Category Archives: historical maps

Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

In very few cases are the associations of place-names so powerfully resonant as in those that derive from a biblical frame of reference:  they speak across time, in a powerfully incantatory way, unveiling a sense of space in maps, and claims to that spatial jurisdiction.  Palestinians ruefully note that Jews–or Israelis—live in ruins, the myth of their past inhabitation inhabits the present through place-names on a map, and on a scribal map, as it were, that underlies the most sophisticated GPS claims to boundaries: if geopolitical boundaries are determined by hexadecimal coordinates of GPS in current treaties, textbook maps in the Israeli courses of Civics frame the territories won in the 1967 Six-Day War as a historical geography of liberation of lands in the West Bank that fulfill “a return to Judea and Samaria, areas where our patriarchs and matriarchs lived” and “where the Kingdom of David and Solomon was established.” The regions are identified as physical loci of collective memory, and indeed invested with elevated status as places to almost sublime transcendence of contemporary politics as constituting “the heart of the Jewish people,” more than contested lands. Such textbooks that instruct readers that “already in the Bible period, Jews lived in this area, and the Bible . . . this is where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried,” evoking the lands and boundaries Jews gained as a people set forth in the Book of Numbers not as modern, but confirmation of expansion of the nation’s borders concluding a sacred narrative of the establishment of Biblical era, rather even if it is inhabited by Palestinians.

Such maps fulfill especially pernicious ends in failing to orient Israeli students to the world in which they live. One can find “Judea” and “Samaria” in books of Genesis and Joshua point to the Jewish presence in the region–although I first heard them referred to as places in the current world was when I moved into a condominium in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, and was told by my neighbor Clara Markowicz that her husband was born in Judea, coming home with cans of goods she requested as I heard, in the stairway, of a region I had to ask as Israeli friend to clarify after I had brought her several bags of groceries in a gesture of neighborliness. The region had a concreteness in her mind as a birthplace, of almost mythic stature; the foundation of settlements that were often military outposts that became residential rapidly expanded as they were established after a pioneering rabbi founded a local yeshiva that seeded the settlement in the collective imaginary on a scriptural foundation that would later gain sovereign status within the rapidly changing arial map of “Israel” as a nation.

Local toponymy is rarely so transparently or so powerfully painted on a cartographical canvas to evoke of narratives of collective memory as in maps of the Holy Land, designed to orient readers to a sacred space, as much as within a territory–and to confirm the elision between past and present by the magical condensation of space that cartographic conventions allow. Although many of the best-known maps of the regions are reconstructions, the location of holy sites as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Caeserea or Mt. Sinai create points of entrance, more powerfully than siting points, for plotting multiple master-narratives across a historical gulf and spanning different epochs; the map is alternately the container and the field, the historical synthesis, but also the screen: Israeli annexation of 40% of the West Bank anticipates how a Trump plan would “turn temporary occupation into permanent occupation” over the land God told Moses would “fall to [the people of Israel] for an inheritance . . . in its full extent” in Numbers 34:2-3, as bounded by the “edge of the Salt Sea on the East.”  

The “conceptual map” for “Peace to Prosperity” a vision that Trump issued is proclaimed the “ultimate deal” ensuring sovereign unity of Israel, but proposed a very, very old idea of sovereign boundary lines. It was perhaps encouraged by his own love of borders, the plan pacified evangelical Christians who arrived to be volunteers in settlements and envisioned these new boundaries. Numbers 34:1-10 idealize the very boundaries of Canaan the Lord descibed “as an inheritance” extending to the Dead Sea –“up to the Salt Sea on the East“–as Israel’s territory only expanded to its full extent to the north in the time of King David, rabbis realized Pro-Israel evangelicals, skilled in the territorial visualization and eschatology, deferred questions of residents, wondering at living beside folk not sharing faith and lifestyle in the Holy Land–as strategic allies over the long term. If President Trump would be able to mimic the God-granted boundaries in his “vision” of the State of Israel that annexes land far beyond the current security barrier, and demilitarizes the West Bank by annexing some 40% outright, the sovereign expansion to include all settlements whose legality in international law has been intensely debated for over fifty years, but often reassessed “in light of new realities on the ground.”

The redrawing of the settlements on occupied land would be included in the “greater map” of Israel proposed, which demands interpretation against the deeper symbolic map sketched in Biblical pronouncements, rather than being defined by the new authority of GPS coordinates in international law:

Vision for Peace: Conceptual Map, January 28 2020

The power of such potent toponymy mark place by offering access to a sacred space, in ways that illustrate the dual deictic functions all maps have of showing or making present and of conjuring narratives.  So evocative is the verbal map of the region in scriptures that the map they help to weave and any later maps that respond to this image create a place where time collapses–where the present is poised to dissolve into the past. Current plan s for Israeli annexation of the West Bank in July 2020, given the green light by the Trump administration and the dauphin Jared Kushner, absorbing areas control by the Palestinian Authority and annexing areas all the way to the River Jordan, absorb regions now militarily ruled by Israel with a semblance or presence of local autonomy–“belligerent occupation” denotes more of a stalemate than peaceful accord–uniting areas populated by Israeli settlers into a single territorial unity and sovereign identity.

In one sense, the new announcement of annexation was a map of annexation issued by the Israeli government. But if the Netanyahu government announced it, the winking go-ahead was already announced in the “conceptual map” unveiled in Washington, D.C. by Trump January 28, 2020, by a U.S. President still in denial about reports he had received about the threat of a global pandemic emerging at brisk rates in China, already detected by the week previous by public health agencies in the United States, related to travel from China.

