Information slays dragons

When medieval cartographers charted the edges of the known world, it was a frequent practice to pencil in monsters in the areas that had not yet been discovered, typically a dragon-like figure. 

Our oldest known usage of the phrase “here be dragons” appeared on a globe produced in 1504, the area on the east coast of Asia bears the Latin phrase “hic sunt dracones.” In the face of the unknown, the early mapmakers used dragons to urge caution when venturing into those spaces. Since that time, “here/there be dragons” has been applied most uncharted areas of human exploration, internal and external. 

Eventually our ancestors mapped the entire world and the dragons disappeared. 

For a while, a few years back, I volunteered as a tutor to adults students working toward their GEDs. I was tasked with guiding students through language arts and critical thinking. While we had textbooks to rely on and prepare with, the hardest part of the job was finding ways to remind students why they were making the effort in the first place. 

One evening, I brought up the old maps and idea of dragon-infested, uncharted lands as a way to illustrate how others had gotten themselves through the struggles. Seeing the entire world took effort and time and exploration but, once the old mapmakers had the details pinned down, they knew their place in the world. That knowledge empowered them to change the world, or at least have more control over their small piece of it, in countless ways. 

I hadn’t thought about that night in a long time, but there were two instances in the past week that made me feel like I was trying to draw a map of the world without enough information. 

The most obvious one was the fires devastating the forests along the Cascade Mountains, as literal a dragon as we are likely to encounter in modern times. It started breathing smoke and ash into town Monday evening. Forty-eight hours later, I didn’t feel as though anyone was getting any better information than we had at the start. It’s improved with baby steps since then. 

During the first two days, the main sources of information everyone was told to watch – social media outlets of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office – were only updated a handful of times. 

One possibility is that things were moving more quickly or more slowly than I imagined and the rapidly changing, hellish colors outside the door were throwing off my senses. Another possibility is that those in charge didn’t feel there was the time to prioritize communications with anyone outside the blast zones. Either situation is understandable, but neither excuses the absence of more up-to-the-minute information. 

A third possibility is avoiding incitement of a panic, but panic grows as quickly in a void as it does in any well-oxygenated environment. 

At the same time that was unfolding, I had a high school junior at home anxiously awaiting the release of their schedule for fall classes. Salem-Keizer Public School officials and principals had told all students to expect their schedules Tuesday, Sept. 8. McNary’s schedules weren’t released until nearly 36 hours after the expected drop. There wasn’t a peep from the school district personnel as to what was happening or what caused the delay. 

Students throughout the district have already been deprived of so much this year that when the schools tell them they will deliver on a certain date, it’s going to sound like a promise even if that word isn’t used. Disappointment is inevitable to some degree, but the district could have allayed students’ fears with a few well-chosen words. 

One of these situations pales in urgency to the other, but both are illustrative of the need for better communication from our local leaders. Without information to tell us otherwise, human instinct is to conjure dragons in the dark spaces. No one wants a panic, but a regular stream of reliable information, delivered in the appropriate tone does not provoke panic. It slays dragons. 

(Eric A. Howald is the    managing editor of the    Keizertimes.)