Tactile Topography

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These maps, sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kunit in the 1880s. Kuniit's wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland. Source: Visualising Data

These maps were sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kuniit in the 1880s.
Kuniit’s wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland.
Source: Visualising Data

I came across some maps the other day and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since.

Carved wood maps are well-known Inuit instruments of cartography, made to navigate the coastal waters and inland areas of Greenland. The maps are read by feeling along each ridge, and are legible up one side and down the other for a continuous journey.

The tools are hand-held guidance systems for specific journeys that would be almost illegible to those of us accustomed to paper.

These are maps made for specific journeys, to be read by those who had been there and passed on, or rather, taught, to those who were going. Experiential maps based on being there rather than description. An object that contains sight, sound, touch, all ready to fit into a mitten.

Less a visualization than a finger-felt stroll through a long path.

In English, the caption reads: "Kuniit's three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik." Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

In English, the caption reads: “Kuniit’s three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik.”
Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

Consider the knowledge of place that is required to craft a map of this kind.

How many places do most of us know as well, using our conventional maps and paths through life?

When I was a teenager, I spent some time living in the dense forests of coastal Marin County, California. We lived in cabins that were almost a mile from the main road, up a steep and rutted dirt road that twisted and turned between bay trees and ferns, no grading or gravel. No electricity, no street lights. No neighbors.

Every so often, walking back from the closest village of Inverness, I would arrive after sunset.

Being a forgetful teen, I rarely remembered to bring a flashlight. Read: Never. So I walked the road in the dark. Barefoot, so I could stay on the soft dirt of the road and not accidentally wander off into the soft fringes of moss and low plants on either side. Once the road was gone beneath my feet, it was gone for a panicky while.

That happened only once, the first time. After that, I got to know the curves and switchbacks, the ruts and the touchstone trees, well enough make my way up the hill without incident. Read: Safe arrival.

Seeing these wooden Inuit maps, I wonder if I would have been able to carve that road into a tool that I could have used, even without bare feet. I knew the road well – but how deeply had I made it a part of myself, as these maps must have been to their makers and users?

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link. Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link.
Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

2 responses »

    • I feel like I had seen them before but not really registered how amazing they are. There are so many different kinds of object maps from different cultures, each wonderful and amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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