Finding Aleppo

The failure to know how map–or to try to map–the escalation of rounds of mortar, surface-to-surface missiles, shrapnel, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and bunker-buster bombs that have fallen and now continue to fall on Aleppo prevent appreciating the scope of its human rights disaster.  The scale of local destruction is not able to be embodied in maps, indeed, since the data is not available–often all we have is grainy video, as if the war, as so much of the five-year Syrian Civil War, was being held off-camera, and out of the public eye.   Despite the shock of remotely sensed maps of the city, the absence of any clear analytic damage assessment makes us feel both more remote from its destruction.  And the failure to embody the progressive ratcheting up of the city’s aerial bombardment may be a failure more profound than we can now understand–extending from the destruction of infrastructure to medical facilities and energy needs, and even the city’s industrial base.  For Aleppo demands to be understood as a theater of war–not only a crucial piece in a nation divided into zones of control, where long-range aircraft bombers  long-range bombers of limited accuracy, as the Tu-22M3, almost indiscriminately attack terrorist targets.   For the increased escalation of the  destruction of its fabric seems not only tantamount to a new plan to retake the entire country, but for creating a new military presence in Syria’s Civil War to change the place of what was once Aleppo on the map.

Most maps of the Syrian Civil War try to explain the increased strategic significance of Aleppo in the six-year civil war, but few have come to map adequately its place as a theater of escalating violence.   The problem is one of not only mapping its geopolitical significance in the struggle between armed factions, at this point, but mapping the military onslaught that has been directed to the city.  By implicitly tolerating the increased levels of violence that are not only destroying rebel strongholds that have rendered the city uninhabitable, we may be failing to map the place of Aleppo in the nation and the future costs of its aerial siege.  The recent escalation of siege on the city goes so much further than in previous years.  Indeed the presence of increased Russian planes dropping bunker-buster bombs, if proven as alleged, confirm  a new, more destructive phase in the Russian-sponsored siege of the city that has dramatically changed as a theater of war, with bombs and missiles for the first time targeting underground shelters, hospitals, and medical centers.  If such targets were out of bounds of previous government bombardment and beyond the scope of the city’s siege, in ways difficult to appreciate, the training of bombs on people associated with “terrorists” and state enemies.   If Assad’s planes showed little accuracy in choosing targets, the unrestrained bombing of the city in recent days suggest not a new strategy, so much as a new sense of attack.  Indeed, by giving an apparent prominence to Russian aircraft in the destruction of the city and the rebels’ longstanding presence in Aleppo, the end seems to assert absolute control over the region, independent of human rights costs.  Bomb raids occur at night, with massive quantities of TNT, aimed at civilian casualties, or target centers of food distribution and hospitals near dawn.


screen shot 2016-08-17 at 11.00.30 am.pngRussian Ministry of Defense


The recent escalation of the level of attacks on rebel groups seems to affirm the Russian position to retain Bashar al-Assad in power in definitive terms that might give one pause.  For the result is not only to redraw the lines of control over the city, but indeed the presence of Russian authority in the country of Syria, and the presence of Russian soldiers and war planes in the future of the Syrian nation.   Almost immediately after declaring an end to the negotiated cease-fire after just a week, the renewed aerial attacks on an aid convoy bringing blankets, food, medicine, and Pampers to Aleppo’s besieged residents marked a resumption of bombing activities by the Syrian Government.  The convoy was parked at warehouses of Arab Red Crescent , in an attack killing twelve, according the United Nations, and attacks left twenty-two casualties.  But the aerial attack reveals a scary continuity with the resumption of bombing of Aleppo itself, and the renewed attack on the city that followed have been interpreted as a rejection of resuming peace talks by the Syrian government–and the Russians–and decision to conclude the siege of the city in definitive manner.

Yet what would it men to map the attacks on the very habitability of Aleppo?

If the attack on the convoy defied human rights conventions and occurred shortly after declaration of an end to the cease-fire, it has come to appear less of an exceptional moment than a turning point in dramatically both ratcheted up the violence against civilians.   The escalation of the city’s bombardment by more powerful bombs are a particularly terrifying and unprecedented intensification of air strike of the city’s buildings and infrastructure from which there is little turning back, but also a blanket on information of what is happening on the ground.  The consequent failure to embody or synthesize the scope of attacks against Aleppo’s residents and the apparent escalation of pressures put on those remaining in the city, using bunker-buster bombs prohibited by United Nations or laser-guided KAB-500L developed by Soviet Air Force, has increased the inhumanity of attempts to squeeze out residents who long resisted the Syrian regime, collapsing underground refuges as well as residential buildings and markets, all in a desperate attempt to increased existing shortages of food and other needed goods in hopes to bring residents and rebels to lay down their arms to surrender.

They raise a question:  Could one map crimes against humanity against the increasing strikes of an aerial arsenal of increased power?  What a map of human rights violations would look like is good to think about, even if such a map cannot be made or constructed:  the map would take into account civilians killed by bombs or by rubble from buildings; civilians killed in destroyed hospitals or for lack of medical supplies; elderly and children with lack of food; neighborhoods and buildings destroyed in fire or by bombs; future lives foregone.   Even though the ability to map the impact prevents clear identification, and most of the aerial bombs and mortars impact far from their targets, of damage that is rarely assessed, the intensification of sustained aerial bombardment seems to extend the violence of aerial involvement in the Civil War in decisive ways, posing increased dangers not only of an intensified humanitarian disaster, but of obliterating much of the city as we know it from the map, under the pretense of attacking those who fought against the Assad regime as terrorists.

Over the next few days, declaring the cease-fire over, Syrian government and Russian forces jointly carried out some ninety aerial bombardments of Eastern Aleppo’s residential neighborhoods, using cluster bombs able to trigger “massive fires,” according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, as well as bunker busters, following the Syrian government’s announcement that it had decided to launch new offensives against areas held by rebels who the government labels “terrorists” and escalate attacks on Eastern Aleppo after they had declared the truce expired.  The readiness to undertake these strikes so surprised witnesses that the map they create on the ground can hardly be rendered in news maps of territorial divides.  For the resumption of heavy fighting on all major fronts in Aleppo and its outskirts will make it difficult to bring the government back to the table.  And despite repeated promises and offers to open “safe corridors” for inhabitants of Aleppo to flee, resumation of escalated bombing raids seem designed to remove the once-thriving historical city from the map and a change in the nature of how we might adequately map its expanding theater of war has closed Aleppo and its infrastructure.

The destruction of the Red Crescent inter-area convoy seem the logical continuation of the attempt to strangle the remaining residents of East Aleppo and rebel resistance in the city.  The bombing has forestalled any renewed hope of humanitarian aid in ways that will not be possible to map–much as the current intensification of bombing air raids have occurred off the map, intentionally leaving them out of the public eye and making their scope of the craters they create in the city impossible to track or envision, and the destruction of underground shelters not even visible from above.  The bombing of a humanitarian convoy from Red Crescent seems to have opened a new level of aggressive action against Syrian rebel forces–identified only by the regime as “terrorists,” to strip them of their identity and conceal any crimes against humanity–and a desire of the Russian government to intensify the civil war with a new level of violence at a scope and scale that we are hardly able to register.  As much as map the strikes of air-delivered bombs against a base-map of Aleppo, what would it look like to map the costs of such an intensified bombardment of residential areas of eastern Aleppo?  Even the impact of aerial bombs in the dense city are hard to imagine in their full extent from earlier visualizations, which appear focussed at individual targets, despite a lack of clear aim:


Aleppo Sept 2012.png

AI May 2013.pngAmnesty International maps of September 2012 and May 2013–Bombing Sites in Red


April-May 2015 neighborhood dmage.png

Neighborhood Damage in Aleppo, April-May 2015/UNOSAT


nostat Bomb Famage Level.pngBuilding Damage Assessment:  Red-Destroyed; Tan-Severe; Yellow-Moderate; February 18 2016 New York Times/UNOSAT data


Not only has the scope of bomb damage spread across much of the Old City and even to Western Aleppo, in contrast with the images of earlier years, but the bombs have been dropped with intensity around the Citadel, the Airport, and more recently the old industrial area and northwestern outskirts, as the seige adopts a broad basis and intensifies around relatively similar combat lines on the ground.

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Filed under Bashar al-Assad, bomb damage, Siege of Aleppo, Syrian Civil War, technology transfers

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

Maps promise to comprehend the effects of bombings and air raids, but can only hint at what occurs on the ground.  The scale of damage is most often mapped in an attempt to lend closure, coherence, and comprehension to an ongoing destruction of war, as if to lend some clarity to the fog of war itself as it is experienced on the ground.  The maps of bombing raids and bombed out landscapes or cityscapes aim to impose a sense of often unwarranted closure in their implicit promise to fix meaning to ongoing events.  Often, the mapping of damages in images are repressed, as the war’s violence cannot be communicated to civilians save, perhaps, after these horrendous and terrible events that effectively track a changed relation to place.  Despite the melancholic sense of loss that pervades most images of bombed out landscapes, as in the header to this post, the resilience of the Bomb Damage Maps–as this one of Soho–spoke to the need to maintain composure, perhaps, as well as faith, as V-2 rockets shot pell-mell down on the capital.


Mayfaire; Soho



Over five hundred and seventeen V-2 rockets fired from overseas exploded in London during the German blitz of the city of London at the end of World War II from September, 1944.  After V-1 bombs dropped in quick succession by some three hundred airplanes had killing upwards of 2,500 civilians, a shower of hundreds of bombs over hours shook the entire city almost without interruption.  The Blitz had begun in 1939, using pilotless airplanes, but the use of ballistic V-2 missiles that began from 1944 intensified continuous aerial bombardment of three hundred successive air raids.  The first use of ballistic missiles set a new standard for damage on the Home Front, and the tabulation of  apparently random destruction.  After planes carrying bombs had first targeted industrial areas, as bombing shifted to include civilian habitations; 2,000 V-1 bombs that landed in greater London killed 2,239, –and the later near continuous onslaught of 500 V-2 rockets fired from mobile launchers and powered by ethanol killed 2,511 in London alone, creating a distribution of death in the Home Front designed to terrify.  The continued onslaught of pattern of destruction was after all designed to wage a psychological form of war.


region of bombs.pngLondonist

v-2 atacks, Google aMap.pngLondonist



The experience and effects of bombing raids are hardly able to be summed up by even the best project to map these strikes along a Google Maps viewer and projection, given the huge surprise value of the strikes, and their difficulty to preserve as a collective memory both from above and on the ground.  The nearly continuous bombing raids challenged comprehension and assessment, and created a new demand to map the damages caused by silently arriving rockets whose approach could not be detected and whose impact created immediate craters in the city.

The maps commissioned by the London City Council sought to capture the scale and extent of the devastation of aerial bombardment, employing the findings of from architects and engineers in the city who performed as a rescue service that responded to almost 16,400 bombing raids.  Despite the extensive loss of lives, the maps, which show a restraint and odd distancing of the actuality of terror that dates them before television screens or the vicarious observation of large-scale violence, are less made for an audience of viewers than to prepare an analytic record for the future–and seem to consider the future landscape of the city as if in an exercise of good thinking in ways we rarely do in mapping the bombed out landscapes of Afghanistan or Syria–for most places in which, including long-besieged population of the city of Aleppo, estimated at over two million, no maps exist.

For the mappers’ intent was less to note the growing number of human casualties from bomb blasts than to try to narrate the tragic episode of military attacks on London as a community.  Implicit in the elegant color-coding done atop1916 Ordnance Maps of London of every building, street, and park of London, there seems an intent attempt to keep composure while assessing the local extent of the damages created by incoming rockets as if to account for a constantly changing relation to space.  The encoding of damage captured a changing urban landscape that allowed from the perspective of the sudden disturbance of the city’s plant–as if their rebuilding was always on viewers’ and user’s mind as they read and interpreted distribution and extensiveness of damage to individual buildings.

If considerably antiquated with time, the Bomb Damage Maps eloquently preserve a sense of the considerable demand to retain the unity of a vanished urban landscape in the course of the war.  There is something valiant and curiously removed–and farther than ever before–in how the Council’s maps adopted the block-by-block surveys to take stock of the damage inflicted by flying ballistic missiles that suddenly appeared, causing damage before their arrival was even heard, creating a record of the new reality of war that had suddenly extended to include the Home Front.


Stepney-1920x1360Stepney, London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 (London Metropolitan Archives)


The care with which the Architects Office tracked the unprecedented scale of destruction were based on judging devastating effects on the city to be mapped by a color-coded key of the extent of damage in each neighborhood, to track the ongoing losses inflicted every day.  In tracking each neighborhood’s relative damage was tracked, block by block, building by building, a composite aerial view of the city was created, but in the service to preserve a sense of place under attack, as if to make losses legible and to grasp the scale of their destruction–noting the state of each street corner in each neighborhood, and destroyed residential blocks the line the city blocks of London as if to preserve an image of what was.  The choice of such light pastels seems an aesthetically brave transcription of the violent obliteration of an urban landscape–as bombing raids changed London’s cityscape and the architecture, obliterating buildings with a terrifying instantaneous force–





There is some irony in the fact that the very same missiles–the V-2 rockets–were used to create some of the earlier aerial maps of place when they arrived, with Werner von Braun, to the United States in the post-war world.  The far more local maps that the London City Council commissioned during wartime seem a process of cartographical mourning of the local landscape, and as such, it is hard not to read their distanced tracking of the destruction of local buildings in London against the iconic images of the damage and tragedy of the two Boeing 767 passenger airplanes hijacked to collide into New York’s World Trade Center, and the damage caused by the ignition of the 20,000 gallons of jet fuel each carried; the image of the crashes that interrupted the New York cityscape’s bright blue skies and left 3,000 dead is seared into our minds, among the most photographed and rewatched moments of the past fifty years–if it is still poorly grasped or understood.

There is a sharp contrast of the sustained bombing of the city to the apparent unicum of the image of flames bursting from both towers in the moments after collision, and their later destruction to rubble, is mourned by the maps of the hijacked airplane’s arrival, as by towers absent from lower Manhattan’s skyline, and so often commemorated over decades.  For the regularity of the onslaught of bombing demands a different sort of mapping, and was designed to destroy the urban fabric, as much as attack one target, and seems akin to the ongoing bombing of Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces over multiple years, in ways that made the arrival of bombs a terrifyingly undeniable part of urban life.  Unlike the destruction of the World Trade Center, long taken as emblematic of an assault on the Untied States as a nation, the ongoing destruction of buildings in the Blitzkrieg was mapped with far less designs of open patriotism or cinematic scope, and definitively removed from a photographic record by being mapped in the flat lines of an ordnance map.  Local evaluations of damage taken by rescue teams was less to create a sense of virtual witnessing of damage in the logic of disaster movies, or to put us at the scene as observers of the terrible event, but sought to take stock of the scale of loss.

There is no sense of mourning or attempt to frame or give meaning to a human tragedy of loss of lives, in other words, but to generate an abstract assessment that archived the effect of what had become routinized events of terror.  The Bomb Damage Maps were drafted by the London City Council in response to local assessment of air raids; its Architects Department carefully assessed local damage to buildings from 1939 to 1945, sending surveyors and engineers to examine bombed out sites in the city between regular rocket raids.  The only recently published maps designed to assess bomb damage reveal the scope of London’s devastation during the Blitzkrieg, designating degrees of damage in each region of the city–“Total Destruction,” “Damaged Beyond Repair,” “Seriously Damaged–Doubtful if Replaceable.”  These elegantly hand-colored maps collate the extent of individual strikes and coded, registered in ways that presented an ongoing record of the devastating effects of the so-called vergeltungswaffen, which arrived in five minutes to their targets, powered by liquid ethanol, in a new science of military destruction.

The maps of the damage of aerial bombing, oddly rendered beautiful by their choice of pastel colors, for this blogger cannot help but recall the war-time map from the Blitz that was studded with spectrum of multicolored stars “that cover the entire spectrum” which the fictional American military intelligence officer Lt. Tyrone Slothrop tacked beside his desk in a military office wartime London, described by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow.  Slothrop’s map reveals a strikingly similar pattern to a map of bomb strikes and raises questions about his protagonist’s foreknowledge of strikes–and what he was mapping with such accuracy.  The map of colored gummy stars soon incriminate poor Slothrop, whose task was to visit the sites rocket-bombs had destroyed–and not only because it seemed evidence that he paid far more attention to the girls whose names are noted beside each star than the actual damage of explosions.  When it attracts the suspicious eyes of superiors, the map leads the military to open proceedings into Slothrop’s apparent precognition by rockets that had so suddenly and indiscriminately destroyed parts of London after screaming across the sky, as they seek to understand what patterns the rocket seem to fall.

Pynchon used the map assembled by Lt. Tyrone Slothrop to introduce the hero’s dilemma, but it also becomes a puzzle that begins its narrative.  The interpretation of the map provides a basis for Slothrop’s commitment to a mental institution, as psychologists and statisticians try to determine the possibility of a determinism in the sites of bomb attacks–leading Slothrop to wonder if the sites are predestined, and “the flight of the rocket actually follow from the fated eruption latent in the city,” in an imagined congress inherent in the arcs of the V-2’s rockets that have begun to destroy London’s fabric and its citizens.  These musings are based on the revelation that the map suggests Slothrop’s fore-knowledge of the bombs’ locations leads the statistician Roger Mexico to wonder how they follow a set mathematical model–discovering “Poisson Distributions” in the apparently random attacks–to question whether the apparently random pattern of V-2 rockets had an internal logic.  Roger Mexico’s map takes each “event” only as an occasion to for round-headed pins to be “stuck in his map” of the rockets’ ghosts, soon “a pinhole in paper that someday will be taken down, when the rockets have stopped their falling, or when the young statistician chooses to end his count.”  The maps coincide, when projected over one another, and the distributions on the two maps are not only identical–they actually match up, square for square, girl-stars and rocket-strike circles–and Slothrop had dated each star designating sexual adventures across the city that precede the “corresponding rocket strike” by two to ten days, with a “mean lag” of about four and a half days, as if to map eros onto thanatos.

The map seems to give coherence to disorder–and lead to reflection on whether the war had a logic–as tMexico mapped the distribution of a similar map above his own desk, in a map of London studded with round-headed pins of the “event” of V-2 rockets.   Did Pynchon himself ever see the vibrant spectrum of colors in the Damage Maps?  The rainbow of colors that render disastrous damages similarly struggled to give coherence to the absence of evident meaning in the barrage of destruction that the rockets wrought in London, if Slothrop’s map was certainly also a bit silly.  There is certainly an odd beauty in the classical rigor by the extent of damage done by V-1 and V-2 Rockets is tracked in the Damage Maps of London’s devastation by the Blitzkrieg– an odd silence of the human deaths that accompanied these deadly and unforeseeable strikes from above.

The archival maps offer the most analytic register of the strikes, and distinguish the strikes from V-2 rockets by smaller circles–using larger ones to mark the bombs delivered by V-1 unmanned planes–and the physical damage they created to the city.



The marks cannot capture the extent of damage created by their range of impact around London, nor do they entirely try, but they track Blitzkrieg as it was lived through–less as a range of impacts, than the qualitative damage they produced, as if in real time, and offer a record of destruction more than the Google Maps register of datapoint can capture–despite the horror of its density.




Viewing the methodical Bomb Impact Map, one cannot help but be struck by the set of muted pastel colors that cluster sites of impact and destruction, and elegant vision that the color-coded field of pastels preserve.  They almost orient viewers an aestheticized to an early record of mass-destruction.  Its color spectrum seem to come to terms with the unprecedented scale of destruction, by re-dimensioning the loss to a scale by which to grasp what parts of the city might possibly be repaired, as if the destruction could be tracked in a recognized and remembered place, even many were actually obliterated.

The work of mapping seems a clear attempt to re-dimension the stunning intensity of loss, or establish a sense of normalcy as far as was possible.  They were organized by overlaying a range of pastel strips and circles on the Ordnance Maps:   the somewhat spectral and haunting Bomb Damage Maps provided a running account of the destruction from 1944 in the Blitz, as Luftwaffe planes attempted to obliterate in some three hundred flights over the city, destroying entire neighborhoods into rubble at no actual notice, in a terrifying condensation of the rapidity of long-distance aerial strikes at a Home Front.  The project of remapping the damages from V-1 and V-2 rockets, and the destruction that they caused during the Blitzkrieg, is nothing short of an act of resistance, if  form of wartime mapping that seems dated and remote.


Bermondsey; Wapping 1920x1369Wapping and Bermondsey/London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 (London Metropolitan Archives)


138-139_LCC_AR_TP_41_091_c-1920x1360.jpgDeptford, SE London, London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 (London Metropolitan Archives)




The care with which these antiquated maps, property of the London Metropolitan Archives, take to note ongoing destruction of the city seems to provide a record of the Blitzkrieg from below, taking stock of the extensive damages to familiar places and their loss, with an attentiveness and care which we could barely imagine today.  The vivid colors not only trace the consequences of the thousands of bombs German Luftwaffe dropped on the city of London with a fascinating documentary appeal but seem an aesthetic response to disaster.  As such, their pastel colors recall that memorable map posted in Allied Intelligence that raised colleagues’ eyebrows.  Slothrop had hung beside his desk a painstakingly assembled the map of gummed colored stars across a map of London from 1943 to 1944 to chart his sexual escapades and conquests of women in the city, starting with silver, then green, gold, red, blue, and violet, and their code is never discovered, and might not even exist.

But when Slothrop’s map is discovered, and can’t help but puzzle his superiors, since it suspiciously correlates so strikingly with where V-2 bombs actually exploded.  The map becomes a compelling cypher whose coded organization is a framing conceit of Gravity’s Rainbow, explained only by the peculiar history and experiences of Slothrop himself and the psychological experiments the child Tyrone underwent.  Slothrop himself strove to make sense of the curious coincidence as he pasted gummed stars to the city map appear.  He had started to investigate rocket disasters in the wartime city for the fictional intelligence unit known as Allied Clearing House, Technical Units, Northern Germany (ACHTUNG), presumably to pay attention to where bombs fell in the besieged city.  The striking glossy “multicolored distribution” he creates behind his desk raises suspicions, as it is noticed by his superiors as well:  the map becomes a site for the generation of several theories on the distribution of where bombs fell–and psychologists are convinced of their relation to Slothrop’s own cortex.

The map that mirrors the distribution with which V-2’s hit London with an intensity, but rather than the sites of craters that they caused, shows a violet density around Mayfair, and red and blue beside the names of girls; it seems to illustrate a dedication to chasing English girls at sites of urban destruction and places of death in 1944.  As the map is shown to coincide, the fact that they uniformly predate the bomb-strikes that Slothrop later visited, by stars that “fill the spectrum,” makes his superiors particularly interested in them as a code–or as possessing an internal logic–that suggests the rocket strikes are somehow determined by as well.  Slothrop had at the very time been adding colored stars to his own map of individual girls in the same cumulative manner that the recently published color coded maps were produced by the London County Council Bomb Damage Maps by architects who were commissioned from 1939 to 1945 to assess local damage from almost regular rocket strikes.  The set of a 110 maps, preserved in London Metropolitan Archives, were created by city surveyors employed to assess damage and work with rescue teams, who after returning from bombing sites worked to classify the damages cause by 16,000 explosions, noted possibilities of rebuilding by six levels of damage on military Ordnance Survey maps, but can’t leave one struck by the spectrum of their colors–and seeking meaning from the distribution of rocket strikes, much as the statisticians and military police seek to use to describe the uncanny logic of Slothrop’s maps.


Waterloo E& C_c-1-1920x1356Waterloo; Elephant & CastleLondon County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 (London Metropolitan Archives)


84-85_lcc_ar_tp_39_052_c-1920x1351Bethnal GreenLondon County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 (London Metropolitan Archives)


The mysterious fictional map marking sites by gummed stars attracts attention and raises sudden suspicions and investigation by Teddy Bloat, after he happens to spy it behind Slothrop’s desk and notices it was begun shortly after the Lieutenant began to visit bombed sites.  Curiously, they seem to predict the sites of actual rocket explosions before the fact.  To superiors, they recalls the map behind the desk of the statistician Roger Mexico, marking the sites of destruction of the rockets whose approach is never heard until shortly before their hugely destructive arrival by multicolored plastic round-headed pins.  The relation between the two maps is a  striking image in the novel, both because of its questioning of the intersection between appearances and reality and the acute paranoia that Slothrop develops the the bombs are in fact tracking him.  Slothrop carefully included names by the multicolored paper stars are puzzling:  from Darlene in silver to Gladys (green) or Katherine (gold), Carolines, Annes, Marias, Susans, and Elizabeths, but prefiguring V-2 explosions by several days, as if predicting a pattern of rockets toward their targets, posing the questions about the relation of the presence of falling of bombs to human action, as well as how Slothrop came to know–or seem to know–the sites at which the rocket bombs would explode with such curiously uncanny reliability.

The bombs arrive with an unparalleled intensity, and Slothrop regularly returns from such sites of phantasmagoric destruction, as he wonders whether “There may be some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in their pattern of arrival of “these sudden demolitions from the sky, mysterious orders arriving out of the dark laborings of nights that for him are only idle” as he searches for fragments of rockets investigating “V-2 aftermaths,” moving across London in “Slothrop’s Progress,” starting to fear that his motions are indeed being tracked in the city by bombs, while sadly working with search and rescue crews.  Such fears are dismissed as being “operational paranoia,” the map that echoes the actual distribution of bombs across the city, and demand further explanation.  Is Slothrop doing his job?  Or does this have something to do with the odd set of Pavlovian psychological experiments to which he was subject back at Harvard?  The sense of strikes as “aftermaths” of explosions suggest an attempt to gain closure by the finality of the strikes’ occurrence, even as the war was terrifyingly open-ended, lurching to its end.

Pynchon’s exploration of the integration of the pattern of bombings that arrived in London during the Blitzkrieg with Slothrop’s personal as well as military life was not only about the Blitz.  The increased pace of the curious integration of bombing into Slothrop’s life was not obliquely echoed by the increasing realization during the Vietnam War about the rising numbers of bombing raids on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which began from 1965 and was the heaviest bombing campaign since World War II.  Indeed, the attention of Americans slowly turned, as if slowly awakening to the actuality of war crimes, from the deaths of American soldiers, and rising numbers of POW’s and MIA’s to the terrifying pace of the actual the increase of bombings of the sustained bombardment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam–but whose results were rarely seen or mapped–and was intended to be a similar mission of psychological deterrence rather than a tactical strike–“to peruse the Hanoi government that the cost of persisting was unacceptably high“–although the increases in sustained campaigns of bombing never produced tactical results.

The bombed out landscapes endured, in ways only begun to be mapped.  Despite some attempt to target munitions and transportation hubs, the frustration of hitting targeted sites under poor weather conditions led to the development of radar systems that were designed to predict the exact sites of bomb drops in simulations–the Radar Bomb Scoring or RBS, and SAC radar system–to allow F-100 fighters to deliver ordnance to precise sites–for unlike those V-2 designed by Werner von Braun, local rain and fog often meant that bombs regularly fell even as bombing concentrated on the flow of men and supplies down North Vietnam’s panhandle in 1965, and outdated F-100s and F-105’s were far less versatile in delivering bombs than required–leading to a range of armaments from cluster bombs, napalm, and television-guided missiles–and an expansion of bomb dropping that led the USAF to run out of bombs, and be compelled to buy back some 18,000 bombs first sold to allies by the Department of Defense.

As a broadening of targets from enemy camps and routes in an expanding airwar grew, air strikes only assumed a logic of their own–in part because USAF planes lacked requisite precision, and in part due to military frustrations–creating a bombed out landscape that few ever saw.  As early as 1965, North Vietnamese prepared themselves for “the complete destruction of the country” against an increasingly indiscriminate air war that assumed a bizarre logic of its own:   even as it emerged as a “tactical” mission, the mission all but accepted a removed relation to place–and American presidents to worry more about the accidental strike on a Russian ship than the costs of bombing a civilian theater of war, and the “primary objective . . . to communicate resolve,” and the bombed out landscapes that resulted that remained increasingly removed from American consciousness.




The mission sought to damage an increasing range of targets at a pace designed to shock and struck across South Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, in hopes to compel peace negotiations–even as increasing aircraft were lost over North Vietnam, and pilots captured.  Many more bombs were launched against Cambodia than were fired during World War II in Europe, at a payload estimated at over 500,000 tons–leading the Guiness Book of World Records (an odd source, admittedly) to award the dubious if also terrifying pride of place to Cambodia of “most heavily bombed country per capita.” The “secret war” against the highland plateaux in North Vietnam and Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail targeted military, but mostly hit civilians, leading some two million tons of ordnance to be dropped by American military planes over an expanse only recently mapped, of proportions and scale difficult to fathom–in hopes to conclude the war against a particularly and increasingly resilient population, and an increasingly unethical expansion of precision bombing raids in a mind-boggling pace of military onslaught as bombing sorties increased and multiplied beyond any rational proportions in the wartime theater–especially as the United States Air Force lacked any .




The resonance of the mapping of bomb raids that responded to the Tet Offensive on the Lunar New Year of 1968, and the escalation of carpet bombing that followed it, were increasingly mapped in print and on television in the years that Pynchon wrote, as if in eery precognition of the mapping of ongoing drone strikes in our own news media:



US AIr Raids Mapped


The expansion of bombing raids shifted from a war of psychological deterrence to a project of bombing the country into submission, which only recent attempts to reconstruct bombed out landscapes by data visualizations seem able to recuperate.


Today, Laos remains the most bombed country in toto, thanks to raids performed to the United States Air Force over ten years–the rendering of the expansive bombing of regions of the nation in a GIF seems almost a game of data density, so abstracted is the image from the territory as it contracts extent of the bombed out landscape to a disembodied sea of monochrome red, hard to parse and quite removed from the landscape in which they fell.  Indeed, the project of reconstructing the bombing of this landscape suggests a new frontier of data visualization, with renewed ethical imperatives in an era of drone strikes, but also so eerily mapping a present-day haunting of the destruction on so much of the Laotian landscape and territory by compressing nine long and terrible years in a GIF that condenses an accelerated imagined aerial view of a bombed out expanse, removed from any real sense of place.




The strikes of B-52’s are visualized retrospectively from Air Force data retrospectively, but one can only imagine the targeting of population centers–or the heightened impossibility of living in such a scenario over a decade.  The maps were not created at the time, but from USAF data, as if to comprehend the levels of destruction in a country where land mines are still being mapped in a comprehensive database of a secret war, as over 80,000 million of these sub-munitions left unexploded in Laos are being tracked.


img804-e1360984944578Global Research


We have tried to map a comprehensive view of bombing in the region to assess extent reptrospectively from some ten years of bombing data released after the fact to grasp the effects of those many red dots in the region to understand unexploded ordnance–




and comprehend the over 221,000 people injured since the end of the war in 1975 to suffer death and/or injury on account of unexploded ordinance left across a huge landscape.




At the time of the Vietnam War and the escalation of bombing, American news media struggled to map firefights and bombing raids by similar exploding stars, as if punctuating space in ways familiar to Pynchon’s readers, the precognition of potential targets was something of a ludic counter-map, as it possibly was for the author putting pen to paper in Manhattan Beach, California.  Indeed, the unprecedented carpet bombing of Laos that began as Pynchon wrote ran past the 1971 publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, visualized below from US Air Force data of missions flown to drop cluster bombs and big bombs over Laos, with an intensity that forces one to shudder, can only hint at the repeated destruction inflicted on the local landscape, and the terrible human cost of dense munition drops.


Air Force Missions in Laos:Mother jonees.png


while Americans were largely most preoccupied with mapping of the toll of American soldiers in the war, as even such abstract dots of losses of life that stud the terrain of South Vietnam by 1973 were obscured by the loss of life since 1961 by Americans, which became a primary way to view and map the stippled landscape of South Vietnam as a landscape of loss in the press as Gravity’s Rainbow (1971) appeared.