Can the characterization of this geopolitical map of expanded boundaries as a “vision” conceal the pandering to evangelical audiences of promoting a newly expanded Israeli territory? The deception of the map as a “vision of peace” echoed visionary maps of the Holy Land, long dear to evangelicals, as if to curry wishes of American Evangelical communities, and the hurried announcement seemed to solidify the map’s borders in the public imaginary, before the pandemic spread. The map that unifies the state of Israel with the Gaza Strip and West Bank, integrating the new infrastructure of an underground tunnel running between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, seemed to suggest ready access from Beersheba to the Dead Sea, without having to pass through checkpoints,–and incorporate what were long deemed illegal redouts of “Israeli enclave communities” to a united and harmonious geopolitical unit, relegating the entire idea of a divided Jerusalem to the remote past, beneath the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, and enshrining a non-contiguous Palestine: the prominence of these “new towns” on the map, in exchange for a freeze in future settlements–reversing a longstanding American opposition to West Bank settlements by a single map of new toponyms in the Samarian mountains, as Har Barakha, consolidated from Palestinian villages.

Vision for Peace Conceptual Map (detail)

The powerful biblical narrative of inheritance is so imbricated with the political map, so self-consciously entangled are map and text, or sacred toponym and physical space. Perhaps only a map can create such an entangled union that is presented as objective, or trick the viewer to read entanglement as objectivity. If the Old Testament discussed military maps, administrative maps, and historical maps, these were written, instead of drawn.  Reading the Pentateuch or New Testament extends an invitation to organize an image of regional coherence absent in the Hebrew or Christian Bible, however, and in a society where maps were increasingly familiar medium of information, they offered a powerful poetic and increasingly a polemic means to create a palpable present for readers of scriptures even when they were–or perhaps especially because they were–both physically and geographically removed from the region and the very space that they described, but preserved in a different space of the book, and through it into the very different register of collective consciousness.

Maps drawn of Palestine and of biblical history combine the ostensive functions of displaying place (showing) with the connotative functions of map signs to make present a landscape that was perhaps never seen as such:  in so doing, they show readers where they might be, and offer a map that corresponds to their reading of sacred narrative, and indeed of giving enargaic power to that narrative in the present.  But they are most powerful examples of a form of “distanced reading,” around which one can weave multiple narratives about the territory, or narratives of pilgrimage and sacred visitation, without necessarily going there and visiting the very sites that the maps situate before the viewer.  For the particular power of maps of the Holy Land lies in how they offer the possibility for a reader to enter the narratives as much as they provide a description of space.  When the most familiar verbal map of Canaan–“from Dan to Ber-sheba” (2 Sam. 24:2)–created a very loosely defined region, it allowed viewers to enter the specific sites it described.  Drawn maps served to frame the pilgrimage across and intellectual inhabitation of a region and emplot specific events for viewers who become, even when physically removed from the region, vicarious witnesses to an always-present Holy Land.

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Green Urbanism? Blue Urbanism?

Since maps invite their viewers to enter an image of the natural world, as well as to relate places to the broader geographic context in which it lies, they offer increasingly useful perspectives to relate the ocean to the land.  The perspective they offer on all regions has long been rooted on the land,  however.  And the coasts–and indeed the dangers–for adhering to such a “landlubberly perspective” on our rising oceans are increasingly apparent.  A perspective that privileges mapping inhabited lands –and orienting viewers to a set notion of place–places us at a particularly disastrous disadvantage when assessing questions of climate change, or reacting to the increasingly lethal storms, tsunami, and typhoons encountered as the inevitable consequences of climate change, and that coastal cities–from New Orleans to New York to the devastated Philippine coastal cities of Tacloban, Ormac or Baybay–seem condemned to repeat.

In continuing to rely on maps whose perspective denies that of the future expansion of oceanic seas, we threaten to lose perspective on our changing relation to the sea.  We have long found threats of the invasion of ocean waters difficult to integrate in an inherited image of the city as a bounded entity, and continue to draw clear lines around the cities in which we dwell:  our maps draw clear lines between land and water.  Perhaps this is because waters seem so difficult to circumscribe or bound, and the fluid relation between land and water difficult to render accurately or draw.  When an influential movement of urban architecture and planning calls for a greater integration of the natural world–so often bound outside of cities or city walls–within urban entities, they retain the notion of the bounded city.  Recuperating the term the entomologist and biologist E.O. Wilson coined, “biophilia,” to express the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” in human nature that demanded attention, they argue that cities need to promote contact with nature, since, Wilson argued, such contact provides a spur to creativity, productivity, and well-being.  The planning of “biophilic cities” is dedicated as a movement of urban design to “contain abundant nature” in their structure.  The championing of “model cities”–such as Perth or Singapore–are promoted as examples of the “biophilic” age of urban architecture.

Yet are these models (often located in semi-tropical climates) not limit cases where we can most easily integrate oceanic waters into a built environment?  For by isolating the city as a unit in which to restore nature, there seems more than a bit of bio-fetishism in singling out new spaces where blue waters can enter an urban environment:  the optimism of its evangelical tenor as a movement of urban planners, dedicated to reframing the reintegration of cities with the watery surroundings has gained a broad charge and dedicated following, including partner cities that border on water such as San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Vitoria Gastiez (Spain), Birmingham (England), and Wellington (New Zealand).  While the benefits of such urban architecture appear considerable, the challenges for expanding the role of the ocean in the horizons of city-dwellers seem only the start of restoring the historical isolation of the city from watery life, or integrating the oceans within our future urban planning.

The movement of blue urbanism is an illustration of courageous dedication to a project of reintegrating aquatic and urban environments–at least, presumably, before the shores of cities will be redrawn by ocean waters.  The considerable cognitive benefits claimed for these more enriched urban networks build on movements for integrating networks of urban “green-spaces”–including not only parks but green-belts and even forests is a reasoned reaction to urban sprawl and overbuilding and way to take charge of the built environments we create.  “Blue urbanism” would comprehend a watery frontier, offering opportunities for immersing children in rivers, urban parks, watery excursions, and underwater ambients which surround cities.   Blue urbanists espouses an improved integration among the fauna and flora lying near aand around cities within something like a green belt–and espouse the value of an analogous “blue belt” as a way to foster a new attachment to the waters and their shores, rather than seeing them as limits of built city.

Yet does emphasis on the human benefits of such contact carry a all too narrowly restricted notion of what a watery surrounding might be?  The watery oceanic borders of cities are in themselves rarely mapped, though the shifting waters of the Gulf Stream and other currents determine the shoreline inhabitants of North America, but might a map provide a fuller perspective on the interchanges and ecosystems lost by drawing firm barriers between urban and ocean life?

