Shifting Perspective

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.

Wyeth, map, discovery, cartography, 16th century

Map of Discovery (1928): This 1928 map depicted the political boundaries of the time, created in the style of 16th century mariner’s charts.
Artist/Source: N.C. Wyeth/National Geographic

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.

authagraph, cartography, Narukama, globe,

Authagraph map (2016).
According to its creator Hajime Narukawa, the AuthaGraph map “represents all oceans, continents including Antarctica which has been neglected in many existing maps in substantially proper sizes. These fit in a rectangular frame without interruptions and overlaps.”
Source: Interesting Engineering

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.

Counter-mapping, cartography, Zuni, Colorado River, Larson Gasper

Little Colorado River (2009)
Artist/Source: Larson Gasper/Emergence Magazine

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.

Migration, map, warblers, cartography, magnetic fields

Magnetic Intensity and Magnetic Declination Form an Excellent Bi-coordinate Grid in Some Parts of the World.
The map shows magnetic declination isolines (red; degrees) and total intensity isolines (blue; nT) based on US NOAA National Geophysical Data Center and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. The breeding range of Eurasian reed warblers is shown in yellow. The black curve indicates the autumn migratory route of a typical Eurasian reed warbler from the Baltic region based on ringing recoveries.
Source: Nikita Chernetsov, et al./ Forbes

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?

Counter-mapping, cartography, Zuni, Duane Dishta

Journey of the Zuni Ancestors to the Land of Everlasting Summer (2008)
Artist/Source: Duane Dishta/Emergence Magazine





Embroidered Learning

I had to learn two very different skill sets as a girl: needlepoint and geography. Who would have thought that at one time, girls were expected to learn the two together? What an unexpected interdisciplinary education!

needlepoint, solar system, quilt, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery

Solar System Quilt (1876)
Wool, cotton, silk.
Made by Ellen Harding Baker
Source: National Museum of American History

Among the women in my family, right up to my generation in the 1970s, needlework and yarn work were considered part of a girl’s education. Cross-stitching, needlepoint, embroidery, crocheting, knitting, darning, quilting – I had my own set of embroidery hoops, knitting and crochet needles, a range of needlepoint needles and a rainbow of thread by the time I was 10. And yet, my grandmother was disappointed that my lace-making skills had been completely neglected – a real shortcoming on the part of my mother, who to my knowledge never finished a single project. Mom hated every stitch, but it was just something she had been expected to do – and she expected me to have the same skills.

needlepoint, globe, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery

A Map of the World from the Latest Discoveries (c. 1790-1815)
Silk embroidery on silk backing.
Made by Mary Ann Wood.
Source: George Glazer Gallery

What else did we have to learn? Geography. Specifics for the United States, generalities for every place else. I still know my Fifty Nifty United States song to help memorize all fifty states in the Union – drilling the names of the capitals and main rivers of each state was a prerequisite to finishing fourth or fifth grade. I remember enjoying poring over our Atlas of the World, a massive tome that required its own shelf. Back then of course, it was all drawn maps on printed paper, not satellite images on a screen.

But if needlepoint and textile abilities have always been expected of girls – as much to keep them busy as for practical reasons – then geography and education were out of their reach for a very long time.

A book I discovered after seeing the globe below explains how the two unlikely subjects came together. Judith A. Tyner’s book, Stitching The World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, describes how

From the late eighteenth century until about 1840, schoolgirls in the British Isles and the United States created embroidered map samplers and even silk globes…that were designed to teach needlework and geography. (…)The events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries stimulated an explosion of interest in geography. The American and French Revolutions, the wars between France and England, the War of 1812, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the explorations of Lewis and Clark made the study of places exciting and important. (…)In this light, map samplers and embroidered globes represent a transition in women’s education from ‘accomplishments’ in the eighteenth century to challenging geographic education and conventional map drawing in schools and academies of the second half of the nineteenth century.

needlepoint, globe, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery

Globe sampler (1815)
Ink and silk embroidery on silk and wood.
Made by Ruth Wright,
Westtown, Pennsylvania
Source: Common Destinations

I’m assuming that boys of the period were simply given pencil and paper to learn geography – then as now, I have a hard time imagining them being given a needle and thread and expected to make a map.

