Monday, September 1, 2003

A map of Bowen Island

This week's Ecotone Wiki topic is Maps and Place

As a kid two of the most prized possessions were my stamp collection and my atlas. I learned more from those two things about geography than anything I learned in school. I learned about the shapes of countries, why some were coloured red (the Commonwealth, of course)

More importantly, I learned from those things how we see the world, and it wasn't until I was in university and I had read Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams that I began to see all of these representations as maps of place. The map itself, the topographic representation of a place was merely the beginning. What a country chose to put on its stamps was also a map. Certain countries other than the USA for example, honoured US presidents, a fact completely inexplicable to me in my childhood, but absolutely clear in the geo-political consciousness raising of my late teens (although why Poland issued a stamp in 1975 with George Washington on it is still a mystery to me).

At any rate, suffice to say that my twin interests in philately and maps led me to thinking deeply about representations of place.

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Maps are tools that help us make sense of place. We create maps of any number of scales in many different media all to tell stories about what we know. The very best maps contain exactly enough information for a specific purpose, be it wayfinding, hunting and gathering or planning. The maps that are most real are those that accurately reproduce our experience of a place, in three dimensions with sound and texture.

We normally think of maps as flat reproductions of the elements of a landscape. They are pictures, with physical geography represented by lines and colours. Peering at these maps can help us understand the forces that shaped the land, or the best place to build a house. Maps are animated by a keen eye, and eye which understands both what is being represented, and what it really looks like.

But maps are just pretty pictures without a sense of place. Only when you have visited Bowen Island does the above map mean anything substantial to you. It is only after you have walked through the old-growth of Cape Roger Curtis that the 600 acres in the lower left corner of the map resonate so strongly for the wild jewel that it is. Only after standing on my deck overlooking Mannion Bay - the large "bite" on the right side of the map - can you know what it is to look out over log booms and ferry traffic to the rocky shore of Whytecliffe on the mainland.

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Stories are a little like maps of place. They help us to understand place and to navigate a little in someone else's boots. Over the 2+ years I have kept this blog, several people have told me how much they appreciated getting to know one islander's perspective and how it helped to inform their life on Bowen. That is why I have provided links to the Bowen Island noosphere, a group mind that exists on the internet, fed a steady stream of content by the likes of Markus and Marian, Michael and Penny, John and Mark and Richard and the contributors to Bowen Online.

And then there is the Bowen Island GeoLibrary which in many ways is the sum total of everything our municipal government knows about this place. It contains maps of water sources, land use, geological composition, rainfall, roads, structures, plans, beaches and dreams. It also contains a way of understanding some of the stories contained in this blog and in other story gathering projects, as the Local Stories module charts our semantic relationship with the landscape.

In a very real way we are connecting stories of place to maps here on Bowen Island. What use it will have is unknown. In a generation perhaps people will look back at the stories and the ways we were and recognize them as earlier steps on a path, deepening their understanding of place and how they arrived where they are.

In the end perhaps that is the value of mapping place: it establishes our mark in time, like a "Kilroy Was Here" etched in the landscape for others to know that we tried to understand this place and live fully within it.