Old maps and compass

Book review: ‘Wild Maps’by Mike Higgins

Image credit: Sundaemorning/Dreamstime

A nature atlas for curious minds.

The result of a quick Amazon search for ‘Atlas’ pops up with… more than 60,000 titles! Among them are countless atlases of the world and world history; railway and road atlases, school atlases etc., as well as less conventional ones, like ‘The Atlas of the Heart’, ‘The Phantom Atlas’ (myths, lies and blunders on maps), ‘The Sky Atlas’ and even ‘The Atlas of Tolkien’s Middle Earth’.

Despite the constantly growing complexity of the atlas genre, its essence remains simple: a book with maps and charts. In this respect Mike Higgins' ‘Wild Maps’ (Granta, £20, ISBN 9781783787104) can pass for a classic specimen of the family: it contains dozens of colourful maps and charts which cannot fail to evoke interest among a very wide readership – from knowledge-hungry school kids to scientists and engineers. On top of that, the compact hardback is beautifully designed and easy to handle, as if asking to be opened and enjoyed.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the atlas, or any other reference book, is in what we can learn from it. Leafing through all sections of ‘Wild Maps’ at random, – from ‘Ancient History’ (‘When the English Channel was a mighty river; ‘The rise and fall of Europe’s forests’ etc) to ‘The Final Frontier’ (‘The 70 trees that have been on the Moon’ ‘How big is Pluto’ etc) – I have gleaned several facts which were previously unknown to me.

There are only two countries in the world – Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan - that are double-land-locked, i.e. not just with no access to the seas themselves, but also surrounded by the countries that are themselves landlocked.

There are just nine countries in the world named after animals, and they include Spain, from the Phoenician ‘the land of rabbits’, and Italy - from Ancient Greek viteliu - ‘the land of young cattle’.

The world’s sunniest places, with the highest photovoltaic power potential, are Australia and the United States, capable of satisfying 40 and 33 per cent, respectively) of their energy demands with solar power alone.

The world’s biggest consumers of dairy products are the residents of Montenegro (355kg per year each), followed by the United States (233kg).

The countries with the greatest risk of natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts and sea-level rise) are Vanuatu, Antigua and Barbuda, Tonga, Dominica and Brunei, in that order. Japan is number ten in that gruesome list, Philippines is number nine and Costa Rica seventh.

The countries where cattle, sheep or pigs outnumber people include Denmark (13 million pigs, 13 million humans), Brazil (218 million cattle, 213 million humans) and Australia (63 million sheep, 26 million humans).

Britain’s national parks cover an area 15 times larger than London.

And so on...

In all honesty, I find it hard to stop perusing this fascinating atlas, for accumulating and remembering seemingly random facts and figures, which - in their entirety - comprise a person’s erudition, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. For me at least, it is.

That undying hunger for knowledge (one of the main characteristics of true engineers), which was so hard to quench in the Soviet Union of my youth, where all information was under strict control, was behind my sizeable collection of dictionaries, atlases, encyclopaedias and other reference books. Those, mostly bulky, old folios do take a lot of space in my bookshelves, but no website or internet page can rival the joy of leafing through their pages, often faded and dog-eared, but still resplendent with the inimitable smell of history and learning.

I’ll now have to tighten up those books somewhat to clear the space for ‘Wild Maps’ – a welcome addition to my ever-growing collection. And although the festive season is still a couple of months away, I would seriously think of stocking it up as a great Christmas present for a true engineer, whose main quality is curiosity about the world.

Vitali Vitaliev’s ‘Atlas of Geographical Curiosities’ is published by Jonglez.

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