The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

A Druid’s View of Cartography: Rewriting Maps and Nature-Human Relationships December 11, 2016

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 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 every day 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” implies 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 mis-representational they can be.

 

Here’s my first attempt at remappping:

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 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 that 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 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 north west 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 interesed 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.

 

Historical Reenactment and Reskilling – Learning from our past May 27, 2013

A great deal of discussion exists within the sustainability/transition movement concerning the loss of “old” and sustainable skills and the importance of reskilling to help preserve the future and live comfortably in it.  The concept of reskilling is a simple one–you learn older skills that allow you some degree of independence and possibly supplemental income, skills such as learning home brewing, seed saving, community-building, maple syurping, weaving textiles, soapmaking, herbalism, papermaking, organic gardening, foraging, hunting, etc., with the understanding that these skills will most likely be quite useful as we enter the long descent in a post-peak oil world. (And regular blog readers will note that I devote a lot of this blog to such skills).  Much of the discussion I’ve encountered on reskilling, however, deals with where to learn skills and the lament at the general loss of most of these skills in only a few generations.

Our "camp" at the Feast of Ste. Claire.  I stayed in the tent on the far left.

Our “camp” at the Feast of Ste. Claire. I stayed in the tent on the far left.

If sustainability-focused people, those following druidry or other nature-based spiritual paths, and the like are serious about reskilling and building a more sustainable future, one of the best places to start learning these “lost” skills is with the historical reenactors. Historical reenactment, for those who are unaware, is not just about reskilling, but rather becoming a monument to living history, embodying an earlier time period, learning about the people, the ways of live, the food, the culture, and so much more.  In all of my experiences, I have not found the source of better, well-rounded knowledge about the past than in the hands of historical reenactors.

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

This past weekend, I did my first reenactment “camp” where I stayed with a group of friends for three days and experienced living in the 1750’s (French and Indian War era) at a local reenactment event called the Feast of Ste. Claire.  At this feast, I learned about so many different kinds of skills, including cooking over a fire using various forms of iron cookware, various crafts such as weaving and spinning, information on map-making and surveying, woodworking and bucket making, lace making, and much more.  I also learned how cold 30 degrees farenheight really is, especially if you are not quite prepared for the cold (my costume, known in the community as “garb” is still in progress and I didn’t have too many period-appropriate cold-weather clothes).  I also learned a thing or two about community building. Beyond what I learned, however, I also brought skills and information to our camp and the public who visited our camp, including information on foraging for wild ingredients and on making plant-based inks and dyes.  Furthermore, I was able to pick up two items that I have been wanting to aid in reskilling–a loom and a butter churn.  I’m going to tell some stories, mainly through pictures, of the skills, and I’ll be blogging in more depth on many of these as I learn more about them in the future.Reenactors preserve and practice a number of skills while at camp; they also prepare a great deal in advance in the way of clothing, food, and craft items.  As you walk about the event, you can see so many different skills being practiced, with people who are more than willing to teach you and share information, answering any questions that you have.

Pottery using a kick wheel

Pottery using a kick wheel

1750's military medicine demonstration

1750’s military medicine demonstration

Inkle loom weaving - this weaves long strips and straps.

Inkle loom weaving – this weaves long strips and straps.

Weaving on a peacock loom

Weaving on a peacock loom

Surveying and map-making

Surveying and map-making

Spinning

Spinning

Wood carving

Wood carving

If you’ll notice, there is an old loom and a butter churn at the bottom left of the photo above.  I ended up purchasing these for $35 from the wood carver here.  He said both were sitting in his barn for the last 50 or so years.  I’m quite excited to learn how to make butter and also use the loom–I’m sure I’ll be posting about these activities in the future!

Some of the activities that we did in our camp, and which the public was able to enter and ask questions about, were as follows:

Painting using natural inks/dyes (there I am!)

Painting using natural inks/dyes (there I am!).  Behind me, Pat works on his bow (made entirely with a hatchet).

Flint knapping and bow making (this is flint knapping)

Flint knapping (to make arrow heads) and bow making (this is flint knapping)

Spinning using drop spindles (this is my friend Debbie and I)

Spinning using drop spindles.  We demonstrated spinning as the public came into our camp and asked questions.

Cooking over the fire - we are making breakfast here, I believe.

Cooking over the fire – we are making breakfast here, I believe. All cooking takes a really long time over the fire, I’ve discovered.

Foraged tea ingredients

Foraged tea ingredients

I took some of the knowledge from my foraging classes to teach the kids how to make a locally-harvested tea out of red bud, dandelion flowers, wild violets, and pine needles.  It was quite tasty!

 

I want to conclude my post with a short discussion about the difference in politics and focus of sustainability-minded people with historical reenactors. Usually, I don’t find historical reenactors in the sustainability movement to a large extent.  The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold.  First, reenactors are a bit of a closed community, and unless you know someone, its pretty hard to “break into it” and the terminology and sheer amount of knowledge needed to participate in a meaningful way is not easy to acquire.  Second,  I’ve found that the reenactors have very different kinds of political leanings from the sustainability folks, so I can see why there isn’t a lot of crossover. To give you an example of this, while the Feast of Ste. Claire was going on, a group of anti-GMO protestors staged a rally at the edge of the park and then walked along the edge of the park with their signs.  Most reenactors were confused, at best, or opposed at worst, saying that they didn’t agree with the protestors.  I did my best to educate them about issues of seed saving and heirloom seeds, explaining about the kinds of seeds available in the 1750’s vs. now….but it was still a difficult thing because many reenactors are quite conservative.  I think this example demonstrates  the difference in political leanings and focus of the two groups. The reenactors are very concerned with preserving the past as a general operating mode while the sustainability folks (including many of the GMO protestors, who I had a chance to talk to) were focused on preserving the future.  The same skill sets apply either way, however.

 

And politics aside, this was a weekend well spent in learning a variety of new skills and also gaining the opportunity to share those skills with the public.   I would encourage others interested in reskiling to seek out these kinds of events, attend, and learn!  Not only did I learn many new skills, I came home with the butter churn and the loom, which I am very excited about!

*Thank you to my friend Debbie for taking so many great pictures and allowing me to use them here.*