We Can’t Blame the Maps

Star Viewer: A Field Guide to the Heavens
Star Viewer: A Field Guide to the Heavens

Maps. I can sit with a map, even of some place that I have never been and will never go, and lose myself in its features and its odd place names.

I imagine what it would be like to be just there, on that mountain top, or down below it in the broad floodplain of a meandering creek looking back up at the crest. But given a choice, I’ll take a map of a place I know, or have known.

Sit me down with a topo of Grayson Highlands State Park where I have not been for years and the memory of the topography, the contour of lines like the face of an old friend finds a resonance in lived moments there, in just those places between the lines, and I am reliving time anchored to place.


I recently had a version of this passage quoted back to me by an accidental blog reader who stumbled across it in Fragments April 2003. It resonated with him, another arm-chair cartographer-explorer and lover of maps.

And what a great time for those like us to be alive! Never have we had at our fingertips the map resources of today, visioning and visiting far off continents and cosmos from our office chairs.

But wise pilgrim, having been shown the moon, does not keep watching the master’s hand.

It is in the territory that maps show us we should be amazed. Maps should help us to better real-ize landscapes, cultures and the breadth of the context of human history in space and time. Maps give us a grasp of our place in the world, both literally and figuratively.

Have you seen Star Viewer interactive map of the heavens?

Last night from our front porch, using Google Sky Map, I identified Regulus–a tiny twinkling dot, whose light, striking my retina at that instant in the cold dark, left the star 80 million years ago. Can you grasp that!?

Meanwhile, back home, maps help us real-ize how and where mankind impacts perhaps the only Living Planet in those cosmic expanses beyond our influence.

Why not spend some time exploring maps that matter, here and now. They establish the “oh yeah?” facts; it’s up to us to take responsibility for the “so what?” consequences. We’ve never had better maps.

22 Most Amazing Maps Changing How We See The World
Why Making Maps Guides Us to Be Greener

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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. Gee, this post sounds like me. I love maps. I like maps of places I’ve never been and will likely never visit. I study each contour and imagine what the territory there is really like. I search the web for photos to try and match the photos with the map. It’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours. In another life, I think I should have been a cartographer.

    Carolyn h.

  2. I’m riffing on only a small element of this post, but it’s one I’ve thought a lot about lately.

    The idea that we might be the only sentient life in the galaxy — or even the universe — really overwhelms me with what I can only describe as a sense of “cosmic loneliness.” As the lady astronomer in Carl Sagan’s book “Contact” says: “If we’re the only ones here, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.” I truly hope there is other life out there.

    What bothers me even more, though, is the possibility that our own galaxy could be literally teeming with life and we wouldn’t even know it. Our tools are not yet good enough for detecting life out there with any certainty, and the distances are so vast, and the impediments to interstellar travel so seemingly insurmountable, it would be very difficult if not impossible to make contact with anyone or anything else. If Einstein is right, that is. I’m hoping there’s a loophole somewhere in the whole space/time constraints issue. We’re way out here in the suburbs of the Milky Way, practically in the countryside…I can’t help but think the situation is a bit different closer in, and perhaps it’s more like the sort of intergalactic cultural milieu we’re accustomed to seeing in, say, the Star Wars films. Instead of the nearest star being four light-years away, what if it’s only a couple of light-days? Still a long distance, but much more manageable.

    Just a thought. 🙂

  3. I can’t count the times each day I pull up Google Earth to find out where someplace is located in the world and then find I’ve killed an hour following a road, or a creek, or a mountain ridge…I have had a love affair with maps for almost as long as I have have had one with the written word. Map technology today still amazes me. Add in GPS and GIS and the possibilities are endless…and sometimes scary.

    I haven’t checked yet, but tell me Fred, has Google Street Viewed Goose Creek Run yet?

  4. I’ve loved maps since I was a little kid. I used to get the County maps for rural counties and loved looking at the symbols for churches, cemeteries, swamps, and secondary roads. I don’t know if you can get those kinds of maps any longer. And topo maps! What fun! What bothers me a bit is the collective loss of map-literacy due to the wide-spread acceptance of GPS. I’m just an old curmudgeon, though. Give me my abacus, please!

  5. As a youngster I was into geology…collected rocks, fossils…everything you couldn’t find on the coastal plain of Texas. One of my earliest discoveries was the USGS State Indexes of Topographical Maps. I couldn’t afford to order the actual maps, but the index maps were almost as good for my purposes. The index for the state of Texas was almost wall sized. It took up the wall above my bed for years.

    I probably cost the US government a ton of postage over the years with all of my requests for freebies…And I poared over each and every one with a magnifying glass. Played games with my brothers using the maps to find places we had never heard of.

    All of these thought went through my head as I was reading the comments above and I wondered what the USGS had to offer in this digital age…Well now you can get the maps themselves in pdf format…for free…go figure…I’m gonna be lost again. Gotta get another hard drive…

    check it out here:

    USGS Store