UPI DEATH TOLL 1961-71.png


It is not a coincidence that in the same seven years Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, Americans were increasingly disoriented to the expansion of aerial bombardment after the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The expansion of aerial bombing was overwhelming, terrifying, and not comprehensively mapped.  The secrecy of its intensity may have acclimated American audiences to the distribution of bombing flights across space, if not desensitizing them–and their fliers–to dropping cluster bombs from B-52 flights, terrifyingly without asking individual pilots to fathom their pattern or intersection with daily life of those who lived below.

The considerably greater scale at which these clusters of bombing sites are mapped–incompatible and irreconcilable with the scale of local bombings of cities in World War II, as is the scale of the over 230,000 bombing sorties over Cambodia over the course of eight long years–makes it even harder to imagine the scale of destruction.  The sites of bombing, here imposed upon a Google Earth projection, is so massive an aggregate of individual sites of destruction that the mind boggles.  The increased scale of destruction and human loss is but attempts to take stock of the costs of the inhuman war crimes of such an ongoing series of aerial bombing strikes.


Where US Air FOrce Bombed Cambodia


The awesome scale of the above reconstruction leaves entire areas bleached red after eight years of bombing strikes, mostly from B-52 bombers.

Retrospectively imaging the bombed out landscape in large scale maps of bombing targets in Laos have been made that try to escape the overwhelming of the viewer with so many crowded data points.  By using  U.S. military data have been made for the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR (UXO-NRA), local maps of the region show a density of bombing at a level one might grasp to track the landscape they obliterated and unexploded ordnance that may remain along roads and in fields, and to gain a better sense of where unexploded ordnance might lie–as well as the extent of the destruction caused by its initial impact:


a4c932_28878e7e71c2404f86ed49dbc3a6ce73a4c932_839292442f3d420987d0e2995fba0c0cNational Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector in Lao PDR (UXO-NRA) 


Suspicions increasingly turned around Slothrop given the care he gave to compiling a map that seem to predict where bombs hit wartime London and a pretext for his investigation in Gravitiy’s Rainbow.   The semantic status of maps as partial records and encoded signs become a compelling vehicle for the plot, as elsewhere in Pynchon’s fictions as both seductions and literary foils, as the map Herbert Stencil followed in his quest for V., in which the map provides a ploy to grasp an inexistent order, but the haunting image of the display of a map ostensibly predicting V-2 explosions in wartime Europe.

But it is odd to see these earlier colored paper “Bomb Damage Maps,” noting the extent of local destruction based on first-hand witnessing.  They seem a response to the efficiency of an almost mechanized methodical onslaught of London with bombs back in the 1940s, and seem to be a possible model for Pynchon’s image of bombed out London, which itself is a prefiguring of Slothrop’s visit to bombed out Berlin, now rendered “an inverse mapping of the white and geometric capital before the destruction–everything’s been turned inside out . . . the straight-ruled boulevards built to be marched along are now winding pathways, their shapes organic now, responding, like goat trails, to laws of least discomfort.”  If the Berlin bombed out landscape surpassed anything that could be mapped in terms of loss–streets reduced to goat trails–even the violence of the fall of V-2’s in the Blitzkrieg could be mapped, or processed at first hand.  In contrast, the reconstruction of an awesome ten million big bombs and 270 million cluster bombs dropped in Laos–more than were dropped in all of World War II on Germany and Japan combined, and long kept a secret from the American nation, not only injured many civilians, but continued to do so, as some eighty million munitions remained unexploded over forty years, as unexploded ordnance wounded or killed 20,000 individuals.  Who can measure the extent of local losses or of physical damage.

Which returns us to the elegant pastels of the maps compiled of The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945, registering local losses incurred by air raids as assessed in real during their arrival.  The maps present a picture that they present of a city partially destroyed by bombs which would damage 1.7 million buildings, demolish 70,000, and take 30,000 lives.  While taking stock of the historical legacy of lost buildings in an efficient and necessary way, the maps, necessarily mute about 30,000 dead, both encode a disaster in stayed terms and register a particularly stoic response to the moment of crisis–“Keep Calm and Carry On”–whose map of the arrival of V-2 rockets along the Thames and in SE London, Elephant & Castle and Bethnal Green can be located, but the semblance of multi-colored strips to note assessed levels of damage–purple for “beyond repair” and light orange “seriously damaged, repairable at a cost”  and crimson “seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable“–communicates a sense of restraint.  Its spectrum  leads one only to imagine the dedication to rebuilding that was already so intense, and that barely prefigured the unheard of scale of things to come.  No evident pattern emerges to the strikes, similar to that which Mexico deserves, but the multiple strikes on the neighborhoods where rockets fall during the aerial bombardment seems to suggest their obliteration, and the bizarre randomness with which misfortune seem to have struck select neighborhoods, and the city as a whole lived on edge with the near-constant background sound of rocket explosions from bombs that suddenly arrived overhead.


Mayfaire; Soho.jpgMayfair and Soho; note V-2 Rockets; London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 London Metropolitan Archives


Stepney-1920x1360.jpgStepney/Limehouse;  London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945 London Metropolitan Archives


The maps reveal what seem distinct chapters in the evolution of data visualizations.  But as well as reflecting changes in attempts to chart or measure the scale of blanketing land by aerial bombings, the bomb damage maps reflect a resilient calibration of the levels of destruction as they were suffered, perhaps trying to process first-hand observations of the scale of destruction on the Home Front.  They provide an early instance of synthesizing first-hand damage assessments that come to terms with the scale of their continued violence on the ground:   the Bomb Damage Maps synthesized from cumulative observations according to protocol, offer a painstaking register of an unprecedented scale of destruction of a fundamentally civilian space, if the strikes sought out industrial targets.  The methodical color-coding of individual residential neighborhoods found Damaged Beyond Repair (purple), Seriously Damaged–Doubtful if Repairable (crimson or carmine) or, with cautious optimism, “Seriously Damaged–Repairable at Cost” (pink), must mask the scale of destruction in order to come to terms with it.  As well as providing comprehensive  testimony for future generations of the damage of near continuous air strikes, they offer a strikingly methodical testimonial of living through war, unique as a cumulative survey of bombing damages by those on whom they were inflicted.


Filed under aerial bombardment, bombing raids, data visualizations, Thomas Pynchon, war crimes

Hostile Homelands

The blurred figure we assume is a Palestinian boy stares, hand on cheek, pensively over the edge of a concrete barrier wall in East Jerusalem, as if contemplating the apparent permanence of the so-called “Separation Barrier” that divide Palestinian and Israeli lands.  The implicit tension of exclusion and inclusion compresses a history of long-contested border conflicts in the Separation Barrier, and far more than in the Israel-Gaza Security Barrier with which it is often compared as a security fence, as frontiers designed to prevent terrorist attacks.  The construction of the concrete Israeli-Palestinian Barrier Wall from 2000 brought accusations of being a de facto expansion of Israel’s eastern border.  Since its expansion.  Since it was approved by the cabinet in 2005, a moment of relative peace in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the growing Border Barrier has expanded over a decade not only to protect settlements–but also to isolate Palestinians from the region that have compromised Israel’s political ideals in ways that manifest a fraught unilateral relation of the state to human rights in the division of the region’s inhabitants.

The division is only the latest in the contested remapping of Israeli boundaries and Palestinian lands, to be sure, but bears reflection for the lack of a “road map” to future peace, or reconciliation, and an emblem of the intractability of claims to territorial possession.  Although the construction of the security wall has claimed not to divide a people, but rather to separate Palestinian and Israeli populations to offer freedom and security for both, it is a concrete artifact of the impossible tension between populations of Palestinians and Jews, and the long-contested claims for the region as a homeland.  The same problems that have frustrated the very ability for it to be coherently or continuously mapped in the manner of other nation states–and perhaps encouraged its boundaries to be repeatedly resisted and crossed–have made the notion of such a barrier so fraught for mapping a division between populations in one city.  Despite citing precedents for partition in Cyrpus, the fence to obstruct the immigration of Mexicans to the US, or the fence that Turks have built around Iskerdun at the Syrian border, the fence remaps the region in ways that erase historical claims of residence or precedence.  By effectively re-mapping the boundary lines that define the state, the “Separation Barrier” both defines a stable security barrier, but unilaterally re-maps regional boundaries and expands the contested settlement of extensive historical scope.  For the wall qualitatively enhances and alters the state’s frontier–redefining the previously mapped border in strategic ways with entrenched consequences of shrinking areas of settlement and restricting Palestinian movement and access to natural resources. And it reclaims territory by one nation in n a purely unilateral fashion, where no previous internationally recognized barrier exists.

While the boundaries that the security wall creates are particularly divisive, the remapping of a boundary of what were Palestinian homelands by resettling the land, as if in inverse relation to the razing of houses in Palestinian territories that Israeli forces have occupied, as if to deny their occupation of the land, in a strategy of the obliteration of settlement that has recurred in the region:  for the creation of concrete border barriers around settlement impede the use or movement, and are indeed strategic ways of taking control of the chief regional aquifers, at a time when water is being taken out of the Holy Land far more quickly than it is able to be replaced—the large areas of built settlements in the West Bank mapped lie atop major aquifers and effectively restrict access to this precious natural resource–and arable land.  (If Palestinians may come to out-number Jewish Israelis on the land, but control over water and water-rights–a vital necessity and a question of increased contestation, and a practical need for farming–the settlements secure rights of settlers, the thinking goes, and affirm the primacy of their claims to a contested area.)

Expansive boundary barriers have both eroded any mutual mapping of stable boundary lines, and strategically remap the region’s division: they interrupt roads, regular transit, and pathways of communication, obstructing transit by Palestinians to their neighbors, from their sources of employment and livelihood to shift the access of inhabitants to the territory and restrict the space in which they can move and in indeed the territorial claims they can stake, creating a bizarre human geography that cannot be adequately or fully mapped on paper, or by lines and polygons, as much as they demand to be mapped to be take stock of all their quite tortured consequences.  Yet the equation of militarily occupied settlements to “colonies” seems problematic–so much as extensions of sovereignty distinct from a “home” territory, they appear to extend “home” territories. Moreover, the “colonial” status of the settlements–while used to foreground their invasive nature–raises deep dangers of forgetting the historically contested dimensions of territorial struggle and assertions of a people who may cast the occupation of territory as reclaiming lands.


map4-1.jpgBoundary wall showing sections completed by February 2007; red lines were under construction


Over 500 internal checkpoints and roadblocks, not able to revealed at the scale of the map, further break up the continuity of Palestinian lands and isolate each part of the West Bank from the other–even if it is presented as a security need, which has brought benefits of increased peace and a clear decline in the numbers of victims of suicide terrorist attacks.


The tortured route of the Separation Barrier through the neighborhoods, terrain, and ethnic spaces of Jerusalem and its municipal boundaries was designed to prevent routes of suicide bombers and was created by Governmental Decision of February, 2005, allowing legal challenges to its course along the West Bank to be decided in courts.


Security Fence.png

Security Fence legend.pngIDFMU GIS Team


Are such boundaries enforceable, or sustainable for residents and for the notion of a state?

The deeper question is whether such barriers are psychologically sustainable in the region.  By effectively extending the nation’s boundary miles eastward from the definition of Israeli territory at the 1949 Jordanian–Israeli armistice line into the West Bank more than 15 km, the Border Barrier seemed intentionally to remap the relations of Palestinians to the region or homelands.  The contested construction of such an expanded boundary wall is a physical metaphor for a unilateral remapping of the Israeli state:  the “separation wall” whose first segment was finished in 2003 has accordingly gained the Arabic name of the Wall of Apartheid–as much as the Wall of Separation–in a haunting evocation of the politics of remapping people and territory.  Indeed, the absence of adequate historical recognition or metaphorical appreciation of the depth of a desired boundary building is threatened by some short-sighted forgetfulness or selective amnesia by casting the growth of settlement purely in terms of the lens of the territorial expansion of a nation-state:  “colonization” and colonial violence has a clear place in a discourse and history of human rights in an era of decolonization, but the term may distance the settlements’ defense from human rights questions, by casting the building of the Separation Barrier as the project of a secular nation state–erasing the historical depth of mutual incomprehension in long contested boundary lines.

Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua’s haunting post-modern pentateuch, Mr. Mani (1982), if written long before the s a relevant and evocative post-Zionist excavation of the settling of the Holy Land by diasporic Jews, excavates the historical transmission of the hope of settlements across five generations of the Mani family in five chapters of discrete discussions that provide depositions of the historical settlement of Jerusalem by the Jewish family.  The dialogues reveal a complicated motion across boundaries in diaspora that extends back in time to the eighteenth century, when Eliyahu Mani moved from Persia to sell arms to the Janissaries to the Mediterranean at the time of the French Revolution, tracing the migration of Mani across the Mediterranean through the compulsive boundary crossing, setting their individual tortured itineraries in the context of the nourishing of a spatial imaginary of a tie to the Holy Land that repeatedly collides with the geography of the region’s habitation by Arabs, before the background of continued conflicts between its Arab and Israeli residents that reveal deep psychological, as much as objective, questions about relations to space.   In five one-sided dialogues spread across two centuries, we encounter five generations of the mysterious Mani who travelled to Jerusalem, burdened with and tortured by the psychological costs of this attraction, whose encounter with the other is somehow obscured by their own search for identities.  Each successive dialogue offers parallel that help readers to intuit an inter-generational transmission of a need to situate and shape their identity against Jerusalem that seems  self-destructive in the end in how they seek to map their identity onto a secular political space, and a place that is defined by differences as much as the promised place that exists in their minds.  The ‘family resemblances’ of how a mental geography collides with actualities among Mani men is a mediation on the question of Jewish identity–revising the collective identity and narrative of the Jewish people by asking its readers to recognize the self-destructive qualities the Mani share.

But the striking collision of the spatial imaginary of The Holy Land with the actuality of its settlement is among the most haunting aspects of the book, as played out in successive lives of generations of Mani men.  As much as describe the disturbing psychological traits of the family–although compelling–the family resemblances readers recognized emerge around the transmission of a promise of place preserved among the members of the Mani family that in itself perhaps cannot be mapped.  Although first written when Yehoshua was called up for military service during the Israeli-Lebanon war of 1982, it asks readers to confront issues of mapping of Israel’s boundaries and the transmission of a psychological relation to the Holy Land cultivated in diaspora:  the repeated boundary-crossing across generations seem both increasingly self-destructive and compulsive, from the suicidal Gavriel Mani,  visited by the partner of his son in military service in Lebanon, who cannot get a requested leave, to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.  Hagar, who is attracted to Gavriel as she is without a father, is entranced by him as she joins him in setting a funerary stone for Ephraim’s mother in an old cemetery, near the Palestinian quarter, as Ephraim is prevented from joining his father on military leave from Lebanon.  If she is attracted to the opacity of Gabriel’s deep attachment to earlier settlement of the region, the story opens an exploration of how the previous generations of Mani share increasingly tortured relations to the homeland that they lived.  Yehoshua uses non-linear episodes of discussions between younger and older generations about the Mani family to reveal levels in their similarly tortured identities, perhaps tied to a moment revealed in the final chapter of an “original” sin, that assemble a tortured psychology of resettlement that long predates the 1947 partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, and reflects on the translation of the Jewish Nation to the bounds of a secular state, offering a human geography that captures the relation to the land that escapes or evades maps.



An implicit if subtle culmination of each of the five chapters is the realization that the motion of its Jewish protagonists are increasingly constrained over time and in successive generations:  while Ephraim is engaged in the border war in Lebanon which may not be just, Gavriel seems immobilized in his Jerusalem apartment, in the next dialogue we revisit his father, who had left been expelled from Palestine by the British and left Jerusalem only to cross paths at the southern edge of the Third Reich, at the Labyrinth of Knossos, with a Nazi paratrooper in 1941, who believes Crete to be the Reich’s natural destiny and becomes obsessed with interrogating the Mani who identifies himself as a “former Jew”–who he first mistakes as a Greek–about his presence on the island.  As we recede into the early twentieth, late nineteenth and even late eighteenth centuries, the novel’s expansive historical scope endlessly returns to cross-roads of Jewish history, retelling an archetypal narrative of the promise of settlement in Israel in reverse to raise implicit questions about the current crossing of frontier of the Israeli state from the Balfour Mandate to the Zionist congresses into the early nineteenth century.

For Yehoshua broaches tacit questions of the ability to translate the image of the Jewish nation in the frontiers of the qualitatively different idea of a national state:   over five chapters that extend backwards in time, a collective narrative of settlement is refracted from other points of view, without reference to spiritual or Zionist narratives, that forces readers to rethink the generational transmission of an attachment to place.  Yehoshua began Mr. Mani as he struggled to give historical grounds to the confused scope of crossing the border with Lebanon, in an unprecedented military action when he saw Israel as acting, for the first time, as a nation that aggressively sought to expanded its own actual frontiers, and to reflect on the rose of repeated boundary-crossing, and processes similar questions of the transmission of a tortured tie to space as they seek to map the coherence of that identity in spatial terms.

In order to explore Israel’s relation to its boundaries and territory outside of a religious or Zionist narrative, Yehoshua’s novel uncovers a poignantly tortured relation of members of the oldest Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, inviting readers to rethink the historical survival of a deep psychic attachment to place that the expansion and the protection of settlements on the West Bank seem to continue.  The Barrier Wall was built in years long after the novel’s composition, but echoes a similar dynamic in its strongly symbolic remapping of the region, which reveals deep affinities to the promise of place that Yehoshua describes among the Manis.  It resembles the wall dividing Palestinians that Israeli former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin imagined–although he had also negotiated a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestinians–in response to the first intifada, in 1992, although it was built in the context of the second intifada (“uprising”).  The wall’s construction has come to redefine its landscape and seems emblematic of a flawed territorial identity of Israel:  while created as a security barrier to prevent terrorist attacks, it effectively isolates almost a tenth of Palestinians from their territory.

The new border not only extends beyond the Green Line to protect Israeli settlements, but encircles many Palestinian towns to constrain human movement, providing but has been expanded by military interventions beyond previous international accords, and by crossing the boundary that was once agreed upon have moved beyond once clear confines in ways that provide a perilous unilateral expansion of the Israeli nation that seem unsustainable, as the Israeli government has apparently defended settlements beyond borders adjudicated at the rise of the state along the so-called “Green Line,” here rendered in red and distinguished by the Hebrew toponyms in map otherwise English or Arabic in a map that long hung in the office of David Ben Gurion–which bounded an Internationally administered region beyond national jurisdiction in Green.  The superimposition of Hebrew language already reveals a conflicted historical palimpsest, difficult to account for in any map and ethically fraught in its implications for the relations of individual to a territory as symbolically important as Jerusalem.  Even writing the presence of Israel onto a map to define its territory was complexly loaded in multiple potentially conflictual ways.


lines in Jerusalem 47_49.jpg1949 Map that hung in David Ben Gurion’s office, showing “Green Line” in red/Israel State Archives


In recent years, the Boundary Barrier has been built along lines that reflect a complex mosaic of ethnic divisions, with little road map present for the region’s future settlement.

Jerusalem-barrier_June_2007-OCHAoPt.jpegJoshua Doubt


The construction such concrete wall reflects a tortured relation to the territory, even if it is an existential obstacle in the present.  Readers become complicit observers to conflicted relations of the image of the Israeli state to expanse and borderlines.  The excavation of a collective unconscious of the region’s fraught settlement  Yehoshua reveals in the tragic narratives over generations of an “old Jerusalem family” in Mr. Mani–tracing the repeated boundary-crossings of Mediterranean Jews and fraught ties they fashion to Jerusalem.  Its protagonists repeatedly return to fatal miscommunications between the mapping of Jewish settlement centuries before the building of the Border Barrier, in a compelling retelling of the tortured geographies these protagonists follow, and the contested relations to the region’s inhabitants their complex itineraries reveal–the depth with which their relations to Palestine are increasingly appreciated in historical perspective, as the novel casts its unpeeling of historical layers as a revelation of a secret, hidden trauma.

Yehoshua’s novel itself provides a compelling historical commentary on the psychic power of the wall, whose construction it predates, and of conflicts perhaps inherent in the hopes for founding a Jewish state.  Much as the territorial Isreali Border Barrier has compromised the ideals of Israeli, the conflicted nature of the aspirations to statehood become examined through the lens of something like a family pathology of resettling in Jerusalem in the lives we encounter in Mr. Mani, which portrays a history of Sephardic Jews who arrived in the city as re-enacting a perpetually tortured relation to the residents of what they regarded as the Promised Land.  The apparently discrete historical episodes of each chapter narrate how generations of Mani crossed boundaries crossed in the novel as if to peel away the psychological layers of individuals that have continued to animate the the region’s ongoing settlement, and deserves sustained reading as such in the light of the redrawing of the region’s map.

The ongoing protection of settlements of Jews and Israeli’s beyond the divisions of the city has provoked a relatively recent effective remapping of boundaries for current generations of Palestinians and Israeli Jews along the Border Barrier.  The Barrier has created expanded the divisions of Jerusalem  beyond the international boundary recognized by the Green Line, drawn first in green wax pencil by Moshe Dayan in 1947 to recognize neighborhoods of the city that would remain under Israeli control–and which continues to divide the city culturally along ethnic lines in increasingly traumatic ways.  Is this trauma only able to be mapped in the present?





The complex mapping of an incredibly torturous divide of the barrier have recently expanded the city line and municipal boundary of West Jerusalem that have effectively made boundary crossing part of daily life.  The walls create stubborn new borders around settlements on the West Bank that have now extended far to the east of the Old City, serviced by separate busses, mapping a relation to the region without a clear plan for moving forward along a road map.  The melancholic image in this post’s header condenses in an almost existential longing a deep history of territorial conflict and mapping indigenous rights of residence, and the tension by which the tenacity of defending local rights to settlement–cast in terms of the “redemption” of lands by some orthodox Jews but including a range of less conservative settlers as well, who demand protection.

While fraught today the broader problem of border and boundary crossing is examined in resolutely micro-historical fashion through the diasporic Jews in Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, a post-modern pentateuch of a the settlement of Jerusalem by five generations of Mani men, although written before the barrier walls that had such deep humanitarian consequences were built.  In five dialogues, as if in an archetypal structure, stretching backwards to the ideals of the Mediterranean diaspora, we witness the arrival of Mani settlers–Avraham, Yosef, Moshe, Yosef, and Gavriel–in Jerusalem, as if unwilling by-standers to history, that rewrite an archetypal narrative of the foundation of the Jewish state situated it in the Mediterranean society of the diaspora.  Rather than predict the wall’s division of urban space, Yehoshua’s novel hauntingly excavates the search for a Jewish homeland from the eighteenth century, mapping the conflicted relation to the boundaries of the region in the shared if tortured attraction each generation of Jewish settlers in Jerusalem.  Yehoshua’s deeply ethical engagement with boundaries in the novel, a collective psychology of the settlement of the Jewish state that is decidedly pre-Zionist, if written with the present trauma of the division of Jerusalem prominent in his mind–describing, as it does, a prehistory of the frustrations of individuals nowho try to “put [their] identity in a new Israeli identity”–an “identity that replaced the term Jew and enlarged it,” as Yehoshua (who was born in 1937)  described members of the Sephardic family of his mother.  His secular retelling of the Jewish settlement of Israel provides a deeply moral exploration of the meaning of the region’s settlement at a distinct remove from Zionist or religious master-narratives.

In Mr. Mani, Yehoshua reconstructed narratives of five generations of Mani from fictional testimonies of a sequence of one-sided dialogues that try to track their destinies, and their compulsion to settle in Arabic-speaking lands, as they define their identities in relation to a Holy Land.  The monologic dialogues invites interpretation of the tortured geographies by which Mani “resettle” long before the foundation of an Israeli nation by circumstances that hauntingly and compulsively enact a psychological relation to the Holy Land; finding a place for themselves within a divided city seems a psychological compulsion for the Mani family, and their collective biographies offers a haunting counter-narrative of the difficult occupation of the region, witnessed from the traumatic Lebanon War of 1982, when the novel was begun and is set–a war for which the author was mobilized, and which prompted him to feel the need to excavate the state’s relation to its territory.  Each of the five partial dialogues examine protagonists who as far back as the mid-nineteenth century who, in different historical moment and crossroads, recurrently reveal a  traumatic relation to the land.  Each testimony about the Mani reveal, in a non-linear fashion, deep psychological continuities members of five generations in their attempts to find a residence in the region that they know as the Holy Land, crossing borders to adopt new identities in often surprising–an identity that never exists in clearly spiritual terms.

Each chapter introduces previous generations of Jews once committed to settle in the region that focus on their conflicted relations to its actual inhabitants, as we come to examine and evaluate the concealed histories of how the Mani family came to inhabit the city.  Yehoshua’s novel uncovers a prehistory of the current occupation, through the fraught symbolic place of Jerusalem in the Jewish state–and its mythic status in the diasporic community–against the almost compulsive and perhaps pathological pull of translating an idea of the Jewish state into territorial terms, that suggest the deep historical haunting of the fraught boundaries of the capital of the modern Israeli state.  For in chapters that extend from the present Jerusalem to the eighteenth century, but are  written from the point of view of the present, Yehoshua invites readers of Mr. Mani to excavate an ongoing struggle of a tortured family to inhabit Jerusalem as a promised land.

Each chapter evokes the fates of preceding generations of Mani men in strikingly non-linear terms, through surviving sides of dialogues between an individual and their elders, extended accounts akin to testimony if not a legal depositions, about the fated destiny of five generations of Mani men.  The dialogues suggest the difficulty each faced in reconciling a pull to settle the territory without ever acknowledging their relation to the land’s actual inhabitants.  Reading about generations of Mani who moved in the Mediterranean in each discussion, we come to terms the performative actions of each in relation to Jerusalem, the beyond an excavation of family history cumulatively challengse if not undermines and re-maps a foundational narrative of the Jewish state through the difficult fate of each generation of Mani as they try to define themselves in a long contested space.  If Yehoshua has described the ambivalence of his relation to Jerusalem, and the book he described as his “great achievement” seems excavate the relations of previous generations of the city in hopes to “understand a present trauma by crossroads in the past.”

Yehoshua created the imagined family history in inescapably autobiographical tones as a fifth-generation Jerusalem family of Sephardi origin, but the fractured narrative of Mr. Mani invites readers to assemble a collective psychology of the family who immigrated to the Holy Land, rewriting a mythic archetypal language of Israel’s settlement at crucial points in the history of the diaspora–including the Holocaust, Balfour Declaration, First Zionist Congress, and French Revolution and Mediterranean Diaspora–through the lens of individual tortured men.  Yehoshua has long held an active role in ending the violence between Jews and Palestinians as an active member of Peace Now and the New Movement, who long believed in the necessity of working with the “Green Line” boundaries between Israel and Palestine that would divide the Holy Land into Israeli and a demilitarized Palestinian state–as he feared the compromises that a binational Jewish state would entail.  As Yehoshua has argued against the need to cease defending settlements, or “intertwining ourselves in the living tissue of another people,” as a deep danger to the Jewish state, redrawing the territory on a map, he describes the difficulty of his characters in cross the cultural boundaries of the  map in ways that give voice to his  own ambivalence about Jerusalem’s settlement and territorial expansion and the loss that this expansion inevitably entails of the very ideals that motivated Israel’s foundation.




The five chapters of Mr. Mani focus on distinct chapters of Jerusalem’s history–and turning points in its centrality to Israel as a nation.  Through the fractured demography of the Mani, Yehoshua excavates reveals a striking psychological continuity each share; despite the wide ranging physical and spatial geography of the setting of each dialogue, each returns to how Mani seek to preserve and impose their visions of a promise of settlement in Palestine over time in a strikingly non-linear fashion.

The contrasting testimonies that describe tortured relations of the Mani to the city.  Jerusalem almost becomes a protagonist of the book, more than the historically textured sense of its divisions of its sectors and divided populations were in earlier novels set in the city, A Late Divorce and The Lover.  If those novels which describe protagonists who move among Jerusalem’s separate territories and negotiate its cultural boundaries of Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, Mr. Mani is haunting in revealing the continued psychical point of orientation among generations of Mani.  If its religious and ethnic divisions are repeatedly evoked in each chapter, an atmospheric sense of the city’s historical boundaries shape the tortured psyche of the generations of diasporic Jews in Mr Mani who struggle with  Jerusalem as a sacred city–a concept that looms large in the protagonists mind, as each maps their lives in relation to its diverse inhabitants, in hopes to discover their own identities by the act of reconciling the image of a Holy and sacred city with its actual map.  Frequent boundary crossing and the hopes that Jerusalem continues to hold suggests a mental geography of the nation that Yehoshua both seeks to excavate for the reader of Mr Mani, and seeks to use to confront its divided status of its geography in the present day:  indeed, the reader of this 1989 novel cannot but recall the recent construction of security walls or separation barriers built to protect West Bank settlements today, which the state has described as measure of internal of internal security, but are constructed without dialogue with Palestinians, and remap dividing lines of “Us here” and “Them there,” failing to map the region save by reinstating its division.

The concrete presence of historical Jerusalems from the eighteenth to late twentieth century strikingly speaks to the current divisions in Jerusalem–and the Israeli state–as it forces the reader to face its tortured history through one family, outside the political divisions, treaties, and legal precedents in which the region’s history is most often mapped.   In a temporally disjunctive manner extending into one family’s past, Yehoshua’s novel presents five one-sided dialogues occurring across five generations uncover the haunting guilt that possesses the members of a family who move from the diaspora to Palestine.  As we read one half of each chapter we inferring elusive family relationships and striking resemblances among Mani men, uncovering the discomfort and guilt each feels in relation to the settlement of the land, and the tragic consequences each find in response to hopes for the mythical promise Jerusalem retains generations, and the deep guilt the feel in inhabiting the region.  The partial testimonies of each dialogue reveal psychological traits of the family through the self-destructiveness of each Mani, their difficulty in dwelling in Jerusalem, and the compulsions that encouraged their arrival in Jerusalem.  Inferences about testimony that five generations offer their elders inevitably press beyond its allegorical if not archetypal structure raise broad questions about their settlement of the region, but remain hopeful nonetheless–despite the repeatedly tragic fates of the Mani who settle in Jerusalem, they survive–their survival is the central thread of the novel.

The use of such an archetypal structure of five books–of “nearly biblical range”–retains a haunting focus on Jerusalem’s pasts as if to rewrite a mythic relation to the symbolic status of the territory, by revealing the tense relations between a Sephardic family to Jerusalem’s populations in extenso, dwelling on the impossibility of reconciliation in the tortured reconciliation of an idealistic vision of a Jewish nation transmitted in the diaspora as they move to Jerusalem, and suggest that the difficulty proves fatal in their inability to engage constructively with its settlers or inhabitants across each generation–and indeed the deeply tragic relation they keep to the region.  Instead of simply mapping their routes of arrival, the non-linear structure of the novel uncovers a fatalistic attraction of Mani men to Jerusalem to trace what seems a psychic map of Jews’ relation to the territory of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, in ways that coincide with major world-historical events–Israel-Lebanon War; World War II and the Holocaust; Zionism; the Palestinian Mandate and Balfour Declaration; the French Revolution–but offer opportunities from which we infer the psychological traits they share and history of their individual self-destructiveness.  Each episode unmasks and maps a more haunting historical precedent of repeated mutual incomprehension, despite its continued optimistic goals, as if to examine the depth of obstacles to peaceful boundaries or boundary lines as precedents for the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon War.  Indeed, Yehoshua’s marriage to a practicing psychoanalyst may have compelled him to try to delineate the almost biblical psyche of a family asserting its own place in the Holy Land.  Echoing his political sentiments in Peace Now, Yehoshua seems to try to excavate and expel a repeated narrative of latent self-destructiveness of the creation of a Jewish nation rooted in Jerusalem, as well as to recuperate its optimism.