1.  The “blue urbanism” that Timothy Beatley advocates wields the rhetoric and best practices of green architecture’s “integrated network of urban space” to invite us to re-imagine cities’ relation to the shores on which they border.  Yet there is concern that such projects of rebuilding turn away from the depth of our historical remove from the waters that surround our cities–an increasingly pragmatic concern after the very fragility of this divide has been so traumatically revealed in recent decades, from damages inflicted on US cities by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or, afield, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and super-typhoon Haiyan.  The ecology of biophilic design, for all its benefits, could benefit from a broader global ecology, basing itself less on the benefits of human friendship with the biosphere, and being more oriented to global contexts of the cost of climactic shifts by looking back to the geography of the past–lest the affections of biophilia border on the bio-fetishism of the philistine.  The precepts of adaptation and resilience to mitigate bad policy decisions are of intense importance; historic maps offer base-lines to qualify the alienation of cities from their shores that compliment the need to build green and blue belts.  The maps we have drawn about urban areas may provide a basis to recuperate the integration of life along the shorelines we have lost, in short, and the nature and settlement of life along the city’s shore–as well as the ways that oceans serve less as a barrier to than interface with the shore.

While we map the trespass of waves over the finely drawn boundary lines of territories, measuring incursions across demarcated shorelines and property lines, and mourning the scope of damages and loss, we seem to remediate via maps–much as how OSM-mappers have begun to chart buildings and routes in the Philippines for delivering humanitarian supplies, as a way of rebuilding, if at first in virtual form–to restore urban infrastructures in digital form.

Mapping Tacloban via OSM

Yet these maps do not comprehend, for lack of a better word, the sea.  The terrible human costs of each of these events serve as something of an intimation of the threats global warming poses to urban environments, and invite rethinking notions of ‘planning’ replacing the imagined stability of  a built frontier of urban society with a more permeable line of inter-relations, even as we come to appreciate how little conscious “planning” went into the drawing of earlier boundary lines.  Both the human and material costs of these events compel an appreciation of the role of the shoreline, as well as intimations of the threats global warming poses to urban environments and indeed the world we have built.

Homes in Samar provinceReuters

Naturalists have recently begun to realize the power of maps to invite reexamination of our relations to place, however–often by using historical maps to excavate the shifting historical relation to the natural world that have led us to draw such finely parsed lines between planned urban environments and their surrounding waters to assess the costs of these sorts of fantasies of spatial distinction:  if we don’t build on the water, we cannot ignore it but at our collective peril.

Map offer a particularly precise if plastic means to situate place that are able to register deeper, less easily visualized, chronological changes and global contexts, or shifts within a regional ecosystem that would be otherwise difficult to conceive.  In age of rising oceans and global warming, maps draw relations between local settings and global changes to help assess the extent to which global warming threatens to obliterate or erode the stability of our concepts of place.  Maps of the circulation of waters around specific cities compel us to rethink an inherited oceanic boundary.

2.   Can a “blue architecture” invite us to re-imagine bifurcated schema of ordering of space to which we have reduced the relation between land and sea to a simply drawn line?  Or have we lost a relation to the land that a new building project cannot recover without clearer lenses to view the relation between water and planned environment, and to be invited to appreciate a clearer register of the relations between coastal cities and the surrounding sea, and, indeed, of the delicate interdependencies that are the basis for our sense of place, and underwrite how we imagine “place” as a category?  A historicized art of mapping stands to call attention to the ecosystem that might lurk beneath the threat of climactic change, and understand the changes they pose to local ecosystems.  The art of mapping provides unique tools to invite viewers to consider local settlements, and develop tools to re-imagine a relation to the sea new building projects alone cannot foster.

Sanderson's Base Map

We can appreciate the huge changes wrought in a relation to the shore by how a cartographical reconstruction of Manhattan island revealed in this stunning 1782 British Headquarters map drawn at the painstaking scale of 6 1/2 inches per mile reveals the island’s coastline as it was experienced by Lenape tribespeople.  Using the watercolor map as the base-map for his digital reconstruction of the local environment, landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society worked over five years to create GIS database, geo-referencing landmarks and sites to reconstruct the forgotten landscape based on 200 control points.

Sanderson’s completed map has a beauty that invites viewers to explore a computer generated landscape’s verdant arboreal landscape and rich wildlife, moving with amazing apparent precision over a web of lost streams, rivers, and hills that agricultural and urban development erased over time–most all of the more than 570 that distinguished the island Lenape members to give the name “Mannahatta,” the ‘island of many hills,’ and to map over 627 varieties of plants in the island, and the 233 types of birds and 24 different mammals who lived in its delicate interstices of interlaced ecosystems, in its swamps, ponds and the estuaries of its shores.

The older shoreline strikingly engages one’s mental map of Manhattan’s shore.   It jar one’s notion of place, and shift the stability of shorelines, streets, and riverine banks within one’s head.  Superimposing data from a Google map visualization of the verdant forests, ponds, streams, and marshes before four centuries of landfill shrunk its coastal geography, the map reveals a huge change in place in a powerfully persuasive graphic form.

Indeed, the superimposition of the shifted maps–the street grid and coastal drives laid above the earlier contours of the island’s expanse– is compelling by the complex cognitive dissonance it creates, placing multi-lane expressways and drives on the expanded edges of the island, so that they run across the marshland estuaries of the Lower East Side or cut into the blue waters around the island, suggesting the actual de-naturing of the landscape even more than the de-naturing of place that all Google Mapping templates seem to afford–and far more eerily reminding us of the extent to which we’ve effectively distanced ourselves from the expanse that the island once occupied as well as the ecosystems that it held.

Welikia 1609 Map of Mannahatta

3.  The remove of the world of this island situated on merging saltwater and freshwater, and with a dynamic verdant ecology is apparent from Markley Boyer’s stupendous digitization, which recreates the island seen by Henry Hudson in 1609, and which, if not a map per se, compels us to both explore its content by mapping them against our own experiences and spatial imaginaries.  The almost palpable landscape invites us to explore its content, as if as it invited Henry Hudson and his men in:

Mannahatta's verdant paradise 1609
These now absent beaches, marshlands, and estuaries in the landscape offer a striking contrast to the current shore.

