Maps are evidence of our love for the earth. They capture a likeness of this, the only life-sustaining planet we know. Cartographers fill their charts with rivers pouring through huddled mountains, then clawed up by interstates and by-ways. They are beautiful, but few are exact replicas of what they purport to represent. A map shows more about how the map-maker feels rather than what is actually in the place itself.
Often this principle of map relativity is demonstrated in high school geography class. See how the United States is always in the center of the placemats we buy from Target? What do the maps look like in New Zealand? in Belgium? in Namibia? Discuss.
In colonial times, maps were the source of much American discussion. They were hung in central locations, at taverns, post offices, and train stations. Globes were displayed in the center of the family drawing room. They were the focal point around which guests and host could convene and converse—where had so and so traveled? Were the roads well kept in that county? Then, after folks became acquainted, they’d have some fun and test each with geographic games. If a gentleman from Andover were courting a lady in Lexington, how many towns must he ride through to reach her?
Before the printing press, maps were strictly impressionistic portraits. Cartographers sketched the land as they experienced it. They lined the edges with beasts and cityscapes. These atlases showed not only what the artist loved but also what he feared and desired.
Some maps still traffic in such imprecise speculation. For instance, there are no totally agreed upon defining lines for Chicago’s ninety plus neighborhoods. The city surveyed residents in the 1970s to compose a map, but since then the borders have changed and many versions delineate each block differently. I personally feel that I live in North Center, although I’m barely a bike’s pedal push away from both Lincoln Square and Ravenswood.
Maps have been protected as intellectual property under US copyright laws since 1790. This means that no two maps are exact replicas of a place. Many cartographers will create a false mountain or a decoy river, like a beauty mark to stake claim to their work. No professional would fool with a major topographical feature, just the curve of a bluff or trickling creek—the sort of detail that only a lover would notice.
The most obsessive cartographers are satellites. There are about 3,000 of them presently orbiting the planet; 1,400 left earth via Russia, another 1,000 flew from the US. Japan launched 100, China about 80, France has over 40, the UK and Canada share 25, and there are at least ten each from Italy, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. If these orbiters were launched for love, it was a love of power, money, and prestige, not simply an affinity for the planet.
Each satellite sends back information and exact coordinates of every thing seen—traffic jams on I-90, seaplanes over lake Michigan, and the cable news anchor broadcasting the headlines to your TV— and some unseen things too like the wind patterns off the Pacific coast, the galactic tide of the Andromeda Galaxy, and Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 pop music count down. Only one satellite, the moon, loves the earth in a sentimental, reflective sort of way. The rest are scientific observers with data to report and a job—however noble or nefarious that task may be.
Their work has appeared, among other places, in my iPhone’s location App. On the touch screen, I can click and drag the earth until my location appears as a blue pulsing dot. There I am. There I am. There I am.
When thousands of satellites know where you are, you don’t ever have to know for yourself. I came upon this realization while traveling east by bicycle from Chicago to the coast of New Hampshire. On a grand scale, I could travel by way of celestial map. I just pointed my wheel and kept the sun sitting on my right shoulder.
When I needed more precise locations, I asked the locals. Most often they’d direct me in hand-turns and hardly ever in cardinal directions. “Take a right,” they would say. “It’s not far!” Then, ten miles I’d pedal to the southwest or due north, or perhaps straight into the middle of the earth. Word-of-mouth routes would always send me up a very steep hill with no shade or obvious water source at the top. If those goose-chases were meant to be a geographic game, I never found them entertaining.
In addition to my phone and new local friends, I also had a real map—tri-fold, AAA, tattered from my own thousands of circling inspections. When I arrived in Some Town, USA I’d ask a resident about the road ahead. Often the local would be unclear of their immediate surroundings, though they may have lived in town their whole lives, they would turn back and ask me, “What town is east of here?” Then I’d have to unfold my map and show them.
Sometimes I sought routes that prioritized how the roads would make me feel. To the cartographer, Ohio’s Route 6 travels along steadily hugging the coast of Lake Erie. However, on the planet, as in the precise eye of my smart phone, the road coils back on itself, in no hurry to frame the coast. On mild sunny days, I hardly cared about the extra miles. I did not feel betrayed by my AAA map; my impression of Route 6 was composed of vacationers on sun-bleached boardwalks and blue herons alighting in lake reeds.
After sweating so much of myself onto these streets, I felt every bit as tender as the most affected map-maker. My paper atlas had worn thin from continual study. The inches between intersections appeared to me not just as fine red lines and green slabs of state forests, but also as lengths of time, shifting gears, and cool brooks for dipping in. The map had a scale, unlike my location App, which changed distance and direction with the swipe of two fingers. A paper atlas tells a story—once upon a time we built a nest within the tinder and stone of this planet; then forgot that we had ever not been here—it’s a story that the pliable gray land and white road of a touch screen cannot convey.
I liked chatting with residents, I appreciated my iPhone, but I loved my paper map. Perhaps I treasured that tri-fold as cartographers love the earth—because we both relied on our beloveds. Locals have no need for maps and, as a consequence, pay less attention to their surroundings. They needn’t exert themselves to navigate any of their own familiar territory. When they press their gas pedals, their mind wanders words away. Their transit occurs like a Hollywood movie scene, the earth moves on the projected screen of the windshield while the car stands still on set—the driver has only a vague relationship to the whereto and how of his journey.
Those travelers who work for their location, who move about the map—like the moon, like my bike, like me—we are the ones who will know the Earth’s likeness. Others will remain always centered—a blue pulsing dot on a hand held screen. Those travelers will never actually be moved. Their earth will remain flat; the sun will swing around their bent necks like a pendulum.