing was just this incredibly frustrating experience. The map on the phone kept zooming in and out, and then it would suddenly reorient itself north to south or east to west. I would get confused, I'd grab the paper map, all while we were trying to drive. So I was complaining about this recently to Mamata Akella, the former president of the North American Cardiographic Information Society and chief cartographer for Felt online mapping. She makes digital maps for clients like the Smithsonian and the National Park Service. And after I finished whining about Google Maps, I confess to feeling like a total Luddite.

- No, no, I don't think that you are at all. You know, these online maps that you use on your phone are very much, we're so dependent on them to get from point A to point B. But I think you really highlighted a interesting thing by saying, "It was zooming me in, it was zooming me out. It was rerouting me," whereas your paper map atlas, you can get a more zoomed out view of "Where am I right now," like, "What are my options," whereas that map is just telling you where to go. Personally, I use a map on my phone to walk somewhere sometimes. I get lost a lot. I have to admit.

- No, really?

- Yeah, I find like using my phone map to walk is really challenging. I'm constantly like turning my phone around and trying to orient it to the way that I am walking versus-

- Okay, and you're a professional cartographer. I can't tell you how much better that makes me feel.

- I'm putting myself out there that I get lost a lot. And then when you're driving, it's just easy to trust that the map is taking you. We're almost like kind of giving up our own understanding of where we're going and putting full trust into this phone map or car map to tell us where to go, even if we're not quite sure that that is the right way. When I was in grad school, my thesis was on emergency map symbology for first responders. And so going out to incident command of a fire, what you see is like a trailer with a lot of people inside making maps. But what you also see are huge plotters everywhere, because they're getting the information from the field, updating the map, and then printing those out, making like a situational plan based on that. And I think paper maps are just nostalgic. Holding a road atlas in your hand, being able to see where point A is and where point B is and kind of the entire geography and landscape that you're going to be going through, so, and they're beautiful. I personally have a lot of old printed maps. I have them hanging in frames on my walls. I love paper maps. I don't make many myself, but I think they're really valuable still and will continue to be.

- Well, you were lead cartographer for the National Park Service for a number of years. And for a lot of people, those maps are iconic.

- Yeah.

- They're like the gateway for millions of us to navigating and connecting with those landscapes. The first thing you do, you show up at a national park, you go to the visitor's center, and somebody hands you one of those maps. And you talk to a ranger and decide which trail you're gonna take. But your job was to develop the first generation of the National Park Services web maps, you know, so no pressure. I mean, how did you hope people might connect with national parks using web maps?

- It was never meant to replace the printed park maps, right? But what having maps on the web enabled were rangers at parks to tell more stories. It was also a great way for live and updating maps. So if there's a road closure, if campgrounds are full, or if there's still space, Yellowstone and when the geysers are gonna erupt, like these are all realtime feeds of data that are coming in that can't be put on a printed map, 'cause obviously, you're not gonna print a map every minute. So it was just really a way for more stories to be told about national parks.

- You know, we were thinking about also the ability to represent in a web map change over time. There was a map, or maybe a series of maps you created that showed disappearing Native American homelands.

- Yeah, yeah.

- Yeah, so what was that?

- With that one, you could just kind of like slide through the different time periods to see how Native American land shrunk and shrunk and shrunk.

- An awful lot of people visit the national parks without realizing how much of those parks used to be part of native lands, and what happened and how they got pushed off. It's a whole piece of American history that's important, but often not told. And it's perfectly possible to visit any of the parks and not be aware of that history.

- Yeah, the mapping tool that we ended up building, again, followed all of the cardiographic standards of the National Park Service, the symbols, the fonts, and we created a tool that could be used by anyone in the National Park Service to help the non-technical people bring these stories to life. There's so many different types of stories that you can only understand spatially through a map.

- Hmm, I love that. Mamata Akella is the former president of the North American Cardiographic Information Society and chief cartographer for Felt online mapping. Oh, hey, before Mamata left, I asked her about this one other concept, something called a mental map, which she says any of us can make.

- Take a piece of paper and a pencil and draw a mental map. So, what is a mental map? If you take out a piece of paper and a pencil, it's not likely that you're gonna draw a map of the world. It's likely that you're gonna draw a map of places that you know and that you visit and that have been shaped through your experiences. We all have our cognitive map. It's not drawn on paper anywhere, but we have it. And there's no right mental map, there's no wrong mental map, because it's your mental map, and it's your world in your head.