The integration of its coasts to the river echo the shorelines that John Randel, Jr. famously mapped in delicate watercolors in a detailed rendering of its many hills between 1818-20, even as the grid of streets was lightly traced and projected above a far less level urban topography, where the city descended in differently manners to the rivers and estuaries on its shorelines, most of which have been erased by time:
Randall Farm Maps

Boyer’s glorious digital reconstruction recreates the shimmering presence island of hills, rivers, and trees that Lenape knew in its speciated glory, mapping the messiness of that shore in ways that inspire a vision of or compelling case for the optimistic dream of restoration of these shores:
Mannahatta:Manhattan from south
4.   Maps offer persuasive forms to re-think cities’ relations to oceanic shores, perhaps more compellingly altering deeply set attitudes than new practices of planning to integrate more fluidly and esthetically water and land.  Although Beatley calls, at, for new attitudes to the surrounding world, and fostering a new culture of lifestyle, curiosity, and an integration of the tactile presence of the seas in “blue urbanism,” we  might better appreciate the nature of the frontier created between city and water not only in the benefits of immersive aquatic environments in cities, but respond to the absence even of registering seas in urban planning by examining how we came to map a disconnect between cities and ocean– and the cultural divide that has emerged between shore and urban space that was elaborated from the mid-nineteenth century, and is now deeply established by zoning, districting, EPA standards and urban planning texts.

In asking to extend our concepts of cities to the oceans that surround them, we might work not only to make new maps, but use old maps to be mindful of the need to extend our sense of place through the refiguration of urban spaces–noting how maps mark and register the depths of the cultural divide between urban and oceanic space, and examining maps to chart the losses of a shifting historical relation between the city and ocean.  Such a remapping of the city’s relation to the land is echoed in the recent interactive mapping project of Stamen Design, Surging Seas, which tracks rising sea-levels caused by storms or flash-floods, mapping sea levels in relation to the inhabited land–and visualizing a nine foot rise in sea-level of nine feet, here in lower Manhattan, based on data from Climate Central.

Stamen-TriState Submerging Seas
And the interactive site allows one to track what changes would happen if the sea-level were to rise it to a ten full ten:

Surging Seas--NYC, 10 Feet

5.  At a recent discussion in San Francisco’s Exploratorium about relations between land and sea promoting such a “Blue Urbanism,” the relations between place and global change rightfully gained considerable attention.   Most presentations focussed on specific examples of cities, but the problem was pressingly (and depressingly) relevant given the recent typhoon.  Occurring in a room exhibiting such splendid shifting nine-panel global color video projections, courtesy NASA’s LandSat satellite photographs or the Goddard Flight Center, of Global Precipitation Levels, Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures, Ocean Currents, or, below, Global Aerosols, they seemed to provide a unique context for rethinking the presence of the local in relation to the sea.  For only in rethinking built relations between land and sea, and the compartmentalization that led to the diffusion of aerosols, the shifting of water temperatures, and  changes in the level and salinity of oceans over the past one hundred years, can we measure the human footprints already left on environment.

Global Aerosols Exploratorium

One such remapping of such relations and attitudes might begin from maps, it began to appear–and from the inspiration maps might provide to remap relation around San Francisco, not only by seeing how space was filled by the city–or the urban conquest of space–but rather how the negotiation of the boundary with the sea was based on spatial practices of such longstanding nature, entailing and perhaps rooted in the representational practices of defining space as an area of settlement and urban planning–and a practice of planning that sees space as filled up by housing projects that cut off the marine space of the sea.

The projected maps on plasma screens raised questions of how to rethink the sedimentation of such deeply set cultural practices, if only by providing a context for the dramatic remapping of urban environments at a remove from the ocean’s ebb and flow–or relate place to a far broader context of environmental change.   When Rebecca Solnit recently offered a haunting analogy between global warming to the processes of gentrification that threaten the fabrics of urban neighborhoods–both occurring with blinders to the overall structure and coherence ecosystems, whether the social ecosystem of urban space or global ecologies, and of removing oneself from our role in creating a scenario of global warming or urban change.

6.  The history of spatiality and of spatial practices that define the city may suffer, one soon realized, from the separation of such “spatial practices” from an appreciation of urban environments.  The circumscription of the spatial is partly inherited from the conceptually pioneering–if idealizing– strain of thought in the work of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, whose notion of in The Production of Space was rooted in an Aristotelian or Kantian categorization of space as a human creation.  For when Lefebvre distinguished forms of apprehension among social practices, representations of space, and symbolic models of spatial representation, he refined how Aristotle cast position as a category of human apprehension and Kant affirmed space as an attribute of human judgement–rather than an ecological space of multiple species’ interaction, or indeed of biological overlap.  Instead of commodifying space from a human point of view, we fail to register either local specificity or the density of coexistence around place:  maps can return attention to all too often forgotten margins of settlements, and effectively reconstitute place in a greater environment.  A similarly broad sense of the sea-shore as a “primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change,” as much as opposition, was suggested by Rachel Carson, who suggested the basis for understanding the shorelines by “the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed”–and the biological communities specific to each.  She chose a map of the Gulf Stream as a sort of emblem for the situated knowledge of the shore, using a version of the 1769 chart of Benjamin Franklin based on the working knowledge of a Nantucket sailor, Timothy Folger, that is the end-paper for her 1950 The Sea Around Us; Carson praised the map for transmitting understanding of ocean currents–and for the first time locating the course of the equatorial Gulf Stream, or “Gulph Stream,” on a map, in ways that embodied a tacit familiarity with the flow that many sailors well knew, but which Franklin, as Postmaster General, was frustrated to find absent from any chart.

The recovery of the rare original Franklin-Folger map showed a pointedly less centrally defined Gulf Stream than the composite map reprinted above, but illuminated a new need for mapping oceanic expanse–in this case, for the postmaster general to elucidate the greater time needed to traverse the Atlantic from England, which world maps or charts had long excluded, in failing–or, more accurately, not knowing how–to map the seas.

