Posts Tagged ‘cartography’

Dream-permeable cartography

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Robert Macfarlane contrasts two types of map: that of the grid and that of the story.

A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, lent a new authority to cartography. The power of grid maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. But their virtue is also their danger: that they reduce the world only to data, that they record space independent of being.

[…] The grid map has proved an exceptionally efficient method for converting place into resource, and for devising large-scale approaches to a landscape. It is a technique that has brought uncountable benefits and advances with it. But so authoritative is the grid method, so apparently irrefutable the knowledge that it dispenses about a place, that it has all but eliminated our sense of the worth of map-as-story: of cartography that is self-made, felt, sensuous. The grid’s rigorous geometry celebrates precision, and suppresses touch, feel and provisionality.

[…] As the American poet Robert Penn Warren beautifully observed, ‘our maps have grown less speculative, less interested in the elemental possibilities of the Earth’s skin, and that suggests that the Earth has lost it capacity to keep secrets. We tend to look at them for what we want to avoid, rather than what, in good fortune, we might discover. There is not much mystery in a landscape we cannot enter.’

In contrast, story maps

represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and place are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance.

[…] They are deep maps too, that register history, and that acknowledge the way memory and landscape layer and interleave. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, proved upon the pulses of a place, born of experience and of attention.

[…] Maps such as these, held in the mind, are alert to a landscape’s volatility as well as fixtures. They tell of the inches and tints of things. They are born of a sophisticated literacy of place, rather than aspiring solely to the neutral organisation of data. We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp. 141-145); he adds a few examples of those who specialise in map-as-story, such as eskimos. There is also the classic, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, that commemorates his experiences amongst Australian aborigines.

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