- What that made me think of was for years when my sister and I were little, we shared a bedroom, and we were growing up in Buffalo, New York, but both my parents had grown up in Springfield, Missouri, Southwest Missouri. And for two kids, my sister and me, who'd grown up mostly in either cities or suburbs, this old white farmhouse on a dirt road in Missouri was the most magical place in the world. And we used to lie awake at night if we couldn't sleep, and we would essentially tell each other the story of going to Missouri to my grandparents' house. And we would walk through it mentally. So we would say, "I remember the car pulls up, do you remember the sound of the gravel under the car wheels?" "Yeah." And then, "Do you remember the sound of the screen door when our grandmother would push the door open to come out and see us? And then we would go inside. And oh, right, you walk up for crumbly brick steps and then you get inside, and oh, there's the wooden cabinet where my grandmother keeps all the crayons and the paper that we're allowed to draw in. And then you go into the kitchen and on the counter there's the old cut glass jar that belonged to her grandmother where she keeps those little mints that we're allowed to eat. And then you go into the living room, and there's the shelf with the arrowheads that my grandfather found in the field down the road," and so on and so forth. And we would, I don't know, it would put us into this wonderful space for falling asleep. And we longed to go and visit Missouri, and it kept it kind of alive for us during all the months. We only went once a year. So that would be my mental map. I could draw it right now for you.

- Yeah, that's amazing.

- The entire house and everything that was in it.

- Yeah, and I can tell just listening to you how much emotion and importance that that has in thinking of sounds and smells and landmarks, and yeah, that's amazing. Are you gonna draw it?

- I will draw it. And you know what, I will invite listeners to draw a mental map, and for listeners with Instagram, hey, put it up there. I'll put mine up, and yeah, we'll see what we can collect. Our handle on Instagram is "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Look for us there to see my map and share yours. From my office at Wisconsin Public Radio, I can just about see the geography department building near the lake. Bill Limpisathian a professor of cartography there, and he specializes in a brand new field, map cognition, how we use and see and think about maps in the brain.

- Yeah, we all have a mental map in our head. Say, like me walking over here from science hall two blocks down-

- Left on University Avenue.

- and arriving in the building. I've never been in this building. And like immediately as I'm navigating through this space, I'm already starting to create that virtual environment in my head.

- Head south. Left. North towards State Street.

- I'm creating that cognitive map based on the sensory information that I'm taking in of my surroundings, of the details, of the doorway, how we need someone to tap a card to get in through the elevator. And that sort of creates this mental model of that space, of maps in our head where I can begin to think about it without actually being in that hallway or in the elevator anymore. I can still recall the placement of those items, of those spaces.

- Imagine that you are looking at a map right now. Your brain is busy interpreting that two-dimensional version of a landscape and building a three-dimensional mental map. Steve Paulson wanted to know how we do that.

- So when I grew up, maps were things on paper, and I stopped at the gas station, and we got our free maps as we were driving across the country. And now it seems like most maps are digital, are online. Is there a difference in how our brain processes whether we're looking at a paper map or a digital map?

- As we've evolved as a society or developed, as we become more reliant on digital mapping technologies-

- GPS.

- GPS, yeah. Your Google Maps, your Apple Maps, ways that have made our lives easier, a simplification of our ability to navigate. We've also seen like marked decrease in our ability to navigate without these technologies, be able to think about the places. Because navigation and spatial cognition is very much like a learned skill, we're inherently evolved to think about spaces in certain ways, but if we don't use it, or we don't navigate and utilize these skills consistently, it's like a muscle, like your neuro pathways that are responsible for it sort of dwindles or new pathways stop being built, and people become less able to navigate on their own.

- That's fascinating. And it raises all kinds of questions. One is, I've always wondered why some people seem to have just sort of an inherent sense of direction. You're wandering around in the woods, and you've gotten all turned around, but some people know, "Okay, that's back to the beginning of the path," whereas other people are totally lost. Why do some people have a better sense of direction than others?

- Yeah, this sort of touches on a thing called the navigational reference frame, which exists in one of two ways, egocentric versus allocentric reference frame. And it sort of describes how we interact and navigate through spaces, right, how you find how to get home or think about where your office is. Egocentric means you use yourself as a reference for your spaces, so you think about places in relation to you. So like I'm here a few blocks away from science hall, which is where my office is, and I can sort of know generally where it is, and I can navigate based on that general reference versus an allocentric reference frame, which is a more almost bird's eye view, this mental imagery map of understanding of space where I can sort of take in the general information as I'm learning about environment and project it in my mind and use that as a general navigation sense. So most people will use both in combination as we navigate, but research has shown that everybody has a preferred way of navigating, and they will lean on one or the other.

- So for the people who have that good sense of direction, what are they relying on?

- In my mind it is, they're more allocentric inclined. They are able to retain and generate this general overview map of their spaces. They can close their eyes and think about the city they're in and the neighborhood they're in and go from there versus someone that's more, "I know that I need to walk down this road until there's a 7-Eleven and turn right and then... But I don't really know what the general layout of the place is."

