The Map Is Not the Territory

I look at a map of future paths of totality, and what I see is a scaffold of the future moments that make up my life.

Eclipse chaser Dr. Kate Russo, quoted in Frontier Magazine

An Introduction
A map is an abstraction and is never perfect. But we need maps to orient ourselves in space, in time—even in relation to one another, as writer Jess Zimmerman noted in a powerful personal essay. “I can’t zoom in far enough to see if we were happy, or sad, or changing, or lying to ourselves.” Here are maps that chart pasts, the complex present, and a possible future. –Brian Sholis

Odysseys
“The Odyssey, if you strip away enough allegory and myth, might serve as a travel guide for the Aegean Sea: which islands to avoid if you hate escape rooms, which cruises to skip if you always forget to pack earplugs, where to get that beef that angers the gods. But how does Odysseus’ trek across the wine-dark sea map onto an actual map of the Mediterranean?”

Medieval Trade Networks
The image above is just a hint of the complexity and richness Martin Jan Månsson has uncovered. “Even before modern times, the Afro-Eurasian world was already well connected. This map depicts the main trading arteries of the high middle ages, just after the decline of the Vikings and before the rise of the Mongols, the Hansa and well before the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope.” As Jason Kottke noted when linking to this map, “The saying is that ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ But as this map shows, that assertion belongs to an earlier era. In the 12th century, it was more accurate to say that all roads lead to Constantinople or Cairo or Baghdad or Hanzhong … or perhaps even ‘all roads lead to everywhere.’”

Location Not Found
While perusing Google Street View images of Paradise, California, a town recently destroyed by wildfires, Angella d’Avignon “experienced a sudden wave of topophilia—a strong sense of attachment to a place, a notion that its terrain was connected to my life—for both a time and a community that no longer exists.”

The United City-States of America
City planner Nolan Gray, noting that state borders do not reflect demographic, economic, or social realities, “decided to make a map that dispensed with the continental 48 states and instead divvied up the land into 100 city-states.” He learned, among other things, that the eastern United States is like medieval Europe. Perhaps the past is never the past.

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