Distance: It’s all about perspective

Last week I wrote about how perceptions of distance differ between Europeans and North Americans, and several people wrote to me, saying they knew exactly what I was talking about. But I’m still thinking about those differences and how they can affect us, even though most of us today would consider the topic to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But within that Grand Scheme our understanding of such things can shape our perceptions and might even influence the way we behave.

I write historical fiction and I often find myself dealing with the ways people traveled in ancient times, focusing upon the time it would take a traveler, mounted or on foot, to cover the distance from point A to point B in a given country in different centuries, and the difficulties they were likely to encounter.

It’s important to be accurate about things like that. No one will ever know how much of our history was irrevocably altered, the destinies of people and whole nations changed radically, because some messenger, somewhere, was held up en route to his destination and didn’t arrive in time, or was killed, accidentally or otherwise, and didn’t arrive at all… That is the bare truth, and if we stop to think about it, it’s disconcerting: we can never know how many instances of major change, influencing entire nations, were left to happenstance because of the vagaries of travel in the old world.

Today, here in Canada, it’s something most of us will never stop to think about—we simply take it for granted that travel is travel and the world is small today. But it has only become “small” in very recent times, with the invention of air travel. When my wife was small, the journey from Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, to visit her grandparents in Kelowna, BC, took days of travel, and that was by train. And when I was a student in England, years later, the non-stop train journey from London to Glasgow took eight hours. Now high-speed trains make the same trip in just over two hours.

But the pioneers who crossed the American heartland in wagon trains averaged less than three miles an hour across the trackless Plains, hauling their wagons one at a time over impassable stretches of rocky land and scrub forest and across frontier rivers. At speeds like those, it took forever to get anywhere, and the reality was that any traveler, anywhere, was at the absolute mercy of the weather, faced with traveling conditions that could be impossible to overcome. That hasn’t changed, as is well known to anyone who has spent time waiting for flights to resume or highways to open.

The whole time and distance thing was originally brought home to me in my first year in Canada, in 1967, when I was talking to one Grade 12 class about a famous Scots battlefield close to where I grew up. I saw one student, his hair pompadoured like The Fonz, looking at me with a sneer on his face, his expression clearly telling me he thought I was lying. I called him on it, and as a result of what he said I ended up teaching an entirely different lesson than the one I had intended to teach that day. He thought I must be lying, because I had talked about all the famous places I had been and the historic battlefields I had visited as a boy. Nobody, he said, could have been to so many places and seen so many things as a boy.

And that’s when I saw the light and recognized the problem. So I explained how tiny Scotland is, showing the class on the big wall map that you could literally lose the entire main island of Britain—England, Scotland and Wales—thirteen times in the vast, unexplored wilderness of north Saskatchewan.

Then I showed them how the two medieval halves of Scotland—Scotia, north of the River Forth and Scotland, south of the Forth, were separated by a narrow, marsh-filled waist of land less than three miles wide, most of which was impassable bog before modern drainage techniques came into use.

Every army that ever invaded Scotland from the south and wanted to get into the Highlands and the North, had to go through that gap, and over the course of two thousand years, many battles had been fought there. I pointed out that the battlefields all had different names, but that some of them were separated from each other by little more than a few thousand yards of distance and it was there that time came into play, for two battles, half a mile from each other, might have happened hundreds of years apart. And Bingo! I remember I enjoyed seeing the light of understanding start to glimmer in several pairs of eyes that day.