- Well, it also makes me wonder about, you know, the famous indigenous Wayfinders, aboriginal people in Australia, or the San, Bushman in Africa, who can travel huge distances, and it's somehow all by memory. What would be happening in their brains to be able to do that?

- Yeah, in some ways it's similar, right? Instead of these complex street network, they're remembering the constellations and the winds and the currents in order to inform the decision making. But that sort of is almost reflective of this forgotten understanding that the way we think about spaces and maps, and even why north is at the top of it, whether it's on paper, on the screen, or in our mind is reflective of the Western societal understanding of spaces and directions and geographies that have sort of just been accepted as a de facto standard. But if we look at the historic context or other cultural context, there are other ways to think about spaces and directions that are very different from what we consider to be the Western perspective.

- In this non-Western culture, it sounds like the frame of reference is much more the landscape or the sky, or it might be the ocean. You create this whole map, but it also must be this phenomenal memory that, you know, can incorporate all of that so you can navigate your way for hundreds or even thousands of miles.

- Yeah. Yes, that's true, right? It almost speaks to this more complex understanding of the spaces. There's no street signs, there's no buildings that can be used as references. All of their references is more vague, but more complicated in that they need to be able to think about all these variables that we wouldn't appreciate really. In the West, we don't think so much about the wind, the weather, the stars. I mean, sometimes we do, but not in the way they do. We don't use it as this navigational aid, so it highlights that indigenous knowledge that we would really benefit from better understanding.

- So I wanna come back to our modern society and how reliant we are on GPS, which hasn't been around that long in terms of being accessible to the general public, just what, a few decades, right?

- Yeah.

- And I guess it does make me wonder, what have we lost? We're just plugging in GPS coordinates as we're driving along, and we don't actually have to know anything about where we're going. We just follow the directions. Is is there something significant that we're losing here?

- I think so. We're really losing the innate ability to create those cognitive maps instantaneously, becoming worse and worse at being able to explore new environments and generate that virtual map in our mind so that when we do get lost, we can find our way back. We've been so reliant now on just our smartphone telling us where to turn next.

- Does it matter though, as long as we have the smartphone? Are we just fine? We don't really need that cognitive capacity?

- I argue it matters a lot. A, the simplest respond, "What happens when your smartphone dies?" Or something like that. But B, as a species, we've evolved in a very innate way to be able to interact and understand our environment. And by taking away this learn experience of improving our ability to understand our environment, it has real repercussion in how we think and how we can understand the spaces we're in. If we're not understanding, if we're not thinking about navigating through space all the time, then we lose that important ability. And next thing you know, we stop being able to relate to our environment.

- Bill Limpisathian is a professor of cartography at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. So what do you do with islands that were charted, described, even explored, but were never actually real? They're called phantom islands. Coming up, one musician turned them into a sonic landscape, unlike anything you've heard before. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans engaged in what is often referred to as the Age of Exploration. the period when Europeans conquered colonized and enslaved indigenous populations all over the world, all in the name of building wealth. Some expeditions were funded by kings and queens. Remember Ferdinand and Isabella? But many ship captains funding came from those further down the food chain. And some were so eager to please those patrons, or just really bad navigators, that they put islands on the map that didn't exist, imaginary islands. And in some cases, those islands stayed on official maps for hundreds of years. Even until recently, they're known as "phantom islands." Uzbekistan electronic musician, Andrew Pekler is fascinated by them, so he built a digital map of them and he added a soundtrack. The whole project is called "Phantom Islands: A Sonic Atlas." Charles Monroe-Kane fell in love with the music and the audacity of those ship captains who created islands that didn't exist.

- What we know is that in the 1820s, a crew of a ship sailing under the English flag, I think, purported to have encountered an island 300 miles northwest of Fiji, and purported to have met a group of native islanders. The captain of the ship wrote down a report that they met the king of the island, exchanged gifts, and they noted a few of the characteristics of the native people of the island. Inscriptions on their arms and legs, they, you know, wear shells as ornaments, had some kind of paste smeared into their hair, perforated cheekbones and so on and so forth, a fairly detailed description, but there was never an island at or near this location ever found again. There was never a second sighting of this place.

- Why would someone make up an island? What would be the purpose of doing that?

- The reasoning there is, I think, basically avarice and greed and kind of wanting to spice up one's own biography. And you know, some glory, earn some glory, whether it's real or fabricated. There was no one to question these white European sea captains.

- Exactly.

- Their word was not to be doubted. If you're sailing for the British admiralty, and you come back and you say, "I spotted an island," it goes on the map.

- Let's go to Saxemberg Island, which to me has the craziest story of any island I read about.