The result seems a counter-narrative of the state, told from below, as each Mani fatally seeks, in tragic ways, to claim an elusive and unmapped and uncharted identity in a its space:  for each testimony presents the problem of a preceding generation in testimonies which betray secrets of the family, reveals their arrival in Jerusalem to search for an elusive identity, portraying what Yehoshua has described as “an inter-generational psychology” as much as a collective biography.  Rather than dwell on the major historical events of history to which it gestures–the Israeli-Lebanese War; the Holocaust; the Palestinian Mandate and Balfour Declaration; Zionist Conferences and Herzl; a Jerusalem “shaking off the dust of centuries, now that Christianity is rediscovering it and it is giving new hope to the Jews,” as one Mani says–Yehoshua directs our attention to how the Mani try to take a place in Jerusalem.  The excavation of their relation to Jerusalem suggests a disastrous attempt to accommodate its divisions.  Each testimony about the Mani powerfully resonates with the context in which Yehoshua wrote in the 1980s, when increasing numbers of young settlers began moved into the West Bank, and Israeli troops sought to defend settlements in and near the Golan Heights, by going beyond the territorial borders of the Israeli state.  Indeed, the novel reflects the extent to which the subsequent accommodation of ultra-Orthodox parties in Israeli politics threatens to normalize the defense of such settlements.

By an archeological revelation of hidden pasts–and by inferring of psychic structures of which individual Mani seem not fully aware, we increasingly infer shared psychological traits of these driven Mani men from individual narratives, reconstructing the tortured idiosyncratic narratives by how the “old Jerusalem family” come to settle in Palestine five generations, as if to gain a new narrative about ways the contested space of the divided city has promised diasporic Jews a sacred home in the extended testimonies delivered before parents or parent figures, military magistrates, or a rabbi, as if before a hidden God.  The result is a micro-map of Jerusalem’s settlement, reconstructed through inter-generational discussion in an archetypal parable in reverse of the family’s often tortured relation to the Holy Land, and to Israel and its boundaries–and to the others who inhabit that land with eery parallels that of the Jewish state.

As evidence accumulates in Mr. Mani about the mysterious family to which the title refers, each interlocutor expands lengthy accounts of the unclear motives and decisions driving the Mani men, uncovering the secrets of their elusiveness and the self-destructive hopes for a new identity in the disquietingly flawed relation to mental maps of the Holy Land, which have little place for its inhabitants.  The absence of acknowledging or including these residents is so striking to evoke the mythic states in “Then and Now” maps by plasticine overlays of different historical periods–which can be peeled away but affirm an underlying territorial continuity between the Kingdom of Judea and later ages, that also erase their presence inhabitants–illustrating current Israeli frontier as transhistorical or imposing the transhistorical place name “Israel” that so resonates with the current state.






JUDEA.pngOxford Biblical Atlas 


Indeed, there is a similar sense of a condensation of history within the individual lives of members of the Mani family that Yehoshua has reconstructed in the novel, and a sense of the striking density with which they inhabit a historical space.  In Mr Mani (1989), there is no explicit mention of the walled division of Jerusalem’s divided neighborhoods, despite the frequent recurrence of walls in Jerusalem’s different sectors, walls around the city, and the evocation of the hidden presence of Palestinians and Arabs in the city’s pasts.  This presence repeatedly haunts the relation of the Mani to the region in ways difficult to fathom or fully comprehend.   So much is reflected in the historical telescoping of biblical topography into the current struggle over the settlements in the West Bank that the o-called Separation Barrier on the West Bank reflects.  Indeed, as the lands of the West Bank are known as “Judea and Sameria,” evoking the ancient Kingdom of Israel, it is based on an insistent translation of the past into the present that would confound any reader of a historical map as an example of mythistokry.

The actual demographic map is indeed not only far more complex, whose actual borders and Arab settlement impossible to reconcile with such strongly imagined maps.




Yehoshua’s novel provides an archeology the family’s settlement of Jerusalem bearing on the present problem of its national borders and boundaries, but a map that few would recognize.   Yehoshua has sequenced the testimonies about six Mani men–Mr. Mani–directly in the shadow of world-historical events.

Each chapter focusses readers’ attention on the problematic nature of an idealistic identification of individual identity with the Holy City of Jerusalem, nourished for over a century and a half.  The result is less a map of space than an exploration of the dangers of relations to a place–and a hope to expel the continued attachment to the region as a site of individual identity that has remained so intertwined to the expansion of boundaries for its settlers from the first partitioning of Jerusalem in relation to the Israeli state.




The common of generation of Mani failure to define their relation to the other inhabitants of the region–or “the other” of Palestinians and Arabs–illuminates as it raises questions about the transmission of a flawed if compulsive connection to the land.  And it raises, implicitly, the possibility of releasing oneself from this transmission, and indeed the very one-sided nature of their discussion on what those boundaries are.


zionistyiddishshekels_pppa_0.jpgLand of Israel for the People of Israel!”/Zionist Settlement poster, circa 1917


1.  For with modern relevance and reverberations, each Mani struggles to define the idealistic affinity developed in the diasporic community with his relations to its inhabitants–which none successfully articulate–listening to the testimony offered in one side of conversations, we can almost trace the transmission of a shared if flawed compulsion to create a connection to place, which, by the end of the book, we only hope to release that have been for generations of Jews and Palestinians so historically difficult to resolve in maps:  viewed from the perspective of members of the Mani family, these maps are often far less clear than the urgency of their attempts to create a personal and a collective relation to the Holy Land–long before the UN Partition of 1947 defined the Green Line drawn or the barrier walls built around the West Bank (marked by a red line below) and around Jerusalem.  The maps, often drawn in one-sided fashion, have given tacit approval to settlements across the recognized boundary lines of the state.  Even as it maps a peculiar itineraries of settlement, Mr. Mani raises questions of the meaning of crossing into the region from a diasporic community, and an unclear sense of identity that is produced by a mythic status of Jerusalem for diasporic Jews.


482px-west_bank__gaza_map_2007_settlements1UN Partition Map and Current Israeli Barrier Wall around West Bank and Jerusalem, with Israeli Settlements noted by black triangles.  Wikipedia.


For the transmission of this psychological tie to place among members of the Mani offers a deep history of the problem of creating a national map for the image of the Jewish nation, as each processes an image of Jewish identity long cultivated in the diaspora to the city of Jerusalem.  The archetypal structure presents something of parable or a hidden history of the Jewish state–each speaker offers an account of individual Mani, presenting what Yehoshua has described as an “inter-generational psychology” of the transmission of their identities as they cross the multiple historical boundaries of the Holy Land.




The five chapters of Mr Mani offer evidence in an quasi-legal forum about their almost pathological desire to settle in or near the Holy Land.  If each map generations of Mani who once settled in Jerusalem, and defined it as a homeland, these images seem to provide an answer for the uncertain relation of contemporary Israelis to their land, and start from the future daughter-in-law who was raised on a kibbutz, but visits her boyfriend’s father in Jerusalem while he serves in the Israeli army during the invasion of Lebanon.  Hagar travels in her partner’s place to be at the burial of the man’s wife in Jerusalem, visiting him in the historically resonant Talbiya neighborhood–whose name derives from Arabic–and contrast between the mythological status of the city as a site of destiny and its multi-ethnic character.  The secrets of the several Mani suggested to lie in an old cemetery suggest the demographic divisions of the city, and its odd status as a site of Jewish destiny:  the cross-generation visitation of the graveyard in provides a hinge to move backwards in time in each later section and observe Mani men across six generations, and the deep psychic affinities of Mani men have shared from the eighteenth century through the Israel-Lebanon war, excavating a micro-history of the family’s past analogous to the material geography of Jerusalem’s contested neighborhoods and even archeological ruins.

If a first dialogue describing Hagar’s encounter with the widowed Gavriel Mani that is set in the old Talibiya neighborhood of Jerusalem, we share her initial fascination ing the Mani, born in Crete, but resettled in Jerusalem, home of his forefathers, and where his great-great-grandfather settled in the mid-nineteenth century.  It provides the basis for subsequent chapters excavate the Mani family’s arrival in Palestine and complex relation to this home–which may liberate the reader from the fatal attachment each feels to the Holy Land.  Indeed, in ways that are particularly striking, Yehoshua removes the problem of boundary-crossing from being embedded in post-1967 political history, identifying a pre-history for still-current unilateral demands for Jewish territorial contiguity and “redemption” of Jewish neighborhoods, and that illuminates the personally destructive consequences of such particularly one-sided border crossing, no matter their intent.

In each dialogue, Yehoshua has situated the family in the context both of the diaspora and the formation of the nation of Israel that remain particularly problematic.  Each testimony, presented as if an official forum, also tacitly engages problems of settlement of the Holy Land in a one-sided relation to its actual inhabitants, dwelling on the deep difficulties of mapping the promise of that settlement that will overcome the flawed or fatal lack of connection to its inhabitants and human geography.  Each speaker is also situated in relation to specific world-historical moments but is presented to excavate the past secrets of the family, and sketch, in episodic ways for readers to assemble, their inter-generational psychology.  Individual Mani men moved through and across boundaries in the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, moving from the Peloponnese to the Ottoman Empire to Crete and to Jerusalem, attracted by a notional tie to place, sharing a terrifying intrepid impulse to cross boundary lines to map the imaginary nation and identity in the city.  Continued boundary crossing over these generations seem to speak to the problematic creation of currently contested borders of the Jewish state.

Yehoshua’s novel suggests the difficulty of hopes to translate a cherished idea of the nation cultivated in the diaspora to its physical site with dire consequences–as they attempted to reclaim an identity in Jerusalem, in ways particularly resonant to the present.  Even if their lives are mapped in historical terms, they continue to raise questions that almost invite us to judge haunting accounts of all Mani imagined themselves across generations as inhabitants of the land, as they struggle to imagine their place within Jerusalem and Holy Land.  The dialogues trace something of a genealogy of the city’s status as a homeland for Jews, through episodes of the local history that return to a shared fascination with the legacy of the Mani through specific choices and acts.  Hauntingly, no member of the Mani clan understands himself as transmitting such a self-destructive impulse, or is aware of acting on it.  Yet the similarities in the uneasy sense of self with which each border-line personality in the family seem to struggle leads us along a tortured geography of diaspora to piece together, and leads us to question of how grasping the saga of the arrival of the “old Jerusalem family” to which we are introduced by the mysterious Gabriel Mani, observed through the unexpected visitor of his son’s girlfriend, Hagar, who seems driven to save him from his own repeatedly attempts at suicide at his son’s request.  As the family moves into divided Jerusalems, crossing its divisions becomes a metaphor for boundary-crossing across historical images of the city’s settlement through the differently tortured sense of individuality of each Mani man.

There is not any map in the book tracing the geography of their migrations, perhaps centered on Sephardic Jews from the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese, the dialectic of migration and settlement through the Mediterranean diaspora is the central sub-map of the book, yet one told less from the point of view of a voyager than in terms of an ineluctable pull to uncover the presence and place of the Mani in Jerusalem and “Israel,” as we uncover how their arrival intersect a new sense of the nation–we start to map a collective itinerary across the Mediterranean far more tortured than can be traced by smooth arrows, vectors, or lines, and to question that idealistic attachment to a region.   For the deep psychic attachment transmitted to the land less able to be clearly mapped by lines or polygons–the alternative genealogy of the Israeli state is based on border crossing as much as migration and settlement, which may be able to be questioned, seems motivated by the cultivation of the promise of a place of settlement in the Holy Land.




Rather than include or orient us to a map, or trace individual itineraries, Yehoshua seeks to present a picture of psychologically intertwined self-loathing and an idealism that appear innate traits of the Mani men who move across the boundaries of Mediterranean as if to ask us to judge how they arrived.  The unease among these border-line personalities may derive from the “original sin” by which the line is first settled in Jerusalem–a tragic narrative revealed only in the final pages of the novel in 1848–as a consequence of identities cultivated in the diaspora, combining hopes to reconcile idealistic notions of belonging to a nation that leads that may explain their individual borderline personalities.

In this context, Yehoshua’s novel of ties a geographic migration nourished in the diaspora to Israel’s borders.  Each dialogue offers testimony of inhabitants of the Holy Land who face difficulty ever integrating with its inhabitants as others.  They rarely do so as easily as they imagine:  all are condemned to live in a compromised place where they wish to map their notions of Israel without concern for the inhabitants of its territory, either under Ottoman administrators or British military police or consuls.  As we trace the lineage of the Mani family in chronological reverse, as if excavating imaginary family archives, and episodes of Jerusalem’s history as a divided land, as if in an inversion of the foundational narrative of the Jewish people.  (Several inter-textual parallels are repeatedly underscored, both by the family’s patriarchal biblical names–“I am weary of the names of dead patriarch commemorating downfalls and defeats; Avraham Mani confesses to his mute rabbi in Athens in 1848, describing his naming of his child; “I had my fill of Genesis and went on to Exodus, from which I took the name of Moses in all simplicity“–but their fortunes do not improve. )


2.  Yehoshua’s fragmented narrative suggests the difficult manner that this family has embedded itself within Jerusalem, tracing against the backdrop of the Middle East their idealistic gravitation to Jerusalem, hoping to find an identity and stabler sense of self as they cross the boundaries that define Palestine and Jerusalem’s historically divided neighborhoods.  By mapping the persistent psychic attachments of Mani onto the lived structure of the long-divided city, Yehoshua suggests a hope to erase boundary lines with which each generation repeatedly struggle, as they struggle to navigate a divided city’s lived geography and boundary lines.




Old Jeruslaem--1912; 1:8350 U Texas, 1912; University of Texas (detail)


Jerusalem 1883Jerusalem , 1870 (detail)


Moving from sets of testimony about the Mani and their forbears, as if lifting layers of its physical geography and inhabitants, Jerusalem is the central  canvas if not the only backdrop against whose geography much of the novel’s potted narratives is plotted.  Yehoshua presents the surviving half of each dialogue as if to offer snapshots of Mani men, receding from the present to the 1940s to British occupation  to the time of the first Congress of Zionism to the late eighteenth century.  The often tortured monologues that present parallels in the impulsive ties of Mani to territorial boundaries, and conclude as they seem repeatedly driven to perform sudden self-destructive suicidal acts, forcing us to reexamine their construction of its links to the city and ties to the territory of Palestine, if not the tacit approval of the Israeli government has given to the expansion of boundary lines in the “reclaiming” and “redemption” of historical lands beyond the nation’s actual frontiers.   Can the nation survive based on such older historical narratives of the region’s sacred identity, and without recognizing the humanity and rights of its inhabitants? he seems to ask.

Yehoshua does not offer reconstructed dialogues as a history.  Yehoshua has clarified how he saw the writer “more like a judge than a historian” in a 2004 interview.  The distinction, which recalls historian Carlo Ginzburg’s distinction between the different uses of evidence to reach conclusions by using proofs, and the forums that judges and historians address, distinguish the verdict of the judge from the inference of documents’ reliability and the access they allow to extra-textual realities–despite their common ties of uses of proof.  The fascination of the Mani is as emblematic figures of ties to the Holy Land, and the fascination of the family and its imagined arrival from Crete begins from Hagar’s encounter with Gabriel Mani.  Although we cannot hope to ever understand the Mani, or their motives, the fascination that each holds for those who meet them invites judgement on how each cross the boundaries of the past, and symbolic of the broader settlement of a region that was already inhabited, and how past of a diasporic identity dominates and haunts the present of members of the family.  The collection of clues in each extended “dialogue” to an elder generation offers a history of below through the family’s attempts to create a home in Jerusalem.  The micro-history of the Mani and their compulsive attraction to Jerusalem’s something of a counterpart, as such, to familiar larger events in the foundation of the Jewish State–past Nazism and Zionism to the diaspora, that invites an alternative narratives for the future of the state, released rom Manis’ ongoing psychological investment in continuing to cross boundaries the Holy Land’s inhabitants.

The gathered testimonies about the fascinating if tortured relation of Mani to the Holy Land across five generations invites us to judge the complexion and character of their minds that leads to their attachment to Jerusalem, and the survival of notion of national identity cultivated in the diaspora complex each to develop his identification with the divided territory.  Each dialogue bridges two generations, as the speakers search for a clarity in the lives of the Mani that never arrives, but seems increasingly apparent.  The testimonies excavate layers of earlier members of the family and may offer something of a plea to map a different future.  Yehoshua dedicated the novel to his father, “a lover of Jerusalem and its past,” and might have described “Jerusalem and its pasts“:  each dialogue uncovers a past attraction to inhabiting the city’s neighborhoods that raise questions of the mutual comprehension of its residents–from Hagar’s visit to a Palestinian hospital as she believes she is pregnant with Efraim Mani’s son, to the bizarre relations of Moshe and Yosef Mani to the populations of Palestine in the late nineteenth century that long predate the founding of the Jewish state.  The imagined lives of Mani men invite investigating and narrating the Jewish “nation” through ordinary people, with a psychological depth that does not allow judgment, but to recognize the danger of dreams to transport a Jewish nation into a homeland that is already occupied through the repeated trials each faces to re-establish and re-articulate their identities in the Jerusalem.

Rather than offering anything like an objective map, the partial and incomplete testimonies suggest the deep psychological affinities in their settlement in Jerusalem, and the transmission of deep psychological ties, during the translation between  nation and nation-state.  The comprehensive narrative less invites moral pronouncement than offers an occasion to questioning compulsive crossing of borders and border lines of continued contemporary relevance, as the conflict of border crossing continues as West Bank settlements grow, with 117 recognized and over 100 illegal settlements receiving tacit government approval, creating permanent obstacles to individual mobility of Palestinians and an essentially militarized organization of space, increasingly defined by exclusionary barriers and boundary walls.


3.  Each Mani in the book describes his movement across borders in the Jewish diaspora–from Persia to the Ottoman Empire and Istanbul to Salonika, Jerusalem, Athens, Palestine, Crete, and back to Jerusalem–as border-crossing becomes an occasion to explore the notion of the nation that runs across generations of the diasporic community in Jerusalem as refracting their conceptions of the Holy Land.  These ideals similarly lead to struggles of Polish Jews, Germans, and English Jews to define their relations to the same region.  Indeed, border crossing in Palestine, Jerusalem, and Israel seem to be a feature of the Mani to which they are condemned.

Although the novel was written in the 1980s, the geographic trajectory book offers a lens still perhaps important to examine the border-crossing nature of the “illegal settlements” of the West Bank that the Israeli government tacitly sponsors, and how after the freezing of settlements in 1992, and whose continued construction of settlements to realize the dream of a Greater Israel.  For the expansion of such settlements increasingly extend across recognized borders and despite the repeated meaningless claims that construction only remains within “boundaries of the settlement” or “the approved designated lines“–in ways that pose dangers to the nation.  So much is clear in the range of legally recognized settlements and illegally established outposts that stretch across the so-called “Green Line” originally intended to demarcate a boundary between Israel and Palestinian Territories.  As illegal settlements expand the terrify of Israel all the way to Bethlehem, approaching as far as Palestinian territories, they include cities in the imagined Jewish nation preserved over centuries of diaspora, such as Jericho and Hebron, without acknowledging their historical and current habitation.


Settlement Map PN il.png for expanded national map

Legend settlements.png


The crossed boundary line has almost become a status quo pushing the boundary of Israel beyond its recognized limit over the past ten years, where settlements–here rendered in black–existed in odd relation to Palestinian habitations in deep crimson red, as if seeping across the border line, by 2002.  The conflict of crossing borders and of illegal territorial expansion continues in the many settlements whose construction the government has recognized or approved–117–or the over 100 illegal settlements across the region that are increasingly built up, and have been built up to reclaim spaces and change the map outside of a negotiating process of deliberation and in particularly one-sided ways.

Settlements-in-West-Bank-2002.jpgIsraeli West Bank Settlements and Palestinian Villages, 2002

The growth of such settlements across the West Bank continued to such an extent as their communication with Jerusalem was encouraged by an Israeli-only network of transit and transportation across Palestinian territories–as if a secret network of bus-lines dedicated to preserving the ties of settlers increasingly asserted to the lands where they lived.  The transport network that extends beyond the negotiated “Green Line” and beyond the Separation Wall indeed provides a way to move among the settlers’ experiences of living in an archipelago in the West Bank and Palestinian territories based in West Jerusalem.  That these buses to settlements are for Israelis only suggests the exclusion of Palestinians from routes of transit to the old city, and a constant practice of border-crossing across the wall.


Isreali transit routes to settlements.png

Israeli-only transit routes.pngMERI/Visualizing Palestine, noting Journey times from West Jerusalem


If such networks of bus routes provide an infrastructure of boundary crossing, Yehoshua examines the deep psychological dynamics of such boundary crossing as it was repeated in historical time across five generations, as if considering the phenomena of the normalized crossing of boundaries as a perpetual fact of existence in the settling of the Promised Land as well as the settlement of the West Bank.

The thematization of boundary crossing haunt the lives of Mani men, and seems almost a compulsion that cannot be denied.  In each dialogue, a snapshot is offered tracing how each Mani crossed boundaries and borders of different historical periods, as if moving across borders to search for or create the idealized image of a nation that existed in their minds.  Each Mani seems afflicted pathologically with a disastrous and perverse impulsive movement toward the Holy Land, or away from it, as each collides with Peoples settled in the Holy Land–as if the family psychology offered an extended allegory of the dangers of boundary crossing.  Mani men indeed seem to repeatedly orient their actions by notions of a nation that we try to piece together, the results are inherently imperfect.  The novel begins with the disastrous attempt of Israeli troops to occupy southern Lebanon in 1982–the time when the attempted suicide with a straight-edge razor of Gavriel Mani in an old area of Jerusalem, discovered by the girlfriend of his son, Hagar Shiloh, who attempts to comprehend the terrible nature of his suicidal drive of his father of a man whose son Efrayim is fighting in the 1982-3 Israeli war with Lebanon, both catastrophic for local civilian populations and difficult for many Israeli soldiers.

The attempts to move beyond the boundary of Israel in that war provide an occasion to reflect on Jewish boundedness and boundary-crossing in the novel, which re-maps the arrival of Jews in the Holy Land, opening up what are both  family secrets of the pasts and revealing the boundary-crossing history of Mani.  When Yehoshua started his novel in 1982, during the particularly invasive war at the northern border of the country–the first war to bring serious dissensus in the country, whose aims to clear a twenty-five mile strip along the Lebanese border was substantiated by a massive bombardment of PLO camps in Lebanon, air force bombing of targets up to Beirut, and, as the military moved far beyond the Israeli settlements, deploying some 400 tanks as 1,000 guns fired salvo after salvo to destroy neighborhoods of West Beirut.  The responded to a submachine gun attack on an Israeli ambassador in London by a Palestinian, but continued attacks were justified as protecting Israeli settlements and northern Israeli communities, as a war planned for two days provoked deep psychic wounds on the nation and self-examination of what was seen as an “elective war,” leading to massacres of refugees as well as Israeli losses.


waltz-with-bashir-13-1303Waltz with Bashir


Yehoshua wrote Mr. Mani when deeply distraught at the military expansion of the Israeli state, when settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem was pronounced for a decade,  although the scale of settlements had nowhere approached the scale of today.  He set his novel during the invasion of Lebanon, as the companion of a medic in the Israeli army pays a visit to Jerusalem to meet the medic’s father.  Her discussion of her involvement with this old Jerusalem family offers an extended reflection on mapping the nation, and the relation of the nation to the territory years long before it was clear to map–or how the territory could be partitioned.  The invasion of Lebanon provided a critical moment of boundary-testing for Yehoshua, as well as for the Jewish state’s identity, in which Gavriel Mani is both a symbol of a Jewish past and presents the problem of how the Mani became an “old Jerusalem family” at a time when Israel first questioned the testing of its borders.


lebanon_3.jpg_1718483346.jpgIsraeli-Lebanese Border, 1982/Wikicommons


The unpopular war in Lebanon continued as a fight against the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Army in Lebanon–with repeated assurances that Israel did not desire Lebanese territory, despite their fundamental rewriting of the map of national sovereignty.  Although the war effort in part tried to guarantee that the border would remain “safe” for nearby settlements, the bombing of regions across the border of southern Lebanon created the first debates as to the ethical value of war in Israel:  crossing outside of the Israeli border, if ostensibly to protect the border area, seemed clearly to violate the ideals of the nation and human rights.  Yehoshua described the contemporary reactions to the war as a betrayal of Israel as a nation, and of its national identity, describing the impact of the first day of the war alone as a revelation that prompted rethinking of national identity among Israeli:  while he had done military service as a paratrooper during the 1950s, Yehoshua described his opposition to the war by the difference of Israelis from other nations–“We are not the Romans, we are not the French or the Germans . . .   After six million dead, you don’t risk going to war on your own initiative” he reminded an interviewer in 1992, shortly after he wrote the novel.  The war begun by Begin, he believed, was a watershed that fundamentally “changed the values Israel had held for a long time.”  Its ostensible defense of boundaries and settlements mirrors the government’s tacit defense of the illegal settlements on the West Bank.


lebanon_82Density of Settlements on the Israel-Lebanon Border, June 1982


If I had to define Zionism in one word, I would say ‘Boundaries,'” A.B Yehoshua has written, and boundary crossing is a motif of the inter-generational novel, which unpacks a tortured recapitulation of a repressed history of the arrival of the family of the Mani across the borders of Israel, through a series of border-line personalities of oddly unstable selves.  “The question of boundaries is a major question of the Jewish people because the Jews are the great experts of crossing boundaries,” Yehoshua has observed, and his stories are perhaps more poignant for their psychological traits and the fragile personal boundaries of identity.  In the context of the invasion of Lebanon, this genealogy has particular bearing on the defense of a region that extended far beyond its borders, ostensibly based on  notion of preserving its integrity, but a notion based on maps, and stymied by the illogical nature of their relation to a habited place, provides something of a premise to trace the relationship between Jews and boundaries, as much as to reflect on the defense of borders.  When the father of Hagar’s was killed in the Six Days’ War, she remembers in the first discussion, a psychologist arrived at he family’s Kibbutz, encouraging open discussion of the past “To keep the pus of repressed thoughts from festering,” in a particularly vivid turn of phrase, and the exposure of the torture arrival of the Mani to Jerusalem provoke a broader on borders.  From Hagar’s visit to Gabriel Mani in the formerly Christian Talbiya to the departure of his parents from Crete in the 1940s to the arrival of Avraham Mani from Salonica five generations ago, in a genealogy of order crossing and its consequences.  “[Jews] have a sense of identity inside themselves,” Yehoshua has argued, “that doesn’t permit them to cross boundaries with other people. And this is the phenomena of the Jews from the beginning. They have a very strong nucleus of identity composed of religion and nationality that could let them cross boundaries; but there is also the conflict with their environment.”

Border crossing was widely mapped in the 1982 Lebanon war, when military forces crossed borders to arrive almost at Beirut.  The difficulty of integrating the tremendous costs of war with the advances across boundaries shown in the below two maps underscore the relevance to Yehoshua’s novel of actuality of question of crossing boundaries, if they fail to adequately integrate the human cost of such motion to the land’s inhabitants–and provide an occasion to reflect on the tortured relation of defending an Israeli “homeland”


Military advances in Israeli-Lebanon War across the border, 1982-3


4.  From the eighteenth century to the modern days, learns the reader of Yehoshua’s novel, Mani men shared not only a tortured relation to Jerusalem, but cannot see that relation but in terms of something that verges on self-loathing.  This seems rooted in their psychology as in the psychology of the diasporic Jewish community, which unveils, in a reverse chronology as if an archeology of traces, the foundational desire, of Avraham Mani, ancestor of the Mani family, to leave an heir in mid-nineteenth-century Jerusalem.  His son, Moshe Mani, whose birth is a akin to an original sin, will remain in Jerusalem to run an obstetrical hospital serving all faiths in the region; Moshe Mani’s descendant, the mysterious Yosef Mani, who lives in British-occupied Jerusalem in the early twentieth century adopts alternate Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew identities and seems to try to forge a new flawed identity as they confront the region’s divided map, carrying out an imperative or a paradoxical destiny begun by his forefathers, who reconciled their diasporic existence and an imperative of return to the Holy Land, that becomes an opportunity to invert the biblical narrative of a nation of Israel–or the Zionist ideas of a Jewish state–that tacitly question and engage debate about the boundaries of the modern Israeli state, and the “reclamation” of territories historically inhabited by Jews.

Yehoshua seems to ask readers to puzzle the paradoxes of reconciling an idealistic belief in the possibility of a future “national regeneration” with the people who occupy the map, as if to exorcise the place of prominence Yehoshua has elsewhere argued it holds in “our collective and personal subconscious,” but which can be resolved only by an understanding of mutual humanity.  Partitioning the map–or mapping a solution–has little sense, distinct from the value of the map as record of military operations in times of war.  A similar tension exists in maps of illegal settlements that increasingly dot the West Bank–and the shadow-game that is played by an Israeli government that sponsors their construction and defense, even if it fails to recognize their presence on a map.


5.  The rapid growth over the past twenty of such settlements in recent decades on hilltops of the West Bank by Orthodox Jewish families have not been officially mapped as legal entities.  But their growth–and the suspicions Palestinians share about the support of Israel’s government for establishing a Palestinian state–prompted fear that they had been tacitly recognized on the impartiality of a Google Map platform–what passes as the authoritative and widely used source of mapping, albeit with limited validating authority.  The rapid protest lodged about an apparent alteration on Google Maps provoked a popular  online petition to circulate widely this mid-summer–“Google:  Put Palestine on your maps!“–after a group of Palestinian journalists openly if falsely charged the “two Jewish founders” of Google sympathetic to Israel under-handedly removed or deleted “Palestine” as a whole from the server, as if to disappear Palestinian Territories outside a court of law.  Indignation at the apparent under-handed endeavor to purge their presence from the map triggered immediate tweets of protest and sympathy, as tempers raged:  “Palestine exists; our history, culture and our grandparents are older than Israel itself and Google cant erase that,” protested one Palestinian angrily; “Put back Palestine on your maps,” or, “in fact just name the entire area occupied Palestine while you’re at it.”  The alarming if fake tweet juxtaposed the alleged erasure of Palestine was fraudulent, but mimicked Google’s typeface.  Google, an only slightly paranoid strain of thought ran, had erased Palestine, and must pay.


Alleged change in Google Maps from 25 July, 2016


Fear of such a one-sided drawing of the map echoed familiar actualities of being omitted from the map.  Indeed, fear of being swindled by a one-sided interest of a monopolistic mapmaker Jews founded–“so google completely removed palestine from google maps. I love how normalized erasure and stealing land is in 2016”–imagined a corporation nefarious enough to re-write the map from a pro-Israel point of view for the world, suggesting a deeply anti-Semitic reflexive charge of global conspiracy.  The charges were probably provoked by the disappearance of “West Bank,” as a temporary bug in the server prompted fears that the territory was being erased, according to Google.  (One Israeli maliciously enjoyed counter-tweeting “Google erased #Palestine because it was never there. Be realistic.”)  In fact, Israeli officials had previously protested Google’s renaming of “Palestinian Territories” to “Palestine” on come search engines, perhaps substantiating such fears.




