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.

 

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio May 22, 2014

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.