A Druid’s View of Cartography: Rewriting Maps and Nature-Human Relationships

Maple leaves early in the spring

This fall, I took a number of weekend hiking and camping trips into different parts of Northern Pennsylvania; to navigate these new areas, I found myself often referring to both physical maps as well as using my GPS for guidance.  As I navigated using various maps to new locations, one striking thing occurred–I noticed the ways in which nature is (mis)represented on these “everyday maps.” By everyday maps, I mean the kinds of basic navigation maps that are common: Google Maps, Bing Maps, GPS maps, and physical printed car maps and atlas maps.  Today, I’d like to offer a druid’s perspective on cartography, do some local “remapping”,  and offer some alternative perspectives to everyday mapping.  I’m also going to offer some resources for those interested in tracking how land use has changed over a period of time.

Mapping as (Mis)Representational

Cartography is the science, study, and practice of making maps.  Cartography is a basic system where we can understand our physical landscape and spatial relationships within that physical landscape. We use maps to represent our spaces (especially on a broader scale than we can typically see), to share information about those spaces, to better comprehend them, and to navigate those spaces. In our most basic sense then, the practice of cartography is one of the important ways in which we interact–and represent–our natural world and the things we build within it.

Like any representation, however, maps are inherently ideological. Brian Harley, a geographer and map historian, first argued this point in-depth (see The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography).  In The New Nature of Maps, Harley argues that maps have social, political, and ideological purposes in addition to representational ones. In other words, maps have power and that power can be used to shift ways of thinking and seeing.  Mapmakers can choose to represent the world from a certain angle with their shading, coloring, and legends. He explores how maps, throughout time, are often created with political purposes in mind and the person who creates the maps has a tremendous amount of power.

Shifting this perspective to our “everyday maps”, we can certainly see this true in how nature is represented. Even the kinds of simple maps with the label of “woods” or “forest” imply that that’s actually what is there. If the representations of nature we create are accurate, then we we can have a clear sense of how many spaces are dedicated to nature, how many spaces are being occupied by humans, and in what ways.  We can explore the balance between humans and nature and the edges in which they interact. However, if the representations we use in our mapping of our lands are inaccurate, they can seriously misrepresent nature and our representation of our relationship to the natural world.  It can make it look like there is more nature present than is the reality.

Re-Mapping Natural Areas

So let’s now explore how representations of “natural areas” within everyday maps are grossly inaccurate and do some additional kinds of mapping work.   I’m going to use a map of my own town where I live because I know it well and have visited the green areas on this map.  I would encourage any of you to do the same exercise with the map of your own immediate surroundings.

Google Map of Indiana, PA
Google Map of Indiana, PA

Above is a screenshot of the kind of map we often see when getting directions from major GPS services and/or web services.  One of the key features of this map is color coding: business areas are in a light orange, roads in white with highways in bright yellow-orange, housing and urban areas in various shades of light gray and light brown; gray for unspecified areas. A key feature of this map, and of many consumer maps, is, of course, the “green” areas which at first glance seem largely representative of more natural areas: parks, forests, and the like.

When we look at the green areas on this map, one might be led to conclude that in this area, nature (which is obviously associated with green) is still present in some form or another in about 15-20% of the spaces in and near town.  Let’s now carefully explore the “green” areas on my map and do a bit of more specific mapping to show how misrepresentated they can be.

Here’s my first attempt at remapping:

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA
More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

What we can see from my revised map is that not all green areas are “green” at all.  Most of the green areas are nothing more than lawns and highly disturbed spaces.  I’ve broken my revised map into the following areas: parks that are primarily lawn/open/mowed spaces with some limited trees, natural areas that are mostly forests, athletic spaces like tennis courts and baseball diamonds, golf courses, and cemeteries.

As a druid and one actively seeking to develop alternatives to lawns, the idea that a forest, a cemetery, and a golf course could be labeled in the same color is inherently problematic. These spaces aren’t the same and shouldn’t be labeled as such.  On the most basic level, lawn spaces spaces consume more than they produce and represent nature in a place of damage and suffering, rather than healing and growth.  These places certainly don’t offer habitat, forage, or shelter for insects, amphibians, or animals. Meanwhile, forests, unmowed meadows, rivers with riparian zones, and the like certainly offer habitat and health of the land.

