»  The Straggler, No. 62

December 31st, 2007

  Maps and Chaps**


Cartography has been in the news recently. It was just five hundred years ago this April that a German monk named Martin Waldseemüller produced the first world map to use the name "America" for our continent. Only one copy of that map survived the centuries. It is in the Library of Congress, who currently have it on display to mark the quincentenary.

The Waldseemüller map is something of a mystery. It shows the Americas approximately as they are, joined by an isthmus, separated from Asia by a large ocean. There is the mystery. Balboa reached the Pacific by land only in 1513 (six years before "stout Cortez," of course); Magellan reached the ocean by sea, and named it, only in 1520. So how did Waldseemüller know about it in 1507? Even more peculiar, his later maps  — 1513, 1516  — dropped the Pacific altogether, the later one re-joining the Americas to the Asian mainland. Ah, Martin: as any experienced marker of examination papers could tell you, your first thought is usually correct.

As a map geek myself, I feel a faint bond with Brother Martin across the centuries. I adore maps, and always have. As some very bookish persons are said not to believe in any event or phenomenon until they have read about it, a place is never quite real to me until I have scrutinized a map of it. No mere street map will do, either, no footling Rand McMally or Google Map for me. I want a proper topographic map, one that shows contour lines, spot elevations, boundaries, railroads, footpaths, waterways, aqueducts, woodlands, swamps, tidal flats, antiquities (sadly lacking here in the New World), bathymetric data, … the works. I want degrees, minutes, and seconds. I want grid, true, and magnetic north, with a figure for annual variation. I want scales, metric and imperial.

Here, for example, is the U.S. Geological Survey 1:24,000-scale map of my district, published in 1967 and "photorevised" in 1979. I acquired it as soon as I moved here. From it I learn that my suburban sixth of an acre stands at 240 feet above sea level. Global warming? No threat to me! That's as high as the land gets hereabouts; though High Hill, three miles to our south, towers up to nearly 400 feet. The road from our house to the village, I further note, drops 160 feet in 2,800  — a gradient of better than 1 in 17. That's as steep as it gets, road-wise; though the hillsides sheltering Cold Spring Harbor, over to our west, attain slopes of 1 in 2 here and there  — wellnigh precipitous in this mild landscape.

Cartophilia (not in Webster's Third, but should be) is a guy thing, I feel pretty sure. I have no real idea, but would be willing to place a small bet, that notable female cartographers have been as rare as female mathematicians, composers, or chess champions. If I am right, there is no doubt a feminist explanation available, leaning on "oppression," "exclusion," and "exploitation." Possibly that explanation is correct; but I think folk wisdom is closer to the truth: maps were invented by males so that we would not have to stop and ask for directions.

There is certainly a mathematical component to cartophilia. It was his work on geodetic surveys in Hanover and Bavaria that inspired Carl Friedrich Gauss to thoughts about the properties of curved surfaces. Those thoughts eventually, if indirectly, generated the modern discipline of differential geometry and the theory of General Relativity. To the arithmetically inclined, a map invites calculations, like those I just did for my neighborhood gradients. And as well as math coming out of maps, it is of course the case that a lot of math goes into the making of them.

The appeal of maps is ultimately esthetic, though, and not entirely the "cold" esthetics of math and logic. The standard U.S.G.S. 1:24,000 topographic maps are things of beauty as well as utility. The folds and puckerings of the earth where contour lines crowd together; the pinks, blues, and greens of terrain and water; the speckled settlements of humanity and the circulatory system of streets and highways that nourishes us; who can resist it all? Well, I suppose a lot of people can, but I can't.

The gold standard in topographic maps is not the U.S.G.S. but Britain's Ordnance Survey. I possess old 1:25,000 O.S. sheets — popularly known as the 2½-inch series (because 1:25,000 is very nearly 2½ inches to a mile) — covering most of my home county, as it was in my childhood, "Price 4s. 6d. net" per sheet. There is no copping-out here, as on the U.S.G.S. maps, with pink splotches for built-up areas: every block, garden, and alley is meticulously marked. Large buildings are given their precise shapes. Our local cinema had an annex of two or three stores off at one side, and here they are, protruding just where I recall them. Here is my street, my school, the woods we raided for birds' nests, the canals we almost drowned in, the orchards we were chased out of by angry proprietors, the eccentrically-named country villages (Preston Deanery, Easton Neston, Buttock's Booth) that we cycled through.

And the history, of course: battlefields, hill forts, "tumulus," "Roman road," and a melancholy notation, in Gothic script: "Church (Remains of)." That ruined church is the only relict of a village abandoned during the Black Death. Heaven only knows how the Ordnance Survey people conquered the landscape in such infinite detail in the days before satellites, before even comprehensive aerial photography.

I have lost a good many books, photographs, and memorabilia in my travels, but somehow have kept all my maps. Street maps, bus maps, subway maps, my father's old cycling maps, hotel and car rental company maps, and those excellent road maps that gas stations used to give out free. Some of them are decades out of date  — close to a century, in the case of the cycling maps. In the age of GPS and Google, I suppose they are all as superfluous as slide rules or suspender belts, but I can't let them go. Together they form a sort of meta-map of my peregrinations, the itinerary of a life. What on earth was I doing in Alamogordo, NM?

* I submitted this piece under the rather pedestrian title "All Mapped Out." Mike Potemra, National Review's literary editor, substituted "Maps and Chaps," no doubt having in mind Edmund Clerihew Bentley's observation that

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.