Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Praise of Maps

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.” [First paragraph of E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed]
It has been a while since I have praised maps and their makers, but maps came into focus the other day—and last night again in the highest context—so I thought I would sink another benchmark in this survey. The first reminder came when we were slightly disoriented in Roseville, MI. We discovered that we had maps of the State of Missouri, of the cities of Quebec in Canada, Traverse City in Michigan, and Lake George in New York quite handy, but to find the map of this area led to frantic clawing. At last, here it was—South-East Michigan! And what a relief it was!

The other polarity of today’s inspiration was a set of diagrams in my edition of the Divine Comedy. I was looking at them last night in my by now out-of-breath ascent of the peak of Paradise. The thought came then, falling asleep, that great works all have the quality of maps. In Dante, one is always keenly aware of his own quite serious intent on producing an accurate cosmic map—the depths, the earth, the heavens. For Henry Corbin, that obscure but admirable philosopher of the invisible, orientation is a constant concern. Schumacher quite consciously set out to make a philosophical map in the work cited above. And my own life-long interest in the cyclic historians is anchored in my determination to see the big picture before I worry about the small.

Obviously map-making is not a peculiarly modern urge, although the really great advances in earth-measurement are modern. I was fascinated a while back by the figure of Colin MacKenzie (1754-1821); I encountered him in a show on PBS. He turned heaven and earth upside down in his attempts to survey India, and I became aware of the difficulties of this kind of work. I have a fine book, The Measure of All Things, by Ken Adler. It documents the labors of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre (1749-1822), Pierre-François-André Méchain (1744-1804), and Joseph-Jérôme Lalande (1732-1807) who, in the midst of the French Revolution, and working right through it, in effect finessing and ignoring it, working with both sides in the conflict, mapped and measured the meridian that runs from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona in efforts of establish the length of the meter, defined as one-ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator. Such heroic work underlies all of our maps. We fold them any-which-way and toss them into drawers whereas, if we but knew the underlying labors, we would place them reverently high up on our shelves.

Back in Minnesota days I used to take Winnie (yellow Lab, a notable canine Ghulf) on his walk. We followed the tracks of Burlington Northern from the edges of suburban settlements into the wilds. One of my stops was a bridge across a creek. Winnie would run down the near-vertical drop off to forage along the shore and drink water. And down there, each time he descended, he passed a survey stone. As I became more knowledgeable about the art and science of earth measurement, that stone, initially just a grey thing with a mark, took on the character of a monument to a tribe of people too much neglected in the world’s history—while we make destroyers and powerful madmen famous.

Maps of all kinds—and obscure figures working away to perfect them. They deserve a nod and the occasional recognition. Was lost, but now, with their assistance, I am found.


  1. Hi Arsen,

    I-- too-- am a huge fan of maps, and I bet if I was a collecting type of person I would collect antique maps. And, I agree that while we as a society perhaps tend to hold up madmen and destroyers, that how much more fruitful to take time to sometimes think about those quiet heroes who worked to help orient us-- not necessarily as individuals but orient us in the collective.

    I read a very nice book about the history of mountainclimbing recently called Mountains of the Mind, in which the author talks about our possession by mountains as occuring at that specific place between physical form (topography) and imagination. Well, I wonder if map-making doesn't also happen at that place between physical form and human imagination....

    Like Schliemann's project spending all that time digging around Turkey to try and match topography with text-- I don't know why but I find the impulse nothing short of heroic. I was listening to Stanford archaelogist Patrick Hunt talking about his life's work to try and finally _map out_ the exact route that Hannibal took to cross the alps. How could 25,000 plus men and 37 elephants cross the alps and leave no trace, he asks... and so he goes back every summer: climbing, poking around, mapping....


    Anyway, this was a great post-- as is the one just below which I also enjoyed. Bravo.

    I left part two to this comment (about being online) on my blog...

    Talk to you soon.

  2. Hi, Peony:

    Thanks for the nice comments. Regarding Mountains of the Mind (sounds like a good book), I share your intuition that all maps are of the same kind, thus they are a grasp or realization of hidden structures and relationships. The physical kind are more accessible but also require arduous effort of a physical kind to achieve. In all such matters, the person's attention selects the ranges to be mapped or linked.

  3. Very interesting. I’ve always loved maps too.

    And, now that I think about it, if one may define a cartographer, broadly, as one whose works serve to help orient us in life, then, my hat is off to you, Arsen, a master cartographer indeed.


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