Franklin- Map

7.  The question then becomes how to adequately map the seas, as much as urban space.  The ability to register and communicate familiarity with place–and with a watery space–is particularly lacking in most urban maps.  The absence is a considerable difficulty for adequately registering knowledge of the sea on its own terms, or the shoreline and its inhabitants.

Or can we use maps to register a shifting knowledge of the ocean’s shore?  One charge for spatial history would be to excavate the construction of space in different environmental contexts.  If it is to extend beyond the recapitulation of space as a human construction, “space” might be more adequately placed in a global–and less of a human–context by recognizing and affirming space as an ecological category.  One place to start would include the negotiation of deeply set cultural categories of division and differentiation that are framed in maps, taking the map as a human artifact–rather than a representation or a practice, a model of interaction that conditioned and provides evidence of lived experienced.  For the tendency to idealize space at an Apollonian remove–an image perpetuated, to be sure, in maps which subject the cognition of space to human understanding–abstracts space as a category of apprehension, rather than registering the density of interaction through a suitably “thick mapping” across boundaries, borders, and regional change that recuperate buffer zones, watersheds, and shorelines we have lost–in ways the art of mapping is uniquely suited to portray.

The challenge of recuperating the network of estuaries and streams that once surrounded the low-lying areas around the San Francisco Bay, for example, might negotiate with how we constitute the terrain for urban life by drawing a clear divide from the surrounding waters–or the perpetuation of the fantasy of drawing a clearly demarcated line dividing water and land.  Rising seas once flooded a river valley to create San Francisco Bay, whose many inhabitants  long existed in relation to a less clearly defined shore.  Maps can reveal how humans have interacted with the Bay over time that created deep mental barriers to interaction.   One can trace the shoreline moving in hundreds of feet inland, and slowing in past centuries to but a millimeter a year, or a city block over the last century, as a  shape-shifting feature with which bay residents have negotiated in different ways since a time when people lived near the bay, and negotiated with its salty marshlands, as a map of native American Shell Heaps that ring the bay eloquently reveals by noting the clear buffer zones that inhabitants created on beaches to meet rising tides.

BayShellmounds 001

The maps registers crucial details of the negotiation with marshlands and wetlands now lost or recently restored, outlining an image of interaction with the sea that is not immediately recognizable, and difficult to negotiate with our own changed landscape.

The particular coastal region near El Cerrito indicates the building up of these mounds to create a permeable barrier from the resident crustaceans along the marshlands running from north of Albany Hill to behind Point Isabel–now landfill, then a remote rock in the Bay.


The salt marshes, and the five creeks that fed them, are evident in this detail of the 1856 US Coastal Survey:

Salt Marshes

Yet as people moved inland from an 1850 shoreline was reduced by almost a third all of a sudden in last fifty years in a quite rapid and decisive manner, to create a new sense of the stability of the shoreline that segregated land and sea which will be particularly challenging now with the rise of sea levels projected global warming.  The illusory stability of the shoreline is however inevitable . . .  and the bay on track to expand again by 2100, to return to its size of 1850, in ways that pose disastrous consequences for such overbuilt regions of low elevations.  All low-lying areas are threatened by this projected expansion of the ocean, from Foster City to the treatment plants near to the Bay, to Oakland and San Francisco’s low-lying airports . . . and Oakland’s port.  In cities with waste facilities, oil tanks, refineries, ports and airports lie close to the water, as in Richmond, Oakland, the Carquinez Strait and Albany, ocean waters pose very real environmental threats illustrated by the tsunami’s breaching of the Fukushima Daini power plant.

8.  Can we redesign the shoreline differently?  Observing these low-lying areas that stand in close relation to the water in this map of 1850, we might consider the importance of beaches that can constitute a natural buffer to the shore, and the need for restoring their role as transitional zones and regions that has been so precipitously eroded in our environment.  For the erosion of such transitional spaces–and the overbuilding of the shores–has rendered more vulnerable low-lying areas such as Albany, Emeryville, Oakland or El Cerrito, encouraging blinders about the potential possibilities of future risk.

Sandy beaches that once circled San Francisco similarly served as barriers to the encroachment of the sea.  The loss of beachfront corresponded to a huge expansion of reclamation by landfill, and a resulting loss of estuaries, widely known around the Marina, and evident in the expansion of the city’s shores from an 1895 USGS topographic survey:

Lost Land SF-Historical Creeks and Shore marina detail

The loss of estuaries, creeks, and rivers in the entire peninsula of San Francisco since 1895 is less well-known, but even more dramatic:

SF Built Out:Loss from 1895 Topo

Will the process of getting to know the shoreline again provide a way to make them stable barriers once again?  Will we be able to provide natural resources by fluvial deltas, and support the growth of these buffer zones to do better on a second chance, by expanding an estuary system linking to the ocean that was so drastically mis-designed in the 1950s, when it was even proposed–if the proposal was reversed–to pour more landfill into the Bay, and re-zone the estuary, in order to fill an expanding housing market?

Bay or Rivewr

While it was not so prominent as the urban planners had proposed, the dramatic loss of such crucial buffer zones as tidal wetlands is evident in a comparison of first coastal survey of 1850  in this overlay of coastal maps, courtesy the San Francisco Estuary Institute, detailing the configuration of the coastline as it was and as we have made it,  over the century and a half of urban growth throughout the Bay Area–and the dangers that this poses:


The map cannot begin to conjure the shifting dynamic within the landscape and ecosystem we have lost–although the system of dykes and landfill suggests the beginning of the possible excavations of a lost shoreline.

This image of the expansion of the city’s urban claims to housing derives from a cultural and deeply anti-ecological view of the city as a site of stability–and ocean was seen as a site of antagonism on which, in the domesticated image of the bay, the city could rightfully expand–and the estuary be recast as a river to accommodate housing needs.   In starting to change our attitudes to our shorelines, and to view them as sites for other residents and as permeable barriers, we might start from changing our attitudes to the sea:  and remember, with Rachel Carson, that it is through our expansion of the “artificial” nature of cities that we have forgotten and somewhat brazenly rewritten our relation to the shoreline and the sea.


