Subscribe to our Blog

The map is not the territory

As a Boy Scout, orienteering was one of the merit badges I earned before I became an Eagle Scout. It involved my scout buddies and me using topographic maps to plot cross-country courses. Several of these trips took place walking through the pine forests of DeGray Lake, and we had to avoid getting lost on the wrong fingers of the lake. Even with our best efforts at reading the map, a time or two we wound up at the end of one of the wrong fingers. While we had a map, our twelve-year-old selves couldn't always translate what was on the map into what we saw in the dense forest in front of us.

On a later trip to rehash what we'd learned, our scoutmaster guided us along the route we were supposed to have taken. (He even gave us one opportunity to drop our packs. Knowing that he was a prankster, no one took him up on it — we were right not to, because we took a different route back). When we got to the spot where we took a wrong turn and wound up on the wrong finger of the lake, he explained to us how we'd gone wrong with our mapreading. In our case, it was better to have a guide who'd already been down this path, rather than a map drawn on a piece of paper to try and guide ourselves.

Even later in life, I continue to be an outdoorsman. When I lived in Northwest Arkansas, my favorite place to go was the Kings River (it still is, when I get up to that part of the country). One of the most breathtaking sites on this river is Kings River Falls. The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission has even established a Kings River Falls Natural Area in Madison County near St. Paul for ready access to the falls.

The map above shows the location of Kings River Falls, but you really can't tell anything about the beauty of the place from the map alone. You just know where it is. To see the real beauty, you have to get out into the territory and walk down the riverbank next to the walls built by Scottish settlers from rocks pulled from the jagged bluffs of the Ozark Mountains. You have to experience the rushing water for yourselves. I've done this on numerous occasions, and I'll share one with you below:

The map of Kings River Falls tells nothing about the icy-cold water numbing my toes, the freight-train roar of 10,000 cubic feet of water cascading through a tiny gorge each second, the sight of man-sized logs tossing about in 6-foot standing waves. Nor does a map tell anything about the most vivid memory I have: the wonderful scent of pure, clean, rich, fresh earth. I had to be in the territory to experience all these things.

Those early outdoor lessons also help in the practice of law. Most times when our personal injury cases go to court, a jury must chose between two stories: the treating doctor's story or the professional defense witness' story. The treating doctor will have taken a history, performed a medical examination, reviewed pertinent records, evaluated the impact of any preexisting conditions, assessed the patient's complaints of pain, and actually treated the patient over several years. In contrast, the professional defense witness often will have only read records for an hour or two.

The treating doctor is a guide who knows the territory. The professional defense witness is just some guy who has a map and — without having seen the territory — could very well be lost in the woods.