Blogs by Hilary Hopkins


July 18, 2013 / Fractal Travel

So: fractals.  I never use images in these Notions posts, so I will have to use words instead.   Well, I will turn to Wikipedia.  It describes what is called the coastline paradox, the fact that “the measured length of a stretch of coastline depends on the scale of measurement…the smaller the [unit] of measurement, the longer the measured length becomes. If one were to measure a stretch of coastline with a yardstick, one would get a shorter result than if the same stretch were measured with a one-foot ruler.”  But at every level the coastline is still the coastline, even if you are down to measuring the ins and outs of tiny mounds of sand, do you see?

In the world of fractals, the idea is that no matter how small you go as you look at something, the form of the tiny is identical (or nearly identical) to the form of the whole.  The tiny and the whole are equally valid.

(I used to work at a place where Benoit Mandelbrot, the articulator of this concept, worked.  Forgive me, Professor Mandelbrot, for this simplicity!)

Well, so how could I travel fractally, as it were?

A story or two.  I have visited New York City many times.  One time, years ago, I accompanied one of my daughters to the apartment of a friend of hers, in Brooklyn.  Never been to Brooklyn before!  She and her friend had much to talk about, and I was tired.  Would I like to take a nap in the bedroom?  I lay down on the bed and looked out the window, into a huge and stately tree.   I spent, I think, hours looking into that tree.  I will never forget it.  That is Brooklyn to me, though I only saw a glimpse of it.

On a trip to France, a river trip, I yearned to walk on the land instead of gliding past it, unconnected.  At one stop, everybody else went to view a ruined abbey, but I had found a simple map which seemed to suggest a trail: my heart’s desire—a trail!  For several hours I walked the sweet land, reading the farmer’s posted signs along his property, and taking pictures of the poppies that grew in his field, there high above the river.  That is French land to me, though I only traveled a tiny fraction of it.

Vividly I recall the marginal, grassy airfield in Botswana, where we landed to refuel the 10-seat plane.  “We’ll leave in 45 minutes,” said the pilot.  I wandered down the road to a tiny shop; inside were fragrant mats woven of sisal, in sunny colors.  I bought one, and it was time to reboard.  That’s my Botswana, my fraction of Botswana.

Again it’s the token, the fraction, for the whole.  People come to see America and they may visit New York City, Washington DC and maybe Florida Disney or Los Angeles, and then they may say, I have seen/been to America.  We who live here would think that inadequate.  But what if they had spent their entire two-week vacation in one block of New York or one friend’s home in DC, or spent their whole time in Disney?   Even from those small experiences a traveler could learn so much, with mind, heart and senses open.

What does it really mean, “I have been to ---?” 

You have friends who know one part of you really well, and then other friends who know other parts of you.  But seldom is a friend who knows ALL of you.  True also from the friends’ perspectives: you know only parts of your friends, seldom the whole. 

So with travel.  Your experience of a place can be broad and cursory, or narrow and detailed.  Neither kind of experience is without value.  But to measure that entire coastline???  Impossible.  Just take the token for the whole.


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