I did not know I had a passion for maps and map-making until 2007, when Ira Flatow interviewed Vincent Virga in celebration of the release of his book, Cartographia. Pre-2007, for me, maps served the useful function of getting me from one place to another. As I have always been directionally challenged, I did exhibit an element of gratitude, often kissing a map which had brought me successfully to where I wanted to be. Thank you. Thank you.
In 2007, I heard Vincent Virga tell the Science Friday listeners that maps tell stories. The serve as time machines. They speak of cultural expression. In order for a U.S. born citizen to understand, say, a Chinese map, one has to understand Chinese sensibilities. Maps have meaning far beyond the criss-crossing of highways and the contours of mountains or the depths of lakes. Maps are visual memoirs, the expressions of the map-makers. Rarely objective, sometimes humorous, sometimes ego-centric, maps speak to emotions and psyches, serving as the visual metaphor of their time.
Consider, for example, the Steinberg map of Manhattan which once graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine. The heart of this map is a straight shot due west, crossing 9th Avenue and then 10th, on to the Hudson River. On the other side of the river is a pencil thin stretch of New Jersey, then a swath of land the color of corn, dotted with Kansas City, then Nebraska. To the left, on this swath of land Steinberg plunks Texas, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles; again to the left, Mexico. To the right, on this landscape, Chicago and then Canada. Beyond Nebraska is the Pacific Ocean, and at the ocean’s horizon, in the palest of blues, and moving from left to right, China, Japan, and Russia. This map is telling a story, making a point.
I bought Virga’s book and reveled in my newly discovered passion for a few months, then allowed the compendium to gather dust on my bottom shelf where all the big books go. I didn’t revisit my passion until it was re-ignited a few months ago, by another Ira Flatow interview, this one even more creative and imaginative: he and his guests explored mapping by sight; mapping by hearing; mapping by smell; mapping by touch. A whole new world opened up on the short drive from Wilmot NH to Concord. One guest spoke of mapping neighborhood power lines, traffic signs, neighborhood pumpkins in October, graffiti. Then he began to speak of mapping the leaf light, light coming through leaves of trees in the summer.
Light coming through the leaves of trees in the summer . . . Once again I was hooked, because I understood for the first time that not only could maps be a source of gratitude, humor, and narrative, but also an invitation to mindfulness.
What would be required of me to map the trees in our beautiful woods? What would be required of me to map the bird songs along the 3 mile loop I walk with our dogs? Or to map the dogs themselves? Mindfulness, not my strongest attribute. What if I were to map the dandelions from one summer to the next? Or the flight patterns of the swallowtail butterflies who’ve arrived in droves in northern New England. I am not a particularly good tracker by foot-print, but what if I could map the animal scat throughout the Esther Currier wildlife refuge in Elkins, NH?
Through mindfulness, I would come to know my neighborhood, my non-human neighbors. I would become familiar with particular habitat, wildlife corridors, migration patterns. Through mindfulness I would know what to plant and where to plant it to increase the diversity of my neighborhood. Mapping, gratitude, and mindfulness . . . I would come to belong.