The protest gained currency as it grew on Facebook to collect over 280,000 signatures, and unleashed angrily indignant tweets calling for boycotting Google.  The petition had tapped a widespread paranoiac level of distress, as fear of a plot to delete “Palestine” by the major map-provider of the world, reflecting an all-too-present fear that the authoritative maps of Google reflected the insistence of Israeli Jews to redraw the map of a region irrespective of its actual inhabitants.  Social media protests launched by the hashtag, #PalestineIsHere posted broadsides that “what the Google search engine has done is part of an Israeli plan to propose the entrenchment of ‘Israel’ as the name of a state for generations to come and the abolition of ‘Palestine’ once and for all, and its erasure from any map.” If arising from a rumor from an indignant Palestinian group in Lebanon, the fear beginning from a temporary removal of “West Bank” and “Gaza Strip” from the online mapping engine echoed a fear that Israel had acted to erase Palestine and Palestinian rights from the map–the realization of such a fear being that the most authoritative mapping engine had erased its presence.  Google was compelled to clarify that indeed “Palestinian Territories” had never in fact appeared on their maps, although “West Bank” was erroneously temporarily removed.  The sense of injustice that began from the sudden disappearance of these names from the map proceeded from the tacit recognition of settlements across the West Bank, but the hidden history of a nation that almost proceeds in its idealistic origins as if the identity of Palestine Territories does in fact not appear on the map–and did not exist.  Maps of the Middle East increasingly fail to record the presence of the inhabitants of the territory, or their relation to it.  Yehoshua’s novel traces the difficulty of comprehending the actual settlement of the territory, or integrating it into the symbolic identity of a Jewish nation long cultivated during the Jewish diaspora.


6.  The map is in fact a crucial vehicle and medium by which several Mani seek to define their relation to the land, in ways that have a considerable historical relevance.  In one section of the book, set during the Palestine Mandate, Yehoshua returned to the theme of such boundary lines, from unforgettable characters who confront the social reality of the Middle East and Holy Land with the ideals of a “place” of the Jewish people in terms that offer an imagined history, in a haunting of individual delusion.

Perhaps the most compelling figure who wields a map of the future Israel, during the British occupation of Jerusalem, is Yosef Mani, Avraham’s son, who is animated by the misguided conviction that the inhabitants of early nineteenth century Palestine only need be reminded they are actually Jews–“They’ve only forgotten, and in the end they’ll remember by themselves.  And if they insist on being stubborn, I’ll be stubborn too,” and “chastise them until they see the error of their ways;” Efrayim Mani, a Jew whose parents left Jerusalem for Crete, who gives tours of Minos’ Labyrinth at Knossos, and tells his German captor in 1941 that “I was Jewish, but I am not any more . . . I’ve cancelled it,” thereby forcing his Nazi captor to realize that thebeastly essence of Jewishness can cancel its own self,” and believe that “there’s nothing Jewish that a Jew can’t do without” since it only exists in a Jew’s mind; and the figure of Moshe Mani, who arrives at the First Zionist Conference where he invites a Polish Ashkenazi practicing pediatrician at the First Zionist Conference, and persuaded him to travel with him to Jerusalem, to observe his inter-faith obstetrical clinic.  The haunting figures are less historical than invite judgement on Zionism and the present, and question the animating myth of recovering an identity through a relation to the land.

Yehoshua’s novel traces the movement from the “diasporic existence” to Jerusalem in an “inter-generational psychology” of Mani men.  He invites readers to excavate in reverse in Mr. Mani through a set of dialogues that relate to Manis who struggle with their identity, moving historically backwards from Gabriel to his grandfather and Efraim Mani, in a chapter of the revealing intergenerational psychology of almost pathological disengagement of inhabitants  of the Holy Land–increasingly appearing a tragic narrative from which no redemption exists.  The perilous pathology echoes the contradictions Yehoshua has held lay in the cultivation and disproportionate elevation of religious imperatives during the diaspora, when the “normal” existence outside national territories–for in the diaspora, Jewish nation is rooted and embedded in its existence apart from a territory–intersects with and the flawed hope of rooting or placing that identity on a map by military force, in an unethical imperative of settlement which threatens the very existence of that nation.  Kenosha has long voiced deep concerns about the imposition of identity on a map in Mr Mani, long before the Zionist movement, as born out of the diaspora, which speak to the expansion of settlements beyond the Green Line, overlooking the Dead Sea, in an echo of the historical Zionist project for rebuilding Palestine.)


Jews! Rebuild Palestine.pngMitchell Loeb (c. 1931), Palestine Poster Project Archives


When asked to identify Zionism with one word, Yehoshua chose “boundaries“–acceptance and consciousness of physical and geographical boundaries within Israeli identity–which Yehoshua hopes to resolve by mutual recognition of territorial separation of the Jews and Palestinians and their distinctness of their national identities.  Traffic in past imagined maps or fantastic ones both presented a guide for a flawed identity, but an obstacle to the humanistic goal empathic understanding of the other.


7.  Will the boundaries of the Holy Land and of Israel ever able to be mapped, and what might constitute a clear consciousness of the most practical boundary lines for Israeli identity to exist?   The dialogue in Mr Mani set in the context of a moment in the historical bounding of the region of the Holy Land around Jerusalem as a nation–the Balfour Declaration of 1917–that gives rise to the Palestinian Mandate, and the interest in processing this new national map by a descendent of Avraham Mani, Yosef Mani.  In an episode of the novel set on the eve of the Balfour Declaration after World War I, when maps of the region were first drawn, Yosef eagerly imagines the English declaration as bearing the promise of a new national home, and begins to conceive the region’s landscape as a map, and call attention to how it will appear after the promise that it will be mapped as a national homeland for the Jews.  The future lawyer Colonel Stephen Horowitz, during the British occupation of Jerusalem, is tasked to prosecute but seeks to understand and defend this Mani.  Yosef, a “native”-born interpreter working for the British, is facing espionage charges of passing state secrets to the Turkish army by sharing privileged military maps of British operations–and essentially passing secrets, although Horowitz long ponders to what ends.

As the English army is adopting military positions across the Holy Land, pushing to Jerusalem and advancing to Ramallah on the eve of the Balfour Declaration, Mani’s theft of military maps is discovered.  While serving as an interpreter for the British army, Mani spied a military map, left discarded in a wastebasket in the English army’s general staff room, and he picks the rolled up map that he has spied from the trash, immediately perceiving its value to the enemy–but if trafficking stolen maps is his trade, the theft occasions an occasion of map-inspired madness.  Yosef, perhaps essentially but paradoxically, believes he can use the map to gain a platform to publicly celebrate an imagined impending grant of land to Jews, convinced they will soon resettle lands the British will cede–misconstruing British support for a Jewish Homeland and “Zionist aspirations” by immediately creating a Jewish National Home.



Historical Day of the Balfour Declaration (Palestine Mandate, c. 1925)/Palestine Poster Project


zionistyiddishshekels_pppa_0.jpg“Land of Israel for the People of Israel!” (Yiddish poster, circa 1917)/Palestinian Poster Project


Yosef Mani quickly absconds with the rolled up map hidden under his prayer shawl on his way to pray at a Sephardic synagogue, which contains the plans for invasions on Ottoman forces.  When services conclude, he leaves the walled city, dons an Arab cloak, in a typical Mani subterfuge of shifting identities, and progresses unsuspected north through the Damascus Gate to Ramallah, past British military tents, to a group of soldiers in Turkish uniform–and with an air of pride hands the map to their presiding sergeant.   Yosef offers the map not for money, but in exchange for being allowed to address local villages of Arabs by a speech, to whom he speaks desiring to lay a basis for plans for a future Jewish star.  In the midst of one of the speeches that he gave to in el-Bireh, he read the as-yet-unpublished Balfour Declaration, and removed a colored paper map of late nineteenth-century Palestine from his pocket that he had drawn, explaining to his audience to that this is indeed their “country” and exhorts them eagerly, “All over the world people now have identities, and we Jews are on our way, and you had better have an identity or else!”  Brandishing a large paper map, Yosef theatrically announces that half of the territory belongs to the Arabs, and cuts it in two pieces lengthwise with a scissors.  When he offers them half of the bisected map, of a region roughly from the mountains to the Jordan river, villagers held back from reaching out to the map they are offered object to the division Mani proposed–“But we want the sea, too!” one cries.  Briefly taken aback, Mani removes a second map from his other pocket, cuts it horizontally, and presents that half-map to his audience in a pathetically deluded attempt to arrogate authority to himself, but also trying to appease to the upset audience the Turks assemble for his speech.   Acting in the belief that he is a missionary for progress, this Mani repeats such speeches across Palestine, in exchange for varied goods stolen from the general staff room of the British army, a bid for authority that he hopes might prepare for what he sees as an impending return of Jewish people to the Holy Land.

Continuing as if a merchant trafficking in the multiple identities he moves between in the Holy Land, Yosef Mani continues this tactless campaign of public speeches, provided with a stage to repeat the same spectacle in Nablus and Jenin, that in short time “every Arab between Ramallah and Nablus knew of him.”  If lines distinguish “us” and “them” both insulate “us” and do more than cognitive work in assigning a fixed other place to “them,” the map seems a way Mani wants to present a new situation about a possible future of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land–for he believes the Balfour Declaration will inaugurate an English withdrawal from Palestine, and a rebirth of a Jewish nation to which settlers will arrive, albeit mistakenly.  While it is clear that Yosef Mani has also systematically stolen both military maps and assorted documents from the British in an attempt to traffic them with the Turkish and the Germans, and new policies to burn all trash enacted–although Yosef Mani’s love for such public performances leaves the British reluctant to give him a public stage at a military court, no matter how clear his guilt of unlawful espionage, or to inaugurate the British occupation of Jerusalem by the hanging of a Jew as a military traitor.  Yosef faced an impossibility of mapping a single plan of action for its inhabitants:   one things of the appeal that Yehoshua himself published during the 2008–2009 Israel-Gaza conflict addressing the residents of the Gaza Strip, urging them to end the violence of the violence that responded to the institution of checkpoints around its border:  “Precisely because the Gazans are our neighbors, we need . . .  to try to reach a cease-fire as quickly as possible. We will always be neighbors, so the less blood is shed, the better the future will be,” urging the opening of the border crossings that had so isolated the Gaza residents in exchange for an immediate cease-fire,” urging the resumption of normalized relations.


8.  Since Yehoshua wrote the novel, and the attenuation of the Palestinian Peace Process that once seemed so promising, maps have prompted increasing anxiety–and especially the changes in the map that are being engineered by Israeli settlers, with the growth of unauthorized settlements on the West Bank and Occupied Palestinian Territories.  For the rigidity of the map has returned as settlements have crept onto maps of the West Bank over the two decades, during which they were illicitly and illegally promoted, as the Palestinian Peace Process stalled.  The presence of these hundred villages is difficult to omit from any regional maps, despite qualifications that exist as to their legality–and given the clear motivations of their over 350,000 inhabitants, who want to physically change the region’s map and reclaim the very territory that Yosef Mani tried to pass on to the “Arabs” he lectured back in 1918, in an attempt to redraw the actual Jewish state again.  Indeed, Yehoshua has called for the end to settlements and their defense as necessary to the future interests of the Israeli state–itself threatened, he feared in 2009 that the “ugly future” of a bi-national state would threaten an Israel that practiced “formalized and official Jewish discrimination against Palestinians,” and compelled negotiation “even if we are skeptical as to the ability of the two peoples to reach an agreement of peace and security” to prevent the “ceaseless violence” and “political monster” of a binational state.

Despite Israel’s public agreement to the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in no hurry at all to cede the land settlers have occupied over the past fifty years in hilly regions of the West Bank.  Despite a formal refusal to endorse the annexation or occupation of land for new settlements, the government’s tacit approval given to the construction of walls about multiplied settlements in recent years provides a virtual authorization–not on paper, but in public, but by planning, funding, and constructing settlements across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, they have created a series of redoubts that extend to the Dead Sea, not officially authorized but which the current government is engaged in “authorizing them in disguise”–retroactively authorizing unauthorized settlements as if legally to introduce them on the region’s map.  If the policy has given rise to numerous petitions to halt unauthorized projects of construction, they are entering into the content of the region’s map, appearing as if part of the land–as if a one-sided resettling of Palestinian lands.  Barely more than half of the settlers identify as religious, but the strength of the religious community within Israel has made support for settlement a platform of the nationalist parties.

To chart the expansion of legal and illegal settlements over time, web maps offer an ideal interactive tool of plastic flexibility to situate the spawning of these settlements on the West Bank’s mountainous terrain, and trace their multiplication and expansion over time.   And while the complex information about the scale and intensity of settlement is suited for the format of web-based maps, as are the speeded-up aerial photography or satellite imagery over time, it is difficult to measure the impact on the region and its inhabitants of the growth of the footprints of settlements and settlement “outposts” that begun to be established from the mid-1990s with active and tacit support of the Israeli government.


Settlements in West Bank NYT : Peace Now Setlement locations.pngNew York Times/Peace Now

The recent and apparently unsupervised growth of such illegal “outposts” has been mapped over time from about 2000 by Peace Now, although the more interesting map perhaps reside within the settlers’ heads.  Indeed, a selective map of settlements, while interesting, moreover fails to document or capture the invasive nature of such towns, and the extent to which their construction poses a challenge to human rights–although the changes they have brought to the landscape of the West Bank are apparent, their effect on the way of life and rights of Palestinians remains far less clear in such a map.  Even when projected on a Google Earth View or satellite map, the actual experience of invasiveness and violation of human rights these settlements create is inadequately conveyed.

Settlements and Outposts.pngPeace Now interactive map (2016) of settlements (blue) and outposts (red), noting Green Line

The existence of real walls, such as the West Bank barrier constructed over the last decade, lying beyond the Green Line, partly made of fence and in part cement blocks, is partly in the West Bank, and attempts to accommodate some settlement plans, and to smooth their way to their appearance on the map.  Indeed, they often exist to protect the expansion of individual settlements, in ways that would seem necessary to map.  The presence of these walls on Palestinian land were not in existence when Yehoshua wrote his novel, but they impede the human rights of Palestinians, and impose an idealized vision of the nation that not only impedes human movement but offers a visible illustration of Israeli presence that seems often tantamount to a territorial land grab, as much as a religious resettlement or redemption.

Green Line:Blue Line sttelente.pngDetail of above interactive map, with West Bank Barrier (blue)/Peace Now

Expanding numbers of settlers moving across the Green Line and in East Jerusalem have grown markedly from the initial arrival of Ultra-Orthodox settlers who sought to “resettle” lands they believed had historical resonance.   New settlers respond to a choice of cost and way of life and include many Israelis not openly religious, who seek jobs.

The growth of Israeli populations who are settlers–from the youth who move to hilltops to the Orthodox settlers who “reclaim” redeemed land–has increased the population of settlers in dramatic fashion since the 1967 war defined the boundary of the Green Line, and especially since the time when Yehoshua wrote in the early 1980s, as settlement has attracted increasing shares of Israeli and gained population.


The population increase of those regions most settled by Israelis have grown during the rejection of any rights of return for Palestinians to their lands, or a “just solution” to the issue of refugees and the creation of a separation barrier has belied the huge increased of settlers in settlement blocs by 2010–and a growth in settlers around Jerusalem.  So great is the expansion of settlements, indeed, that although Israel’s current government has refused a Palestinian “right of return” the recent video released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  affirms that rather than being an obstacle to peace, the West Bank areas of settlement in Judea and Samaria constitute a legitimate claim of Israeli Jews and Palestinians seek to pursue a policy of “ethnic cleansing” in asserting a region without Jewish Israeli settlers.


The tacit encouragement of such settlements have received from the government has grown markedly in recent years, as those living in the settlements and East Jerusalem together has grown by over 200,000.   The concrete barriers that have sprung up about such settlements to preserve their “safety” may to an extend be understood as akin to or as extending the set of psychological barriers and walls that long existed in the historical demarcation of intense territoriality of the historical division of space in the Old City of Jerusalem–the city of the Mani family from before the nineteenth century, but its very one-sided nature seems to have even dangerous results.


9.  Despite the multiple physical walls built by Israel in Jerusalem and an increasing number across the settlements in the West Bank, separating and serving to protect inhabitants for reasons of “security,” the security has not improved.  Although they are often regularly crossed, and have a clearer symbolic presence as if they are sought to be inscribed upon a map, in an odd illustration of the “self-destructive pathology” that itself, as Yehoshua has argued, threatens the Jewish nation as a nation, although he has been concerned with the “absorption of Judaism into Israeli identity.”  So regular is the sense of justice in built barriers constraining movement of inhabitants that Isaac Herzog, a leader of the Israeli Zionist Union Party, openly advocated to wall off Jerusalem’s 200,000 residents of Palestinian descent in East Jerusalem in early 2016.

The result is cordoning off Palestinians by a concrete border wall and “smart” fencing, and effectively cantonizing the city by physical barriers within the city itself to aggressively affirm demographic divides.  Herzog described the plan to preserve a “two-state” solution that affirmed, under the pretense of a need to ensure mutual peace, “we’re here and they’re there.”  Walls already mark much of the city and West Bank settlements, and seem to constitute a sort of colonization of space well-known, but demand clearer criticism as an open attempt to encourage the rewriting of the map, and legitimate the continued crossing of boundary lines, as well as a register of raised anxieties of individual and collective safety.

THomas Coex:AFP Getty.jpgThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse; Getty; February, 2016

Sadly, many such walls already exist, as those that separate East Jerusalem neighborhoods from West Bank cities as Abu Dis–

Screen-Shot-2015-09-07-at-9.19.05-AMThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse

eb415108ce0947dde85e017e47267c2f55f893beAnata (West Bank)–Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse

The increased expansion of such fortified settlements in the West Bank began a proliferation of walls across the region, defending not only the authorized outposts or those awaiting approval as authorized (colored here dark and light green respectively), but the many that are not unauthorized as well, and were illicitly established over the past two decades, seen lying beyond the recognized state border, and in a particularly mountainous terrain where they seem redoubts all the more.  Unauthorized outposts that settlers have established extend closer to the Dead Sea, as do those in the process of “authorization” as settlements, while the majority of those “authorized” lie closer to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A preponderance of the settlements that are unauthorized outposts are perched high upon hills in mountainous territory often mythically important to the Jewish people, which have grown in recent years as strongholds overlooking the Dead Sea.  They are widely distributed in the West Bank as well as nearby the boundaries of Israel, and extend far into the West Bank–at times far closer East to the boundary Jordan’s boundary than the “Green Line” of the 1947 Armistice, or boundary of the Israeli state.

WEst Bank Illicit:Unauthorized:AuthorizedRudy Omri/New York Times

The spread and unspoken sanctioning of settlements slip into maps, as they take their place in the landscape of the region, even after decisions to halt their construction without ministerial approval:  even without being approved, they are able to obtain material support and construction materials, encouraging the growth of projects of building that seem, to Western eyes, to exist as a “normal” and uncontested space, which may include rental properties openly advertised and whose construction projects have continued.

Erfat--Etzion Block.pngErfat, Etzion Block/New York Times

Bruchin West Bank.pngBruchin, West Bank

Har Homa--West Bank.pngHar Homin, West Bank/New York Times

As such settlements have grown, even before they appear on a map, the enter collective consciousness.  Imposing concrete barriers have been erected around them on the West Bank from 2002 by the Israeli Government to protect settlements, justified by security reasons–carving up the territory that of outposts of the Jewish state, in ways which set a precedence for building barrier walls that create frontier, and demands to be compared to the spread of wall-building across Europe.

eb415108ce0947dde85e017e47267c2f55f893beAnata, in West Bank, Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse/New York Times

East Jerusalem neighborhoods exist sequestered behind imposing walls–

Mideast-Israel-Palest_sham-33-725x434Pigs Zeev in East Jerusalem behind Israeli Separation Barrier, AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

–and settlements have been built up, as new suburbia, on the West Bank hills, cordoned off behind imposing protective walls and specially built barriers–

Har Homa--West Bank.pngHar Homa, which borders Bethlehem (New York Times)

WO-AV929_ISPAL_H_20150327193936.jpgAnata (West Bank), Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

While these walls are built to block or exclude individuals and obstruct passage, people regularly cross them, and work around them by new forms of resistance, on their way to work–in spite of their deep violation of human rights, events they have been naturalized by Palestinians able to circumvent their authority daily on the way to work.

26ISRAEL-web1-master768-1.jpgThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse–Getty Images/New York Times

It is rare, however, that they are successfully alternatively envisioned as sites of imagined escape in transgressive graffiti–as in this playful but all too serious Banksy image–so imposing is their presence, as if to forcibly mark Israeli settlements in a modern map of the Holy Land and restate secure settlements.

Yet the place of these barriers, and the insistence on their appearance, although without space yet on most maps, seem aggressively situated to create a new map, or re-carve spaces on the West Bank in ways that suggest an ongoing and continuing gambit of land-based territorial war, if not only a redrawing of lines to separate “us” from “them” as much as to obstruct physical passage.  They are of symbolic use–and the rupture of that symbolism is what makes Banksy so effective as art undermining the oppressive walls.

10.  Europe has far more walls than it ever did during the Cold War.  Indeed, 2015 became the year of extensive construction of security fences and border surveillance–and it saw the construction of fifteen new national walls, and public entertainment of a project to construct extended border barrier between Mexico and the United States.  The preponderance of these imposing concrete walls, which seem begging to enter the regional map, beg a clearer comparison not only to the physical structure of the walls often built from old military surplus, but also in relation to the prevalence of wall building and barriers across Europe and much of the globe.  Walls completed or under construction most often seem to lie in the Middle East–may pale in comparison to those planned, but pose a problem as stark as that of refugees because they fail to place people in their maps.


Border Walls and Fences/The Economist (January, 2016)

So quickly did walls proliferate with abandon that 2015 seemed 1989 in reverse–for rather than the Berlin Wall’s fall opening up a divided Europe, walls created a new “fortress Europe” based not only on physical walls, and razor and barbed wire fences, but even on “mental walls,” as Timothy Garton Ash argued, made from a “psychological mortar” that is the product of growing fears and stirred up with xenophobic prejudices and demanding increased border controls to guarantee security–as much as to prevent the arrival of Syrian displaced refugees.


Israeli state has cited numbers of other precedents for fences constructed “between peoples,” from the US-Mexico border fence, designed to naturalize the economic inequality of two regions, or the EU fence built to separate its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco to thwart poor refugees originating from sub-Saharan Africa from entering Europe’s southern boundary, or the barrier built between India and Pakistan, and partitioning of Belfast in Northern Ireland into Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.   But the Security Fence seems to stake claims for priority by confining populations, in ways that bury the historical nature of future development of Palestinian claims to the region, and normalize a new frontier where one did not once exist.

Digging further back over fifteen years, a recent study counted twenty-five new walls built along national borders, in an incredible resurgence of border barriers designed to keep out unwanted others. Their construction is a massive collective illustration of growing insecurity–both to maintain their own fragile senses of identity, and to reject open borders, and preserve its place on the map, which while associated with refugees and the growing fluidity of populations in globalization, preceded fears about refugees–although they are often linked to economic inequalities as much as insecurities.

A full half of the nations to build walls around their borders did so, sharpened specifically by a sense of heightened danger and a compromising of economic security, and an unprecedented compromising of human rights.  But the power of the barriers built to create boundaries of safety in Israel and to partition the land in ways to secure these lines became more increasingly prevalent, long more routine–and openly accepted–in Israel than anywhere else.

947499_2_Walls around the world_standard.jpgUniversity of California, Berkeley/University of Quebec in Montreal

A final pressing question is perhaps how the limits these walls intentionally create for human rights will ever be able to be overcome.

b41ad192afb24aab95fe680f8abbffdd-b41ad192afb24aab95fe680f8abbffdd-0Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News (via AP); Boston Globe

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Filed under Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish diaspora, mapping territorial conflict, zionism

The Arid Region of the United States and its Afterlife: Beyond the 100th Meridian

Is the map the territory?  The “Arid Region” of the United States historically begins at the hundredth meridian–the “eastern edge of the Great American Desert” where insurance companies and other lending agencies would “not, as a matter of agreed policy, lend a shiny dime“–but its mapping  is not so clearly oriented around or beyond this straight line.  All that changed, however, with the Homestead Act, as the promise of free, open land drew crowds and families farther west.  By 1878, John Wesley Powell, who had become a dedicated ecologist and champion of natural resources, sought to secure and maintain the integrity of water flows across most western states, to advocate a vision close to environmental stewardship of the western lands that led to its surprisingly long-term survival.




As if recuperated form the past, as a promise of the potential for the common use of water in the American West, the superimposition of layers around discrete watersheds in the west whose integrity John Wesley Powell sought to preserve appear overlays in 1890–in ways eerily similar to the ESRI data visualizations which Jack Dangermond so successfully pioneered and promoted.  Powell designed a powerful, deeply personal and nationalistic map so as to orient his viewers better to the scarcity of water that he argued defined the unique nature of the Western landscape, and the map is particularly powerful because it seeks to distinguish the unique features of the plains and high west, by strikingly breaking the landscape into what Powell saw as its most “natural” units–watersheds–and to use them to communicate the attentiveness that inhabitants of the region should be prepared to attend in order to familiarize themselves with the distinctive qualities of its landscape.  And in a sense by looking closely at the overlooked–the delicate branching of watersheds not often well-known in their meandering courses to most maps of the late nineteenth-century western states, he raised questions of conservation and land use and management that were later abandoned until late in the second decade of the following century.




The prominence that Powell–who later ran the USGS, and set a standard for exploring and mediating knowledge of the western lands–gave to drainage basins as defining the regional landscape–and giving prominence to local knowledge of the rivers that he had navigated on extensive journeys down as the  Green, the San Juan, the Columbia and Colorado, foregrounded the scarcity of water in the western landscape in positive ways.  He oriented viewers to the rivers as the backbones of future settlement, rather than dwell on the mountains or walls of canyons and prospects which were associated with the majestic landscapes of Thomas Moran:  rather than consider the west “brown” and east “green,” as did so many homesteaders, the stoic and restrained image of the west Powell created seem a delicate set of stones, organized around rivers’  natural courses.  Powell the explorer had travelled through the landscape by canoe, famously exploring the Grand Canyon, and his somewhat austere map of primary colors used the rivers as the logic by which the land was read, almost exploiting the flatness of the surface of the printed map in bounding the arid region with which he so identified, and to stress the need to accommodate awareness the scarcity of water across the region.  As Powell had navigated across many of the rivers, canyons he had explored, the map used river basis as the most natural units into which the west was seen as it was increasingly settled as free lands.


1.  The specific sense of a local reading of the western landscape preserved in the 1890 map was no doubt a basis for the affinity that Stegner found in the particular attention Powell paid to its distinctive features, in hopes to get his readers to appreciate the different relation to the western landscape from the eastern (agrarian) lands, and the importance of preserving these differences.  Small wonder that Stegner hit upon Powell’s actual engagement with the landscape–and even imitated his canoe trips down the Green and Colorado, as a model of retaining a specifically western relation to the land.  In persevering the river as a unique model of travel specific to the west, and affirming the relative insufficiency of land water to expand agrarian businesses in the western states, Powell was both a visionary for Stegner, and provided clear recommendations that found few ears until the dust bowl.  While Powell feared the consequences of “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land,” the insufficiency of how water could actually irrigate the west, combined with its relatively limited rain, made the map in a sense the fruits of his experience, sort of testament as he readied to retire from the USGS by 1894, as a summa of his experiences with western lands.


Powell's watersheds


If Powell’s elegant map of the western watersheds has recently gained a second life in the news, no doubt in part because of its power in preserving a sense of the region’s surface water, and the need to better preserve the integrity of water rights and the administration of water rights in Western states.  The power of Powell’s map may be in the high hopes it holds to orient viewers to the watersheds and drainage basins he so pragmatically hoped to preserve.  The map works so effectively for viewers by focussing on the region’s watersheds, in the place of its established federal divisions into states, and redrawing them as discrete drainage basins with an intensity that seems to reflect his deep care and connection to the land and the reasoned attention that he gave to its future inhabitation.

These were epitomized in the almost ethical primacy that he sought to give the preservation of resources of water in the 1890 map, which tried to orient viewers to the best use of natural resources for future inhabitants in the region, and indeed to distill the precepts of a civilized relation to the western landscape, which he insisted wasn’t suited to agriculture, by limiting irrigation systems to individual state boundaries that he saw as best kept congruent to the boundaries of individual watershed areas so as to avoid any future disagreements between individual states, with the conviction that any lands removed from the watersheds should be reserved for low-density habitation and open grazing, rather than agriculture.  As a result, today Powell seems the ghost of a lost model of water conservation and management across the west, as if representing the road not taken in the administration of public lands in the west, the pastels by which Powell hoped to preserve the local management of water resources by natural constraints provided not only a model of economic development, but a basis to orient the nation to new lands whose attraction had been promoted by boosterists, and to assay, as befits the founder of the USGS, a synthetic record of the availability of water that distinguished the region–the powerful image of land-use that the 1890 map sought to communicate based on the synthesis of his western explorations and his commitment to preserving its landscape.

Because Powell believed deeply in the need to orient readers of his map to the scarcity of groundwater in western states, and even provide a new model for collective management of limited resources that the current division of the western states did not easily or clearly allow.  The idea of natural constraints on water as a common good–or the “commons” of local landwater–is rarely expected to have existed in an age of early industry and westward expansion, but the ideal of restricting and containing local water rights by collective jurisdiction sharply contrasts with the artificial abundance of irrigation streams and potable water that has allowed the agricultural lands of western states to develop at an almost unreasonable pace in the previous century–and which encouraged immigrants to undertake plans for their agricultural settlement.  When Wallace Stegner searched for a title for his own expansive 1949 novel about Powell’s relation to the west–motivated by the deep affinity Stegner felt to late nineteenth century geographers of the western states who deeply appreciated the specific nature of its inhabited land, from plateaux, basins, ranges, to its rivers, a work so important in the environmental movement, Stegner chose at a late date Beyond the Hundredth Meridian with the sudden realization that his topic was geography–and what we’d now call human geography–no doubt in part inspired by the multiple maps of the west he kept nailed to the wall of the cabin where he had completed the book.  Much as Powell’s mapping of the scarcity of water sought to communicate the positive values of the inhabitation of its landscape, and to orient readers to its distinct ecology, Stegner wanted to return the novel to the geographic landscape that Powell in a sense discovered and preserved.

2.  The potential costs of settlement west of the line were long evident because they entailed such considerable risk.  The reasonable nation of remapping the regions west of the hundredth meridian For the hundredth meridian, if a purely cartographical artifact, had gained new reality from 1850 as it was firmly drawn to adjudicate insurance rates in absolute terms from 1850, when insurers designed a basic policy map for property rates that might be entitled The Under-Written States of America folds the nation in two–in hopes to lend coherence to a territory that would have received little investment in earlier years and whose settlement would be discouraged by distinctive if artificially high insurance rates.  Powell’s map applied intensive knowledge not only of the region’s rivers but of the existing customs of living with water scarcity–experienced through contact with native inhabitants, who are so often absent from most early previous maps of the western lands, and a new attitude to land-management and natural resources than customary to local government in the expanding settlement of the future lower forty eight–as a new map of the collective resources that were present in the land–that might have averted the rise of potential risks of conflicting claims to water use that have emerged in the present decade.

During the westward expansion of the later nineteenth century, when its network of rivers were soon explored, the considerable distance from the regions of the Mississippi already problematically apparent.  The meridian served as lands where insurers restricted lending “as per individual agreement“–and presumably at far less advantage ones had curtailed investment considerably by the middle of the nineteenth century, raising questions about the future of land-use.


1855 insurance map.jpgMap of Rates of Insurance in the United States, 1850


The above map suggests clear demand for information of water routes, and the intense competition for declaring water rights and access to sources of irrigation.  The lack of clear agreements and policies about water sharing across the meridian posed difficult questions of regulating access to water across the meridian, or how common use standards and water-sharing agreements would be established in a region of such considerable water scarcity.  Despite recent accords on water-sharing on reviews developed in several states along the Colorado River, as the 2001 surplus allocation agreement and the 2007 shortage sharing agreement, the practices of water-use or water-sharing would not emerge for much time.  But only recognizing the region’s scarcity of water–long denied in practice by the USDA and other government agencies who regulated groundwater in the western states, and accepting the possibility of restricting use can prevent an ever-growing allocation of water, is the restricted resource able adequately shared in practice.  John Wesley Powell had in mind such sharing agreements and local self-regulation of water use in the western states, when he idealized the redrawing of western states along aquifers, rather than existing lines of taxation and state governance.