At any rate, the good news is that these artefacts survived, and offer us a wonderful window both into women’s crafts, and the history of cartography.


Cartography of Extremes

Maybe it’s the instinctual part of humans that makes us obsessed with the biggest, the strongest, the highest, the illustrious measurements that dazzle. Whether it’s the highest mountain, the broadest lake, the longest river, we look for inspiration in extremes.

Whether it’s justified or not, we do the same in societies. The biggest economies, the loudest voices, the heaviest sticks get all the attention. The heavyweight nations win the privilege of gathering together and trying to coordinate the world’s economy and, to a certain extent, its immediate future. To the extent that it’s possible during a few short days, a summit like the G20 in Hamburg promises an opportunity for representatives from the largest 19 economies, plus the European Union, to sit down together and talk about the world.

A cartography of the G20 might look a bit like this map from 1849, all the biggest players in the same place, at the same time, a landscape of superlatives.

A combined view of the principal mountains & rivers in the world (1849)
Image: J.H.Colton via David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This Group of 20 nations holds 85% of global GDP, 80% of world trade, and 75% of the world’s population. Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of host country Germany, has promised to put climate change at the top of the agenda as the world’s most pressing issue. In response to the United States leaving the Paris Agreement, she stated, “We cannot wait until every last person on earth has been convinced of the scientific proof.”

But what does that mean? The countries most impacted by climate change, by and large, are not the largest economies, and are not present at the G20. The countries that are at the G20, by are large, are the large economies which – through industrialization, consumer and disposable economies and resource exploitation – are the main contributors to climate change in the first place – and likely ones that will have to contend with climate-based migration.

Even if they’re all in the same room and have the best intentions, are they the top team to undertake wrenching challenges to institutions and economic assumptions in order to avoid further temperature and sea rises? After all, the G20 was created in 1999 to promote global economic stability, not to promote radical restructuring.

Because as we’re seeing with every passing year, there all kinds of new extremes to be charted, and we’ll need everyone at the table to navigate them.

Rendering Unseen Stories

I was recently alerted to this lovely collection of maps on Canva – a collection that isn’t meant to provide physical directions but to provide inspiration for design. Map-making has almost always been a way of telling stories at least as much as it has been a way to find places.


'Berlin rangé,' a tidied-up map of Berlin. Source: Armelle Caron

‘Berlin rangé,’ a tidied-up map of Berlin’s cartographical elements.
Source: Armelle Caron

This particular collection, which could hardly be more diverse, made me think of a cartographical story in progress. Namely, that we are seeing a democratization of cartography that is practically revolutionary.

I contacted my old friend Peter Skillman, who has a deep knowledge of cartography, and we talked about maps. When you ask a master about one of his favorite topics, you might just end up following an elusive tail down a deep rabbit hole.

Peter has more to say about the evolution of cartography than I have space for here, but what we talked a lot about was the use of maps to communicate the unseen – from political borders to financial interests (especially these days, with the listing of business locations and data so important to map users and providers) to how the same map can look different depending on where you’re viewing it from (the exact location disputed territorial borders viewed from India or Pakistan, for example).

Berlin divided, 1961. Source: Berlin Wall Online

Berlin divided, 1961.
Source: Berlin Wall Online

And then there’s the fallibility of maps, whether intentional or accidental, that can disappear towns or put roads where they aren’t. Once almost purely due to political agendas, now often due to glitchy data.

What I liked, though, was our talk about metro maps. We’ve all gotten accustomed to the abstract lines of color that represent transit lines, the dots that represent stops, but consider the leap in understanding required to read a map so completely non-topographical. This “intentional distortion” is often the only representation of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment a city can offer its citizens for a system that can only be seen in small bits.

Genuine maps of unseen, or only partially seen, realities.

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world. Source: DesignBoom

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world.
Source: DesignBoom

It used to be that if you wanted to give someone a map to your home, or your favorite swimming hole, or that terrific back road BBQ rib place, you had to sketch it out and somehow get it to them. Even those sketches were a way of talking about how we thought of getting from one place to another, our individual travel perspective.