But this representation is only one of many more accurate representations we could do.  Let’s try a second one:


Human Disturbance Map
Human Dominance Map

An alternative is to look at the “green” spaces in terms of who dominates the surface of the land–do people, houses, buildings, roads, cemeteries, agricultural fields, and lawns (human constructs) dominate, is there a mix, or places in a natural state dominate? On this map, I’ve also indicated what areas dominated by nature have a substantial human disturbance. By disturbance I indicate things that directly harm and damage the ecosystem — in my case, I’m referring to the typical resource extraction activities (gas wells, logging, fracking, strip mining, etc). These human-driven activities are, unfortunately, a regular part of our state and local park system here, and are represented on the map.  These go well beyond simple trails but include massive clearings, gas well pumping, regular visits to the wells by heavy equipment, and more.

This new map offers a completely different view of the town. Now we see that my town still has one forested area, but that forested area has significant human disturbance.  And to give some other representation to the human disturbance in the park to the northwest of town, this is what that disturbance looks like (also courtesy of Google Maps):

Gas wells in the forest
Gas wells in the forest

The question I have, when mapping in this way, is this: what spaces do we have left on a larger scale that are actually free of human harm and damage?  As I’ve written about in a few other posts, even our national forests are under substantial gas and logging pressure; these so-called “green” areas on the map are highly disturbed and contested areas.

The two mapped alternatives I present above are both simple, and I’m sure others can expand and explore even more mapping options.  I can see these kinds of maps being useful for arguments about conservation and protection–about giving nature some space in which to thrive. I can also see this as a useful strategy for mapping our own lands and spaces, the ones we directly control and/or own. How much space have we given to nature to grow as she wills?  How much space is fully dominated by us?  In our agricultural spaces, how much land is being used in regenerative ways or large-scale industrial ways?

If you are interested in using this as a tool, the way I created the maps was quite simple: I went to Google and took a screenshot of the map.  Then, I went into Photoshop (you could also use Gimp if you don’t have Photoshop) and pasted in new colors for the areas (sometimes also using the selection tool).  You could also do this by coloring or using marker patterns on top of printed maps.  This could be a great activity to do with children in teaching them more about how humans and nature interact.

Maps as Tools to Understand Nature

Beyond consumer maps, other maps offer much more accuracy and precision that can more accurately help us, on a larger scale, see some of these human-nature relationships.

The best mapping service in the USA for these kinds of questions is the United States Geological Survey, who regularly maps many issues of environment, land use, and more (I hope readers will share other services like this from other countries in the comments section!)

Here is a link to the USGS page on environment and health issues.  Their system takes some getting used to, as it offers a ton of data in there once you learn to navigate it. For example, here is a map that looks at the land cover of the USA, zoomed in on my region).  Red shows the “development” density; yellow and brown are farmland, green implies tree canopy or farmland:

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA
GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

The most useful map they have, in my opinion, is the historical maps that allow you to view maps of land in the US prior to the current date.  Its kind of like Google Earth but for history.  You can access it here. Not all areas have the 1963 maps (which is usually the furthest back they go) but you can learn a lot about your land and its history by viewing the maps.  For example, my friend Linda found out that her land she is now farming intensively used to be a swamp!

Here are a few other interesting maps:

I hope that today’s post has been inspirational and useful to think about as we navigate the world and our surroundings with our human-created maps. If you have any other resources to share, I would love to hear them and hear about your own experiences in re-mapping spaces near you. I have found that thinking about these things has certainly helped me better understand the representations of nature that I see when using everyday maps and just broader issues of land use in general. Maps are tools, flawed ones, but tools that we can use to better understand our world and our place in it.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (RedFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (RedFeather, 2022), and is the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is a certified permaculture designer and permaculture teacher who teaches sustainable living courses and wild food foraging. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart.

