Bill Arnott’s Beat: Original Art

To my delight I was contacted by the Royal Geographical Society in London, informing me I’d been granted a Fellowship in their venerable group of professionals. The Society’s mandate: to advance geographical knowledge and education around the world. Despite its age, there’s a surprisingly modest number of Fellows. This privilege requires nomination by another Fellow, that nomination then put to a Board for approval based on nominee accomplishments in the field. Qualifications are a function of experience and expertise in exploration, discovery and educating others through writing, teaching, and speaking. Fellows are a unique group—career adventurers like Charles Darwin, David Livingstone (Doctor Livingstone, I presume? That one), Scott and Shackleton, along with modern-day experts like BBC’s Nick Crane, Microsoft’s Kate Edwards, and globetrotting Python Michael Palin.

The first time I visited the Society’s base of operations in South Kensington I was halfway through my Gone Viking: A Travel Saga odyssey—researching, writing, and absorbing everything I could in the genre, my travels at that point taking me across most of Europe, Scandinavia and around the Mediterranean. I was about to embark on another couple of years of Arctic exploration, spring-boarding from Norse UK outposts to Iceland, Greenland and the “New World,” which for my purposes was Newfoundland and Labrador.

As a Society member one gets access to a remarkable array of resources—lectures and research material, what I liken to an adventurer-explorer’s seat at the grownups’ table. Kate Edwards is a great example of an RGS Fellow, a map-making geographer from Seattle who made her bones as part of Bill Gates’ cadre in the early days of digital replacing paper, that leapfrog from Encyclopedia Britannica to Google Earth and the subsequent explosion of gaming worlds—new age, virtual versions of Narnia and Middle Earth.

As part of an illuminating discussion, Kate said something profound. ”Maps,” she explained, “are the original art form.” I’m paraphrasing, but this was close to what she said. Resonating words. Perfectly logical. At the same time, our hairy ancestors first reimagined the world through artistic expression on cave walls by way of red clay handprints, likenesses of Neolithic neighbours and sketching a mammoth, the next artistic rendering in human history was a map—landscape imagery—the physical world we know and that bit just beyond, where we long to see but haven’t yet been, those blips on the cusp of comprehension and dreams where dragons live on turtles’ backs and myth and lore collide. That, in part, is the artistry of geography, cartography, and maps, all of it fuelled by a desire to explore, experience, and learn.

Since day one (or possibly later that week) maps have been imperative—interpreting the world around us, topography, flora, fauna, what and where we scavenge and hunt to feed, clothe, and shelter our tribe. We require the efforts—at times speculative and imagined—of mapmakers, explorers and geographers, predecessors and offspring of the RGS.

Geography, however, means much more than simply plotting routes from A to B. Mapmaking—a facet of the field, entails endless information, from socioeconomic to political content, demographic to environmental. To collect and disseminate vast quantities of complex data, creative insight and artistic interpretation are essential, London’s Underground Tube map perhaps one of the most familiar and best examples of this. There in fact is no realism in the medium. It could be one of the most-used reference guides that is itself a piece of abstract cubist art, with no relative accuracy in size or scale. And yet it guides us, literally, on journeys of our choosing, providing comprehension as a result of one creative individual’s use of the surreal to communicate, turning the intangible into tangible through colour, lines, and two uncomplicated dimensions.

In our way, all of us are geographical explorers, finding new ways to interpret the world—destinations, directions, and disseminating particulars into relatable and useful information. The fact that there’s a brilliant old Society of women and men devoted to ensuring this unique blend of art and science continues to reach new adventurers and inquisitive minds not only warms my heart but tickles the wanderlust that I feel makes us who we are—modern-day hunter-gatherers, students, explorers and artists one and all—finding our own metaphorical cave walls on which to leave our mark.


This was first published in New Reader Magazine (New York, London, Hong Kong, Philippines).

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel SagaGone Viking II: Beyond BoundariesGone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.