It used to be that we mostly learned to navigate our way through paper maps because we had no other choice if we wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

Berlin. Source: Vianina

Source: Vianina

Now we click and point and create our maps from readily available online maps, which are, in turn, often created/improved/optimized by user-generated input – much of it collected anonymously via GPS. And our maps tell us what to do, where to go, and warn us when we’ve gone astray.

No more serendipitous sauntering to points unknown. Except that with every map telling its creator’s story, you can still get lost, even if you think you know where you’re going.


Tactile Topography

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

Maps and Being There

We spent the week on the shores of Lough Corrib near Cong, Ireland. Lough Corrib has an estimated 1200 islands and extends up through the Conemara mountains, and down to Galway on the western coast. Renowned for good fishing and its varied wildlife, it’s the second-largest lake in Ireland. The birdsong at dawn is a varied symphony.

What it looked like on a map drawn in 1600 can be seen here.

Where we stayed was all green pastures, lush forests and breathtaking views. The other end of the lake still has breathtaking views, but of a different sort: Wide, windswept bog and crests of mountains that rise up from the plains like sudden ocean swells.

What it looked like on a more detailed map from 1846 can be seen here.

Loch Coirib with Irish place names. Source: Everything Angling

Loch Coirib with Irish place names.
Source: Everything Angling

Still, knowing where a place is on a map and knowing it has historical and environmental significance aren’t the same as knowing what it’s like to be there.

What it looked like through the lens of my phone camera while on a run can be seen below.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Stone walls divide the countryside, sometimes enclosing herds of sheep, sometimes cattle, and sometimes, the stone walls enclose what used to be a meadow, but is now a thicket that hides a long-abandoned farmhouse. The walls themselves tumbled so long ago that they seem a part of the forest.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

This is why most of my ‘runs’ around this area turned into sprints, peppered with walks and pauses.


Southern Swirl

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851 Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Over on the ever-mesmerizing UXBlog, I found these hypnotic examples of historical cartography – a backward glance at a century of hurricanes. These maps are oriented with the Antarctic at the center, and show both the trajectory and intensity of each storm for which data was available.

According to John Nelson, who created the maps, ” The fine folks at NOAA (*National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) keep an archive of storm paths with wind speed, storm name, date, among other attributes, and are always updating and refining information for past events based on historical evidence and educated hunches.”

Of course, with the introduction of satellites, big data collection and heck, even the telephone, for communicating storm information, we know more about storms now than we did 160 years ago. Also, during the course of working out these maps, Nelson realized that “we only really started logging the East and South hemisphere versions of these things around 1978” – by ‘we’, I’m assuming he is referring to the US-based NOAA.

And this wouldn’t come as a surprise to me – it is only with the spread of globe-spanning communication and data technology that many have lifted their gaze from their own immediate surroundings and extended it to the rest of planet to see wider interactions.

Just as interesting is Nelson’s description of how he created these maps and how he arrived at this particular ‘bottoms-up’ perspective. The circle that looks like an iris around the pupil of the Antarctic is the equator – notice that the storms all swirl away from it in either direction.

Here’s an animated version of the map that displays all storm seasons dating back to 1978.

Hurricanes & storms by season, 1978-2010
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Mapping Art

Downtown San Francisco via Stamen Design / HERE

Downtown San Francisco via Stamen Design / HERE

Maps are fickle things. Drawn and redrawn, created as a part of exploration or conflict, subject to interpretation. As Simon Garfield says, they “relate and realign our history”. They’ve always been the subject of artistic invention, as well. What’s left out of a map is as important as what’s in plain sight.

It used to be a mark of honor to be a good map reader. I know I was always proud of being able to follow lines and colors on flat piece of paper to chart my own path through a new place, to relate what I was seeing on the ground with what someone else considered worthy of recording on a map. These days, virtual maps are big data repositories that tell us (almost) everything we want to know, some things we don’t, and take us where we ask to go without much effort.

A new mapping system developed by Stamen Design for Nokia helps users cross the lines between finding a location and artistic exploration. I’m assuming that as more data is added, more developers will add to the options, and more doors will open.

HERE at Stamen Design

Fastcodesign article