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    1. Thank you for the reblog! 🙂

  1. Hi Dana — I enjoy your blog and appreciate the effort you put in to research and communicate it so very well. Humans make maps to help mark/locate what they think is important. There are very ancient rock art ( tapamveni) maps on stones in the Southwest, some likely made thousands of years ago, before wandering hunter gatherer groups settled into villages of pit dwellings, that seem to depict where to find a spring, or where important/useful animals may be found, along what were possibly migration routes. It seems to me that unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, or even a bit before in Europe, the idea of working with, depending upon, and necessarily being part of the natural processes and landscapes of our planet lost value as many cultures began to think very narrowly in terms of simply controlling, exploiting, and conquering Nature. This bias has increased with our technological prowess as we have very falsely come to see ourselves as independent of nature, even though we continue to rely on the earth alone to provide us with air to breath, water to drink, organisms large and small to recycle our waste, and good soils to ensure clean nourishing foods for sustaining our life processes in addition to the much more valued mineral resources that fuel the technologic boom. Thanks for spreading the word and sharing something thought provoking every week!

    1. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for your comments! Thanks for sharing some of the history of maps. Its seems our maps today are a far cry from those early maps depicting important features of nature. We still have them in places (like findaspring.com) but so many are not.

      I think you are right about this so-called independence from nature. One of the books that really shaped my thinking on this was JMG’s Wealth of Nature and some of the work of Charles Eisenstein.

      Thank you for reading and sharing!

  2. I enjoy using maps of all sorts, including USGS topographical maps (great for tracing the watershed you live in as these include even small headwater streams like the one down the street from me). I’m glad that you pointed out the USGS as a place to go for maps that tune in to other aspects of the land than do the street maps that we normally use for navigation. But there is something about your phrasing in the blog post that disturbs me. You repeatedly refer to “nature” and “humans” separately – as if humans aren’t natural. You imply that “nature” is only “nature” if it’s kept free of human presence. This doesn’t leave us humans anyplace to go. We are large animals that like any other large animal alters what is around us in significant ways. Certainly elephants do this, but no one accuses elephants of somehow being “unnatural” in their activities. The folks who lived here before Europeans came altered large areas of North America in significant ways, but that is not usually considered “unnatural,” only what has been done since. I’ll agree with you that much, perhaps most, of the disturbances we humans cause these days are far more damaging than they need to be, and that excessive damage is biting us and many other beings in the back end. I’m no particular fan of lawns or golf courses either, but it’s possible that more diversity is present in these than either of us realize. The yards fronting the suburban street I live on support, at the very least, green tree frogs, southern leopard frogs, and at least one species of snake; all these I’ve seen with my own eyes in my yard and a neighbors’ yard. Granted, it’s an old street with lots of mature pin oak and silver maple trees and the houses are on large lots (some more than an acre), but just a few of us have much in the way of gardens. All the other folks just mow their lawns – and yet we have resident amphibians. And where am I supposed to go to enjoy “nature” that doesn’t involve driving out of the large urban area in which I live, which is one of the activities that we do that are far more harmful than getting from place to place needs to be? Something is missing here.

    1. Hi SL Claire,

      Thanks so much for your comment and for pushing back on my binary. So I have a couple of thoughts in response (and I’d love to continue this converstaion).

      1. Humans are natural, although we have come to behave in very “unnatural” ways. This is one of the key distinctions between humans and elephants at present. This doesn’t apply to all humans, but it certainly applies to most humans where I live (and in the US in general). I’ve done a lot of plant walks over the last few years for various groups, and what I discovered in doing so is that typical humans living in the US, at least, don’t know the first thing about interacting in their “natural” environment. In fact, a lot of what people do now is either actively or passively damaging to that environment. This isn’t to say we can’t relearn (and many of us are on that journey) but the typical human can’t really be natural, and have his/her needs met by natural areas, in the way the elephants you describe do. And so, our interaction with nature suppresses most natural processes, which I see as a very “unnatural” thing. So many of us are working to change those interactions both within our own lives and our communities, but this is where we unfortunately stand at present.

