Why Maps Matter (by Susan McCaslin)

A Matter of Mapping, or Why Maps Matter

by Susan McCaslin

(based on David McCloskey’s map of Cascadia, unveiled at the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo, British Columbia, April 30-May 3, 2015)

First off, up to now I haven’t been much of a map person. I’m generally intimidated by maps and can’t figure out how to read them, often holding them upside-down and relying on a GPS. I’ll gladly turn to photos, stories, and even poems when preparing for a trip, leaving the mapping and interpretation of maps to my husband. Woe to us if he asks me to navigate. Unlike me, Mark poured over maps as a teen, dreaming, planning in preparation for extended trips into the wilderness. Maps were and remain for him portals to the natural world he loves. They make possible pre-hensive (reaching out to grasp beforehand) experience of the terrain. 

Yet I’m a poet with a contemplative bent. So, challenged by David, I decided to meditate on his map as one would on a painting, mandala, or icon. What if I could gaze on a map as sacred art, enter it as sacred space? I wanted to engage with the map as conduit. What might go on between my body, mind, soul, and the lines, forms, and colours of the map would surely become a liminal place, a threshold. Transport me, o map!

Plato speaks of the Forms: Beauty, Truth, Goodness. I used to think the philosopher’s Forms were abstractions, but realized when going deeper into Parmenides and the Pythagorean roots of Socrates’ dramaturgy, that the Forms are more like living beings (Gk. Zoes, life forms) that connect us to a more holistic reality. Maps can be complex layerings with biological and geological features demarcated but resonating together.  As Robert Bringhurst pointed out during his talk at the Cascadia Poetry Festival, we could add to maps the layering of languages (especially the indigenous languages that preceded western presence on this continent).  For me, David’s map has become an energetic form, a living blueprint or field evoking the complexity and beauty of our bioregion.

At the conference, B.C. poet Harold Rhenisch presented a compelling account of his zig-zag journey back and forth across the border between Canada and Washington State to explore the Columbia Gorge. For him, the political border between the Canada and the US, an artificial construct, became inconsequential, as it had been to the aboriginal peoples who had roamed freely in this bioregion stretching from northern California to southern Alaska. Harold discovered himself as “trans-national” through his connection to the particularities of place within a wider ecology. He related how the border guards were suspicious of a guy wandering back and forth across a well-monitored post-911 border. Was he a drug dealer, a potential terrorist?  No, just a seeker, an explorer, a lover of rivers, petroglyphs, waterfalls that claimed him. A poet.

My map meditations proceeded. When a person connects vitally to the land through the portal of a map, that that place may open to an ever-widening set of interrelated circles. Someone so connected may come to indwell the land and be inhabited by particular birds, animals, sounds, winds, weathers. Someone so infused, starts to feel part and parcel of the bioregion. We are all essentially connected to the earth, but most of us don’t live that intimacy very deeply. At this time, it has become more and more apparent that we are plundering and destroying the very ecosystems that support us.

By moving from map to a feeling of embeddedness in a bioregion, we may access the interconnected circles of the local, continental, global and planetary ecosystems. “Systems” is perhaps too mechanistic a word for the process of waking up inside Gaia, sentient earth-consciousness. Someone who experiences a particular ecosystem in this way, might just momentarily feel all the eyes of the spheres looking through her body, her eyes. This is what the ancients called the realm of the cosmological as it ties to the particular. So maps have the potential to move us from microcosm to macrocosm and back. A dance. We too are mapa mundis, smaller maps of the world.

By gazing at a well-wrought map we have the opportunity to take an imaginative leap from looking as from outside (apparent objectivity) to being present in the terrain. A true map creates a phenomenology of perception. A rich map like David’s offers new possibilities of being-in-the world, breathing what you first only conceptualized and considered separate. Being present in this way helps us progress from bioregional, to planetary, to cosmic consciousness. Sounds abstract but it’s not. 

Maps can be reminders that we are meant to be at home where we are. Like a good poem, a good map like David’s participates in the reality to which it points. 

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