Maps, of course, forge bridges between nature and culture in provocatively engaging ways–and engage viewers by mapping these relationships.  If we are starting to remap place in provocatively interactive ways, the challenge is to best map the shifting relation between place and the global changes that call for an extensive remapping of place within the world.

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November 14, 2013 · 10:19 am

Re-Writing Mapped Space: Maps as Texts

The Atlas of True Names   (2008) promises a legible cartographical surface clarifying confusions–although this enterprise is, in fact, less of a rebuttal to the deceptions of maps than based on whimsical fancy, the placid surface and mutely authoritative capitals of its densely written surface are something like a response to the comprehensive coverage of Google Maps.  Here, erudition crowds the visual surface of the map that draws its viewer onward across its surface on something more like a treasure hunt for amusement than a normal trajectory through space.  The text-based format of the map, whose traditional appearance and muted topographic coloring are equivalent to a calm reassuring voice, are a very retro surface, but as one looks closer, familiarity gives way to surprise:  for the translation of each place-name into the literal meaning of its signifier unpacks the familiar surface of the map.  The product on view gives new meaning to legible cartographical representations of expanse–or for that matter to maps as texts–by providing a map of the “true meanings” of toponymy in other maps, by a kind of reductio ad absurdum of etymological origins.

As we look at it, to be sure, we seem to be falling down something of a rabbit-hole, of which maps hang on each side, as for Alice; for the map  retains few familiar names.  The maps in the Atlas of True Names remind us of the extent to which our understanding of mapped space is determined by the location of names we read on maps’ surfaces, as much as other map signs.  Rather than use big data, the map of North America boasts data as small, and apparently as old, as one can get:





There’s more than a bit of wacked-out humor in the map’s subversion of the schoolroom hanging map used to study the states’ capitals or high-school text of history.  But just as the notion of “United States of The Home Ruler” seems inconceivable in a pre-Homeland Security world, and independent of etymological reconstruction, between the staid “Land of Settlement” and prosaic “Navel of the Moon,” the politics by which this atlas retrofits the map as object merit examination as remapping an inhabited space.  As much as a novelty, the marketing of this atlas returns us to the map we grew up with, and winkingly suggests what good map-readers we are.

In recasting such a familiar region with “true” place-names, map-reading becomes an exercise not only of re-reading toponyms with a thesaurus in hand, but an exercise of refamiliarizing ourselves with the naming of places that we know.  The notion of locating truth in maps might unintentionally echo an eery undercurrent scarily similar to the right-wing thirst for transparency in politics:  the shifted place-names of this project of re-mapping boasts the title of the “The Atlas of True Names” as if to curry to a skepticism in how place-names determined by multiple interests–even if the exercise in whimsy also aspires to enchantment.  Replacing the names we’d expect encourages to read the cartographical surface with the sort of pleasure of discovery of place-names we might have while headed to a radiant Emerald City past Truth Mountain, Winkie River and Rigamarole.

1927 Oz Map


But we’re in Kansas; not in Winkie-Land.  For American readers, the flattening of places into a register of quasi-scriptural authority of place seems to be an echo of the sort of national essentialism of the map–even if this was far removed from what the pleasant couple who designed it in their native Lübeck, here the “Lovely City,” might have actually intended.  Indeed, the negotiation of place names that began from custom and usage, is all but erased in the replacement of toponymy with a “true” origin that leaves Texas “Land of Friends” and Maine the “Land of Folks” and just reminds us of the darned problems of relating signifiers to signified.  Cuba as “Place to Find Gold” is transposed from a treasure map, but once removed from “X-marks-the-spot” deictic pointers, seems robbed of meaning.

Consider, for one, the range of names that were lost or purged from the maps that we use to navigate the Bay Area alone, let alone the entire American West, in this intensive compilation of native names for place in circa 1760 since erased from our own cartographical records of the same area:




Or consider the active role of colonizers in the renaming of regions, places and islands over time and human history so evident in the band around the equator:



Colonization around Equator


Which brings us to the odd title of the atlas, sold for an unclear audience.  The claim to be “true” seems particularly questionable in its flattening of the historical richness  of the thick descriptions any map recapitulates.  While I don’t want to question or assail the attempt to “re-enchant” a space whose meanings mutated over time, the problem of viewing the layers of history as a matter of direct translation forgets that the past of any place is itself another country, if not a sequence of multiple worlds, that a one-to-one re-matching also threatens to impoverish at the same time as essentialize.   And as much as re-enchanting, there’s the sense that this pair of married cartographers, Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, put their readers in the position of Alice, who “had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say,” but found the words compelling and so intelligent. Truthfulness and maps are an odd combination:  the map is a register of actuality, but a polyglot rendering of actuality.

Yet as if disclosing hidden knowledge, even while barely maintaining a straight face, the unwitting effect of the “True Names” project is to flatten the historical accretion but also multi-cultural negotiations that provide the back story of the formation of place-names on the map.  The heaviness of “The Land of Settlement” that overhangs the familiar forty-eight, and the prosaic “Land of Cloudy Water” and “Land of the Shallow Water” aside, and even the romance of the “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes,” or “Land of Folks,” the notion is that this map has the true stuff for its readers.  Like the “Houses at the Foot of the Mountains” or the “Land of the People with Tall Caps” north of modern Pakistan.

The Anglicized toponymy of place is not only an etymological translation, but a sort of re-rendering of loci that invests the surface of the map with a epic-like declarative identification.  Of course, you don’t have to wander far:  Paris is the “City of Boat-Men,” and England (Great Britain) “Great Land of the Tattoed,” as any reader of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars might remember his description of the blue-painted men standing on the cliffs of Dover.  Hormes created the map together with his wife with aspirations to recreate ” an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children” as they encountered its topography, as if wandering for the first time in a country before time and seeking to capture local particularities, or to see the place for the mythical primeval time.