      2. This leads to the distinction I discussed in this post. There is a difference, I think, of spaces that meet the needs of modern humans and those that meet the needs of nature and cultivate healthy and biodiverse ecosystems. This is not a false distinction but one that I think is observable in most urban and especially suburban environments. What is not uniformly grass is poisoned out of existence in many suburban lawns. Now, Our immediate living spaces have the tremendous potential to meet the needs of both humans and nature (and I have a whole ongoing series of permaculture design posts that articulate this and so many others are doing good work in this area). But, the bulk of those cultivated spaces (like the ones I mapped) aren’t currently aren’t doing so, and that’s the distinction I was making. They aren’t doing so in the areas that I walk each day on my way to work, the areas that I’ve visited and mapped here. There might be small nooks and crannies of life (like down by the stream, the areas that don’t get mowed) but there isn’t much in many of these lawns. And I wanted to map those distinctions rather than assume green = lots of nature and spaces for non-human life to thrive.

      3. I think this mapping perspective has come out of seeing what happens to nature here in areas where resource extraction are common, like in the area here where fracking and natural gas wells are literally everywhere. Things are *so* unbalanced here that there is no such thing as a natural sanctuary free of it. Its hard, for me, to go into my local parks and see the muddy roads cut in and the number of gas wells (at least 20-30 in that area to the north west of town). There’s something inherently wrong about it.

      4. I agree that a lot of what we are seeing now is certain plants thriving, small ecosystems still existing, but again, I’ll point to the difference of the biodiverstity in a typical lawn and one of a cultivated permaculture garden, forest, wild field, or so on.

      So these are some of my many thoughts–I’d love to hear yours :). Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!

      What I was trying to illustrate, wi

      1. Hi Dana,

        I’m not sure if you answer comments after the next post or not, so forgive me if I guessed wrong on that. But I’ll try to describe my meaning more here and trust that you’ll find a way to continue the conversation that works for your blog and your schedule.

        First, the various things we do that are causing excessive damage, like fracking, come out of our desire to make safe homes for ourselves and/or to access what we need to live. This kind of behavior is common for animals. Beavers, for instance, in their efforts to make a safe home for themselves, cut down trees and dam streams with them, which changes the flow of the streams and the surrounding riparian area, altering habitat. Some other animals benefit from that habitat alteration, some do not. When we dam a stream, we are trying to make our dwellings safer by reducing flood risk, or we might be improving our ability to survive by improving our access to water for drinking or agriculture or aquaculture. Not different from beavers who dam streams because it helps them to thrive, though because of our attributes as social primates, especially the various attributes that permitted us to obtain and put to use the large quantities of fossil fuels and minerals that have built up over aeons, we can do this on a much larger scale with correspondingly larger alterations in habitat. We’ve gone way too far in this regard, I think, but we must remember that it grew out of our very natural desire to not just survive but to thrive. If we don’t acknowledge that, then we risk alienating people who depend on those dams, which amounts to a large fraction of the people in the US West. Alienating large fractions of people won’t help us achieve goals of reducing the harm from dams.

        This is very relevant to fracking. I acknowledge that you and the area where you live are far more directly affected by the damage from fracking than I am, because you live where it’s going on and I don’t. Yet I’m one of the folks for whom it’s being done – and it’s being done to help me and many, many other people get through the winter in relative comfort (we use natural gas heat) and cook the food that provides us the nutrition that enables us to thrive, not to mention grow the food in the first place. And then there’s the substitution of fracked natural gas for coal to fuel the generators that produce our electricity, which has some benefits over using coal for the same purposes (less carbon dioxide emitted per KWH and less need to remove mountaintops to obtain that coal). You, too, benefit to some degree from fracking even if you don’t use natural gas, because you do eat and at least some of that food was grown using natural gas derived fertilizer, plus you use some electricity. And both of these things improve your, and my, life to a degree and thus are very natural things to do for animals who have the capabilities we do. Again, I think it’s less alienating to other folks if we acknowledge that we benefit from these things too and that it’s quite natural to want to be warm and well fed. Then maybe we can work out a better way to do that, together.