When John Wesley Powell distinctively synthesized the results of his intensive multi-year surveys in an elegant six-color hand-colored map, he proposed local control of waterways.  The custom suggests an early localized notion of the commons, and the common use of water resources, loosely based on common land-use practices like the Mexican acequia.  Such a logic of collective settlement of water rights privileged just use rather than priority, in ways that anticipated or prefigured current concerns of the water commons, if they also anticipated the use of tools of GIS to register water scarcity across the western states.  For Powell’s expansive map dividing the watersheds lands west of the hundredth meridian oriented viewers to the landscape of the “Arid Region” with the then-radical belief in unique ways of preserving the integrity of rivers specific to the arid region, and the potential costs of removed or long-distance administration of the region’s water rights.




Might the adoption of his new map have averted the rise of potential risks of conflicting claims to water use that have emerged in the present decade?


Hotspots in 17 Western states for water conflicts.png

drought hotspots 2013.jpeg


In the high plains, the sequence of dams, diversions, reservoirs, and projects of irrigation were built to ensure, facilitate and increase the local availability of water have been rationalized by expansive understandings what constituted “beneficial use” and the ownership of water rights–and plagued by federal adjudication of ways of providing energy to accommodate its increasing over-development.  The construction of a map the proposed to protest the effects of lack of local management of water has received increased attention as a record of “what might have been”–and indeed a record of how we might shift our attention to place around regional watersheds.


3.  To be sure, multiple misconceptions of space have under-written the historical expansion of farming.  Questions about managing land water directed renewed attention to how Powell, one-armed explorer of western states communicated the need for constraints on water-use across the west.  Powell had hoped to represent needs for preserving local control over watersheds across the “Arid Region” in 1880, relying on his familiarity with how steep ranges, ridges and cliffs framed thin streams of river water in the region to which he was especially attached, and to work out a better relation to place and region within the bold colors of his elegant map.  Indeed, Powell’s concerns for water management gained the attention he so hoped and desired, but also create a monument of cartographic ethics to which current maps of drought might aspire. For unlike the broad drainage basin of the Mississippi that collects water which had nourished the expanse of American agriculture of 3.2 million square kilometers–


Darainage Basin Horace Mitchell:NASA.png


–the need to accommodate water to prospective inhabitants of the Arid Region was already clear to Powell in circa 1880, based on local knowledge of the limits of water supply in the region.   Powell hence reorganized the spaces of water management.  Today, his map serves to caution agains projects of diversion and the national administration of groundwater, by preserving the integrity of drainage districts in any viable future plans for the settlement of the west.  While we cannot but view the map as a foresaken approach to conservation, and through data visualizations of the increasingly declining water table of the region, Powell hoped it would re-orient viewers to the unique questions of water management the region that Powell well knew would increasingly face in our currently over-irrigated nation.

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Filed under American West, data visualization, environmental stewardship, mapping Western United States, water management

Melting Boundaries and Frozen Pasts: Anthrax, Globalism, and Climate Change

The first six months of 2016 brought the greatest increase in global warming in recent years, surpassing all previous records.  The 378th consecutive month of land and water temperatures far above twentieth-century averages, as per the World Meteorological Organization, became an occasion to wonder how “many more surprises are ahead of us”for the director of the  World Climate Research Program, and brought the arrival of strikingly new consequences of climate change with the unearthing of unmarked graves, as the once-fixed boundary to what had constituted the northern boundary of continents has begun to retreat.

A set of such surprises have already arrived.  The increased melting of what were once thought permanently frozen regions of arctic permafrost first awoke dormant but contagious anthrax.  While this latest development provided a note of panic, it seems only emblematic of the eventual cascading of after-effects that the melting of the arctic stands to bring, and of the difficulty to place them in any coherent narrative.  Yet while we use maps to organize a range of data on climate change, it’s also true that the emergence of anthrax in the Siberian tundra provides a poignant illustration of the “surprises” that climate change will bring.  And while the world has not known smallpox cases since 1977, the contraction of the permafrost stands to reveal extinct smallpox, and indeed prehistoric viruses of up to 30,000 years old, as cattle graves are newly exhumed from permafrost.  The last smallpox epidemic in Siberia dates only from the 1890s, but the buried bodies by the Kolyma river have appeared as if by unexpected time-travel with Smallpox DNA, raising the possibility of with the unearthing of riverbanks, and  sites of burial of both infected animals and diseased bodies as the ground thaws.  Areas infected with anthrax spores release by preternatural global warming are being cordoned off, but the revived viruses and spores may travel widely in water in ways difficult if not impossible to map.

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Filed under arctic, Climate Change, ecological disasters

The Imagined and Actual Geography of Brexit: Topologies of Social Anxiety

Crossing to Calais on the Eurostar, I looked out the window for migrant camps who had been so central to the “Brexit” referendum by which  England recently left the European Union.  No migrant camps were in evidence from the train.  And when the train stopped for unforeseen difficulties due to people on the tracks, I couldn’t but wonder how it related to those risking lives to enter the tunnel running beneath the Channel, whom local police have long quarantined in semi-permanent “homes” of converted shipping containers.  While the Eurostar connected two railway stations, and half of London and Paris was glued to the European Cup, the “Brexit” vote revealed a hiving off of about a third of Britain similarly eager to separate itself from the European Union–as voters voted, probably unaware of the consequences, in a plebiscite that trumped parliamentary politics in anti-democratic ways.  The precarity of living in shipping containers now seems to be about as great as that of the European Union.

English voters on the Referendum were presented with almost dizzying fears of immigration and declining social services that were impossible to visualize adequately.  In an onslaught that dominated the news and challenged voters’ attention spans and moral compass, “Leave” flyers used fear to mobilize against remaining in the European Union.  In a canny onslaught and bid for attention, reminiscent of right-wing politicians, flyers of  “Leave” raised the specter of fears of immigration policies out of control  and wrested away by a European Union whose member states stood only to escalate.  The eventuality of remaining in the Eu was seen as an abdication of responsibilities, and a misplaced trust in Brussels to control the entry of refugees and Eastern Europeans seeking jobs into the UK:  if migration to the UK had grown to above a quarter of a million–“the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle“–the arrival of two million over the coming decade mandated by “free movement of people”  conjured a suitably dystopian future.  Voting to Remain in the European Union was to accept this lack of control, and the subordination of British law to an over-reaching European Court; expanding the myth of foreign oversight of Britain, Leave claimed to offer the opportunity to check the flow of migrants to restore control to British hands.  The argument of empowerment may have been deluded.  But the powerful promise to return £350 million in taxes flowing to Brussels, and the prospect of immigration growth once such “candidate countries” as Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, to the tune of a cost of nearly £1.8 billion, provided a compelling rationale to vote “Leave” and to identify interests with the possibility of controlling the fair of the expanded borders of globalization alone, and rather than in the European Union.  As a movement of “faux populism,” carefully orchestrated to be effective at the ballot, the Brexit supporters stirred up fear into a central role in the election that attracted a growing range of supporters to the ballot.

The dizzying expansion of a region without frontiers was joined by a cry “to take back control” of England’s future.  The Referendum was presented as “our last chance to take back control,” a virtual mantra of the Leave campaign, and control “our borders” and international “influence” lest the nation be filled with immigrants against who one can draw no clear border.  With the Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia joining the EU, ran the implicit message, Syrian refugees were bound to be waiting at the gates as well, without a compelling way to turn them back.


EU-523932.jpgDaily Express


Such a compelling framing of the debate about the nation’s compromised future in a landscape of expanding “rights” fostered fears of an end of public futures, “without handing our permanent control to people we cannot vote out”–as if the vote presented the last attempt at independence, ignoring the special relation of the UK had long insisted to the EU.  To be sure, the Leave campaign also increased regulations that the EU introduced, without suggesting other financial benefits.

The mapping of the response to the Referendum released a new plethora of maps in hopes better to explain the final vote of the plebiscite that precipitated the break from the EU.  Can these maps–and the mapping of social divides in England’s complicated tapestry of islands which integrate immigrants and regions where they still remain unknown, provide any insight in the difficulty to create consensus about the growing population flows that globalization has produced?  The question is important, because it suggests a new problem of political consensus not only in Britain and the European Union, but also in the United States.  For the unprecedented misinformed plebiscite gave voice to a deep unease with parliamentary deals that brokered the terms of England’s membership in the European Union, and with globalization, that dangerously undermined the responsibilities that the EU has gained to respond to the global threats of refugee crises–a role that has been foisted upon it by the economic promise Europe continues to offer as a zone without apparent national frontiers.  While we’ve been told by informed voices that the EU “had it coming,” whatever that means, or that the current European Union compromised British demands, or warned that the creation of social and political affinities could ever follow from enforced economic union, or give rise to public confidence, rejection by plebiscite of membership in the European Union subverted democracy, by a campaign bred from xenophobic fears and assertions the EU “has failed Britain” as a whole.

The recourse to demographic polling, hex bin maps sought to go beyond easy dichotomies, and unpack what seem deep-running fault lines within the country, and the difficulty of reconciling the nation given the increased political fault-lines attempted to process and reconcile divides in political parties that plagued the land.  But rather than suggest the complex lines of fracturing between the political mosaic of Conservatives, Liberals, Labourites, UKIP and Greens in England’s new political landscape, the Leave/Stay dichotomy revealed new divides in the body politic.




Despite the many tired dichotomies that have been extracted ad nauseam from data visualizations of the EU Referendum–from old v. young, north v. south, working class v. metropolitan elites; educated v. non-graduates; identifying as “English” v. cosmopolites–the complexion that has redefined the country reflects a growing retrograde tendency of rejecting the status quo and belief in the benefits of hiving off that was undemocratic and displayed  a perverse nostalgia of deeply conservative roots.


Queen Backs Brexit!.png


The referendum that former Prime Minister David Cameron presented as a panacea or safety valve to staunch opposition to the EU in Great Britain encouraged one of the most badly informed electorates in memory to protest the entrance of eastern Europeans into the country, and the perception of economic malaise and overburdened public services, and erase the benefit of free trade accords and that led to considerable economic growth.  The economic amnesia Brexit provoked led to a massive rejection of the national government and indeed political elites, even when undermining their economic interests, producing the increasing likelihood that many wish to leave Britain even among working class groups in England and Wales, and many voters more angry about the EU government than aware of the actual impact on trade relations to Europe or manufacturing and health standards.  Although turnout was in general quite high, with 30 million expressing their opinion at the ballot box, or some 72%, the vote was predicted to be determined by turn-out, and the distribution of votes varied.  If most in Scotland turned out, many in London and in northern Ireland voting less, and many of the regions who voted to “Leave” turned out to vote intensely–and turnout markedly lower in areas with greater numbers of younger voters–who tended to vote to Remain in reflection of their economic futures, especially in areas with greater student populations in relative to their size.  But the appeal to the nation and national independence deeply obscured the issues on the table.





What was Cameron thinking in opening up this question to a plebiscite that gave greater voice to those with stronger opinions, and indeed in opening up a question of particular complexity to a public yea or nay vote that hinged on turn-out?  Democratic “consent” to membership in the EU was long been “wafer thin” in much of Britain, and low turnout among the young gave a greater share of the vote to Brexit.  But the opportunity that the vote offered many the chance to decamp from the EU in ways few intended.  For during a refugee crisis, the cards were steeply stacked the party reduced to take “Remain” as its slogan, although the very passivity of whose construction suggested an absence of cogent arguments to respond to false promises of helping England’s shaky economy, persistent low wages, growing waiting times at National Health Service, and rising rents–all of which were represented as stretched thin by serving migrant workers and their families, and rising rents.

Partisans of “Leave” tapped such concerns so effectively that despite the value of data visualizations in anatomizing and describing the broad distribution of adherents mobilized behind a “Leave” mandate, the vote seems little understood or analyzed for its appeal as in its ramifications, and has created an ongoing puzzle about what place of England will now occupy in relation to the EU–or how the EU will look.




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June 28, 2016 · 11:26 pm

Our Increasingly Overlit Night Skies

The recent atlas charting how artificial light has compromised the night-time sky globally over the fifteen years reveals the rapidly growing impact of light pollution on the diminished darkness of the night-time sky.   Stars provided a basis to organize time, space, and prognostication, as well as natural guideposts for maritime navigation; their increased disappearance from human perception is now made terrifyingly clear in the first-ever light pollution atlas, which allows us to track the alarming increase in the diffusion of electric light in night skies across much of the northern hemisphere–an alarming rare of the growth of nocturnal illumination that warrants concern not only for the diminished visibility of starlight in populated regions, but an increased remove of dark skies that will no doubt impact animal life as well as our experience of the planet–and a neglected change of human geography we are only now able adequately to map–and see.  What constitutes “natural brightness” has been rewritten and modified by the increasing levels of diffracted light and electric afterglow that is prominently visible in most inhabited areas of the world.  Indeed, “afterglow” increasingly has come to constitute what we call the inhabited world.

Cartographers long measured place against the stars–navigation long determined by the north star.  But the proliferation of artificial lighting sources across much of the inhabited world increasingly obstructs an large proportion of the starry night-time sky.  The result  seems a disorientation from astronomical points of reference–as light pollution causes a deep disturbance of the ecosystems of nocturnal animals and migrating birds.  The recent appearance of a detailed atlas of the diminishing of stellar visibility  by artificial night-sky brightness offers a detailed image of the costs of globalization we are not likely to forget without it–by tracing the atmospheric effects of what we now consider human habitation and its costs.  For although the over-illumination of much of the inhabited world has brought an artificial brightening of the night-time sky has only begun to be a subject of environmental study, the global mapping of the intensity of upward emissions across the globe will soon change that provides an astounding synthesis of  the new nature of the night-time sky–now mapped for the first time in totality by the and the database of the Sky Quality Meter by infra-red sensing.  Such detailed high-resolution cloud-free images of the distribution of light pollution document a measure of the scale of anthropogenic change whose consequences for global ecosystems is not only aesthetic, but suggests a real watershed for the habitability of the earth akin to global warming–hence, global brightening–from which there will be no return, and a large ecological change whose consequences on birds, nocturnal life, and plants is only being begun to be understood.

The synthetic maps of incredible clarity in the atlas synthesize some tens of thousands of high-resolution satellite images chart how the night sky is seen cross the world, measuring the local degradation of celestial light with a precision rarely assessed so comprehensively in the past.  The maps not only the expanse of light pollution, but are a measure of globalization:  the extent of night-time illumination, but the increased brightening of nocturnal skies, is not only a measure o human settlement, after all, but in large part the networks of transportation, communication, and industrialization that have not been tracked locally, reflecting as the do the construction of lighting on night-time roads, round-the-clock transportation networks like airports, expanding cities and extra-urban growth,as well as workspaces that run twenty-four hours a day.

The augmentation of light at night has come to grow at a rate of six percent each year in most of Europe and the United States that seem to “take us further from the stars” and from natural starlight.  The extent of the diminished visibility of the constellations from human sight from light pollution might offer a metaphor for global disorientation, with the increased  global surplus of artificial light and the diffusion of an ever-present artificial skyglow on the horizon of most of the inhabited world.  If stars provided a primordial site of contact with bearings–indeed the graticule by which Claudius Ptolemy imagined the ability to order spatial relations was astronomically derived–widely occurring afterglow from cities, highways, factories, airports, and suburbia not only create a diminished opportunity for star-gazing but a potentially disorienting disappearance of the Milky Way.


Never see the milky way.pngInternational Dark Sky Association


It is especially poignant that in an era of brightening skies, druids gather in the circle of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones to witness the spectacle of midsummer sunrise through the frames of longstanding massive ancient trilithons to celebrate the summer solstice.  The annual gatherings mark the closest approach of the sun to the planet, and greet the arrival of the longest day in the northern hemisphere in a world.  Yet in a region where night sky is increasingly less clearly differentiated from day, the observation of celestial lights on  Salisbury Plane are likely to be marred by the ever-present glow of electric lights.  And the increasing illumination of night-time skies have definitively altered how most Europeans will perceive the stars, and compromised the visibility of starlight to the naked eye across most of Europe and the inhabited world–especially in landlocked urban environments which are transformed to expansive islands of light that diffuse across the countryside, increasingly evident in satellite photography.




The interactive maps compiled from satellite images released this summer reveal the extent of global brightening in ways that suggest a massive scale of environmental change only begun to be assessed.  The maps chart the darkest districts of England are the Isles of Scilly, West Devon and Eden in Cumbria, most of England’s more populated territory suggest the particularly invasive nature of light pollution, and its difficulty to be clearly mapped–and the increasing diffusion of electric light into once-rural areas have created an unclear divide in which just over a fifth of England is not affected by the increased illumination of night-time streets.



Light:D legend

England’s Light Pollution and Dark Skies/© Natural England 2016. © Crown/ database right 2016 Earth Observation Group, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.  Developed by LUC


The pronounced concentration of diffracted light emanating from electric lights in London remains striking for the diffusion that extends into the roads that ring the city–


London Light.pngEngland’s Light Pollution and Night Skies


–but the situation is symptomatic of the broader impact of electric light worldwide, which suggests that night time skies have been degraded across all of land-based Europe, and that the observation of stars in night-time skies only remain pristine in uninhabited areas at sea.


visual-impacts1.jpgFalchi et al. (2016)


Much as friends in San Francisco and Oakland now travel to the Eastern Sierras to witness the visibility of celestial light, and others based in Paris travel to islands in Croatia where they can take pleasure in the diminished radiant light that mars most astronomical observation closer to home, attempts to escape from the global brightening caused by the scattering of artificial light around urban environments compromise celestial visibility worldwide.   The increased pleasure of enjoying night skies leads to even some rapturous encounters with the revelation of a sky full of celestial lights, noticed by ecopsychology, suggests that noticing the signs of the night sky not only be an orienting need for animals, but individual well-being that the ubiquity of afterglow threatens to erode.  Yet the increased acceptance of LED lighting which scatters more widely through the atmosphere and creating  more intense skyglow than older technologies of long wavelength light.

The question is not only one of individual health, but historical preservation.  Recent calls for the “tasteful illumination” of the neolithic monument to kindle interest in the monument back in 2011 in hopes to “add some magic” to its ruins would have only returned the monument to artificial illumination it enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s, stopped only to reduce accidents on the nearby A303.  But the floating of the proposal rightly led some to caution that preserving Stonehenge in “its landscape and part and parcel of that is restoring Stonehenge to its sky, to keeping it as dark as possible”–despite its position close to the well-travelled A303 two-lane highway.




If the almost ubiquitous spread of skyglow offers a skewed way to map populations, expanding nocturnal illumination in the northern hemisphere may make the Salisbury skies far less of a privileged place to wait for the arrival of the solstice sun.  Although NASA’s satellite composite image of nocturnal illumination presents a picture of the regions most prominently effected, the effects of the compromising of the visibility of starlight to the naked eye is only beginning to be mapped as an environmental change of considerable consequence–


Visible Earth NASANASA’s Visible Earth Project


–and demand to be mapped in England in further detail.  While Milton celebrated how God “made the stars,/ And set them in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth, . . . / . . . and rule the night, / And light from darkness to divide,” the division between light and dark has become increasingly blurred, as stars are rendered less visible by over-illumination, and the surrounding dark less “ever-during” and darkness is far less visible than it ever was, especially near the light-domes created by extended urban and extra-urban areas.


Britain at Night.png



As of 2010, the deterioration of light pollution to the naked eye grew in much of the UK:


Naked Eye Light Polution.pngLight Pollution to Naked Eye (2010)


The broadly documented phenomenon of ‘global brightening’ is concentrated in the most densely inhabited areas of the world, and correlates to economic production, as it concentrates in the northern hemisphere–as is shown in a recent interactive online map that reveals the extent of those areas of stellar visibility are compromised night-time skies, whose majesty are only visible in areas removed from illumination from diffused artificial light.  Indeed, global brightening and light pollution have come to exercise such strong visual impact on the night-time skies of much of the more densely urban areas that the Milky Way cannot actually be seen due to the reduction of night-time stellar visibility–here able to be contrasted with the Visible Earth project of electric light emissions.


Visible Earth NASA

mondo_ridotto0p25Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologia dell’Inquinamento Luminoso

scale bar SQM


The mapping of such atmospheric light pollution suggests the growing problem of the degradation of night-time skies on account of the increased illumination polluting night-time skies that has almost obliterated the pristine skies across Europe, with the Milky Way obliterated for much of England, from London to the north, Paris, the Netherlands, and northern Italy:  indeed, the introduction of LED lighting in the north has further compromised what was once called the “natural sky,” giving rise to personalized mapping of the artificial illumination of night-sky brightness by the The Dark Sky Meter app for iPhones, as “Myskyatnight” provides a tool making available night-sky brightness to all–and the creation of select “Dark Sky Parks” across the United States within national parks, to create preserves for night-sky visibility across the western states like Sedona, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah or the Grand Canyon–all joining  Dark Sky Places with sponsorship from the International Dark Sky Association based in Tuscon, Arizona.

The compromising nature of “Light Limiting Magnitude” is still painstakingly compiled, as of 2016, locally measuring the limiting magnitude of observation by the naked eye–the faintest star seen by unaided human sight, a rough guide to judging the degradation of night-time skies.


Light Limiting Magnitude.png


But the questions of different perceptions of the sky and the concentration of the diffusion of light pollution can better register the pervasiveness of night-time afterglow.




Indeed, most children in the United States aren’t familiar with the extent of celestial illumination of night-time skies, and indeed much of the night time skies are compromised in much of the northern hemisphere–


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide


–and the skies of Britain are filled with afterglow–


Britain at NightNASA-Earth at Night


And even if the monument of Stonehenge is not yet protected as a community adopting low levels of light pollution by the International Dark Sky Association, the Salisbury plane is filled with afterglow from artificial illumination of spreading rural suburbia–


Salisbury].pngNaked Eye Light Pollution



–if the extent of nocturnal illumination of the skies considerably varies across England, the nation which has sthe largest areas of dark sky in Europe, evident in the striking diffusion of night-time light between Manchester and Sheffield.


Manchester and Sheffield.pngNaked Eye Light Pollution


The neolithic monument is not yet truly so starkly illuminated as a faked photograph that recently made rounds on Twitter might suggest, making its illumination more absurd.




Despite the brightening of night-time skies of southern England, celestial observation was long commemorated in the ancient structure of Stonehenge, where the alignment of the world with astronomical skies took advantage of the plateaux of the Salisbury Plain.  The crowding of the inner circle of blue stones, erected between 2400 and 2200 BC, are bound off from visitors save the modern groups of druids, if summer solstice has encouraged pagan pilgrimages to the 4,500 year old circle of sarsen stone circle in hopes to partake in collective re-enactments of druidical rites of primordial worship of the arrival of the midsummer sun at sunrise, watching the sun rise at the closest point to earth’s northern hemisphere.


Stonehenge solstice


So heightened is the demand for attaining ecstatic existences of the many druidical groups in the United Kingdom’s English Heritage has booked visits within the sarsen stones over several of the weeks following the actual summer solstice, so as to accommodate their re-enchanting of the wonder of the rhythms of renewal of celestial light at a time when the afterglow of artificial light has obscured the stars in night-time skies for the majority of the world’s populations.


Western Europe light pollution.pngFalchi et al. (2016)


The recent compilation data of accurate measurements of human-generated light from “Sky Quality Meters” in some 20, 865 locations has led to a more exact measurement of current levels of light pollution in a newly comprehensive atlas of the world, and indeed a forecast of the increased compromise after the transition to LED lights in Europe.


V-Band:LED projection forecast.jpg


For among the growing list of anthropogenic changes recently mapped, nothing can capture disenchantment so much as the artificial illumination of the night-time sky in a globalized world–even as an expanding amount of artificial illumination has changed our perceptual relation to the night-time world, and a consequent reduction of apparent celestial light.  The global spread of access to artificial night-time illumination has so expanded the extent of the diffraction of light to create an almost omnipresent afterglow of the night-time sky to compromise dark-adapted abilities of vision as well as stellar visibility.  Not only has the explosion of light pollution across much of the inhabited world compromised and obscured night vision of stars across much of the inhabited world for one third of the planet’s residents, but the rapid increase in artificial light in much of the night sky–now measured as growing at a rate of 5-10% each year–threaten to obscure in due time the notion of stellar visibility, sufficient to provoke the neurological correlative of disenchantment from stellar visibility in the night sky.  The obscuring of night sky that is projected to be caused by the unnecessary addition of nocturnal illumination by LED lights is projected to increase the scattering of atmospheric light to produce such an extreme artificial brightness in much of the night-time sky over future decades was projected, if keeping at the conservative current rate of growth of light levels of 6% per year, that few or no Americans will be able to perceive the stars of the Milky Way.






The increased compromising of activities as star-gazing offers and instance of the ever-increasing disenchantment of our perception of the environment, as artificial illumination increasingly erodes the possibility of being alone in relation to the night-time world.


falchi1HR-milky-way-over-park.jpgMilky Way Seen on Utah-Colorado Border in Dinosaur National Monument/Dan Duriscoe


Nikolay Doychinov:Angence France Presse--Getty Images.pngNicolay Doichinov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


For this reason, the interest of the ability to map the extent of nocturnal illumination across most of the inhabited world–and especially across its most densely inhabited centers of habitation–has grown as a needed assessment of the state of stellar visibility.

For if most are not so much enslaved in a Weberian “iron cage” to bureaucratic systems of efficiency, calculation and control than they feel removed from experience, many do find the experience of night-time and night-vision increasingly compromised by the insistent or incessant visibility of much of the globe, where night-time glow obscures constellations for over three-quarters of the United Kingdom, even as Stonehenge is privileged as a site of druidical celebrations.  If witnessing the summer solstice sunrise is a centering annual rite for many, the increasingly compromised visibility of night-time stars suggests an unpredicted but disorienting effect of over-inhabitation, where the near-constant illumination of population centers creates an anthropogenic effects of not fully understood consequences, as well as obscuring the visibility of starry skies now only able to be glimpsed in remote areas, removed from the intense afterglow of urban lights, and revealing the extent of the natural illumination of the night-time sky.


meteor-Eta-Aquarid-5-6-2016-darla-Young-Carthage-AR1-e1466811727327-1.jpgDarla Young, Peak of Eta Aquaria Meteor Shower (May 2016)/EarthSky


For if the spirituality of witnessing the solstice sunrise exits as an independent event, as if to recognize its continued existence independent of human agency and as following in the paths of the ancient meaning of the stones’ placement in a circle of monumental frames, imposes a continued meaning on observers, as if “bringing us as it were into its field of force” in Charles Taylor’s words, over-illumination reveals an anthropocentric belief in our access to night-time spaces and a control of space that reduce any sense of a world separate from human agency, even while mapping the extent of global over-inhabitation–and, as Ben Henning showed in a gridded cartograms in the over-illumination of the world’s most densely inhabited areas.  And while we consider globalization as having a distinct set of “winners” and “losers,” the mapping of the effects of the increase in artificial illumination that is already visible in the night sky is most  evident in the increased obstruction of stellar visibility over the most developed areas of the world.


Earth at Night--NASA photo and equal-pop projection


The “devastating senselessness” that Max Weber feared and predicted has a basis for disenchantment has progressed in different directions in the increasing departure of much of the globalized world from access to night skies, and the contraction of areas of continued visibility of night-time skies, meteor showers or constellations.  Increasingly,  many websites urge driving to find “darker skies” away from the glow of city lights to recuperate an increasingly threatened sense of contact act with witnessing the stars, setting out in search for spatially relocating oneself to have contact with the arrival of Perseid meteors or to view Leonids, in secluded spots where the glow of car headlights or nocturnal illumination of highways and city streets won’t compromise night vision in an increasingly personalized age, to seek a sort of spiritual purity in star-gazing.

And so, back to Stonehenge.  The Dutch medievalist Johann Huizinga shrewdly observed “The modern city hardly knows true silence or true darkness any more, nor does it know the effect of single small light or distant shout” in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).  Even if electric lights were once confined to cities and urban areas, the presence of light is now also invading the skies of rural areas in the diffracted luminescent of night-time glow. Indeed, the performance of sacred rites of the celebration of solar observation at Stonehenge recoups a re-enchanted world rooted in the wonder of solstice, and engage in the ecstatic sense of observing the sun rising though placed stones.  The promise of a return to ancestral rhythms of witnessing the renewal of dawn is a means of restoring alignment to cosmic rhythms, particularly apt as observing stellar light is increasingly inaccessible to most of the world’s populations.  Ye the re-enchantment of Stonehenge, by no means the only circle of ancient stones but perhaps the most romanticized, has even as the overlit presence of man-made night has radically altered the global skies–the celebration of solstice runs against the growing skyglow in night skies, and re-evaluate the future of any un0bstructed points of access to “natural” levels of celestial light–already raising fears that led former  to “illuminate” the stones would have only further distanced observers from the celestial calendars that Stonehenge was designed to mark.





The mythical power of Stonehenge derives from the very nature of unknown reasons for its construction, which have long lead it to be tied to a sense of mystically recuperating cosmic harmony through the ancient even arrangement of its stones, long assumed to offer a neolithic astronomical observatory, if not a basis for computing the calendar.


Stonehenge solstice sunset Pete Glastonbury, 2008Stonehenge Summer Solstice Sunset, Pete Glastonbury (2008)


The rudimentary astronomical observatory  on the plateau of Salisbury plain, has a historical aura of harmony with celestial spheres, but may increasingly serve as a nostalgic reminder of an  era when rhythms of time were divided by the clear distinction between night-time sky and sunrise, and has become something of a shrine and site of pilgrimage for pagans seeking to get in touch with astrological rhythms that are increasingly distanced from human sight in a world where stellar visibility is increasingly reduced by artificial light luminance–and contact with sources of celestial light compromised.



stellar stSummer Solstice at Night in Stonehenge (2010)/Gabriel Stargardter


The shared awe in observing the sun rise through the stones defines a site of renewal increasingly in demand in a disenchanted world.  But although the earth is most continuously illuminated by the sun’s rays in midsummer, increased presence of night-time glow across the northern hemisphere has so subtracted stellar visibility to compromise the darkness of night skies, including in the UK.  It may be time to ask whether the mystery of the encounter with dawn at Stonehenge this summer solstice may be hampered by the subtraction of starlight from across the night-time sky–dampening the shared awe of watching the illusion of the first light of dawn expanding through the sarsen stones, as the sun rises from the easternmost point of the horizon.


Stonehenge sunrise.pngEddie Mullholland/The Telegraph


stonehenge solstice bwThe Telegraph–Summer Solstice at Stonehenge 2015


The ceremony of witnessing the surprise at the monumental structure of lintened stones has regained a sense of sacrality–if not pop spectacle–but may acquire a more wistful flavor as starlight is less visible from the ground.  In an era when artificial light pollution is so widely diffused across the northern hemisphere, even the “place” of Stonehenge is in a sense stripped of its sense of specificity, with the increased obscuring of star from the night-time sky.  Diminishing stellar visibility stands to change stargazing forever for most of England.  While ecstatic revelry among witness seeks to restore ancestral ties in the circular placement of trilithons that appear to echo a cosmic order, diminishing starlight and night-time in much of England may change that rather drastically.


Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email:, Website: Heritage


The meaning longest day may seem divested of symbolic meaning in an era when night-time light pollution threatens to defamiliarize much of England with the stars–and much of Europe as the glow of electrical lighting has begun to mask a greater amount of the Milky Way.  With increasing stars removed from the night-time skies, obscured by artificial sky glow that removes the constellations from 77% of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, especially in many cities, and reducing areas to view the night sky’s stars–as has been revealed in a new global atlas of night-time levels of illumination by sources of artificial man-made light, a striking atlas of the effects of human habitation.  The fading of constellations by artificial airglow is perhaps a cartographical metaphor for modern alienation–a sense of alienation which stands to increase as sodium lights are replaced with cool white LED lights, obscuring even a greater share of stars from the night-time sky with the diffusion of light pollution–as has been mapped increasing obstruction artificial light so intense to obscure night-time illumination by celestial light.



above natural light


Even if the site  of Stonehenge may continued to be treasured as a privileged site of astronomical observation, witnessing the sun’s rise each midsummer through the stones of the sarsen circle has occurred for over 4,000 years, the stones placed on an axis lining up with sunrise on the the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The sarsen circles has long led it to be a site of celestial measurement or ancient astronomy, but the congregation to its site may gain new symbolic relevance in a world increasingly illuminated by artificial light–an overfit world, where the viewing of celestial lights, and even the light of the milky way, has rapidly reduced as increasing artificial brightening has redefined the visibility of the night-time sky and the observation of sunrise, and artificial sky brightness seriously compromises stellar visibility for the most inhabited parts of the world–encouraging the growth of protectionist outfits like the International Dark Sky Association to call attention to those sites that still have low levels of light pollution by online toolslisting those communities that adopt ordinances for low-luminecense places,  including Flagstaff AZ, Borrego Springs CA, and the Isle of Sark and Isle of Coll in the UK–but not Salisbury, despite its relative lack of urban development.




Diminished visibility of constellations to the naked eye may offer a metaphor for collective disorientation from celestial skies–or a sense that the stars are no longer clearly aligned.




Even as crowds of 20,000 gather to mark the rising of the sun through the rock circle, the sky will not only be much less darker when the sun rises but the stars less clearly visible:  the need to see such purified solar light may have grown with abundant artificial light pollution across so much of the over-developed world, where the absence of the dark night sky extends over an increasing area of the world than previously thought possible.

Indeed, although the Ministry of Defense plans to build new modular homes for troops returning from Germany on the Salisbury plain that will actually obscure the Stonehenge sunrise on the horizon near Stonehenge by 2020, will the spectacle of sunrise be as dramatic after the night sky is artificially lightened by the widespread adoption of LED lighting?



0006bc60-642NASA-Earth at Night


Witnessing dawn at Stonehenge may continue to awe, but the presence of dark skies is now foreign to much of the world.  The extensive spread of artificial illumination across so many inhabited areas of the world have been documented a ground-breaking global atlas of light pollution, synthesizing a holistic record of the diffusion of light across the continents, that has been created from tens of thousands of high-resolution infra-red images of nighttime lights across the continents.  The images in the atlas offer the first chance to survey and assess an increasingly constant illumination of the night-time sky–in which the prevalence of widespread artificial light stands to diminish the impact of sunrise, if not the arrival of the longest day of summer.  Indeed, the dispersed intensity of artificial illumination has increasingly degraded the visibility of the night-time sky evident in mapping of the extent by which artificial night-sky brightness obscures the visibility of the stars.


artificial sky brightness

scale bar SQM

Artificial Night-Sky Brightness


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpg


Nocturnal illumination has become so ubiquitous across the inhabited world that it is almost a proxy for inhabitation, the solstice may mark far less noticeable change, so removed is “natural” illumination of celestial sources from the experience of most.   The atlas is the most recent in the accumulation of convincing evidence–as if it was needed–of the arrival of the anthropocene.  It represents the culmination of the attempts of Fabio Falchi to chart the extent of light pollution in the night-time sky, refined many times since he used similar tools to create the dataset of first-ever light pollution atlas in 2001 using a Air Force satellite–and Falchi and his collaborators would be the first to note that since then, nocturnal illumination has increased some 6% each year in Europe and the United States, in ways that now make it hard to understand what “natural” might be, and even harder to imagine experiencing how a night sky without light pollution would appear.

The publication of the atlas is something of an actual wake-up call:  for it has synthesized for the first time the extent artificial night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but of upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas that are diffused through the environment, and often refracted by the atmosphere riche with aerosols.  The data maps document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.  Whereas “natural” lighting was once confined to celestial sources, the growing ubiquity of night-time luminescence has created artificial airglow altering the experience of the dark night-time sky.  The atlas even allows one to calculate distances necessary to travel to perceive a night-time sky that is free from artificial brightness–and to observe how much areas free from artificially generated night-time illumination have actually shrunk for many of the world’s inhabitants in much of the northern hemisphere, and in which Antarctica is the only continent not afflicted by the pollution of artificially generated light.  The new distribution of light intensity whose visible impact –the most visible footprint of over-modernization–suggests a massive environmental change whose consequences are only beginning to be understood.


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

visual impacts



The spectacular synthesis of high-resolution infra-red data allows an opportunity to assess the environmental alterations created by night-time light as never before.  The calculation of Sky Quality Measurement along a Lambert projection reveals how electric light travels hundreds of miles far from its sources, damaging night-time skies across much of the globe.  Despite its very pervasiveness as a global problem–and one that has advanced so rapidly–the geographical extent of changes in night-time luminance has been rarely perceived or adequately synthesized, until the calibration of “artificial illuminance” offers tools to map the presence of light in the night-time skies in high-resolution form.  The synthesis of data from across the world by infrared imaging offer a better sense of the extent of the ubiquity of the degradation of night-times skies by using a Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite to calculate the relative brightness of previously dark skies, suggesting a world that increasingly glows with frightening intensity, where the illumination only by celestial bodies only exists at sea.  Digital cartography remotely measured by satellite telemetry meets environmental history to raise provoking questions of just how far we have moved form a world where night time was confined to celestial illumination.  Whereas stars might have offered bearing, as they long did, to global location.  Has the ubiquity of geolocation arrived at time when we have lost the ability, as well as the need, to easily calculate global position by celestial observation of the stars?

The concentration of regions of light pollution in Europe, where the intensity of night-time illumination is often ten times above the “natural” levels of celestial illumination from the moon and stars–


Light-Polution-Map-Europe-GeoawesomenessRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


–and is only rivaled by the eastern seaboard of North America and eastern half of the United States.  Indeed, in erasing the dominance of celestial sources of illumination, night-time vision has been degraded for much of the global population with consequences we have rarely considered, with the result that events such as the summer solstice are far less clearly defined parts of our calendar.  Whereas Milton once expressed awe at the creation of stars “set . . . in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth,” and “sowed with stars the heaven thick as a field” of light, “Their small peculiar, though from human sight/So far remote, with diminution seen,” the erasure of stars from much of the night-time sky suggest a degree of alienation from one’s environment.  The inundation of the night-time atmosphere with artificial light around the Nile delta, for example, gives the region a  surreal glow that, while beautiful in its own eery way, registers the rivers’ pollution of a striking the density of electric lights.





The atlas of images that registers the distribution of nighttime illumination based on data from the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite uses new indices of Sky Quality Measurement of the night-time sky, to measure the rapidity and nature of this massive change of our shared experience of the degree to which artificial “skyglow” or luminance has compromised the starriness of the night sky.  Using indices based on a ration between artificial brightness and the “natural” background brightness of the night sky removed from man-made sources of light (174 μcd/m2) provides the best measure yet of the ever-present “horizon glow” generated by cities–which, if once confined to factory towns, has become a characteristic of the night sky.  The recent synthesis  of the presence of night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but the upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas.  Its synthetic images document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.

Across the United States over 40% of whose inhabitants can no longer view the heaves with eyes adapted to night vision, on account of the ever-brighter built surroundings.  While an inability to adapt to night vision is less true for Europeans as a whole (15%), according to the team run by Fabio Falchi, about a third of the world’s inhabitants are no longer able to discern the stars of the Milky Way across the nighttime sky, obscuring stellar visibility for much of its inhabitants, in a marked impoverishment of perception not limited to overnight camp-outs, increasingly endemic to urbanized areas, where exceeding magnitudes of twenty-fold seems increasingly common.


Artificial Light USA North AmericaRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


Unlike an image of the local illumination of space in the United States, as that created by NASA in 2012 of the levels of lighting across the entire earth and the United States–


nocturnal illumination.png


–images in the atlas of artificial light tracked the expansion of light pollution across the world’s surface and in different regions, through a dataset that measured degrees of local environmental degradation, rather than noting local levels of emission of artificial light or the relative intensity of local levels of light.  The result is a clearer sense of how light alters space, and indeed compromises levels of man-made light visible at any place, a far more sensitive record of local environment.


Artificial Light USA North America.jpg


If the dataset is made on the same measurements of local light intensity, the result is to better map the persistent presence of light in an atlas of artificial light’s presence, or “artificial sky luminance,” to measure the propagation of the nighttime landscape.

The overwhelming extent of anthropogenic effects of increasing light pollution have been measured and documented the first atlas of the night sky, compiled from data collected by a U.S. Air Force satellite after some 15 years of study.  The recent atlas registers an amazing rate of increased intensity of light pollution at an annual rate of 6% in North America and Europe.  It found that as much as 83% of the world’s population and more than 99% of the inhabitants of Europe and the United States live under steeply light-polluted skies (with an  artificial sky brightness great than 14 μcd/m2)–as much as 88% of Europe and half of the United States regularly experience skies so compromised by light pollution.  At one extreme, night-time skies in the country of Singapore prevent inhabitants from adapting to night vision and light pollution fully masks the Milky Way.


Light-Polution-Map-Asia-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


To be sure, sub-saharan Africa is less subject to light pollution, aside from its western coast–but an intensity of light traces the course of the River Nile, and is striking across most of the Middle East, in ways that suggest possibilities of neurophysiological change.


Light-Polution-Map-Africa-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


The increasing swaths of light pollution in more densely built and inhabited areas–also including Israel, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Malta, Egypt and Qatar–where over or approaching half of their inhabitants have no chance of viewing the Milky Way raises the possibility of inevitable challenges of viewing a clear nocturnal starry sky in much of the globe, or of light uncontaminated by artificial lighting across the world.  Indeed, the reduced of areas of “natural” light save in regions of Africa and the Australian outback maps–in ways comparable to the near-absence of regions of the United States free from man-made sound–the conflation of nature and culture that defines the anthropocene.

Africa indeed folds in upon itself, as much of central South America, in a gridded cartogrammic warping of a Robinson projection of the world as it is illuminated at night, by Benjamin Hennig, based on NASA’s measurements of night-time lights in 2012:  while Hennig has created a warped image of to show the proportional degrees of light in which more inhabited regions of the world live, and the stunning illustration of the inequality in illumination against an equal population projection of the world.


Redistribution of world at night by PopulationBenjamin D. Hennig


Hennig had taken as the basis for his own dataset the earlier 2012 NASA data, which showed an image of earth still largely drenched in dark, if spotted by points of light reaching a huge density in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, yet doesn’t register the effects of light pollution propagation, as light diffuses in the local atmosphere and travels far from its actual source–as Hennig’s map is distribution of light sources over space–and only partly registers “the end of night as you know it,” as the NASA Earth Observatory promised, after gathering night-time data in a continuous image of the earth over 312 orbits made in April and October 2012.


WERH ANT NIGHTNASA Earth Observatory (click to download map views)


Night is more removed today, but the need to celebrate the separate nature of night from day seems central to our perception of the environment, as is our need for ceremonial contact with the sun.  Indeed, the Stonehenge solstice celebrations evoke the ancient past in coming weeks, for all their fictive historical recreation of Uther Pendragon and Merlin, mythically credited with constructing the circle of sarsen stones of Stonehenge–


stonehengesummersolstice2010-druidkingarthurpendragonvintagedepthttpflic.krp8cb6n8.jpg Vintagedept Creative Common


suggest a modern lamentation of the lost world of diminished light, when the fierceness of the solstice pierced through the dark world at dawn, in ways that are increasingly lost to our overlit world, as well as an attempt to evoke the mystery of first contact with sunlight.


stonehengesummersolstice2010-thesunrisesbehindthestonecirclevintagedepthttpflic.krp8caz6f.jpgVintagedept Creative Commons


If the increasing nature of artificial brightness in the sky, registered here in a composite map of night brightness, created in a composite photography from tens of thousands of high-resolution images taken by the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Partnership satellite.  Since the first global image of night-time illumination was devised in the late 1980’s, the quantitative measurement of variations in specific light sources since 1998 from unsaturated data has provided a new nature of measuring “stellar extinction” and indeed capabilities of night vision, by measuring the scattering of light in atmospheric aerosols and the effects of light flux of terrestrial earth-bound sources on the night-time skies–in the name of reducing energy consumption, despite the potential hazard of blue-rich light, some five-times more disruptive to the human sleep cycle than the electric lighting conventionally used in much of the world.


artificial sky brightnessRoyal Astronomical Society


We seem to stand at the verge of increased light pollution, moreover, with the arrival in Europe of high luminesce efficiency LED lighting.  The increasing rate of artificial illumination is not only not poised to end, but the future shift to 4000K CCT LED technology suggests and increasingly illuminated world–one of whose brightest spots happens to be near to where the monument of Stonehenge lies.  The increasing pinks and white-hot areas of huge regions in the north of Europe and England suggest a perpetual ambient illumination that seems destined to erase much of the visibility of the night sky–even if LED lighting reduces energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it carries health and environmental risk of blue-rich lighting in public spaces, and its increased carcinogenic risk, as well as for cardiovascular disease, and impaired daytime functioning.


Europe and Conversion to 4000K CT technology LEDFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the different levels of luminance between electric and orange high-pressure sodium lamps in the East are immediately and saliently visible in early photographs of Berlin at night, with the gas lamps of the West evident on the left.


Berlin_ISS_nightInternational Dark Sky Association


Already, the visual impact of the luminance of this expansive artificial illumination of the night is particularly pronounced–degrading the visibility of constellation long known to man in much of Europe, and only offering pristine skies at sea–as well as the Nova Scotia, Scotland, Algeria, the western Sahara or Ukraine.  The significant travel required to arrive at regions where artificial brightness was less than 1% of the natural background, with the Milky Way no longer visible in much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, or from urban environments from Boston to Washington, DC.


visual impactsFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the radical transformation o the night-time skies over much of the world suggest the unique nature of sub-Saharan Africa, where Europeans might in the not to future travel to be able to observe constellations crowding the night-time skies.


Sub-Saharan AfricaRoyal Astronomical Society


What this means for the redefinition of place–as much as of the visibility of the night skies–is particularly troubling, as the advancing tide of artificial illumination suggests not only a reduction in stellar visibility the impoverishes our experience of the night-time world, but a change in the experience of nocturnal darkness, as important for humans as for nocturnal animals.




In Italy, found a 2001 study by Falchi, Cinzano and Eldvidge, using the data of the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, the peninsula was already awash in light, diminishing stellar visibility for some time.


itamini.jpg<0.11 (black), 0.11-0.33 (blue), 0.33-1 (green), 1-3 (yellow), 3-9 (orange), >9

P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), C.D. Elvidge (NOAA Geophysical Data Center-Boulder), Copyright Royal Astronomical Society


The world at night will most probably never be the same, and promote pilgrimages to a reduced number of places in the globe where stargazing is still permitted–now most accessible, if one doesn’t much mind the pitch of waves, on flotillas, or abandoned oil platforms, far at sea–far from an overinhabited continent inundated with artificial light.




While mostly confined to the northern hemisphere in its continuous glare, the image is almost the inverse of where globalization is seen as bringing benefits–and reveals its growing costs to the so-called “winners.”


World at NIGHT.png


Filed under artificial light, light pollution, stellar visibility

Drones and the Distributed Geography of “Homeland”

Michel Foucault argued in 1967 that “the anxiety of our era has fundamentally to do with place” far more than time or space–long before the so-called “War on Terror.”   But the difficulty of narrating a relation to place in the War on Terror has increasingly expanded, as the “war” has responded to and materialized our own anxieties in the west about place–both in the ability to migrate from a physical sense of place to a virtual sense of place, able to be inhabited simultaneously by people in different geographic places, and in the rise of the speed of mass mobility of people across borders and between cities.  Before the boundaries we believed longstanding became sites of increased anxiety, the ongoing military engagements of the war has increased the anxiety of place by undermining its stability, and even challenging our cognitive abilities to map a war increasingly dispersed on several fronts–that are difficult to disentangle from one another, and technologically enmeshed at a remove from a space/time continuity.  Drone warfare is not only the recurrent theme of HBO’s multi-season thriller Homeland, about a soldier returning to the United States whose discovery was planted by a terrorist network headed by the terrorist stand-in Abu Nazir, whose name recalls that of the fifth Caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate, but foregrounds the contrast between personal intelligence and drone surveillance across all of its seasons.

The suspenseful thriller invites us to judge what are the best means to orient ourselves to the ongoing layers of drama in a struggle against anti-American terrorist activities in the Middle East, and the struggle between technocratic use of drone strikes and remote surveillance and the personal contacts of a coterie of avuncular older spooks and the intuition of Carrie Mathison, the series hero and CIA handler of the returned soldier Nicolas Brody, provide the grist of its compelling narrative.  The series invites viewers, after all, to try to orient themselves to the twists and turns of terror intelligence, placing us in the situation room, CIA headquarters at Langley, drone strike headquarters in Pakistan and special operations missions, as we observe an ongoing military revolution of intelligence gathered and attacks run by remotely piloted unmanned aircraft, which provide a backdrop for the torturous unfolding of its plot.  We see, at the same time, the rise of an Everywhere war–extending from the regions remotely bombed to Washington D.C. and the capital region, in a disquieting dislocated landscape of targeted killings intended to counter a global network of spies.  While drones are popular with the American public as a way to reduce the risk of American lives, the show’s narrative raises clear questions about the new geography of these “death-delivering video games, drained of all humanity,” to use Glenn Greenwald’s words, perhaps suggesting how they have profoundly confused our collective sense of place, not least because of how they disembody violence.  For by removing any sense of continuity or local knowledge, they have removed covert incursions into foreign territory from a coherent syntactic or narrative structure with which the television drama struggles–and is increasingly compelling to an audience who is searching for answers to .

The narrative of the HBO television drama Homeland has been so popular over six seasons that it has occasioned news coverage and the attention of government and military figures–from intelligence officers as CIA director John Brennan to Michael Hayden and Michel Morell, as well as President Obama –whose aides often insist “We need to see it.”–and Jeh Jonson, who, like this blogger, binge-watched each season.   Its narrative has provided a map from which to understand and come to terms with an anxiety about place, as we try to normalize it.  The story of Nick Brody, discovered after he has been in a cell, location unknown, for eight years, and returns to the United States where he runs for Congress while working as an al Qaeda mole has lead the series’ to gain a prominent entry in any Google Search for its title, in ways that suggest the increased overlap between the very term for the television series Barack Obama has praised, presumably for the questions it directs to intelligence sources in a remotely waged war, and the Homeland Security Office of the U.S. government.


Google Homeland.png


Since  George W. Bush declared in the fall of 2001 that the “Global War on Terror” lacked bounds–promising it would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”–the proliferation of the fronts on which it is waged over twenty years lack any signs of orientation.  The proliferation of sites of terror reflect expanded covert attacks on suspected insurgents or terrorists to erode our sense of where the fifteen-year “war” is actually located, and increased anxieties as to where it is based.  It isn’t clear that the war is even spatially located in any strict sense of the word–or that the recent issued executive order to follow stricter protocol and develop better technology to reduce the risk of civilian deaths will offer a greater basis to ensure accountability than 2013 guidelines to ensure “near certainty” of the presence of a designated terrorist at locations of drone strikes.  How intelligence communities can operate these drone strikes successfully–and how the drone strikes have been seen as a necessary if faulty system for monitoring an almost ubiquitous dangers of terrorist–provide as compelling an attraction in Homeland as the increasingly intense relation between Brody and his CIA handler who suspects his status as a foreign agent or mole, but who she tries to save as she is increasingly sympathetic to him, and seeks to turn him to the Department at a time when knowledge about its organization is scarce and needs to grow after a series of deadly terror attacks:  the narrative of the drama is increasingly turns on a steep anxiety about place, driven propulsively by cutting between continents, danger zones, and a focus on the men and women who move across them.


15dowdsub2-master1050Saul Berenson in Pakistan, Ronen Akerman/Showtime


Foucault long ago had described anxieties of place before an audience of architects, in reference to prisons and riots, rather than military architecture of anti-insurgent strikes.  But in ways that Foucault could not have foreseen, but which echo Foucault’s concerns of suspending ‘normal’ relationships, the physically removed paces of a “war” have repercussions on how we understand spatial relations and the permanence or inviolability of international boundaries–in ways that seem almost designed to perplex or be cognitively challenging.  For over the last fifteen years, much of the war has been waged remotely, or from a remove of video screens and remotely piloted drones in army bases to kill enemy combatants across the globe, is increasingly based in code, as the electronic geolocation, tracking, surveillance, and targeting of insurgents increasingly guide drone strikes in a remote war.  The ‘placelessness’ of the War on Terror based on drone strikes that results reflects an increasing embroilment in technologies of remote-sensing and triangulation of phone signals, whose focus of data collection mirrors the War on Terror from 2007 to 2013.



Boundless Informant (2007)


boundless-informant-march-2013-heat-mapBoundless Informant (2013)


Indeed, the basis of a war such covert strikes in harvested data suggests a sense of place constructed in code, as much as on a space to which we are cognitively habituated.  The covert war has been far more placeless than previous wars, removed from place and ethically removed from a familiar value system.  Indeed, as the conflict is increasingly located in a virtual place, most of its combat technologically engaged and removed from immediate surroundings, there have arisen pressing questions of the engagement in a war were the likelihood of striking targeted places has also dramatically increased civilian deaths–raising almost epistemic problems of imagining our own place in the continued war.  The lack of context in the very disembodied “Strike or Capture” maps on the screens of drone pilots who target their victims, lacking the content, visual information, or necessary controls to make an informed choices about the targets they are to fire missiles.


Drone Strikes' Targets


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Filed under aerial bombardment, geography of war, Pakistan, War on Terror

A Rapidly Disappearing West

The diminishing green space across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands.  Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in land cover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid change of once-rural lands.  With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of land cover over eleven western states and multiple datasets of different sorts of human activity Conservation Science Partners have analyzed, the Center for American Progress commissioned a striking interactive website of land use, The Disappearing West, as a starting point to survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west.

The progressive development of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend.  But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on each state, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways.  They help parse  the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in land cover equal to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development.  The rapid anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive way as the region’s open spaces are increasingly segmented by roads and transportation routes.


land conversion


The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land.  They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that experiences the loss of a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes, and foregrounds a contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly way, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.  Its flexibility helps viewers take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; indeed, the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site.  The idolized aspect of a map as a “world/ not of this world” was described affectionately by the Polish poet , which “give no access to the vicious truth,” but the web maps in The Disappearing West expose the degradation created by the scale of its inhabitation–and the vanishing of once open space at a pace equal to the construction of six million superstores in once-Virgin land.

How to map or take measure of the alarmingly rapid shrinking of open lands is difficult and challenging to render.  In part, this is only because the scale and rate of their disappearance has been so rapid.  The loss of open lands in the region is especially important to map in comparison to the rest of the United States in an era of increased severity of drought–if only to take stock of the shifting patterns of land management that have led to such a massive transformation of the lived landscape.  The multiple scales and avenues for exploring and assessing the contraction of open space across the western United States.  In the Disappearing West, interactive maps trace the changed landscape from 2001 to 2011 that invite observation at multiple scales.  The richly colored web maps try to grasp and appreciate the vast scale at which the conversion of once-open spaces across the western United States over a decade, and the stark remove of the past.  The interactive synthesis of levels of development and extra-urban growth help take stock of the tremendous loss of open lands in states, counties, and localities over a decade, each now trackable over time by an interactive slider bar.

The sense of navigating an accelerated virtual record of the changing landscape of the west communicates the rapid loss of lands to development traces the extent of lost open spaces difficult to imagine at any scale.  They focus not only on land cover, but the disappearance of the open spaces that were once thought of as open lands.  Although we can map multiple indices of human impact as being predominantly agricultural, the disappearance of lands to private land development paints a picture of the curtailing of landscapes once thought as innate to the region.  The dramatic scope of anthropogenic change is as immense as in the expansion of intrusive sound-levels of human-made noise across lived environment and national parks, or the diminution of sounds of species that remain in what we still call the natural world.  The loss of such open spaces are the natural corollary to these anthropogenic shifts–but offer an even more acute register of the loss of once-“natural” habitats in which a range of birds, grazing animals, and insects dwelled, and the transformation of land cover that development has wrought.  While strictly analytic as a parsing of a large datasets, the striking color schemes of these web maps raise multiple alarms about the changing land cover of the west and the new landscapes that we increasingly have come to inhabit in a formerly Virgin West.

The change in land cover across the West is challenging to map comprehensively and in adequate detail to convey the change in landscape that has occurred.  A compelling visual synthesis of the massive contraction of open spaces over a large area maps the loss of wilderness due to increasing development–largely on private lands–by directing attention to the changing of the landscape of the west, by synthesizing a range of data on the conversion of open lands.  The human impact on the lands of western states has so accelerated that the percentages of lost lands have rewritten the landscape over a third of the country, fragmenting open spaces from 2001 to 2011, as the drastic diminution of open lands grew with the expansion on and development of private lands. This development of once-open spaces across the West has mapped a deep transformation present across the memory of a generation.

At the same time as much of the region was altered by drought, the transformation by construction of private homes outweighs the changes caused by agriculture.  Sadly, the pace of development of open spaces over the past two decades is especially tragic since in much of California’s regions and especially its Central Valley they parallel the decline of water storage in due to drought, as declining groundwater availability–California’s Central Valley alone has swiftly lost some 4 trillion gallons of water annually in recent years, dramatically changing the distribution of water storage since 2002 made clear by color-enhanced composite pictures, based on data registered by NASA’s Gravity Recover and Climate Experiment Satellites–


PIA18816_800x472.jpgNASA/JPL-Caltech/UC Irvine


Mapping drought may offer as compelling and arresting picture than the increased overbuilding of the landscape’s open spaces, but the conversion of open landscape create a particularly unforeseen and tragic combination of circumstances.  There have been many attempts to map the transformation of the west at adequate scale, but rarely with such neatness in delineating the change in landscape over time.  The decline of the “commons” or of public spaces of wilderness maps register a changed place over ten years has redefined the twelve states we know as the American West, where building has grown at such a massive clip. In an iconography that recalls climate change, the increasing loss of open spaces suggests not only a landscape of increased fragmentation, but a decrease in carbon sequestration, and a contrasting image to the 2007 Western Land Cover Database‘s far more restricted image of developed lands–colored below in bright red, in a landscape that is dominated by deciduous forests (light green) and evergreen (dark green)–and presents a verdant landscape of pines, albeit in a frozen PDF that prevents close-up observation. The above map, based on satellite-based remote sensing of the spatial boundaries of ecosystems, notes disturbances by carbon production, rather than agricultural modification, to assess future potentials of carbon storage and sequestration in a period of climate change.  Most land cover maps barely succeed in registering the scale of such change or its pace–and are far less dextrous in converting so great a range of datasets into easily legible terms.


Nat Landcover Database.pngNational Land Cover Database (2007)/Zhu, Sleeter, Griffith, Stackpoole, Hawker and Bergamaschi


The accelerating reduction of open space across the West over generational memory can now be examined and evaluated in striking detail in the layers of the interactive map of relative losses of lands across the eleven western states from 2001 to 2011. The web maps, synthesized data on the loss of open spaces over time at multiple scales, offer a basis to place oneself in the changing landscape of the western states over time; interactive viewing almost simulates an ability to enter the landscape that it maps.  Viewed county-by-county, it reveals regions of sharp degradation, and a concentration of a loss of lands around regions of extra-urban growth, from which one can also examine at significantly higher resolution to look at local impact at a scale of up to thirty meters–providing a neat register to toggle between three datasets.  When paired with a slider bars to examine the contraction of open spaces and land conversion over years, the map parses data on different scales to chart a contraction of open spaces that help one come to terms with a massive level of landscape change and the scope of widespread degradation–and force us to terms with its consequences by inviting us to drill deep into real indices of actual landscape change.



2000-11 land loss in WestThe Disappearing West


By shifting scales to view regions of increased loss of open lands provides a snapshot of development across the west–based, for sure, in California, but equally afflicting Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado in a spate of conversion of what were once open lands, we drill into new layers of data on the loss of open lands that is so difficult to be objectively seen.

The changing nature of the human landscape many have received far less attention than climate change and rising temperatures, but has long proved especially difficult to grapple, as the combination of increasing construction of suburban plots to create rapidly expanding extra-urban areas conspires with the search for new energy sources to radically transform what once was considered wilderness, or the open spaces that defined the western United States.  Private development of land across the west suggests not only the dangers of the decline of “public lands” across the west–at odds with mappings of the myth of the dangers of federal land ownership in western states, which a neat map argues define the region, condensing the total federally owned acreage to stretches of bright red, symbolically rendered not too subtly as calls for attention or as parasites incubating within each state.  A chart that sought to privilege the intrusion of the federal government in the landscape actually actively conceals the huge shift in land management policies over the previous decades that have facilitated the loss of open spaces in the same region.


Federal Land OwnershipShare of Federal Ownership of Land per State (2008)


If he aggregation of such lands, often desert, conceals the rapid rates of buildings in much of the west,  the datasets that inform the heavily researched The Disappearing West offer a set of countertops that reveal the reduced landscape of the American west to private development.  If the above map taunts viewers by describing the over-protection of western lands, it both distorts and omits the huge impact that private land ownership has made on the lived landscape of most western states.  In doing so, moreover, it creates a deeply ahistorical contrast between the amount of lands protected in the western third of the United States from their actual integrity as open space.  The mandate to map the actual dismemberment of once-open spaces on the margins of federally owned lands is the mandate of  The Disappearing West–and the ability to drill down into finer grained landscape changes across the western states is one of the huge benefits of the new website sponsored by the Center for American Progress.   The far greater datasets that the web maps distill direct attention to a degradation of open lands in ways that questions of “ownership” or “federal management” almost intentionally obscure.

The Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, who long lived, was an especially keen observer of borders and boundaries–“I was born and grew up on the very borderline between Rome and Byzantium“–and was a witness both to the departure of the lost landscape of the Lithuanian forests of his childhood and the landscape of much of northern California.  Miłosz was deeply affected by the rural upbringing that he described in much of his literature and long meditated upon in his extremely productive writing, from a meditation on the metaphysical devastation of the modern landscape in the Land of Ulro to California.  Although the Polish émigré poet may seem an odd witness of local landscape change, Miłosz was closely tied to the the forested rural landscape where he was raised, a landscape “on the scale of the human” that was still “thickly wooded by oaks,” that his observations of the changes in Walnut Creek in a 1987 entry in The Year of the Hunter seem especially acute as a record of the modern landscape.  Miłosz described the shock of revisiting the changed landscape over the Berkeley Hills, which he remembered as he first visited it in 1960, and as being forcibly struck by its sudden contraction of wilderness as emblematic of spiritual disenchantment.

