The Cartographic Life

There are potentially infinite lenses through which one could view the business of being on Earth. You could think of existence as a battle, a creative act or an adventure into unknown terrain. You name it really. Personally, I jounce around between all sorts of metaphors, but one I keep coming back to is life-as-cartography.

What Is A Map?

Naturally, this comparison necessitates an amplification of what we typically think of as mapping — namely, the tracing out of roadways and physiographic features onto sheets of paper (or onto the memory banks of mapping software). For our purposes, we’ll count anything that involves both the distillation and the translation of information.

Put another way, mapping is anything that 1.) separates important data from unimportant data and then 2.) converts that data from one form to another. You don’t draw each specimen of flora on a USGS 15-minute topo, for example, and you certainly don’t construct it in three dimensions out of lithosphere.

Under this definition, lots of things become maps. Olivier Messiaen’s Abyss of Birds becomes a map of birdsong, the New International Version of The New Testament becomes a map of the original Greek, an explication becomes a map of a poem sieved through a critic’s aesthetic sensibilities, and a metaphor becomes a cognitive-linguistic map of X in terms of Y that highlights features shared between the two.


In addition — and this is more to the point — even my brain can be construed as a neuronal map of my life experiences. This blog, meanwhile, is a textual and photographic meta-map of the electrochemical one inside my skull.

Going forward, I will be delving into many features of this three-tiered cartographic relationship between world, brain/mind and blog, but for now I would like to quickly focus on just one dimension: the remarkable feedback that happens between the latter two.

It isn’t, however, the brain/mind-to-blog mapping that I find especially remarkable, even though it is amazing we’re able to hold on to memories now and swaddle them in sentences later. Rather, it’s the subsequent reversal — the blog-to-brain/mind mapping that really gets me.

Maps Spawning Maps

As I concoct this text map of some of the ideas swimming around between my ears, my brain/mind is actively engaged in the making of a pair of new maps that depict none other than the content of this blog post and the process of its creation, both of which will accompany and guide me as I go out into the world tomorrow to begin making still more maps. Isn’t this incredible? Maps spawning maps spawning maps.

Maps spawning questions too. How is it that distillation and translation, introspection and writing, clarify our thoughts and facilitate our movements? How does the subtraction of detail result in added knowledge? How is it that we breathe into our maps a life and power of their own?

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(Today’s image is courtesy of The United States Geological Survey and Wikimedia Commons.)


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