The inspiration of this map, and indeed for the treatment of mapping as a commercial enterprise, is less a report actual localities or surveying, than a removed activity of toponymic transcription, here under the guise or mask of Teutonic erudition more than compilation of unknown spaces; the idea is to make known space unknown or known again.  The aim is a sort of time-travel and a wiping clean of the slate of culture:   “Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw,” he explained, eliding the palimpsestic quality of the map itself.  But the standards are not particularly high, as the goal seems to be to amuse.  There’s a certain failure to capture the acts of translation whereby a current English or American name descended from a French or other place-name, as Buffalo NY from belle fleuve, or for that matter recast “Rome” which appears as “Central City,” or even New York’s stint as New Amsterdam until 1644:  and even as late as 1630, colonists noted the divergent spellings of Mattachusetts, Massatusetts Bay, and Massachusetts, without seeing the need to arrive at orthographic stability.  And so perhaps a history of toponyms’ mutation can be included in the online version, bedecked with hypertext.   But learning is not the point, of course; and neither is a history of usage.

There is quite a bit of fun in imagining the renaming of the continuous 48 states with new identities like recasting Illinois as the “Land of Those Who Speak Well” or “Land of the Pale Faces,” even though the latter might now cover the entire continent:


map detail North America


The imaginative etymological reconstructions are a source of delight, if they don’t always successfully re-enchant mapped space and may also raise eyebrows.  Few won’t love such place-names like the “Land of the Cloud Water” or “The Sea of Weeds” or “Navel of the Moon” that give a quasi-biblical authority to what we usually read on the surface of the map most of us have known from first or second grade. Even despite the familiarity of some names–“Oakland” and “Salt Lake City” among them on the map, the diversity and history of the transmission of place-names are somehow flattened out to a single surface in one fell typographical stroke. It might be, moreover, that the location of ‘trueness’ in the names suggests both a sense of what the surface of the map usually hides and a barely conceals the right-wing paranoia at a conspiracy perpetrated even against us map-readers–echoing if not somehow analogous to the fears of a conspiracy that the falsity of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth-certificate has been recently reconfirmed which vigilant readers of the Wall Street Journal continue to post in the responses to articles for whoever is listening.  The renaming of “true” place-names somehow contains an element of rectifying the deceits long perpetuated by state-trained cartographers obscure, with a healthy skepticism toward the authority transmitted in maps:  this almost seems  the latest echo of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid streak that shapes politics, in which politics was an “arena for angry minds” –if not in such Manichaean terms as Hofstadter argued, but rather a sense that the signifiers associated with the place might be better decoupled from them, lest we naturalize the map’s surface, or mistake it for the territory.

One can imagine the scriptural significance that certain readers would paradoxically invest in the 2008 corpus of maps.  Although the two practiced cartographers mobilized an array of Old World erudition, and they clearly took some pleasure in tracing back, from the port of Halifax, “Remote Corner where Rough Grass Grows,” the act of renaming was something of an inversion of the cartographer’s task of “put[ting] as much information as possible in a single image.”   For in this case, the image is not what makes the information assembled accessible after all, so much as a the quasi-scriptural authority invested, with some imaginative leaps, in place-names that repopulate its surface, and shift the ground beneath one’s feet.  How is Hudson’s Bay (and other places linked to proper names) given true immediacy when Heartion’s Bay? Quasi-scriptural is not a misnomer given the solemn intoning of places like “Land Towards which the Sea Flows” or “Mountainous Land” across the map.


Einfaches CMYK


The sort of transparent legibility of the printed word seems vaguely Lutheran in its notion of a return to a scriptural truth, and indeed it echoes the enjoyment Luther himself took in including in his German-language Bible a supplemental map of the Holy Land.  The map, derived from the circa 1509 map Lucas Cranach had engraved of the region, was intended to satisfy readers’ curiosity of Holy place-names.  The reprinted version of Cranach’s map, with its toponymy expanded, is an example of the promise print offered to the legibility of the surface of the map.  Here is a version reprinted in a Dutch Bible of the 1542, revealing the course of Exodus and lending concrete meaning to those temporally removed events so that one could witness them anew:


Cranach Bible Map Holy Land toponyms


The sort of legibility that print promised provided access to an assembly of spatial relations that was not earlier in the ken of most readers.  The landscape map that provides a basis to understand Exodus invested a material presence to a set of quasi-mystical names long transmitted without a clear sense of their actual locations.   We are now perhaps not reading a map, but playing something like a post-modern parlor game. In contrast to Cranach’s useful collation of toponyms in the sacred text, many of these etymological reconstructions are amusing to imagine as modern road maps.

“Mom and Dad!  We’re finally at the City of Many Fish!  And I can see the Peak of the Bearer-of-the-Annointed-One Dove in the distance!” “Hurray!  We’re at Place by the Meadow in the Land of Friends!  Let’s get out of the car!”  This is the absurdism of etymological archeology, erasing the traces of population or local history in the hopes of a new essentialism of world myth. While all this is overwhelming, a focus on one contested region of the world–and attendant diminishing of wacky amusement that comes with time and repeated map-reading–suggests the odd comfort that comes from an erasure of the multicultural contexts of the evolution of place-names discussed, among others, by how George R. Stewart famously romanced American toponymy in his historical account of place-naming that traced in a somewhat dry manner the negotiation of practices place-naming, ceremonies of possession, and textual corruptions mediated and brokered by inter-cultural contact and aspirations, documenting the translation of French or Indian terms to Anglicized place-names or orthographic shifts over time.

Indeed, a somewhat reverse pattern of trying to map primeval names for places from their modern proper nouns seem to cast some doubt on the philological rigor of the project as a whole:  the city first identified in the map’s first edition as “New Wild Boar Village,” was back-traced from “Nova Eboraca” (New York), despite the boar having questionable homonymic relationship.  (‘New Yew-Tree Village,’ reads the current map, although one isn’t sure how that relates to an earlier encounter with space not mediated by a number of encounters with lexicons; old maps, which might have provided “New Amsterdam,” are not noted or considered.)  Yet the prosaic image of yew-trees offer little sense of what York meant to the Romans or Britons, and the Latin toponymy might not even have been primarily vegetal in intent.  Other familiar places seem similarly distorted by an etymological imaginary or fanciful but sloppy erudition:  “Saint Little Frank One” seems a forced upstream etymology of “San Francisco,” inanely confounding “frank” as proper name and adjective.  And how does “United States of the Home,” with its unintended echo of the Homeland Security Department, line up with Amerigo Vespucci?   Why (on earth) is the city of fallen angels, “Los Angeles,” more transparently or truly registered as “The Messengers”?

