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.
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:
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:
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):
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:
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:
- A map that shows all the lawns in the USA.
- A map of the wind directions throughout the USA (really useful for studying the element of air).
- A real-time map of earthquakes from the USGS.
- A zero-population map of the USA and Canada (at the top).
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.