The Map is Not the Territory

There was a time–even as a young adult–I didn’t “get” the appeal of maps that my grad-school chums seemed to find so immersive. Now I wish some adult had set me down a decade earlier with the folded map to Daytona Beach on our summer way down and made me make sense of how to know where on Earth I was.

“Getting properly oriented” is a metaphor that has all kinds of applications in my thinking and writing about relationships to nature, place and community. And so there is a sense in which knowing our place on the paper map of our at-the-moment HERE is the beginning of knowing who we are in the at-the-moment WHERE, from which our hub of connection builds.

That being said, to the extent that we lose the connection to true north, literally or figuratively, we become disoriented and lost, unable to make sense of the world. When we take our eyes off the territory and map altogether, and begin trusting the Robot Voice Lady to give us our bearings, something important is lost.

So I agree with the points made by Curtis Silver at NextWeb in his piece–that reliance on digital maps (and other binary substitutes for our own skin and sight and smell and reason) can lead us mentally astray.

Next time you are going some place with kids, even across the park to get ice cream, think about helping them orient to landmarks, to the sun, to the slant of shadows on the grass, to the sound of wind, or create a paper map for them by which to orient to the real world–which after all is the one that will feed them and bear them up and away and into what hopefully is a sanely-oriented adulthood.

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It was just recently I remembered that what made me an early, long-ago committed blogger was being identified by others, who were at the time strangers, as a “blogger of place.” Somehow, the WHERE of my life had risen above my identify with my profession as the thing that could say most about who I am.

“If you don’t know where you are, you cant fully say who you are.”

Here are a few map-and-place posts from past years, and a link from one of those posts–mostly as read crumbs for me to come back to. Nibble if you care to.

Maps and Place: To Boldly Go

Toward a Well-oriented Childhood | Fragments from Floyd

Home From Space: Maps Bring the World Closer | Fragments from Floyd

Why Making Maps Guides Us to Be Greener : TreeHugger

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I have always enjoyed studying maps of all kinds. At one time I planned to paper a room in them, and I had quite a collection. But it never happened and the maps got sold, unfortunately. I always have a good sense of where I am on the planet, except when I am in NYC. I cannot seem to find my way around there and it really frustrates me.

  2. Kinda reminds me of the old Firesign Theater line, something to the effect of How can you be two places at once if you aren’t anywhere at all?

  3. Fascinating Fred – I worked in Botswana as a teen ager – I was a diamond prospector. I need a map but my local men did not. They were able to orientate where they were at all times. They were never lost – they could not be. but my mental model was not observant enough to copy them

  4. Your 2003 post sure was prescient! You must have read about Google Earth prototype. That was a fun read, 11 years after.
    I have loved maps since annual childhood trips to Wisconsin, when I got to study the map as we drove the 900 long miles on2 lane roads.

  5. I read something a while back that really stayed with me. The author was saying that one of the biggest and saddest parts of owing a GPS is NOT taking the wrong road, asking for directions to be told: “turn left at the sunflower mailbox, go a ways down till you see the house with the five roosters, make a right….” We have lost a connection not only with the land around us but with the people who can help direct us.
    Maps are also a nice way to get our bearings and should we get lost… well, see above!