Miłosz grew up in rural areas of Lithuania, and commemorated the loss of open lands with the increased parcelization of its dense woodlands during his early childhood.  If the forested landscape of the Issa Valley in his early novel of the same name resurrected a lost relation to a past landscape and its sounds by the thick descriptions worthy of a naturalist, in which he had evoked a time of immediate contact with the “safety of the tall forest” and the broad use of woodlands as a commons where timber was harvested carefully for common needs.  In The Issa Valley, Miłosz sought to recuperate the proximity of perceptions of forested land, a novel written after he had left Poland and lived in Paris, precisely to preserve the human scale of the relation to the land of his youth:  he wrote most sympathetically from the eyes of the child protagonist Thomas, a thinly disguised version of his youth, closely tied to the forest and its inhabitants, so distraught by any disruption in a wooded landscape for which he felt such “reverential awe” that he “would have made plowing a criminal offense,” that he created a map of its forever intact status as a wise response to the deep changes in a landscape that is about to be parceled by the apportionment of late nineteenth-century Land Reform.  Thomas both maps this lost landscape in colored paper strips, as a “virgin forest” as a landscape with some meadows, “laced with blue strips of canals and lakes as [its] only arteries,” mapping the entirety of its expanse in a map of green strips of paper, crisscrossed by rivers.  The soon to be fragmented forest is for Thomas the site of “all the Kingdom’s inhabitants–. . . the bison, the elk, and the bear [who] lived exclusively off the land,” and as the novel lovingly recorded insects, birds, and animals, Thomas seeks to catalogue the birds that lived in its birch, pine, and conifers in an attempt  to comprehend their immensity to try to capture being embedded in its sensory detail and the lush woody environment, rich with birds and burgeoning with insects, that Miłosz so successfully evoked.

In his prose masterpiece, The Issa Valley, Miłosz created a deeply ethical relation to the landscape he later discovered the western landscape, exploring the California landscape at first hand and in the work of the poet Robinson Jeffers he so admired.  While in Berkeley, he would make pilgrimage to the Rare Books Room to return  to maps of Poland and Lithuania in a cartographical fantasy, as if to revisit and inhabit these wooded landscapes lost with time, and if he long viewed the northern Californian landscape as  foreign during the four decades he lived there, he observed its history analogously to his memorable hero in The Issa Valley to testify to a human relation to space, during a time of Land Reform in the late nineteenth century that had altered the personal relation to its forested landscaped.  Much as Thomas constructs a “paper kingdom . . . that could be assembled and reassembled at will” during the winter months when he lived indoors, and outside of its living landscape, Miłosz’ prose mirrors Thomas’ cartographical fantasy of multi-colored map out of strip of paper by “sheets embellished with watercolor designs, rectangles of all sizes, and boundary lines making up the property map of Gine,” dexterously using or improvising an alternative cartography to recreate his personal relation to the lands he senses are increasingly out of reach–not just seasonally, but due to the impending parcelization and fragmentation of an aristocratic estate.  Thomas used cartography when weather confined him indoors to recreate his sense of communion to its lived experience and totality, at the moment when he most felt the land’s absence.

If Thomas’ map clearly creates a child’s perspective on the Land Reforms in the  imaginary relation to the forested landscape, and a counter-cartography to the parcelization of the forest, the map is also a figure for how Miłosz’s novel recreated his childhood relation to Lithuania’s forested landscape and the proximity in which its residents lived to its woods.  Thomas was inspired to map the forests he loved.  After noticing “the rolls of paper with Grandfather and Aunt Helen . . . periodically unrolled on the table” of their manor, which he was unable to read, he created on similar rolls of paper a “kingdom” of its own that provided a refuge in a time of change in response to the Land Reforms, Thomas employed vividly expressive colors of the paper map to preserve a pristine landscape out of “sheet embellished with watercolor designs, rectangles of all sizes, and boundary lines,” to give the forest new integrity as Land Reform facilitated its eventual parcelization; in Thomas’ map, “no roads cut through the forest–[for] how could a virgin forest be traversed by a road?–leaving the riverways, laced with blue strips of canals, and lakes as the only arteries.”  The woodlands existed once more in the paper map Thomas crafted as a “kingdom, ringed by quagmires inhabited by the red-hooded snake, was absolutely impenetrable”–as if in a counter-map in contrast to the parcelization of forested lands.  The young Thomas was “big enough and bright enough to grasp what was happening” in Land Reform in Lithuania, “but his heart wasn’t in it,” and he turned to maps and Linnean taxonomy in hopes better to preserve what he sense would face impending loss, as if in hopes to capture “impressions of forest spring, whose beauty derived not from any one thing in particular but from a myriad of voices comprising a chorus of promise” from its treetops.

In response to how during “various family conferences held around the [same] table, people huddled over maps and the word ‘reform’ was a constant refrain,” Thomas’ maps seek to order the landscape–as similarly, in a scrapbook a register of the taxonomy of birds who dwelled in coniferous forests, pine, or birch, “concentrating on things that excited him,” he sought to capture adequately the “the endless multiplicity of colors, shadings, mating calls, trills, wing sounds . . . [how] light modulated their feathers in flight,” by “affecting and ordering the plenitude of things that were”–as if to retain a relation to the landscape which “neither ‘reform’ nor any ‘business matters’ could compete.  While map are as symbolic forms of distancing, in other words, by Szymborska, in which only “a few trees stand for ancient forests,/ [and] you couldn’t lose your way among them,” the forests are for Thomas living entities and ecosystems.  The map Thomas improvised described immersion in an imagined landscape by “sheets embellished with watercolor designs” offer a metaphor to recuperate an imagined relation to the landscape and describe the landscape in which he matured–and indeed as a vehicle for lamenting a lost contact to nature, where Thomas lived as if in sacred communion, in the manner of a young John Muir.

For young Thomas, the construction of his imagined map responded to the confusion and lamentation of the transformation of the lands in which he lived.  It also prefigured the poet’s own relation to the formerly Virgin Land of the far western United States when he arrived in California.  For Miłosz seems to have struggled with how Land Reforms converted all forested timberland in Lithuania to state property, as state assessors apportioned lands that altered Thomas’–and Miłosz’–relation to a sense of the commons of the forest and its inhabitants.  Miłosz would similarly lamented the lost world of children who had lived in the forested lands by Walnut Creek in a manner that led him to recall his own childhood, described in his touching novel The Issa Valley, evoking the tenuous relation to the land that Thomas’ map provided, and the attempt to restore a lost sense of the forested land in which he had immersed himself by making it present to his senses even in wintertime.  Who can deny that the The Disappearing West traces a similar counter-cartography of even broader scale, mapping the transformation of environmental change and processing the consequences of recent development to multiple layers for viewers to investigate.

Miłosz similarly mourned this loss of virgin landscape in the West.  It’s not much of a surprise if the changed presence of woods and vegetation in the open spaces of California provided Miłosz with an occasion for meditating on the loss of landscapes which he felt so directly tied–if not landscapes “on the scale of the human” of his youth but of a more monumental grandeur.  The changed landscape of the region offered a powerful invitation to reflect on the vanished Lithuanian forests of his childhood in his prose masterpiece The Issa Valley, as if a melancholy witness of the changed landscape over time.  “I did not choose California,” Miłosz famously declared; “It was given to me.”  Miłosz valued poetry as a form of bearing witness, and moving from the individual to broad ethical questions of universal character, and wrote not only of his personal experiences:  California’s landscape was not only a center of meditation for both its beauty and the species that populated it–and defined its distinct historically made nature–but a landscape for which he was particularly grateful.  For the California landscape accommodated the moral voice in which Miłosz wrote that was not only personal, but had an urgency that transcended his own experiences.  As he described his birthplace on the “outer edge of Europe” as the best place to witness European-ness, he witnessed the California landscape not only in gratitude for its existence but with a shock of loss for what was taken away that day in 1987.

Miłosz had come to reorient himself to the California landscape in his life in quite dynamic ways, even as he imaginarily shuttled  between Lithuania and California in idiosyncratic ways as landscapes to whose changes he bore witness:  he had assimilated the landscape of California from the view from its hills above the San Francisco Bay, even if he decried its “scorched emptiness” of “hills the color of straw,”  and the same “straw-colored slopes” he revisited in Walnut Creek.  He tersely lamented the loss of chestnut orchards that once filled an uninhabited valley east of the Berkeley Hills where he lived–“straw-colored slopes punctuated by black oaks throughout most of the year” and “chestnuts in the valley,”  which he saw as landscape that registered the loss of its past, if not a changed relation to the natural world.  What had once been countryside, if “quite desolate landscapes, with their dry grass and wiry oaks” were no longer by 1987, replaced what had once been “a land, empty and vast” with developments whose artificial irrigation allowed them to be occupied “streets and houses covered with green foliage, lawns, tennis courts, swimming pools, parks”–where, Miłosz marveled, a metro now extended “all the way from San Francisco” to a region whose countryside had been removed from urban life of the Bay Area.

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Filed under American West, Bay Area, data visualization, environmental geography, human geography, landscape maps, spatial history

The Many Other Flints Out There

The increased appearance of lead in the water supplies of residents in Flint, MI set up an alarm about the open nature of data on water quality, and raise questions about how maps can best embody problems of water pollution that seem poised to plague the twenty-first century.  Maps are successful tools to translate unwieldly abstractions to terms to images we can  comprehend–quite complex multi-causational concepts that range from climate change to mass extinction to El Niño to world pollution and our carbon “footprint” are suddenly able to be analyzed and discussed, if not acted upon.  As well as orient us to a physical space, such maps comprehend uncertainties as climate change in graphic terms, and elegantly materialize streams of big data in fixed form, which seem underscore the complexity of our current environments.  By embodying an individual image able to capture and synthesize temporal differences of temperature across space, they focus attention on otherwise ungraspable global issues in spatial terms, by knitting the consequences of multiple causation into coherent or at least persuasive form.  But can the slippery nature of the flow of water, and the sites of its potential pollution, be effectively mapped?

In mapping “Priority Watersheds for Protection of Water Quality,” Robert L. Kellogg of the Water Conservation Services sought to do so.  Kellogg amassed a range of what would now be called big data to create a chorography of the nation that suggested how what was then Big Agra threatened to pollute some of the largest watersheds in America, to provide a “map” of their relative vulnerability.  The range of chemicals humans had introduced into the local environment, according to the Natural Resources Inventory provided a baseline of the chemicals introduced in croplands–from nitrogen from fertilizers to pounds of pesticides used–that potentially endangered local watersheds–with the result that most all of the top 400 watersheds in the country were potentially endangered.



The chart is so filled with potentially polluted watersheds to raise the question of how quickly #NextFlint–already used in protesting the Dakota Pipeline, Indian Point, lead abatement projects, and wastewater systems, but no doubt a prominent future hashtag– arrive on Twitter.   It is almost not that helpful that Kellogg broke his distribution into risks of fertilizer runoff from fields of corn, barley, cotton, wheat and sorghum–


Fertilizer Vulnerability 1997


and pesticide leeching from fields of corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton, barley, and rice–


Potential Pesticide Risk.png


since the map paints a picture of considerable risk, but one difficult to drill down into.

And although groundwater is an important source of drinking water for many, risk of pollution is notoriously difficult to tie to drinking water in a quantitative manner.  Yet the deep discolorations of the broader chorography suggest the delicate nature of our water safety because of widespread anthropogenic alterations of the agrarian environment, which almost make it difficult to distinguish nature and culture.

Variations in local water quality are far more slippery to grasp or chart with certitude–not only because of its relative nature but because of the multiplicity of anthropogenic sources of pollution used n an anthropocene world, as not only sediments, but the points at which heavy metals and carcinogens might more easily enter drinking water supplies.  It’s far more likely that the water supplies in Flint, MI–where pollution went undetected for months after a switch in water supplies precipitated the leeching of high lead-levels from pipes polluted drinking water for many of the city’s residents–is less an anomaly of poor maintenance than a case that will recur.  For Flint may provide a new standard by which the ongoing contamination of drinking water from old pipes is concealed, unmonitored, and played down by local officials, in ways that a more immediate mapping of sources of water contamination may prevent–and serve to monitor any changes in water quality.  While there is less precedent for such mapping, the regular mapping and measuring water quality may provide the only way that we can take stock–and embody–the fragile quality of clean water that leaves our cities’ taps.

If most maps of water that are issued by the government and monitored by the United States Geographical Service take stock of freshwater rivers and groundwater quality, the vast amounts of the water with which most interact arrive through pipes, filtered finished, or otherwise treated in man-made structures before it arrives in our taps.  The quality of water supplies that circulate in urban areas is particularly to map–although we map the routes of water’s delivery and the system of pipes that transport water to residences, the water that arrives for domestic or industrial use is necessary but challenging to track independently from potential sites of contamination.




The multiplication of anthropogenic effects on water supplies proves more than challenging to synthesize, let alone to gain permission to publish.  This is not only because of the difficulty of mapping the paths of water’s flow, or the varied speeds at which water moves from different sources, or even intersects with pollutants such as run-off or industrial waste.  In ways that go far beyond mapping the pathways of water’s flow, coordinating data about where ground water supplies intersect with contaminants especially frustrate representation,  if not synthesis, in anything like a cohere system.  They are especially difficult to embody in a compelling map.  As familiar maps of air pollution, serious difficulties arise in assembling infuriation from multiple sources because of the falsification of self-reported data.  But expanding of sites of potential pollutants makes real-time data difficult to interpret, understand, or process.  Indeed, the combination of anthropogenic and biogenic effects are difficult to envision or even ascertain.   So complicated are the multiple environmental potential vectors of contamination over space to conceive and to express within a single cartographical form, indeed, one must juggle them in multiple maps, greatly complicated calculations of risk, or water purity.

This post takes a stab at suggesting the difficulty of tracking water safety with needed transparency at the same time as the number potentials sources of pollutants and contamination–not all of which are clearly or entirely anthropogenic–continue to escalate.   As we still struggle to come to terms with the Flint, MI disaster, it seems important to wrestle with the possible vectors of changes in drinking water quality before doing so in later sections of this post, after the first two sections review the challenges of directing attention to water-quality in a series of online interactive maps from the National American Water-Quality Assessment of rivers and streams developed by USGS.


1.  The multiple pathways and courses by which water arrives from rivers, streams, rainfall and aquifers are not the prime obstacles to map water quality.  Even without accounting for finished water, the increased multiplication of possible sites for its contamination by toxins are difficult to render or make clear with the desired transparency.  And it would be good to remember that a large share of the country, geographically speaking, still depends directly or indirectly on surface-water from rivers or streams, with 90% shade dark blue:


Percent pop getting some drinking water directly or indirectly from streams.pngPercentages of people whose drinking water comes directly or indirectly from rivers or streams


The static nature of even a real-time tracking of surface water quality is oddly removed from the fluid nature of water, if based on the limits of data collection:  in the set of USGS maps below, a dense scattering of inverted triangles in various stages of alerts collect local variations in levels of water temperature in a single frame of reference oddly removed from water flow.  Interactive maps in USGS WaterWatch on streamflow conditions collect points of data in a series of pointillist snapshots, keyed across a broad spectrum, that invites us to zoom into states and localities; they allow the viewer to hover over localities to survey the temperature of the national waters to tap real-time data compiled at testing sites;  we can click to access more legible real-time data in individual states.  Most often, these maps track the status of groundwater as an important national good, using local monitoring stations in order to reveal any possible surprises or signs of disturbance.

The level of access to such information serves to create an effective illusion of comprehensiveness and of transparency, augmented by its real-time data.  But does the symbolic coherence of such a tallying of data in a convincing map of the lower forty-eight obscure lacuna–from absences in states such as Nebraska or Vermont, almost blank, and are the reasons for surface-temperature change not rooted in local temperatures?  The real-time mapping of surface water temperatures collate meteorological conditions that affect surface water in ways that raise interesting questions of anomalies in surface water temperatures that might be assembled with other variables to create a comprehensive picture of the characteristics of the nation’s groundwater from its individual snapshots, to contribute to a record of its safety.


Temperature CUSGS WaterWatch (click link for real-time readings)


Such a sense of comprehensiveness is communicated best by hovering over regions, and driving down into states, to more closely examine specific instances of water quality by different criteria. But the looming question of how to embody their coherence in more convincing ways for the viewer might be left as open questions for future data visualization.

Several other maps help us to consider such questions better.  The data points of real-time local levels of nitrates in surface water–albeit strikingly filled with startling blank spots and lacuna, that advertise its selectivity in agricultural regions–is striking despite the quite limited picture of water pollution it offers, due to constraints of available data feeds.



USGS WaterQualityWatch, Nitrates (click link for real time readings)


Both are difficult as a way to grasp or process as a coherent system of flow, oddly.  For despite the usefulness to explore as repositories of data and the huge amount of data they serve to process from testing sites across the nation to a wide audience.  They raise questions of how such information might be better embodied in more effective ways, but do not even try to show water’s local flow.

Such questions seem return when we move to discharge–water-flow–although the effects of obstruction of water are clearly anthropogenic in character. Records of national distribution of real-time discharge remain compelling to navigate across drainage areas are compelling, inviting us to hover over the dot-like distribution of levels of discharge that enter surface water, whose rainbow-like spectrum note divergences from “normal” levels.  Yet if the variations in discharge suggest differences in water’s obstruction, it indicates the huge impact humans and man-made structures exert on water’s flow.



USGS WaterQualityWatch–Discharge (click link for real-time readings)


The wonderfully informative sequence of interactive USGS charts cannot help but raise questions about what alternate real-time measurements–in addition to pH and turbulence–might be collated on open-access servers in different ways for new audiences, moreover, and how the notion about open data about water supplies might be expanded to fit current needs.  For in an era of increasing water scarcity, the servers on which open data about water quality lie might be developed in far more dynamic ways.

The rest of this post might be read as an extended reflection on that question.  An early illustration of the questions that the National Water Quality Assessment rain for this blogger is captured by a compelling image of levels of nitrates in the watershed of the Mississippi–a subject on which I’ve written earlier.  The nitrate loading of larger rivers in the United States is evident in a current USGS map of annual loading of nitrates entering the Mississippi River from its tributaries of 2014, comparable to previous years, which more clearly represents the anthropogenic impact on water quality of different watersheds–even if one wishes one could drill down more, or examine the arrival of other pollutants.  But the map’s use is particularly significant for what it tells us about the ways farmlands increasingly intersect with water quality.


annual load of nitrates, 2014



Despite difficulties in a symbology sufficient to track water’s fluid paths nationwide, the intersection of water with potential sites of contamination which have so broadly proliferated in the modern world to imperil drinking supplies that repeated remapping cannot in itself resolve.  We can usefully model hydrologic flows from data points, but the intersection of anthropogenic and biologic and environmental contaminants demand more creative maps–as do the courses along which water flows in major rivers of the lower 48 contiguous states, scaled by average flow and sized in proportion to data gained from “gage-adjusted flow,” creating an organic map of discharge based on the National Hydrographic Database, NHDPlus v2.  Can we better track how such water picks up contaminants, mineral content, as it moves through underground paths or joins agricultural runoff, and, if so, how might such information might be better embodied a perhaps more effective way in a national database?

american_rivers_gage_adjusted-1024x853American Rivers: A Graphic Pacific Institute/prepared by Matthew Heberger (2013)


2.  The maps raise questions of how to represent the relation of water to its environment.  The question might be better expressed by earlier attempts to classify comprehensive records of rivers, waterfalls and global topography, comprehended entirely through their distance or size–if only to consider what information might be most effectively integrated within its representation of the surface water used in daily life, before we move to the drinking water provided by water-finishing stations.  For the interest in mapping water was long inseparable form its embodiment in rivers, streams, and lakes, without any possibility or idea of encoding data about its quality on such massive scale as is necessitated by our water supplies.

Indeed, while rivers were long mapped as disembodied courses, in the below map of the world’s rivers, contains, and waterfalls, the transit of fluvial waters is almost quaintly isolated as an ineffective model for mapping the transit of water in the modern world to modern eyes, isolated as it is from any environmental context or relation to their physical surroundings.  In ways that seem inconceivable given the premium that maps of water now place on environmental concerns, the discreet pathways of each river is abstracted from their environmental map, and water is mapped in this famous example of synthetic maps as an elegant visual compendium  of knowledge, translating discreet mountains, rivers, glaciers, and indeed waterfalls to a coherent pictorial fictional landscape, whose coherence exists in isolation from an ecosystem.  The  compression of comparative data as an inviting landscape suggest a pristine world we have lost in the age of the anthropocene.


bulla and fontana.pngBulla and Fontana, 1828


If the viewer of such a map seems addressed as a spectator of wonders, the popular genre of a geographical pastiche aims to dominate nature by exact measurements, assembling a world not yet out of balance in a pictorial pastiche whose frame of reference can be fixed and includes only small if significant references to human presence.  A similarly unthinkable quarantining of the course of the river from immediate surroundings was continued in the “ribbon-maps” of the Mississippi, which Coloney and Fairchilds in 1866 patented as designs following the course of water, as if it were a Trip-Tik or highway:


Strip Map Ribbon of River




Today, by contrast, the variation of local levels of contamination are so great so as to be difficult–if not impossible–to define save by possible chemical and non-chemical contaminants of different levels of consequence.  But the USGS maps above raise questions of what data we openly register about water quality.  Assessment depends on tracking the presence of possible pollutants as well as finishing agents in hopes to establish some broader index of what might be accepted as “water quality,” although the criteria or algorithm for arriving at such a standard has been widely contested–creating multiple uncertainties for how a map of water quality might be credibly assembled.

Different water quality standards not only exist in different states depending on how that water is used, but drinking water standards not only vary widely but are expressed as targets or guidelines, rather than reflections of actuality–and still differ more broadly among nations in terms of levels of mineral substances, pollutants or bacterial counts.


Drinking water Contaminants


There is limited data that such maps reveal about what drinking water–the often finished water with which we daily interact.  If drinking water is far more open to far more vectors of contamination, as the case of Flint, MI has reminded us, and levels of finishing to which drinking water is subject, it is striking how much of the nation is dependent on .  But this initial survey raises questions of what sorts of coherence can exist in maps of water quality, and indeed the difficulty of cartographical selectivity that one brings to any water map.

Even though water quality assessments are often incomplete, natural and man-made contaminants entering surface water complicates tracking pollutants and potential carcinogens, particularly as a growing range of pollutants that enter groundwater supplies.   The dense risks of sites of potential water pollution across the country–mapped by Alex Parks to assess “drinking water safety” in 2015 reveals a country crowded by sources of major pollutant discharge by orange circles–indeed almost obscure the division of counties into quartiles shaded from blue to deep violet.  Radical contrasts in Parks’ index of “water safety” offers a bird’s eye view of steep differences in groundwater purity across the country, distinct from the density of pollutants’ discharge.


Alex Parks' drinking water quality.png

legend drinking safetyAlex Parks, ESRI Community Commons


The map bears further exploration around the region of the Great Lakes for the patchwork of drinking water “safety”, scaled from deep blue (top 25%) to violet (bottom 25%):


patchwork of drinking water.pngAlex Parks, ESRI Community Commons


The complication of entries of pollutants into groundwater is a rough if telling shorthand of the huge differences in water quality across the lower forty-eight–especially around the Great Lakes.


Great Lakes.pngAlex Parks, ESRI Community Maps


The discrepancies in water quality across the United States that Parks calculates are provisionally created from EPA data, in a public health time-bomb waiting to explode with increased water scarcity in coming years–as it already has in Flint’s drinking water.


3.  The dangerous levels of the neurotoxin lead found in drinking water in Flint, MI created an immediate sense of the increasing contingency of drinking water supplies.  Ever since the crisis was precipitated by the switch in Flint to the water of the Flint River in April 2014, in a flawed hope to save money, we have been collectively scrambling for a way to comprehend the scale of the human disaster and the levels of human irresponsibility or failure to adequately track water quality–and indeed the reasons for the apparent readiness to suppress or conceal questions about water quality within the city, in the face of growing questions.

The very difficulty of pressing criminal charges by Michigan’s attorney general, beyond felonies of misconduct for concealing evidence, misleading regulatory officials about water-quality, and tampering with evidence of lead levels in water quality.   While the individuals in question were responsible for such monitoring, the delegation of responsibility to Stephen Bush and Michael Prisby of the Michigan Department of Water Quality for misleading local authorities goes little to remedy the terrible situation or the comprehension of criminal negligence that led lead to leach for so long into drinking water of Flint’s citizens,introducing toxins in their bodies with life-long consequences.  The inability to comprehend even the consequences of chronic health difficulties among those exposed regularly to contaminated water are frustrating in the difficulty to remedy any of this exposure–save, perhaps, not insignificantly, depression and stress, and a continuing panicked level of continued concern and terror.  The expansion of potential and needed local interventions suggests the difficulty to capture its ongoing toll.  (The $5 million currently on the table allotted to cover the costs of mental health needs in Flint barely cover ongoing depression, guilt and anxiety.)

The failure to treat the water after the switch to a different source of water revealed the manifold possibilities for neurotoxins entering drinking water with unmonitored ease in a truly nightmarish way, raising the health care costs of Flint residents and risking compromise of mental health among the 9,000 children six years of age and lower who were exposed to levels of lead in drinking water for over one year.  The outright deception of tracing the public water supplies in Flint–a deception the extended from the failure to treat the new water supplies funneled from Flint’s river to criminal failure to administer administer trustworthy tests of local water-quality in the city that would reveal a cross-section of actual water supplies for allegedly “safe” levels of lead–and even a fraudulent design to guarantee lower lead levels from tap water by suggesting residents run their water for several minutes to “flush” residual contaminants leached from pipes.


Flint Water

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio


But the selective testing used a spatial knowledge new pipe lain in the city to obscure the effects of poor water finishing.  The deception of skewing tests concealed feared or potential levels of lead in Flint’s water–and an insistence on making them appear to be safe–perhaps more criminal than the egregious negligence of not adequately treating the water in itself.  But the two are cases of the sloppy management of the provision of water, raising deep concerns of the levels of commitment and adequate oversight of domestic water not only in Flint but across the country.  Indeed, the suspiciously repeated testing of water quality in areas of new water mains to generate low lead levels massaged the statistics to conceal effects of potential negligence in not initially testing lead levels in water that actually far exceeded federal standards to suggest an inadequate monitoring to prevent the dangers of high lead levels from reaching homes.  Was this sort of negligence specific to Flint, a poorer suburb or city in Michigan,  or does it reveal a disconnect between the testing of water and the responsibility for poor judgment in switching water supplies without considering possible costs?

The case of Flint compellingly illustrates the lack of adequate local oversight, and indeed intransigence of the City Emergency Manager in addressing local concerns, adopting recommendations of health experts or scientists about blood lead levels–and indeed their timely reporting and analysis.  But it also embodies the distribution of bad water in America in compelling ways, focussed on the poorer areas of cities with older pipes.  And the mapping of blood lead levels (BLL’s) in the poorer suburb presents cases of the mismanagement of water supplies:  if we pay, in the United States and other countries, for the finishing of drinking water, the poor management of processed water in residential neighborhoods suggests a lack of adequate oversight not only for disadvantaged groups,  but the potential poor management and oversight of local water supplies or the adequate treatment of water-sources for lead pipes. Flint raises questions of the analysis of aggregate data regarding children’s blood lead levels, and indeed of the adequate control and measurement of children’s blood lead levels and exposure through water and other potential vectors of contamination nation-wide.

The tragedy of Flint, MI also raises questions about the lack of information about lead levels in water–complicated by the varied standards employed by different states–needed to better understand how many Flint’s there actually are out there, whose water quality remains to be mapped.  For if maps can effectively embody the different levels of exposure to lead from environmental sources or water pollutants, the counts of lead in water is particularly difficult to measure or map.


4.  Can we better embody the risks posed by the increased compromising of drinking water across the nation?  The problem reflects not only the increasing man-made effects of lead in built environments, but the problems of assessing and juggling the multiple vectors by which carcinogens and other debilitating toxins may increasingly enter drinking water.

We learned ten years ago that over half of the streams in the United States don’t support healthy populations of aquatic life in the lower forty-eight states from the NRSA, with high and rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorous widespread, although the data is not widely mapped and embodied in convincing ways and the presence of phosphorous is generally declining:  yet over 13,000 miles of rivers have high enough levels of neurotoxins as mercury to contaminate fish, and oxygen depletion due to nitrogen and phosphorous induced algal blooms is at risk in two out of five river and stream miles; almost half of the biological conditions in rivers and streams are far beyond or approach poor, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment, which in 2013 rated 55% of 25,000 samples from 2,000 waterways to be “poor” in quality given their high levels of agricultural runoff–and some 40% to have unhealthily high levels of phosphorous–a worsening from 2004.  In its snapshot of the National Biological Condition, just slightly over a fifth of the nation’s streams were considered in”good biological condition;” the picture is not good, particularly in the Temperate Plains, Northern Appalachians, and Upper Midwest, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment of 2014–


NBConditionEPA/NRSA (2014)


and the status of “wadable streams” across the country was poor, particularly in much of the eastern third of the United States in 2004, when significantly less of the national Biological Condition of stream-water was judged poor–although over two-fifths–and less than a third were judged to be “good” for biological life.



EPA, Water and Stream Assessment (2004)


While we discount the presence of microbiological organisms in the water, whose quality was judged by the Macroinvertabrate Multimetric Index (MMI), the poor biological condition in the northeastern Eastern United States–where poor was found in almost two-thirds of streams–suggests the age of only drinking filtered water is upon us.  The considerable uncertainty of the quality of much of the water in rivers and streams raises steep questions.  It is likely to enter food supplies, if it is not difficult to keep out of finished drinking water that arrives in residential taps by filtration.

The distribution of wastewater treatment varies widely worldwide–


Ration of Wastewater treatment

GRID-Arendal, 2008, uploaded 2012


–as does the filtration of finished water, but the treatment of water in industrialized regions is necessitated by the range of pollutants introduced into water supplies.


wastewater treatment package plants, small and large.png


5. The specific case of the presence of chemical quality of Flint’s water has an immediacy that larger surveys lack, abstracted as they are from actual localities and water quality for consumers.  And it integrates any map of water quality with the possible failures of human decisions of monitoring and testing for water quality.  Indeed, the case of Flint, MI is so chilling because its local detail paint a picture of maladministration and repeated deception of a community at stunning costs.  The scope of the disastrous effects of shifting water sources indeed  only came to light because the continued clamoring for attention of local residents was able to attract laboratory testing beyond the local Health and Human Services, even after questions were raised by the appearance of Flint’s tap water, which residents were repeatedly assured was safe to drink–despite its appearance.


Roosevelt Mitchell.pngRoosevelt Mitchell


Joyce Zhu:Flint Water Zhu/


The painful narrative of the failure to maintain adequate oversight over water quality in the city that–the failure to administer or adequately ensure the safety of Flint’s drinking water utilities–raises questions of public health safety of deeply national import.  Can they be better resolved by better maps?  The absence of open data about water contamination–and clear mapping of blood levels of lead for children across America–raises deep questions of public health monitoring across much of the United States.

The vivid presence of rusty water Flint raises clear questions about human decisions to channel water from a local river running through the city long avoided as a source of potable water and of the ability to monitor –but it also raises questions about how better to map the presence of odorless, tasteless contaminants that affect much drinking water in the United States.  Yet the absence of open data on exposure to lead in drinking water is difficult to create, if only because of the lack of open data for most states–only twenty-six out of fifty provide data to the CDC, creating a limited map for Sarah Frostenson, since CDC doest require uniformity.  But the data that is reported is sufficiently alarming in the high lead levels its shows in much of the country–CDC doesn’t require uniformity–most specifically in the northeast, an apparent time-bomb seems to have been created for high blood-levels of lead in children, despite the different metrics that each state uses to detect lead exposure–and the dramatically differing numbers of children tested in each county for lead poisoning that an interactive version of the below map reveals, in many places approaching or exceeding the ten micrograms per deciliter that the CDC now deems of significant harm–a metric downgraded from the far higher amounts tolerated in the 1970s, leading to huge variances in the limits that individual states now retain–or the considerable average 3.1 micrograms/deciliter to which residents of Flint were exposed.  The high exposure rate of over five micrograms almost reached 1%–an inexcusably high rate–in many older industrial parts of the nation.


states recoridng levels of led in children's blood

Sarah Frostenson/VOX–see interactive version here


The notable concentration of blood levels of lead found in children in the northeast and along the Mississippi is alarming–and much of the nation simply lacks adequate reported data on blood levels.  Indeed, the shifting threshold of safety that the United States government has recognized as able to reach 30 μg/dL during the 1970s, then lowered to 25, then 15, and finally 10 for the CDC, although the standard consensus is closer to 5 μg/dL.  It’s recognized that no “safe” concentration of lead in blood exists, and that the effects of any absorption of lead are irreversible, the blood lead levels for children  as low as 2 μg/dL can compromise mental aptitude.  Yet it’s estimated that some 500,000 children living in the US between  1 and 5 years of age have blood lead levels above the 5 μg/dL standard.

