Maps on crack

To know me is to know my fondness for maps.

It’s a relationship that goes way back. As a five-year-old, during the summer between kindergarten and First grade, I had a map of the US on the wall over the head of my bed. By the end of that summer, I could point to and name the 50 states, and I could name their capitals from memory. Mind you, as I was pretty new to the whole reading thing, my capacity to “sound it out” would come off the rails, and hilarity would ensue. Washington’s capital came out OH-lim-PIE-ah, and the seat of government for Vermont was deemed to be “Multiplier.”

I’ve never really thought about it until now, but I honestly have no clue how it would have dawned on me that ‘multiplier’ might have been a valid word worthy of putting on the table for discussion. I often describe myself as having been an odd little kid, and I’m sticking with it.

I suspect that what set me up to really dig the map-as-document was the fact that we moved around the country during my early years, as my father continued his professional graduate studies after the arrival of my brother and me in 1965 and 1966 respectively. By the time we returned to central Maine for good in ’73, I’d lived for a couple years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and before that, as a truly wee shaver, in New Orleans. Possibly as an alternative to a steady stream of “are we there yets?” I got introduced to the map. And I developed an early appreciation for getting a visual bead on where we started out, where we were heading, and where we’d find ourselves along the way from point A to point B.

For sure, my studies in geology and geography, and that chunk of my professional life during which I was working in the environmental sciences required me to work with, interpret, and create maps. The USGS 7.5 minute Topo was as critical a piece of equipment as any of my soil and water sampling tools. I still have my now more than 20-year-old copies of the Bedrock and Surficial Geological maps of the State of Maine. I’ll concede: I bought them because they’re absolutely gorgeous. As in: “Ooo! Pretty colors!”

But their beauty never crowded out their capacity for meaning. I could point to you the broken, curvilinear red feature on the surficial map, tell you that it’s an esker (a snake-like deposit of sand and gravel deposited by glacial meltwater), further point out that this particular esker ran through my hometown, and in a fit of longwindedness, offer up that eskers–being excellent aquifers as well as very popular locations for town dumps back before we knew what we now know about how groundwater behaves–were at the root of the pretty significant public water quality issues that used to exist.

I observe, understand, and appreciate the evolution of technology that’s at our disposal, and see that the paper map is a less relevant tool for many as adaptations of GPS technology become more prevalent and their use widespread. That specific trend makes me a little wistful, but I’ll just have to comfort myself that as with the printed book, the printed map will remain in some demand.

And surprise developments may yet come our way.

I stumbled across a sidebar nugget in a recent issue of Good Magazine (and I cannot recommend this publication highly enough) that absolutely delighted my inner map geek. Assuming you’ve not yet met, allow me to introduce you to Radical Cartography.

The folks behind this surprising and intriguing effort speak better to the topic than I could hope to, so I will borrow from their description of what they’ve done to illustrate:

An Atlas of Radical Cartography is a collection of 10 maps and 10 essays about social issues from globalization to garbage; surveillance to extraordinary rendition; statelessness to visibility; deportation to migration. The map is inherently political– and the contributions to this book wear their politics on their sleeves.

An Atlas of Radical Cartography provides a critical foundation for an area of work that bridges art/design, cartography/geography, and activism. The maps and essays in this book provoke new understandings of networks and representations of power and its effects on people and places. These new perceptions of the world are the prerequisites of social change.

This is not mapping as navigational tool; rather, this is mapping as an exercise in representing and in understanding the world we find ourselves in in a novel light, and quite possibly (and, in fact, hopefully) within a framework that had not readily come to mind.

Especially pleasing is that the mission of radical cartography puts the call out to cartographers and demographers, yes, but the invitation doesn’t stop there. Social critics, activists, and especially artists play a key role in offering these documents that are intended to jar us into thinking differently, expansively, and to view the spaces we live in and work in and move through alongside others who are sharing this human condition with us in entirely new, and possibly shocking ways.

On a lark, I entered radical cartography as a search term, and found this too. Yet more good, tasty mapaliciousness!

I matriculated into a geography graduate program without having armed myself with a really good working definition of what geography is. Fortunately for me, they tended to that during the first week, and it’s stuck with me: Geography is essentially the study and documentation of how human systems interact with and organize themselves on the surface of the earth.

It’s a wonderful, nutty planet, and/but kooky things are afoot. I find it necessary that our mapmaking should follow suit.

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About dave bois

Freelance writer with a strong pull towards environmental matters (water issues especially) that remains fueled by my study of and early-career practice in geology and hydrology. Music, food, dogs, current/political events, and visual arts combine to command much of the portion of attention not ceded to ecological concerns. Also Monty Python. I've sold a few pieces of original art and have made cab fare home playing saxophone. Native Mainah

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