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An Obsession With Maps and Place

sense of placeWhen I was young my family and I would occasionally go on road trips.  My sister would immerse herself in a good book in route and I would stare tirelessly at the road map.  Very little has changed.  I still find myself obsessed with maps and with what they can tell me about place.  Today my three children and I went exploring in the Siskiyou Mountains near our home.  It didn't take long before we were inching along winding dirt roads on our way to nowhere.  We discovered places we had never known about, hiked along meadows I didn't know existed, and stared out over mountains I couldn't name.  The day couldn't have gone much better, but I kept getting frustrated that I didn't have a good map!  All I wanted to do is to put my place in proper perspective.  I wanted to know the place, know its history, and know its name.   About five minutes after our return home I got onto the National Forest Service website and purchased detailed maps of all of the surrounding public lands.  I just couldn't take it any more!

Our places are complex.  They tell us stories, they inspire us, they may even influence our most deeply held beliefs.  There is something about coming to know a place that for me also lends itself to a sense of belonging.  It actually bothered me a bit today that I didn't know the names of the places I was visiting.  Certainly the sense of discovery was exciting, but after a year in the area, certainly I owe my place a bit more loyalty.  For me it is a bit like hanging out with someone for a whole year but never really getting to know them.  It is just shallow and disrespectful.

I've blogged before about Wendell Berry's "Unsettling of America."  Among his many commentaries, he remarks that one of the things that makes our culture unique is that we have always just been passing through.  We've never really had any loyalty to or stewardship for the places we find ourselves in, because we always seem to be moving on.  Though there are many exceptions to Berry's observation, I do find I can tell the difference between those with maps and those without maps.

Those with maps, whether they be in print or etched in memory, tend to spend more time in intimate relationships with places.  They take the long way home, they drop the after dinner chores and wander off along some path between the houses, they know places where they feel safe.  Those without maps, tend to see the world very narrowly defined by workplaces and shopping centers.  They don't wander too far as they would likely be unable to find their way back.

Now, at the risk of sounding too much like Wendell Berry, I'd like to outline a simple observation.  I see the shallow relationships most of us have with our home places as a bit like the casual sexual encounter.  Those involved see nothing of one another other than what is immediately gratifying.  A deep relationship is never established and anything that inhibits immediate sexual satisfaction will shortly dissolve the "relationship."  Isn't that about how we treat our landscapes?  I'm sorry to be so explicit, but it is no accident that the words strip and rape are both strongly associated with resource extraction.

It is high time we started developing the sort of relationship with our home places that will weather the storms that are coming.  How well do you know the hydrology of the area you live in?  Could you find water in a drought?  Do you know the subtle microclimates that set your side of the hill apart from your neighbors?  Could you use those to your benefit at planting time?

Perhaps my longing to have a map of my home place is based very much in the same passion that drove me to listen quietly to my wife on our first date.  I just wanted to know her better.  That is what I want of my home.

Vincent M. Smith - PhD

  • http://www.silentsprings.com Vincent Smith

    And isn't it fun when we do?!

  • http://ratsandmore.com Amanda Tempel

    Maps have always confused me. My grandma loves maps though, and can follow them with ease. If I was given a map of an exact place I need to go, I more than likely could not find it, lol.

  • http://www.scatteredmusings.net Debbie

    I like maps.. but couldn't read one to save my life

  • http://frompdxwithlove.com Sofia

    I've always been interested in maps. As a new transplantee to the Pacific North West (north WA to be exact) I am truly interested on getting to know this place better. Unfortunately my husband grew up here and he thinks he knows the place...but we'll see, I truly want to get involved with my new home.

  • http://www.twoofakindworkingonafullhouse.com Dee

    Great post with some great points!

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