Literary (digital) cartography

December 18th, 2015, 11am

It was 2.8°C with few clouds. The breeze was light.

I lay my notebook down, lay down

a sensual geography

approaching the edge where

cultivation cuts a clean line — -Linda Russo, “In Ordinary Landscapes”1

Before we had Street View and before phones could find my location on a map and lead me to the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport (nearly impossible to find without), all we had was Google Earth (and mapquest, but for some reason that’s still around). You only had to double-click on the earth icon on your desktop to open it up. My brother Nolan and I were transported all over the world.

Typing in our own address in Waxahachie, TX brought up nothing. Grey and green pixelation that resembled camouflage. Our home was considered too rural. Unmappable.

Our memories of our home were developed through direct experience with the place. My brother and sister, Gabe and Emily, both 7 years younger than me, remember more distinctly home from an aerial view. For a while GoogleMaps had only the small red rectangle of our roof and the silver-tin half-roof of the barn. Mom’s darkred Excursion was parked on the limestone road. Dad must have been at work. Like an early stop-action animation, our 3-car garage, the fence, and the other half of the barn popped into existence. The Excursion was replaced with a smaller hybrid Prius (still red) and more cars popped into existence in the driveway.

Maps show more than a moment or the passage of time. Mapping can include fluid lines and icons delineating “geophysical, political, cultural, subjective, imagined and temporal features, among many others.”2

Linda Russo, a Palouse-based poet living in Pullman, WA, in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, plays with mapping (her) direct experience on a grayscale image of the South Palouse River and Paradise Creek from GoogleMaps. Though this image is part of a publicly-accessible digital space, her writing of her own local experiences of the place on the map (through numbers corresponding to numbered stanzas) challenges the idea that the public digital space is separate from her own private experiences in the physical place. Map-making, for Russo, aids in her practice of inhabitory ecopoetics (getting to know a place through “reading” and experiencing it).3

Mapping is useful not only in learning to know a specific place intimately, as Linda Russo has done, but also in understanding larger areas (and their more complex geophysical, political, cultural, etc. histories). In a study on spatial memory, Daniel R. Montello, Mary Hegarty, and Anthony E. Richardson found that learning about the layout of very large spaces using only direct experience would be difficult or perhaps impossible. “[U]nless that direct experience comes from the window of an airplane; maps are normally the only way most people ever gain access to this information.”4

May 2010. Flying to see my family in the UK before spending June in Paris for a study abroad experience, I passed over Iceland. Or the plane did. I had a window seat. A few weeks before, Eyjafjallajokull, an ice cap whose name I can only pronounce with the help of YouTube videos, had violently erupted, disrupting air traffic for weeks and forcing 800 people to be evacuated. I looked down from the window with intensified interest, trying to pick out cracks in the surface of the glacier. Iceland seemed small and delicate. Breaks in topography (or cracks in the ice cap?) looked like cracks in an eggshell. The volcanic ash was still hovering, overshadowing the country and the ocean surrounding.

Though I agree, that a window-seat gave me a front-seat view to a major environmental catastrophe. I would only know the detailed information of the place through the Zoom-In feature on GoogleMaps or by being actually present, having a direct experience which would give me access to the sights, sounds, and smells. The airplane provides a synthetic (as opposed to a synaesthetic) experience. A rounded-glass window gives me a distorted view of the country below and all sights and smells are limited to what’s cycling and recycling through the plane.

At least GoogleMaps has Street View and Trekker.

  1. Russo, Linda. Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way. Mangotsfield, Bristol: Shearsman Books Ltd. (2015). Print. 

  2. Posthumus, Stephanie and Stefan Sinclair. “Reading environment(s): digital humanities meets ecocriticism.” Green Letters 18 (3): 254-73. 26 November 2014. Web. 28 November 2015. 

  3. See Footnote 1. 

  4. Montello, Daniel R., Mary Hegarty, and Anthony E. Richardson. “Spatial Memory of Real Environments, Virtual Environments, and Maps.” Human Spatial Memory: Remembering Where. ed. Gary L. Allen. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. (2004). Print. 

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Madison Griffin

Nature + Literature =

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