Cycling, maps, uncertainty – Jennifer-Lynn Crawford

Cycling, Maps and Uncertainty.

I have a particular flair for getting lost. I have many ideas about why this is, or comes to be, but they mostly consist of self-justifications for what is a skill highly under-rated in densely populated and constructed cities. How can I get lost around the corner from where I am staying in London despite staying in the same neck of the woods on every visit for the past 6 years? I know London is a big place – but I am not built like a goldfish. I do remember streets, houses, landmarks; just not, it would seem, in the same order as they appear on maps.

Doing more cycling in less familiar places has only increased my ability to get lost… I can now get lost very quickly. Because of a general reluctance to stop cycling once I am in motion, I tend to keep going, which means I increase the length of time it will take to ‘find out’ where I am. It also means I avoid consulting the map. Hence I get lost quickly and increasingly thoroughly when I’m not with anyone else. Another curiosity is that I tend to speed up if I feel very lost (rather than medium lost, or just plain lost) – probably out of a desire to find something that seems familiar (even if it isn’t).

Cycling with people that I feel to be both fairly skilled map readers and more experienced cyclists has been odd for me. There is always someone who knows where we are going. This in itself is a radically different way of being on a bike. There is also usually someone who knows where we are, according to a map, and occasionally, there are several people who have slightly different ideas about where we are/going.

I’ve been grateful for the fact that others understand how important arrival at a pre-decided final destination is and that they have hold of the map and not me. Particularly after mile 40.

Orientation is a question mark for me (it would seem); I enjoy not knowing where I am and/or having an ambiguous destination. This is definitely a useful thing, as I seem to have some internal scrambling device that activates whenever I get near a map. Or, another way to put it: my experiential map (how getting to a place feels/felt as physically sensed) and my 2-d map don’t communicate with a common language.


Language indicates ‘lost’ is a state, or a quality of a thing… an activity, a status, and also, refers to something past/no longer

“I got lost”
“I am lost”
“I will get lost”
“Lost and Found”
“Lost time”
“Lost in thought”
“I lost my head/temper/heart”
“A losing battle”

Lost is also gone – I lost something means that I no longer have it. To be lost in thought is to be absorbed (into something else). Maybe a base metaphor is that lost is not to hand? It is beyond my grasp, my knowing. Lost is taken (away) and lost is not-knowing. Lost is a state/quality defined by negation, as the absence of clarity or knowing. Lost is also a metaphor for death, the most permanent kind of absence. There are also, of course, winners and losers… ‘Loser’ being the preferred insult of my 10 year old self, if memory serves. Losing is less desirable than winning if not strategic in terms of games, arguments, money/possessions and vitality. But losing is hugely desirable if joining the body-commodification movement.

In being lost, I have lost my way – even if I don’t follow the map, I have a ‘way’, something that is mine. When lost to or in something, I am absorbed by the something to the degree that it becomes my compass. To existentialist-leaning sorts (like myself), this signals some shift in ontology, or how we ‘are’; there is less attempt at owning a situation and greater permeability to perceived elements in/making up the situation.

This is articulated in improvisation practices by Kent De Spain as ‘non-centred/de-centred intentionality’:

“…if I am commingled with the elements of the moment so that I do not sense or even care where the ideas and actions are coming from, I can go for a joyride, instead of carrying the car on my back.”

(feel free to replace ‘car’ with transport mode of choice)… but it is mostly the same phenomenon when lost-on-bike. Regardless, it is very hard to ‘lose’ this metaphor of purpose as destination and both as desirable. They indicate knowing.


Journeys make paths or follow them – paths are specific surfaces inscribed on the land. Paths are knowledge in that they tell us someone was here before – human or not, another creature has gone this way. In making a path from scratch, we make a statement to other pathway-takers that there is something going on. Obstacles are things or events that prevent us from following the path easily, possibly blocking it entirely. This is an easy relationship to draw across to our bodies and movement habits as well – those habits, those neural paths that we work daily (tooth-brushing, hand-writing, garlic-chopping) are pretty well-maintained paths. They are knowledge, knowing in moving towards destinations such as clean teeth and notes and a meal. We sense obstacles here when we cannot access our habitual way (such as using the same hand).

In my case, I am very skilled at becoming my own ‘obstacle’ when I have hold of a map – or I am very skilled at finding ways to avoid my destination. I’m not sure which it is yet. It might depend whether I think I’m going somewhere or nowhere. I seem to prefer the ‘joyride’ over carrying the bike on my back (i.e., aiming at the landscape from the map) and have difficulty negotiating the difference in ontology proposed by finding my way, rather than a-way (lost).

Maps emerge from the landscape… and then we paste them back on. This rests on our understanding of space as somehow structural – time flows, but space… endures. It remains. I reckon the land itself, as well as any creature blessed with any kind of perceptual system, would beg to differ that it remains the same. Space changes; space is always contingent and inhabited. Even if we refuse to annex space in terms of time, space shifts. Where does the notion of static space come from? A desire to get hold of something perhaps; to centre our knowing and make it portable within ourselves, or at least, something we can carry with us.

The notion of space as structure and thus inherently fixed is a particular Western/Euro metaphor. Attempts to address difficulties within this perspective go all the way back to Heraclitus and the river that we can’t step into twice. They move all the way forwards through Einstein’s Relativity to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and a choice to know about either a particle’s momentum or its location, but not both simultaneously. It goes past that through the popular acceptance of various versions of chaos theory, systems-based approaches, post-post frameworks… and where does it land in this work we are working on now?


How do we practice space – or practice with space? How do we space a practice?

These are two questions I keep re-arriving at from various activities over the past several years. To some degree, I’m still lost here. But of course, these are not the sorts of questions that prompt arrival at destinations.

At the moment, they propose that we need to consider location as un-fixed – as interactive or better, something that we are implicated in/by – which is a clear follow-on from any kind of environmental concern, yet one that isn’t made nearly explicit enough in current social/political climes. It seems that we spend a good deal of time trying to forget that spaces are not fixed – or trying to ‘fix’ them into staying. To know that we are affected by space (think cave vs. mountain top) is also to know that we affect space (think empty stadium vs full). How is it then ‘forgotten’ that if we don’t steward our spaces ‘well’ (perhaps in some kind of sustainable, or even more mindful, practice), our spaces will no longer be? In order to work with space, even just to take care of it, we need to acknowledge that space changes. Space is not fixed. Even leaving space as it is, it moves, it rearranges itself, displaces itself, as much as time – this might also offer some explanation of Western philosophy’s favouring of time.

I suppose I wonder what we look at when we are looking at maps. And if we are we looking at flat versions of space, what does that tell us about our feeling for space?

To be continued….

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