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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Phantom Settlements

A recent book club choice, The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd introduced me to a delightful concept, the phantom settlement. Also known as paper towns, a phantom settlement is a deliberately fake location placed on a map either as an accident or more often as a way to enforce copyright. By design, maps are intended to be precise, their accuracy their raison d’etre. For this reason, the outright theft of a map is theoretically impossible to prove as the copy and original should be identical. How then is it possible to ensure that the hard work and cost of creating a map is not stolen? Through the creation of a fictitious location buried in the minutiae of thousands of real ones. Any map that violates copyright would unknowingly include the fake location thereby proving its theft.


The practice of including such false locations may have begun as an innocent mistake in naming or the result of errors in surveying or drawing but as far back as the 14th century it appears that maps containing phantom locations were produced for a variety of reasons, not only to ensure authenticity but also to mislead invaders, disguise the theft of property, or as a private joke by the map’s publishers. Shepherd’s story rests on an actual incident—the inclusion of a phantom settlement, a town named Agloe, NY, located in an obscure part of the Catskills on a New York state road map. It was the invention of the owners of a small map company as a way to protect their intellectual property from larger rivals. The spin in this case was that about 20 years after the map was originally printed, someone built a general store named for the fictitious town at the precise location indicated on the map.

With the advent of electronic maps, and the precision afforded by GPS systems you might think that phantom settlements have disappeared, but you might be surprised to learn that if anything, they are enjoying a renaissance on Google Earth. In fact, creating fake locations, often with scatological names has become a bit of a game for some folks. It is quite easy to do, as Google allows, in fact promotes the creation of so-called pin drops marking the location of a business or notable site, the naming off which is entirely determined by the creator. None of these locations are vetted and spotting them is part of the fun for those who enjoy such pastimes.

My own experience with map creation and phantom settlements goes back to the 70’s when I briefly lived in southern New Hampshire. The property on which I lived was comprised of a few acres of open fields for silage, a cluster of buildings, some of which dated to the Colonial era, and over 250 acres of woodlands criss-crossed by the remains of old stone fences and bits and pieces of footpath. I took it as a personal mission to connect those footpaths creating several trails, building rudimentary bridges over streams, log steps over steep sections of the path, and where necessary cutting back brush and fallen trees that obscured or blocked the way. I also drew—to the best of my ability—a map of the trails and noted a few special spots--a large pond, a stand of particularly tall white pine trees, an old stone wall and a few other landmarks to help future hikers find their way regardless of the seasons, especially when winter snow obscured the path.


Over the years that I walked those trails, expanding and improving them I stumbled on a few unusual discoveries. One day, exploring a site near a very large and stately oak tree standing alone amidst black birch, scrub pines and saplings I noticed two lilac bushes not very far from the oak. Lilacs are not indigenous to New England, they were brought from Europe by early settlers, and finding two in the middle of the woods is incongruous. It was obvious they had not spontaneously planted themselves.


Subsequent research confirmed what I later learned, that it was the custom to plant lilacs on either side of the entryway of a home to bless the house and its occupants. I did not know this at the time but on close examination of the bushes I found the remains of a few man-made objects, including a few roughly quarried granite blocks that were likely part of a foundation. Nothing else signaled the existence of any structure—the boards and stones had long since rotted away or been reused. Nothing save the oak tree was recognizable. I chose not to make note of the ruins on my map—the opposite of a phantom settlement perhaps. I wanted it to remain a hidden surprise waiting for the observant to discover on their own. I like to think that years into the future some hikers will make the same discovery I did and perhaps they will add it to their map, but I hope not.


Maps offer the prospect of helping us find with unerring accuracy a destination that we seek. For the most part they do that quite well—although most of us have likely experienced confusion and perhaps annoyance when a map or navigation system didn't work as supposed. I have spent a bit of time unwinding myself from some very narrow streets in Europe when an electronic map steered me down a route that my instincts screamed was clearly in error. Such was my faith in the precision of the navigation system that I listened to the map and not my own internal GPS. And therein is the point of today’s epistle. Sometimes we ignore our intuition, our experience of life, and our instincts to follow directions that seem real at the moment even though we may be uneasy, or downright uncomfortable with where they are leading us. That's when we need to stop and look closely at what's around us. Sometimes, we are being directed to a phantom settlement—one that is devoid of substance and perhaps a place we should not go.

Maps, like many other tools we have invented to guide us are not infallible instruments and our error in treating them as such lies within us and not their makers. When we begin with the assumption that their truth should be accepted blindly, untested by the lessons life has taught us and the objective evidence before us we consign ourselves to walking a path that winds its way deeper into the darkness of ignorance and obfuscation.


When we lived in closer harmony to the truth of nature and the experience of an unmediated life we were better equipped to test the appearance of reality. But today we are encouraged to listen to voices other than those within us, to passively accept what we are persuaded is right and real, to substitute for critical judgement the facile tones of politicians, television preachers and pundits, and those who employ social media to misdirect and confound us. We don’t need a map to find the truth, it lies within us. We know that the way we are living is despoiling our planet and our future. We know that it is wrong to hate, to harm and to deny the rights of others—that there is no justification, ever, that is sufficient cause for doing so. We know that fealty to our faith, country, or party is meaningless without fealty to our fellow human beings. And we know that to be fully human we must find our way guided by the map of the human heart.

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