In April, Alastair Bonnett tried to reach a new volcanic island in Tonga when a cyclone intervened. His work uncovering new islands as well as hidden enclaves, utopian societies and even rumored or magical places fills his new book “Beyond the Map” (University of Chicago Press). A professor of social geography at Newcastle University in England, Mr. Bonnett crosses cultural and psychic cartography with the literal kind.
“I want to rediscover the world around me as unique and enchanting,” he said. The book’s discoveries chart shifts in geology, climate, politics and culture with an optimistic sense of wanderlust. The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Mr. Bonnett.
Why are new places emerging, especially in the Arctic, and how discernible are they?
A lot of the Arctic Circle was pushed down by miles of ice many tens of thousands of years ago. Much of that ice is gone and going quite rapidly, so the land is bouncing back and we’re finding new islands emerge in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Europe. They have so many new islands coming up that there are land disputes arising over whose island is this. There are accounts of people in Alaska in a lifetime being able to say this land has now extended a whole couple of acres out to the sea. The world is tilting in terms of its habitability. A lot of the tropics are becoming less habitable and submerged under the sea and the very far north is producing more habitable space.
You describe language enclaves as a kind of island. How are the Ladin Valleys unique from Italy?
When you get high in northern Italy, you come to an area which is a language kaleidoscope on the border with Germany. Ladin is the survival of the ancient Latin tongue. Because the valleys are so steep and because there’s been little communication or few roads for so many years these languages have survived in confusing profusion. Once you start paying attention to those types of distinctions then the area becomes so much more culturally rich. Despite the tourist ski resorts, which can seem homogenizing, you can have a skiing holiday that’s about exposure to languages.
How has the countercultural settlement of Christiania managed to thrive in a global capital like Copenhagen?
Christiania is the second biggest tourist draw in Copenhagen now. It’s this beautiful, bucolic part of Copenhagen, full of trees and lakes and mostly they’ve built their own houses from discarded remnants of other houses. Christiania attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists. It’s their relationship to this place that has meant that the city government of Copenhagen wouldn’t get rid of it even if they could, because it draws in so many people, so many tourist dollars. I think it’s also a source of pride that shows just how tolerant they are.
Why do you consider the sprawling Shinjuku Station in Tokyo a “ghostly place”?
There are legends associated with this very large railway station, that commuters would get lost in it and never make it home. The idea of trying to find that ghostly presence of lost commuters really intrigued me. I went deeper and deeper through the umpteen, countless levels. It draws you down and lulls you and it gets quieter and quieter, and then you do find faces of Japan which you don’t really encounter on the surface. I encountered people who were hiding from the very smiley and efficient world of Japanese society up above. People wanting to find some shelter and quiet. It made me think of how we in the big modern city need quiet individual places for solitude, and how easy it is to imagine the city swallowing us up and reducing our identity.
After reading your book, I began to see maps as temporary. True?
It used to be thought that the political map was fluid but certainly the physical map won’t change. But now we don’t think that so much as we see sea levels change, the ice melt, new islands come up. As we learn more about the way continents shift around, then we start to appreciate even the physical geography on that map is not going to be the same in 100 or even 50 years. Change is speeding up.