Reading Mark Monmonier’s 1995 book Drawing the Lines: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy got me thinking about names and boundaries.
Human beings name things so we can communicate with one another, and then we tell stories to remember the names, encoding them in the language of later generations. New occupants–and colonizers or conquerors–claim and rename to communicate to their followers.
This mountain is Mount McKinley (or is it Denali?), this one is Sagarmatha (or is it Everest?). Keep it in view to your left side and you will be progressing northward.
Big objects accrue many names. When you come to the river called Misi-Ziibi (or Yununu’a, or Báhat Sássin, or…), you must ferry across at the place just south of X. Furthermore, the big river moves, as Mark Twain* knew (see Life on the Mississippi); and as it moves it affects human-made boundary lines that we use to determine tax-base and property ownership and state borders.
Not to mention nationhood.
Monmonier rightly observes that most people assume that maps are factual representations of the physical and legal/abstract/imagined aspects of the “real” –and that assumption is incorrect. Maps can be manipulated. They can be propaganda. They can be drawn to reflect anything the people hiring the cartographer want to emphasize, or erase.
My husband has a German map from 1941. There is no Poland on it, no Austria, no Lithuania, no Ukraine…
When we built our house, I wanted to come up with a good name for it. Then I realized that the housing developments in our region all seemed to be named after things that weren’t there any more: Field Crest, Orchard Acres, Stony Meadows, Fox Stream…and the urge to name my house began to quiet down. Besides, all along I have recognized that the area around boundaries is more interesting to me than what is in the middle. Edges–the fringes, the spaces along and between–
And yet I’m trying to create boundaries around my garden to keep out the field voles, stands of cleome to discourage the deer, as another rainy spring keeps my shoes and gloves muddy and the weeds vigorous and tall. Paradoxes.
Reminds me that my favorite Whitman** quote when I was a teenager was: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.” At 16, however, I never thought to include his marvelous parenthetical line “(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
(I am large, I am boundaryless).
*Another example of name-changing that humans are so fond of.
** The 31st of this month is his bicentennial! I’m participating in a reading–see my Readings & Events page.
I’ve been thinking about maps recently also. I love them, and study them endlessly on trips, as I’m the family navigator. But also how I wear the world in my memory as a map; how my body is a map. Also thinking recently about the terrifying power of our gerrymandered voting districts maps…
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Yes! Monmonier’s insights on how maps are less factual than we think can be taken to the metaphorical level. And inspire poems, perhaps?