Charting Worlds: Five Longreads About Maps

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This week, we recommend five longreads about mapping worlds, including a recent piece at the Atlantic on a little-known group in the U.S. federal government that has the power to remake maps, and an early pandemic story at Wired about a preteen who found comfort and an escape during lockdown within Google Maps.

How to Rename a Place (David A. Graham, The Atlantic, January 2022)

If you didn’t know — and you likely didn’t — there’s a U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a government body of subject-matter experts who meet to approve the names of lakes, mountains, and valleys on official government documents, like maps. In recent years, this board has spent a lot of time reviewing and reconsidering offensive place names, but isn’t moving as fast as others would like. Graham’s piece is an informative, interesting look at this process through a historical, political, and cultural lens.

But even the expedited process will take time. Removing all uses of “Squaw” is expected to take about a year, and that’s the simpler of the two orders. One challenge is that determining what’s offensive isn’t always straightforward. Names including a slur are easy, but others—such as Jew Valley, Oregon, named after a group of Jewish homesteaders—are less clear-cut. Another is that any feature whose name is removed needs a new one, ideally one that is locally meaningful and that will age better than whatever it’s replacing. The BGN is designed with process in mind, not justice or equity.

The Drone Boat of ‘Shipwreck Alley’ (Matthew Braga, The Verge, March 2020)

As Matthew Braga reports in this piece, a few hundred imaging satellites orbit Earth, continuously collecting very precise images of land. Detailed imagery of the planet’s water, in contrast, does not exist. Enter BEN, a little autonomous boat tasked to map the waters of Thunder Bay off the coast of Michigan, and search for shipwrecks and Lake Huron’s other long-lost secrets. “We’ve mapped just 9 percent of the world’s oceans to modern standards,” writes Braga, which is “why BEN and vehicles like it hold so much promise.”

“Mowing the lawn” is what oceanographers call the slow, tedious craft of making maps at sea.

You drive your boat in a straight line while your sonar repeatedly pings the seafloor below with sound. At the end, you loop around and start a new line, going back the other way next to the line that was just completed. With each line, you collect more data until you’ve covered the area you want to map — like filling the outline of a shape in a coloring book.

During Lockdown, Google Maps Gives My Son a Way Out (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired, May 2020)

For a very different read on mapping during the pandemic, try Shannon Mattern’s piece on mapping erasure and nothingness at Places Journal.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, Brendan I. Koerner’s 12-year-old son struggled with life under lockdown in Queens. In this touching essay, Koerner describes how Google Maps became his son’s sanctuary: “a space where he’s in charge of how an uncertain future will unfold.” Zooming in on maps, he meticulously planned a family road trip, touring minor-league ballparks in the Northeast. Watching his son’s pandemic pastime, Koerner learned more about him and his ways of seeing the world, and the importance of fantasy and paracosm play, especially for kids at this age.

As he traces those journeys, he might spy the eerie remnants of old glories: dilapidated Victorian estates, abandoned movie palaces, hollowed-out quarries.

My son doesn’t see tragedy in this gothic decay, however, but rather signs of hope. To him, these places on the edges of his personal ecosystem are filled with possibility in ways that Queens can never be, especially now that Covid-19 has restricted his access to much of the borough. He can imagine himself in these towns, living in a regal house with a backyard trampoline and serving as a batboy for the local minor-league team. It’s a fantasy notable for its modesty, involving a theoretical move just a hundred or two miles north. But as I’ve learned to accept, some kids find the most comfort in dreams that are tethered to reality.

How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change (David Owen, The New Yorker, February 2021)

Environmental activist Molly Burhans has a vision: to map the Catholic Church’s land — an estimated two hundred million acres around the world — in an effort to battle climate change. Burhans uses G.I.S. software, which organizes complex data and presents it geographically so it’s easier to analyze, and to build a clear picture of all of the Church’s assets: from cathedrals to convents, and forests to farmlands. Through more effective land management, Burhans sees an opportunity for the Church to be at the forefront of climate action, putting its land to better use and protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of global warming. (There are other big benefits of mapping the Church via G.I.S.: Burhans’ organization, GoodLands, has also tracked sexual abuse cases involving priests.)

On a laptop, she showed me a high-resolution “green infrastructure” map of the United States that Esri engineers had created. The map incorporates vast quantities of data: topography, wetlands, forests, agriculture, human development—all of which can be explored, in detail, by zooming and clicking. Burhans had added her own data, about Catholic landholdings, and, by bringing those boundaries to the foreground and narrowing the focus, she was able to show me specific Church-owned parcels not far from where we were sitting which would be particularly valuable in any effort to preserve watersheds, habitats, migratory corridors, or other environmental assets. If Church leaders understood what they controlled, she said, they could collaborate with municipalities, government agencies, environmental N.G.O.s, and others, in addition to any efforts they might undertake on their own. “The role of the cartographer isn’t just data analytics,” she said. “It’s also storytelling.”

Here at the End of All Things (Adrian Daub, Longreads, August 2017)

“I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist.” In this lovely and personal exploration of fantasy maps, Adrian Daub dives into the world-building, design, and geography of imagined lands. It’s a nostalgic journey across fantasy literature and worlds, exploring Middle Earth, Earthsea, and Westeros; Dungeons & Dragons; the epic map from the opening sequence of Game of Thrones; and eurocentrism, among many other things.

The fantasy genre, cribbing as it does from our imaginary version of medieval Europe, seems wedded to an Atlantic Ocean setting firm limits to human curiosity to the west. There are clear remnants here of a colonialist mental geography. Think of all the maps of fantastic continents you know where the eastern lands are bigger, more savage, more mysterious. On every foldout map of Middle Earth there is a place called Rhûn (which is the word for “east” in Tolkien’s Elvish) on the eastern margin: the circumflex alone already signals that we’re far removed from the familiarity of the Shire. We learn nothing of it, other than that the people who live there are “Easterlings” in league with Sauron. As we get to the right-hand edge of fantasy maps, things get rather hazy, and not a little racist.


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