What’s gained in the new linguistic transparency that this re-insertion of English toponymy for a rich cultural canvas of the surface of the map?  The more circumscribed focus on a map of the western US and southern California make more clear what’s lost in the flattening of historical encounter with space, however much it might satisfy the English Only crowd, a sanitized landscape where we are given the impression of being able to truly understand what the foreign tongue both mystified and masqueraded as euphonious for our ears, so present in much of the American midwest.




Some of the unsettling unheimlichkeit of the map may derive from the impression that the place-names have been taken off the map, put in a vat of acid, or a very hot rinse, and then put back in place on its surface.  Recasting the map as something like a Google Translator program’s reading of place seems to respond to fears of the messiness of globalization, by rewriting the maps in our own lingua franca to erase the multicultural messiness found on the map.  With everything has now been translated to English, at last, a properly legible text promises a true uniformity to project English only on any foreign labeling of place, extricating the map entire from its web of polyglot diversity in a newly proprietary way. The result is something of a comic fantasy of map-reading that has a somewhat J. R. R. Tolkein-ish tinge, or, in the case of the Land of Five Rivers, Horsemen, and Turtles, the sound of Dada-ist language poetry that calls into question the cultural specificity of very process of naming places on maps.  “Once the names have been taken back to their roots and translated into English,” Hormes and Peust boast, “it is immediately apparent that our own world has an extraordinary affinity with Middle-earth,” we learn, “clearly rooted in Man’s observation of his natural environment and [the] physical location of a settlement.”  (Holmes admitted that his own interest in maps can be traced back to a childhood obsession with The Lord of the Rings, which presents a toponymy “so clear that  every child understands it,”–even before the cinematic recreation of Mt. Doom let it enter most kids’ imaginations–in his map the Mediterranean is after all “The Sea of Middle Earth.”)

Am I wrong to see something monolithic and oddly neo-fascist in their alleged “re-enchantment” of a drawn, or re-written, cartographical space?  The sort of verbal dominance over localities may be less explicit, but it is somehow just as insidious, if not tongue-in-cheek about the authority maps hold. I don’t mean to be so harsh.  Although its authors openly aspired “restore an element of enchantment to the world we all think we know so well,” and allow readers to “take a look at the world with fresh eyes,”  even the Atlas of True Names “United States of the Home Ruler” or “Great Land of the Tattooed” playfully suggests a level of transparency to the map that seems to push  back against globalization by returning to a familiar idiom and tongue.




If Stewart’s classic study of American toponymy traced the negotiation with American Indian place-names, the reduction to one language is a cultural flattening of the surface of the map, in a somewhat paradoxical Enlightenment project of making inhabited space visible–or lisable–in the sense that legibility trumps space or cultural remove.  But the mobilization of this linguistic erudition into an enterprise pushing back against the world connected by the internet to restore wonder of creating an identifiable relation to space onto the surface of the individual map. The problem with attempting to restore such a sense of wonder is magnified when we deal with other cultures, where one finds echoes of the land of Marco Polo on the Spice Route, from the “Land of the Tribal Homelands” and “Land of the Fire-Keepers” (Azerbajan) along the “Golden Mountains” to “Riceland” (China); the “Town of Happiness” lies comfortably near the “City of One Who Aspires to Enlightenment,” perhaps the city of naked philosophers or gymnosophists inhabiting the edges of the worlds mapped by medieval men.




There is a certain Teutonic Enlightened strain in the bleaching of past history in the name of one mother (or father) tongue.  Shifting the names of places is a way of getting you to pay attention to the entire surface of the map for something surprising or out of the ordinary, but also flattens the aura of far-off places in a sadly normative fashion, creating something like a new level of two-dimensionality by robbing places of the imagined accretions and associations all place-names have.  There’s something sad of the absence of the romance of the map that results, in which even London seems pretty absurd as the “Unfordable River Town,” though the unaffordable river town it might be.


England--IMpotance of


Indeed, the romance of space is entirely tied to the euphonious nature of place.  Even Frances Mayes herself might have trouble writing about the Tuscan Sun by living outside The Blossoming One, in the sun-drenched Hilly Mountains–the very practice of cross-cultural translation that she professes is itself flattened by the absent assonance in the  toponymy that these maps of Italy and Tuscany afford budding poets.  Even though “The Land of Calves” and “Rainland” seem romantically appealing in their own right:  but they don’t sound like the euphonious landscape filled with ginestre and tromboni, as well as the lovely vibrant tastes of basilico.


Italy in English


White-washed to an English rooted in etymological derivations, the landscape is in an odd way de-peopled or depopulated as it is removed from how place is spoken, and re-mapped, by the people living in its landscape.  There’s a child-like naiveté we get from reading the maps’ place-names, which mystify even the locations that we know all too well. There is the odd sense that from a space in fragments, these cartographers are trying to create a new wonder of the whole, arrogating authority of naming to themselves in the name of recuperating an initial primeval confrontation with a topographic landscape.  The task seems in part to invest immediacy in the world as it is encountered in each place in a comprehensive topographic map–without considering the synthetic nature of the fabrication of cartographical space, and although this seems at odds with the synthetic construction of a uniform distribution of spatial relations.  It seems the cartographers took a digitized image to re-write the toponyms they found with evocative substitutes, but chose to keep some, as “Oakland,” “Riverside,”  “Long Beach,” or “Salt Lake City,” as such were sufficient topographic descriptors in themselves.  In seeking to preserve the essence of each name as much as they can, they may unwittingly undermine  forging continuity in the heterogeneous surfaces of mapped space.


Filed under "Atlas of True Names", cartographic whimsy, Frances Mayes, Google Maps, historical maps, Middle Earth, native toponymy, Winkie-Land