- Yeah, this island was cited first by a Dutch merchant captain in 1670. And he came back with a description of it having a narrow peak with a column rising in the middle. A number of sketches were made, including the topology and the floor and the fauna in some detail. And then it gets really interesting because Benjamin Morrell, an American sea captain, who did actually purposefully invent several islands that did not exist, for the purposes of glorifying his own name and securing further commissions for exploration, recounts that he went looking for the island and concluded that it does not exist. So basically, this charlatan went about disproving the work of other charlatans, so to speak. But then, it emerges, later on, it emerges, this is the second twist to the story, that Morrell actually never went to the area where Saxemberg was supposed to be.

- Oh my gosh

- And he concocted the whole thing to maybe spice up his own story and maybe to give credence to the narratives that he was telling about the islands that he had been seeing, which in fact he had been inventing.

- When I hear you talking and talk about the word phantom and what it really means, yeah, it's this thing that doesn't exist that has a real world effect, right, that's the definition. And then I started thinking about one of your islands called Bermeja. It's an island where it just doesn't exist.

- Yeah.

- But its non-existence had a massive political effect. Can you tell me about that?

- Bermeja first appears on a map in the 1530s and is purported to be in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 80 square kilometers in size. But there are no confirmed sightings of it reported after the 16th century. But in 1997, the United States and Mexico are preparing to negotiate a treaty over status of, sovereignty over international waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican government actually sends a survey vessel to scan the area where Bermeja is supposed to be, with the intention of if they find the island, they will be able to lay claim to the surrounding waters. But the search turns up nothing because the island doesn't actually exist. And then some members of the Mexican Senate voiced their suspicion that the island may have been destroyed by the CIA in order to ensure US control over the offshore oil and gas fields in the gulf. And then they demand a further investigation into the possibility of be Bermeja's existence and warn of a secret plan by the government to give up exploration rights to US companies because they've been bribed. And then one of the senators who demanded this further investigation is driven off the road and killed by an assailant-

- Really?

- who's never caught.

- There must have been a moment, I don't know, where you're like, "Oh, okay, I'm gonna compose basically a symphony of music around each one of these places." Each phantom island, you have a song based on each island. And I'm just super curious, where did that come from?

- I've always been interested in and kind of a fan of this kinda musical genre from the 1950s called exotica. which was kind of a strange, and from a modern perspective, you could say problematic genre of music where essentially American easy listening, and I'd say light jazz and pop was kind of ornamented with instruments and other signifiers from the South Pacific, from Africa, from Latin America, but actually had very little to do musically with those places. As politically incorrect and tasteless, let's say, as this is from a modern perspective, nonetheless, it is very evocative music. Something like a modern translation of that was what I was interested in doing. And these phantom islands were the perfect foil for that because these are places that don't exist, therefore, there is no native music, there are no indigenous people to capture their music, their culture, their instruments, and utilize for whatever purposes.

- You were born in Uzbekistan in 1973.

- Mm-hmm.

- And at that time when you were born in Uzbekistan, that region was part of the Soviet Union, right?

- That's right.

- And the USSR was on a map.

- Mm-hmm.

- It was a major part of a map, right? And Uzbekistan was just a region inside of it, but it wasn't a country, it wasn't on the map. Now the USSR doesn't exist at all.

- Yeah.

- And it's not on any maps anymore. And it's not on any maps anymore. Maybe maps aren't really ever real.

- Well, I mean, maps,

- Well,

- I mean maps, they're always constituting reality, right? They're a tool and they have a certain authority but they're part of the whole machinery of political authority. of political authority. of showing the world, quote, unquote, "as it really is." But of course, they're always made from and by individuals or institutions with a certain perspective.

- For you, what does it mean in this day and age to get lost?

- Yeah, it's, I mean, hmm. It's a good question.

- Thanks. I mean, as probably everybody who thinks about this question will tell you, it's nigh on impossible to get lost physically these days. You are always with a map, and the map is always very accurate. It's on your phone and stuff. You have to really go out of your way to get lost. For me getting lost is, it comes back to music. That's the place when I'm making music or performing music by myself or with others, or even listening to music, there's a state that you sometimes enter, or you don't know where you are on the map, where there's no map. When the map falls away, the territory falls away, and you're kind of in a free fall. But it's a positive thing. That's a good feeling.

- A good lost.

- Yeah.

- Uzbekistani electronic musician, Andrew Pekler, on his work, "Phantom Islands: A Sonic Atlas." Charles Monroe-Kane spoke with him. If you wanna explore Andrew's "Sonic Atlas," we've got it on our website at "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by PRX. Charles Monroe-Kane produced today's episode. He had help from Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Batista, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hartke with help from Sarah Hopefl. Additional music this week comes from Nicola Boari, Jacob Silver, Te Vaka, Schemawound, Simon Gardam, and Johnny Ripper. The executive producer "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and come back often.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
December 08, 2023