In 1863, Max Vigne travels to the Himalayas to survey the mountain range with the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India as a plane-tabler. He's left his pregnant wife at home in England with their toddler, Elizabeth.
Max becomes most interested in geographical botany and eventually, despite the hardships, wants to remain another year. The reader watches as a man evolves and changes in his habitat just as the plants he observes have adapted over time. Max and Clara are so close, so necessary she is to him, as a young married couple that he explains their relationship as follows. "I can only make sense of my new life the way I have made sense of everything, since we first met: by describing it to you. That great gift you have always had of listening, asking such excellent questions--when I tell you enough to let you imagine me clearly, then I can imagine myself."
Then later his feelings have evolved. "Now we are apart, trying to maintain our connection over this immense distance. Trying to stay in touch without touch; how that effort changes us. Perhaps even deforms us."
Then he applies to their relationship that which happens in botany. "Only now do I begin to grasp the principles of growth and change in the plants I learned to name in the woods...through all these transformations one can still discern the original morphology...In our separation our lives are changing, our bond to each other is changing."
Max wants more and more to further his knowledge yet feels torn because he always wants to be home with Clara and their two children. "But he would like also to feel that he has broadened himself." And, "He is no longer the person she wrote to, almost a year ago now." And, now his seeing "is becoming more important to him than anything." He's turning into someone he doesn't recognize.
And finally, Max formulates the question that applies to both people and plants. "How do the species that have risen here differ from those in other places? How do they make a life for themselves, in such difficult circumstances?" He plans to break it to Clara gently, in stages, that he wants to remain in the Himalayas for another year.
The descriptions of the mountains and glaciers and stories of warring parties and the lengths men will go to for companionship round out the story. It's a wonderful depiction of a man in a harsh landscape trying to answer and formulate questions about life and adaptation and evolution.
Andrea Barrett has taken several historical people and events and fleshed out their adventurous stories with her imagination.
"Servants of the Map" was first published in Salmagundi in the fall issue of 1999/2000, No. 124/125. Then it was included in both the Best American Short Stories anthology as well as the O'Henry Prize Stories. "Servants of the Map" is the first story in the collection of the same title.