The dirt track between vineyards on the shores of Lake Geneva looked nothing like a road, but my GPS system insisted this was the way to my destination. As it turned out, the tractor-rutted road did lead to my friend’s house, but the route was neither the most direct nor the best maintained. On my map, though, it looked like any other road. The GPS offered no insight into how the situation looked on the ground, but the horse-back riders were visibly annoyed that I had chosen this quiet local path instead of the regular street, just out of sight beyond the closest field.
This post itself might ramble a bit off the trail–I don’t really have a clear map for where it’s going. I know how to read the kinds of maps I grew up with, the flat ones with lines, the ones on spheres. But as it turns out, those were never really accurate.
The dimensions were off from the beginning. We all know that Africa is much, much larger than Greenland or North America, but somehow, the older maps made them all look remarkably similar in size. And although the Earth is a sphere floating in space, most global maps were printed from a perspective that always put the North at the top.
A map developed by Hajime Narukama in 2016 approaches those problems be re-orienting a map that isn’t defined by north and south. What we get is a variety of maps in which the Earth can be viewed from any point of departure – a map of the world as seen from Peru, or Tonga, or Hawaii. It’s surprising just how disorienting it is.
One thing about the old, traditional maps was that they had skewed perspectives that were more suited to navigating across seas (their main original purpose, I guess) than understanding a place that’s been a part of a culture’s history forever (like these amazing Inuit navigation maps made of wood).
Another thing was that even early navigational maps portrayed places as the map-makers wanted others to see them. Early European maps of the New World painted a picture of the resources there for the taking, and the strangeness of the people who lived there, as if there had been no history before these maps were made. As territory was mapped, maps were used to define the territories, the ownership, the laws.
It’s said that history is written by the victors. Well, the same might be said of traditional maps. (Online maps, it could be argued, are written by advertisers, but that’s a post for another day.)
It’s one thing to see a place on a map; it’s entirely another to be in that place. Sometimes, we need a completely different kind of map.
There’s been a project underway for several years to redraw the maps of traditional Zuni lands in the American Southwest. Called counter-maps, the maps are intended to “reclaim the names of Zuni places and depict the land of the A:shiwi as they know and see it, immersing the viewer in a landscape interwoven with culture, story, and prayer.”
Will these maps help you find a specific town? Definitely not if you don’t already know where it is. That’s kind of the point.
I recently learned of a study that looked into how migrating birds find their way across continents, something we humans have only been able to do with any kind of accuracy for a fairly short time. Yet birds can aim for specific beaches on either end of the planet. What do their maps look like?
An international team of researchers has found that some migratory birds are using a magnetic navigational map, an internal compass that allows them to know where they are in terms of longitude. The study suggests that this internal magnetic map (which might be shared across many other species besides birds, such as turtles) could be combined with the experience of making the journey with adult birds, the night sky, and perhaps even smells, to provide guidance to animals finding their way to summer and winter grounds.
This is the visualization that the researchers made of the magnetic map possibly used by the reed warblers used in the study.
I wonder if we could even comprehend what a reed warbler’s map might really look like. In any case, it would be much closer to the Zuni maps of memory and story than our maps of lines and dots. There must be so much data and knowledge built into every little warbler’s mind map of the world.
What kind of map would the locals of the Swiss village where I drove down the wrong road make that could have kept this stranger from getting lost in the vineyards? What kind of map would chart the place memory of my old French village for all the newcomers and old-timers?
What if our maps could transcend their supposed objectivity and truly chart Memory Lane?