The absence of accurate open data on water quality and blood lead levels raises serious questions of national governance and responsibility, as pressing as the difficulties of the management of water supplies in Flint, despite the clear grievances of Flint families, and the clear absence of oversight and local suppression of evidence in Flint.  The more comprehensive mapping of risk for exposure, based on poverty levels and houses’ ages, as well as on an aging infrastructure, recently tabulated according to a methodology developed by Washington State’s Dept. of Public Health and Rad Cunningham, if not based on medical testing of lead-levels in blood, provides a terrifying glimpse of the potentials of lead poisoning nation-wide that serves as a needed wake-up call–even if the map does not record actual cases of lead poisoning.




While not based on blood levels, the map fills an absence of information about water-purity and raises questions about monitoring of water safety from environmental dangers of built environments–and hence raises the highest risks for areas around older cities, in the Midwest and East Coast alike.  As Frostenson noted, “high-risk scores don’t correlate perfectly with an individual’s chance of exposure” with certitude, and many “kids who live in the high-risk areas who might be just fine — they might live in a brand new house, for example” but there are substantially increased  risks of coming into contact with lead in aging infrastructures of urban environments such as  Chicago, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, and Miami.










But by calculating health risk only in terms of aging infrastructure and buildings, have we  stacked the cards against urban environments by the metrics of environmental influences, and paid less attention to the conduits and exogenic pollutants that enter drinking water?

Although researchers had not anticipated such sustained environmental levels of exposure, the case of Flint remains particularly compelling both for its scale of negligence the questions in raises about the possible effects of aging infrastructures on water supplies.  The CDC estimates that nationwide 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer from notable degrees of lead poisoning, and the levels of neurotoxins as lead in drinking water in houses, and in Detroit’s west side, a study found one-fifth of the children show lead poisoning in their blood, from city or home pipes, if not from the water source.  If the flaking paint introduced lead into local environment and contributes to high blood lead levels in over 24 million homes in America, the distribution of such dangerous neurotoxins in domestic lead pipes, inadequately treated water, and water delivery systems is challenging to correlate to blood tests–indeed, tests measure only lead exposure that have occurred in the past thirty days, rather than the lead that has settled in the brain, soft tissue, and bones of the human body–or mapped in compelling ways.  The carcinogen is quickly absorbed in the body to raise questions of how quickly the screening of individual subjects.  And the increased vulnerability to the absorption of lead to cognition in young subjects, and difficulties associated with pre-term pregnancy in pregnant women, suggest the variations in how lead levels affect the population at large.  And although one can use blood kits to monitor local populations, the potential promise of open data on the presence of lead in water systems, if only a partial measure of the contamination of lead in home pipes, provides a macromap of the potentials of lead exposure as well as an alarm for the possibility of irreversible harm–as well as the considerable anguish about residents’ collective exposure to high levels of ingested lead, a and their concern for having been needlessly exposed to neurotoxins.

The narrative of the continued increased lead levels in residential water in Flint places responsibility squarely on local authorities.  The problems of preventing future contamination of local or regional supplies of drinking water rest in questions of responsibility–and indeed liability–for guaranteeing public provision of safe water, with low levels of metals and industrial waste, and even naturally occurring contaminants, and suggest a sad future of the nation’s water supply.  The presence of unsafe levels of lead in local children’s blood–even after evidence of the levels of lead at risky levels of 11 ppb in Flint’s water from January-June, 2015 were learned to have existed–first validated public  state intervention in the local water supplies from last October 1, although the water was not reconnected to Detroit until mid-month.  The very words Flint’s residents use to convey distrust in tap-water–“lead water“–reveals a wariness of public authorities in drinking water, or water for showering, dishwashing or laundry that suggests a frayed social compact about local water safety.

The level of lead would be judged to exceed safety levels in other countries, such as in the nearby nation of Canada, whose occurrence did not seem to necessitate informing the general public.  Such egregious lack of transparency about lead levels in drinking water, and the skepticism initially voiced about their presence until the failure to administer corrosion control in the pipes was admitted publicly, not only delayed the decision to avoid tap water for bathing or drinking or cooking, but obscured the magnitude of the issue of environmental toxins known to be linked to developmental disorders.  While lead levels can become raised due to exposure to peeling or chipped old paint, living near point sources of environmental contamination, or working with lead, the source from Flint’s water was pronounced given low local lead levels in blood for earlier years.

Flint Journal:Jake MayFlint Journal/Jake May

The absence of clear returns on blood levels suggests a failure of government, not able to adequately monitor the safety of populations’ water supplies or inform residents in adequate fashion.

6.  The terrifying succession of events in Flint may be seen as creating a clarion call to make public water supplies’ lead content open data available in readily downloadable form meets a needed level of openness in our potentially failing utilities–and would be a needed wake up call for needed investments in older urban infrastructures.  An increased dedication to open data on water, rather than relying on municipal agencies for oversight, or imagining on how communication could be smoother between local agencies, places an onus for analyzing unfinished and finished water supplies on an open platform.  

Such a platform could allow citizens to analyze and evaluate independently and effectively prevent any irregular anomalies from being not noticed–and indeed transfer the roles of an engaged citizenry for whom results of water systems, if not local residences, are available, from tax payers whose incomes correlate to water quality.  The enormous cost of trace metals and other potential carcinogens are ones for which we all pay in the end–and the cost to society is enormous–the continued absence of transparency on water quality is inexcusable not only in the case of Flint’s bungled reaction to a steady stream of complaints about alteration in the taste, smell, and hue of the water pumped into residences over almost two years, but better materialize a problem on which there is increasing confusion–and inadequate testing, at a time of rising anger at an almost systemic failure to respond to local complaints.  

This would of course include the presence of lead in Flint’s water–so terrifying for the irreversible brain damage suffered by children exposed to drinking water with levels of lead ten times greater (or more) than the limits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended for over two years.  The particular poignancy of the vulnerability of children in poorer neighborhoods–the most vulnerable, as it were, and the most defenseless–seem less a limit case than a canary in the coal mine for pervasive problems of old pipes, water treatment, and drinking water supplies.   Despite clear absence of adequate oversight, and a failure to acknowledge and act on a detected absence of corrosion controls in Flint, open data updates on water quality in real-time may be one of the few things able to restore public trust in drinking water despite the deep distrust of existing monitors of water safety.   The question of liability of Flint’s environmental disaster lay with its water manager, mayor, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and governor as well as with  EPA officials.  

The failure to respond to local knowledge of the abnormalities of the increasingly discolored and oddly smelling and tasting tap water that was commonly found in faucets in Flint’s homes, and the rashes increasingly skin on people’s skin, lies equally on the city managers who so imprudently went ahead with such a shift in water supplier without changing the additives to water supplies; the governor’s office who rejected individual complaints; and EPA authorities who discounted warnings to investigate individual claims or monitor the shift in local water suppliers, intended as a cost-cutting move that was not fully or adequately researched or monitored.  The distributed nature of liability however resulted from little transparency in lead levels:  the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed old pipes, with insufficient investigation of the pipes’ stressors; the emergency manager rebuffed an offer to reconnect to Detroit’s water supply in January, 2015; the Governor’s office shunted aside the public health threat the following month; state agencies tested the water, Miguel Del Toral of the EPA realized, to underreported lead levels.

The limited adequate response to observed differences in water quality in Flint were more likely to be dismissed with concealed public awareness of levels of lead in potable water.  The recent searchable interactive visualization of lead levels across Michigan poses critical questions, indeed, of the degree to which the instance of Flint’s poor decision to divert its supplies from the Flint River was the exception.  Indeed, it doesn’t seem so, when viewed in a state-wide context, with counties shaded to reveal high levels of lead statewide that placed children at risk–whose measurements which are tabulated here.  


searchable interactive map of the state offers a start for Michigan residents to search local water qualities.  By charting the results of testing that revealed high levels of lead among children–an index of particular epidemiological value–it documents a wide distribution of lead levels that even exceed those in Flint.  Although based on a variety of tests, it suggests the possibility of multiple cities of considerably higher blood lead levels–as do early reports of potential poisoning by lead levels in water of some 5,200 homes in Ontario which have older pipes, now suggested to number in the tens of thousands, including lead pipes in some 34,000 city-owned connections out of 500,000.  Indeed, while most American cities have budgeted for a replacement cycle of pipes of 300 years, according to the National Association of Water Companies, the current estimate cuts that back to 95, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  

Is a huge problem of possible future sources of contamination looming on the horizon, recalling the lead poisoning from ancient aqueducts long hypothesized to be tied to the Fall of Rome?   Despite debate, the ill effects of lead were noted by engineers as far back as Vitruvius, who recommended the use of earthen pipes, rather than lead pipes, which he deemed not only “injurious to the human system,” in domestic homes; Vitruvius remembered the “pallid color” of those working in lead, concluding that the substance was sufficiently “pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body.”  Recent engineers have taken time to concur.  The high occurrence of lead leeching from pipes into drinking water illustrate a problem not limited to the United States, whatever slim consolation that brings.  But if some 13% of households in Toronto sampled in a Residential Lead Testing program revealed high blood lead levels exceeding the recommended ten parts per billion (10 ppb), the level lies one-third below the accepted threshold that the EPA has suggested to be safe in the United States.  

7.  The problem lies largely in the elephant in the room of aging household pipes–40,000 homes in Toronto have lead pipes–as do most cities whose water systems were installed over a hundred years ago–suggesting a common problem of urban infrastructure in Washington DC (where about half of the city’s 35,000 lead pipes were replaced, until the Great Recession of 2008), Providence RI, Greenville NC, Sebring OH, Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL (where 900 miles of the water mains lain between 1890 and 1920 have already been replaced), among other older American cities–and has led the EPA to adjust the Lead and Copper Rule concerning replacement of lead service lines from mains to residences as of August 2015.  The cost?  It is estimated to exceed a trillion over twenty-five years by civil engineers in the ASCE, and much of that cost will probably be passed on to consumers.  In Toronto, as in other cities, this may be complicated by a reluctance to use additives that might mitigate local corrosion in urban infrastructures.  

The situation in nearby Detroit has revealed a comparably elevated percentile risk of exposure to lead paint–even if this exposure is not generated through the water.  Yet much of the city was found to lie above the 75th percentile of risk:

Led Exposure in Detroit.pngMike63Wilk/CartoDB 

Data about lead exposure in blood are far more limited, and constrained by the limited availability of data and the irregularity of blood testing:

Lead Exp in Blood.png

8.  The mapping of blood lead levels provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reveal widespread recurrence of public health concerns across southern Michigan, potentially tied to water supplies, betraying particular concentrations in urban or older once-urbanized areas, from Detroit to Albion to Battle Creek–although these could come from old paint and other toxins to which children were exposed.  Yet the clear localization suggests that a range of problems with older infrastructures, from the demolition of buildings to environmental traces of lead, reflect levels of toxins in urban environments.

southern Michigan.png

lead levels.png

While the story in Flint will continue to play out in national news, the many other Flints out there across the state of Michigan–and across the United States–demand to be made as immediate and concrete as possible, and will way as heavily in their huge human costs.

Although the map might be criticized by its unfair profiteering from the Flint’s disaster, whose gravity it effectively minimizes by placing in the context of the multiple sites for presence of lead in older cities and urban areas across much of Michigan, a poor context to assess the systematic failure of Flint’s “emergency manager” to assess the dangers of switching water sources for the city, and the state for not responding to local complaints about water quality, and EPA for tolerating a systematic gaming of water quality tests, the map is not only a cover for Governor Rick Snyder’s policies of crisis management:  for it points to the many vectors of lead contamination that survive in a state which we must not ignore, overwhelmed and disoriented by the scope and scale of Flint’s tragedy.

Carto db lead levels.pngMike Wilkinson/CartoDB

Yet the absence of alarm in Flint over time makes one wonder what a more careful and prominent mapping of lead levels in water might have revealed, and the action it might have prompted.  Despite the media attention to the failure of Flint’s authorities to adequately monitor water quality in cases delegating authority to emergency managers hoped to reduce local costs in areas of low tax-revenue, whose failure to manage the alternation of water supplies in adequate fashion–in this case, by continuing the addition of anti-corrosives to the new water–creating what has been described as the “rain of lead” in water from Flint’s pipes, effectively targeting citizens due to a government failure to provide them with treated water–a Federal Emergency, still waiting to be classified as the National Disaster that it is.  The range of reasons for lead poisoning that an older infrastructure creates–from paint chips in environment to lead in soil dust–creates a variety of vectors for poisoning, but indicates a problem widespread in water as well.  

Although levels for lead in blood were low for comparable urban areas, the rapid rise in lead-levels found in blood in Flint, which doubled over two years, indicated its basis in a human decision to switch water-sources–rather than an issue lying in the urban infrastructure alone.  The major difference–and this is why ZIP codes provide a poor proxy to compare the local incidence of high lead poisoning in Flint’s water–is clearly off-the-charts concentrations of lead in residences that rise far above allowed levels, and would in some cases qualify as toxic waste.  Indeed, the local levels of concentration at which samples of toxic water must be measured and ascertained means that any general readings of groundwater, finished water or reservoir water are suspect, and one demands local readings of water quality in a range of houses.  Whether this would ever be possible is worth asking, for it poses problems of extended oversight, even as it suggests the difficulty of tabulating water quality without individualized reporting of local results–given that individual buildings in close proximity may reveal quite radically different presence of lead.  In the case of Flint, the local variation of lead readings approaches ten-fold over relatively little space.


The problem was not in the water’s filters–which were performing well!–but was slowly acknowledged after exposure of a considerable spike in lead in children’s blood levels forced government officials to acknowledge the crisis after repeated insistence from local authorities that “Flint water is safe to drink.”   The lack of credence that state officials assigned local complaints about the smell, strange taste, and coloration of water supplies that were tantamount to a dismissal of their local knowledge about the very household water that had arrived in their taps from the Flint River, and led the local government only in October 2014 to issue a “boil-water advisory” to cut high levels of bacteria in the water–six months before high levels of lead were reported, and months before a local automobile plant ceased to use the local water supply in manufacturing, given its corrosive effects.  

9.  The water didn’t come form a trusty source for drinking water, but lack of local communication about its dangers suggest a weird inclination to turn the other eye.  Only by September 2015 was the corrosion of pipes identified as an issue, by which time Flint residents had been exposed to high levels of lead for almost a year and a half–they were only discouraged to use the tainted water supplies in mid-October.


Flint03.JPGFlint River, Brittany Greeson/New York Times

Would a more public mapping of water quality have clarified issues of liability, and indeed diminished the liabilities of state agencies?  

Turning the other eye to grievous issues of the disparities in urban environments and but ecologies has a long, and tragic history in America, of which Flint is the most current manifestation.  One of the greatest environmental justice issues of recent years has been the dismissal of the existence of the dangers of lead in pipes, drinking water, paint, and gasoline in poorer inner city African American and Hispanics in America.  This dismissal not only lead to a virtual acceptance of lead in 1950s America, David Rosner and Gerald Moskowitz have shown, but a failure to redress problems of urban infrastructure.  And these failures force us to realize that Flint, MI is from an outlier, but a potential eye-opener for the vectors by which environmental presence of lead has long existed in American cities.  Despite the definite failure of delegating authority to emergency managers able to circumvent city practices–as those of the addition of anti-corrosive phosphates to maintain pipes–in ways driven by consideration of tax-payers, rather than the health of citizens, open data on water would also provide a form of civic involvement in monitoring a more transparent relation to water quality of which the nation is increasingly in need.

Despite some deep skepticism for technological solutions to environmental problems, online maps provide a far more transparent basis to assess levels of environmental injustice than  available in earlier years.  The recent EPA Flint Drinking Water Response created an interactive set of maps for ready view both for lead content in drinking water and residual and trace elements of Chlorine in drinking water supplies in Flint was posted in response to the need to restore public confidence in public oversight of water supplies.  It offers the start of a  more transparent practice of instilling trust in government’s oversight of drinking water quality in our homes, in an age when the pollutants in water are being shown to be increasingly widespread and to have been irresponsibly monitored.

Lead Results Flint

Chlorine Residual Sampling FlintEPA Flint Drinking Water Response/Data Assessment Map and Screening Map

10.   As much as the levels of lead discovered in local water supplies in Flint, MI are a failure of  government, it reveals the importance of securing open data about national drinking water supplies.  Can this be achieved, and placed online in a transparent fashion available in readily downloadable form?  Such levels of openness will be needed as a counterweight to potentially failing utilities and decaying urban infrastructures.  

The danger of regular exposure to high levels of lead leached from pipes in Flint’s drinking water system has directed needed attention to the presence of lead in other cities, including Washington, D.C., by Dr. Marc Edwards, not only to the need to better heed warnings about individual water systems from other local officials–doubts were raised about Flint’s water by Miguel Del Toral in Chicago, but ignored and quashed–but by placing online the numbers of the National Water System and an overhaul of the local sampling systems that led to a systematic minimizing of lead levels in drinking water that is particularly dangerous for brain development.  The prohibitive cost of replacing lead pipes–damage to public and private water lines in Flint, MI alone are estimated in the application for federal disaster assistance at $767 million–as well as another $200 million on health costs for treating residents exposed to lead in drinking water.   At a time when fracking threatens to contaminate public water supplies, a new level of vigilance to the risks of drinking water supplies gains special urgency:  over 7,000 municipal or public water supplies are located in close proximity to fracked wells.  

But the problems of water treatment and corroded pipes within existing municipal infrastructures are perhaps far broader.  The more immediately pressing problems may detract from the dangers posed by potential pollutants from leaking pipelines or fracked wells at this point–although the story of Flint calls timely attention to the importance of securing local water supplies, as its tortured narrative of emergency response raises questions about readiness.   The story of the widespread contamination of drinking water in Flint broke, one should remember, was about a failure of openness and public communication.  It broke only after a wary resident who suspected her child to have been poisoned by lead in her home’s drinking water personally sent samples of drinking water in her home to Dr. Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech.  The particularly telling clue that Edwards found was the presence of a neurotoxin in Flint’s water at levels 150-fold greater than the EPA’s established threshold discovered, triggering the arrival of water-sampling kits to concerned residents in Flint who suspected increased toxicity in their water supplies, which eventually revealed the suppression of evidence of the inadequate treatment of drinking water supplies and failure to monitor tap water adequately in the city, disregarding established National Drinking Water Standards.  

The apparent disinterest of the water utility to inform all homeowners where lead levels exceed the threshold established by the EPA of 15 ppb (parts per billion) not only created a culture of deep suspicion about municipal authorities, but, after the discovery of levels exceeding 2,000 ppb, a distrust of the deep duplicity of public evaluation of tap water or evaluation of the water’s safety by agencies hired by the city as the Professional Services Industry (PSI).  Even after the city of Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October, dangerously high levels of lead had invaded drinking water over a period of years.    The sample sent to Virginia Tech from one home included 158 ppb–among the highest level of lead encounter in Flint, where the 90th percentile of measured water of tested homes was only 27 ppb–still almost twice above the recommended outer limit, although others registered 5,000 ppb, levels that the EPA considers ‘toxic waste’ and others were as high as 13,000 ppb. 




The two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech would spend the next year analyzing alarmingly high levels of lead contamination in local water supplies in Flint, MI that had begun after the city’s  emergency manager decided to stop purchasing treated water from Lake Huron, and to redirect water from the Flint River to urban water supplies without adequately treatment.  The water piped into local residences exposed poor residents to lead to a degree that the municipality and water manager were loath to admit.  While expedient, a less neighborly act was rarely performed.   Only the public release of complete data of children’s blood lead levels in Flint to news agencies prompted the city to switch back to Detroit water, but the pipes carrying potable water in the city’s infrastructure had already been so deeply and dangerously irrevocably compromised, in a blatant failure of public government that lead to indignant public protests, and only slowly occupied a prominent place in national news.  But blood levels provided the only recognized and confirmed indices that made it impossible not to acknowledge the piping of polluted water into Flint residences.

11.  Pronounced social inequities and inequalities can be usually lain out in graphics with immediate effects because of the sharp geographic divisions they reveal in government attention to the public good–illuminating deep discrepancies the pointedly local nature of public risk and the need for investment in water management, as well as real risks.  

From the actual levels of nitrogen pollution that fertilizer runoff creates along the Mississippi’s watershed–discussed below–to the water in the aging or corroded pipes of urban water supplies that have shed led into multiple municipalities’ drinking supplies. Yet readily accessible levels of chemicals within local water supplies that need to be made public open data have been far too often obscured, a problem demanding public acknowledgement.   Although the Government Accountability Office doubts that the EPA possesses sufficient resources or personnel to monitor compliance of drinking water systems and supplies in cities or rural areas, the degree of open gaming of the system by local officials to evade the reporting of high levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water reveals a level of duplicity and evasion with extremely steep costs for the nation’s drinking water supply.

The lack of specificity of high levels of lead in water to Flint that Mike Wilkinson prepared for readers who suspected that city authorities of Flint were alone in playing foul with the city’s water, pressed as they were with low revenues from taxes and a mandate to cut costs from Michigan’s governor, suggest that local decisions can’t be to blame for the widespread crisis in high lead levels in children’s blood across much of Michigan–it is searchable by ZIP–from 2012 to 2014 is not the easiest to search comparatively, but provides a useful start to illustrate the deep difficulties of public water nationwide.

12.  The problem of open data on national water supplies is not limited to leaded pipes, whatever risk the use of older pipes poses to drinking water.  Many of the most common contaminants in public well-water within the “top ten” are naturally occurring–including radium and radon gas, as well as naturally occurring arsenic, manganese, strontium, and boron, in addition to troubling levels of nitrates that are highest in the public well-water of agricultural areas–significant since public supply wells, if using surface water, serve an estimated 34% of the American population, even though the water is not considered “finished” or prepared for drinking.

Public wells.pngUSGS

Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that far exceed levels recommended by public health authorities–especially in rural areas with a considerable presence of agriculture and Big Agra–

Nitrates in WellsPatricia Toccalino, Public Wells, USGS

–and of the especially high quantities of naturally occurring arsenic that taint many wells holding surface water for human use, often far above the recommended thresholds–


Arsenic in Wells


Toccalino and Hoople, USGS


Such a high presence of arsenic–considered by geochemist Yan Zheng the “biggest public health problem for water in the United States” and a naturally occurring but particularly stubborn taint in private wells.  Arsenic is definitely the most toxic thing we drink–it is tied to increased risks of organ malfunction and not regulated in most states.  The below point-map compiles degrees of its presence in public water supply systems on a spectrum from bright yellow and red, as befits the levels of alarm its presence raises.

The broad distribution of naturally occurring arsenic concentrations in old industrial areas as well as in California’s central valley, Idaho and Washington state is striking.  (The map is based on individual sites of wells and springs, rather than drinking water quality.)


ARSENIC concentrations usgs

USGS NAWQA Study of 3,350 ground-water samples collected 1973-2001

Many such numbers remain concealed from public knowledge, and not easily accessible; private wells, moreover, are not quantified.  Yet according to USGS findings, some one if five–20%–of domestic wells in the United States actually registered at levels of at least one established carcinogenic contaminant, from radon gas to nitrates to arsenic, or unhealthy concentrations of widely recognized carcinogens whose exact levels of danger for bodily ingestion and exposure are unknown.  (Nitrate problems of this sort are present in the same proportion of wells nationwide, in some regions up to 40%.) The many  wells with danger signs for exceeding one threshold of the presence of a known carcinogen suggest a landscape that needs to be better known–in which the exact locations of potentially “toxic well-water” remain unknown.


1 in 5


Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that exist across the country in the Mississippi watershed.

Miss Basin average annual fertilizer

Nitrogen Pollution of Miss Watersheds

Nitrates in Wells.pngCeres

Another visualization of the excess of nitrate-contamination of wells destined for drinking water nation-wide is less limited to the Mississippi, but shows higher concentrations of nitrates on the East coast, as well as in corn-growing areas (South Dakota/Kansas/northern Texas) and California, and parts of Pennsylvania and Idaho).



The timeline of such increased concentrations can be epitomized to some extent by nitrates in California wells, for which a map of growing concentration of nitrates in drinking water 1950-2007 shows impact over time in domestic and municipal wells.


Groundwater in CA:Contaminated


13.  An agreement to share open data on urban public water systems is long overdue–and suggests a needed level of public oversight of drinking water supplies of which we are all in need to know. The public online posting of available data on water quality will be able to give needed coherence to threats not otherwise easily calculated or understood, and all too often easily overlooked.  And if these graphics are not designed to agitate for public opposition to actually polluted waters–and highly contaminated drinking water no less–the limited attention that the need to secure clean drinking water holds in our political culture says something about the need for better public maps to call attention to the presence of critical pollutants in public water supplies, for which there is rarely a better or more succinct or convincing form of public embodiment than in maps.

Take, for example, visualizations that direct attention to the presence of actually toxic pollutants in water–think again of Flint, MI’s terrible municipal tragedy–which essentially pose a problem of political oversight and legislative monitoring.  Taxation of menstrual products are perhaps not nearly so onerous.  The openly abject visualizations illustrate the disproportionate environmental and ambient pollution–as, say, to use a national data vis, one displaying different levels of unregulated toxins in the tap-water of major cities as in fact the product of a policy decision–much as the presence of lead in the pipes in Flint, MI, where a decision was somewhere made to cease treat the water with anti-corrosives–even after University of Michigan-Flint altered the city that it had cut off water fountains at its campus in January, 2015, and add filters to others, and GM publicly announced it had ceased using Flint water on newly machined parts from October 2014.

Current E. coli risks usually can be mapped along watersheds.  But E. coli levels in Flint’s water from 2014 indicated the difficulty of taking water from the Flint River, even if anti-corrosives were not added to water supplies that would prevent lead from leaching from city pipes–not to mention the over 280 contaminated water supplies in Michigan,including the below counties with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic–even though Michigan’s surrounded by some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world.



The intense alarming ‘red’ of poisoning echoes the instinctive sign for danger, it’s an all too common association of poisoning or peril–although the majority (about 2/3) are unregulated, there are at least 316 contaminants in the US water supply.  And although this visualization of the spread of the carcinogenic pollutant tricholoethylene that has leached into the ground and groundwater of Michigan’s Antrim County over a period of ten years, contaminating untold trillions of gallons of water in one of the largest toxic plumes in the country–the pollution from the Mount Clemens Metal Production plant is shown in a neon green that suggests its synthetic unworldliness.




14.  Flint’s environmental disaster has rightly occupied the news’ short attention span–in part because of its failure of adequate oversight, and the inexplicable lack of oversight of government agencies.  But the poisonous plumes that have entered many local water supplies have proved less compelling forms of attention–less because of poor visualization than because of the difficulty of registering their continued prevalence.

Partly, no doubt, this is caused by the huge clean-up costs associated, which few would want to assume, as well as the reluctance to admit the public relations nightmare of culpability of the significant and ongoing environmental damage done to many local water supplies.  Most gaming of public water supplies such as occurred in Flint–and which may be far more widespread than we would like to admit–suggests a deep betrayal of public trust.  And the distribution of extremely high quantities of lead in Flint’s water system–based on the results of over 4,000 freely distributed lead testing kits provided to test drinking water reveal a quite complicated distribution, likely to be due to local pipes:  even though these tests were administered  after the city had switched back to the Detroit water from Lake Huron, and measure the sources of lead poisoning to which people continue to be exposed in Flint seems difficult to determine.

While it does suggest a less disastrous image of lead poisoning, the data map also suggests with considerable detail the complexity of locating sites where lead is in danger of leaching from pipes:  the improvident decision to stop treating the water with anti-corrosives invited the opportunity for lead to leach from pipes in neighborhoods, older homes, and possible water mains in need of replacement, but no clear distribution of exposure to lead seems to appear, as the presence of lead in water merits concern at concentrations above 14 ppb for the EPA, which recommends treatment by filters to be sufficient for lead’s presence below 150 ppb:  test-kits providers randomized results and may need further follow-ups, but the distribution of select cases of a high presence of lead in clear clusters raises pressing questions of how much the addition of anti-corrosive agents can helpt, and fears of the need to replace pipe at some mains and in a clear concentration–if the disaster appears somewhat contained if still quite pronounced, it is concentrated in quite complicated clusters, to judge by the troubling local density of those violet dots.


Michigan Radio Web


Lead poisoning remains, however, by far the most common environmental risk for children in the United States of America–and has long been so.  Indeed, the serious long-term contamination of drinking water with lead in Baltimore, from 150 to 1992, in serious degrees of lead contamination to exist in some 150,000 homes; children drank water contaminated with high concentrations of lead in Baltimore City public schools for ten years, and the drinking water supplied city’s water system was awarded a failing grade in 2000-with lead, carcinogenic Haloacetic acids, and trihalomethanes in the 90th percentile of national standards, placing the city on a boil-water alert, stemming from both the lead pipes used in older houses and partly from its proximity to agricultural runoff.


15.  We often hear about possibly carcinogens in chlorine-based cleansing agents added to  drinking water–the disinfectant by-products (DPB’s) added to drinking water or Haloacetic acids (HAA’s), byproducts of chlorination in water treatment plants–which have received some limited if increased attention from the Environmental Working Group, due to their widespread nature and potentially preventable risk.  The shock that over two-thirds of the US population receives tap water with levels of pollutants introduced to combat microbial infections suggests the perils we court by introducing such potentially steep carcinogenic risks–in a world where 70% of global industrial waste is returned to water and pollutes the available drinking supply, including refrigerants and pollutants, with the result that upwards of 50% of worldwide groundwater stands at serious risk.




The color spectrums that indicate groundwater pollutants in dark reds offers an important tool for showing environmental dangers and registering high levels of danger and local levels of risk–although the acceptable levels of pollutants that appear in much water has not even yet been adequately defined.


Disinfectant Byproducts:HAA5 in LA


At a national level, similarly serious deep local disparities can be mapped to show steeply shifting levels of known but unregulated carcinogens such as Hexavalent Chromium forcefully reveal disparities to elicit public action for the inequalities implicit in local regulations.  They reveal the potential consequences of a national decision not to regulate potential carcinogens in local unfiltered drinking water–and the sharp disparities of where Hexavalent Chromium most pronouncedly appears.



Hexavalent Chromium in US Tap Water


The unevenness in drinking water quality demands multiple indices.


Drinking water Contaminants.png



Or one might well examine the visualization of steeply problematic extent of disparities in the levels of lead that has leached from physical construction materials in areas of New Orleans, including peeling bits of heavy metal paints, or gasoline and other products in the earth and dust, concentrated in inner city environments of older neighborhood in a “bulls-eye” pattern that has been tied to the use of leaded gasoline, and seems typical of most older cities where cars used leaded gas over sustained periods of time.




But even in rural areas, the presence of increased concentration of nitrates in drinking water in townships of lower-density states such as Wisconsin, seem tied to the increased use of fertilizers in farming, more than to leaded gas, although it is absent from the far northern reaches, mirroring areas of densest population and residential settlement, and most intensive use of agricultural farmlands in warmer climes.




How to map risk is never clear.  The mapping of risks of the contamination of water sources is however especially pressing, and with the multiplication of possible sources for leaching of carcinogenic chemicals and minerals into public water supplies and surface water, compiling such data in open access sources is an increasingly important issue of public health.  While the compilation of such databases is difficult and challenging, only by creating a more adequate set of interactive maps of water safety can public trust be restored in our aging infrastructures.



Filed under data visualization, drinking water, environmental law, Flint MI, public health, water safety