        As far as lawns, those come out of the desire to have a defensible perimeter. Again, a desire common to many animals. They do alter the habitat to a large degree (and some animals and plants benefit from that while others do not), but we certainly aren’t the only animal that strives to have a defensible perimeter. I think bringing this into the conversation might have a better effect on folks who would otherwise be put off by our condemnation of their lawns.

        Have you read Carol Deppe’s latest book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening yet? If not, just read Chapter 1 if that’s all you have time for. It delves into this topic from another angle and does it in Deppe’s excellent style.

        1. Hi Claire,

          Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I hope my comments haven’t been alienating to you or to anyone else. I appreciate you taking the time to offer your suggestions.

          It seems that the underlying question we are talking about here is differing definitions of the term “natural” and what we mean by “natural” behavior. You are right to point out that many of these activities are humans are making their own living spaces safer, and better. This was also a large part of the industrial revolution and the shift to fossil fuels–ways of doing less work. I don’t have the scientific training you do, however, so I can see how my more colloquial definition and use of “natural” can be problematic.

          One response is that humans have found many ways of doing that in previous points in history without radically destroying the rest of the earth that sustains us, and right now, we are living so far out of balance it feels very “unnatural.” In the same way that other species can get out of control and destroy (I’m thinking here about the Wooly Adelgid or Emerald Ash Borer). The difference, in my mind, between humans and, say, the Emerald Ash Borer is that we have things like ethics and spiritual practices, ways of considering and weighing our actions, language to communicate about those. I hope that we can find ways of doing better, much better, than we have done. Hopefully, we can :).

          I will take a look at Carol Deppe’s lastest book–I really love her Resilient Gardener book (as I know we’ve discussed before!) And thanks so much for your comments–they are super helpful!

  3. Hello Dana,

    What a great idea you have come up with. This will be a wonderful tool to better understand what has gone here, where I live, over recent years. I love maps and have collected them on my travels over the last 50 years. Even they can provide an interesting perspective on road and land development.

    I do want to comment on the negative perspective of lawns you mentioned. I am not so negative about lawns as some. We have five acres and about half is basically natural. But I have created acres of “gardens” that bring me great joy, and that includes a lawn area on which the family enjoys such activities as croquette, badminton, an occasional run through the sprinkler on a hot day. If you lay on the lawn you will find it full of insect life and when the clover blooms you must be careful not to tread on a honey bee. At any time you can find deer or rabbits grazing on the lawn and many mornings when I wake and look out my bedroom window, there on the lawn will lie a mother deer with a couple of infants jumping and running back and forth. They love our lawn.

    1. Hi Patrick! Thanks so much for your comment.

      I think a small lawn area is fine, especially for gatherings, yoga, games, etc. I think the larger issue I take with lawns is the amount of fossil fuels they cost to maintain and the amount of chemicals they consume. This saddens me, and it further saddens me to watch my neighbors’ only interaction in nature each week tied to their lawnmower. When I look at the national statistics on the lawn, it is really sad: extreme water usage, millions of pounds of pesticides, millions of gallons of gas, and more oil spilled than the largest oil spills each year. So that’s something that I think we do need to seriously consider and change. Some more info is here: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2010/06/04/the-problem-of-lawns/

      Now, here I’m talking about a a “typical” lawn, and many of us can certainly cultivate non-typical lawns full of medicinal plants, clover for bees, and more–like the one you are describing! I had a more “natural” lawn that I was working to convert in the front part of my homestead. There was a lot of life there, and I kept it at the maximum length of 6″ – 8″ that my township required.

      I wish more people kept lawns like the one you describe :).

  4. Maps have been on my mind quite a bit lately. I was gifted two fresh deer hides by my SO (which I’m now attempting to tan–great time for new skills acquisition, huh?), and one of them definitely wants to be a map. I think rather than color, I’m going to end up using size to emphasize areas of importance within the landscape–things like the pine grove, or the beaver dam, or Jewel Weed path. More of a metaphysical map, I suppose, but a map nonetheless.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Tiana!

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