Some hours later, in a hotel lobby, my companion set me with a task, as had become his habit: to recreate this journey, as well as that of five years past, in florid colors on the state maps that we had collected or, in one case, cobbled together from park maps over the previous days. For this, it befell me to design a symbology up to the task, to craft a language, to make from the alternation of five colors and an assortment of basic shapes a lexicon whereby not just ourselves, but others, could follow our time in the woods or on the road, in backwoods towns or off the coast or even at each other’s throat. Still, I feared that such was beyond me and chose instead to focus my efforts on linking the lands we had seen, on conveying just how difficult east-west or west-east travel proves in north New England.
In this way, I carved the land up in quite different fashion than that in which its inhabitants experienced. But this is not to suggest that my fashion holds less of a claim to legitimacy than theirs nor theirs than mine. When the time comes to divvy up a territory, to overlay a land with a grid from ends that we impose, little difference can be found between the lasting powers, my redrawings and even those evanescent kingdoms and societies which failed to hold.
At the airport, this point grew all the more muddled for me. Indeed, when sending my companion on his way at last, I paused before a small historical map, fixed to one column. The map owed to Champlain’s early 1610’s expeditions and outlined the Nouvelle France which he had envisioned in the New World. Like all old maps, the dimensions and landmarks that we know well suffer from distortion, today’s Ontario then Lac St. Louis, la Mer douce become today’s Lake Erie, Long Island descending from Île de l’Ascension, the epoch’s Cape Cod rather less fingerlike than its contemporary counterpart. In addition, notations suggested the presence of friendly, neutral or hostile peoples, the existence of bison or elk or deer here rather than there.
Apart from these seeming inaccuracies, its stylized lines suggested enticing possibilities, a future nation of New France rather than New England and all that this projection would have entailed, had not a rival projection superimposed itself. Why did New England take, rather than New France? No historian, I was poorly equipped to answer, save through vague appeal to the Seven Years’ War. But I could nevertheless take place in the contemplation of unexplored possibilities, of the forms that this evanescent nation might have taken with time. I could only guess at the forms of life that it might have brought to light with its unfolding, but I could take some comfort in knowing that it would have been other.
The same held for my recent fascination with the Danelaw, that swathe of eastern England coming under Viking control in the 9th and 10th century. For the curious, the period had left precious few archeological traces, save for a cremation site or two and others of a more subtle kind, in the way of place names particles such as “-howe”, “-thorp” and “Kir(k)by” and, facilitated by the lingering mutual comprehensibility between Old East Norse and Old English, an influx of Norse loan words like “sky”, “window” and “law” itself, of which certain survive in Northern English dialects.
Although the Anglo-Norse met its end in the Anglo-Saxon and the latter failed to hold its center before the Anglo-Norman, all of them were born of a collection of atoms thrown together and as subject to chance as any other such collection. Like New France, the Danelaw might have thrived in other conditions, yet, precisely, those conditions were not other. Then again, perhaps these collectivities, New French and Anglo-Norse alike, never truly left this world and have continued on in their own more virtual.