Robert MacFarlane, “The Wild Places” (Penguin 2008)

Since the start of my journeys, I had been studying cartography. I had read book after book, spoken to surveyors and mapmakers, and tried to understand the rudiments of different projection techniques — Azimuthal, Gnomonic, Pseudoconical The language of geodesy sounded like the language of spells.

Before it was a field of science, cartography was an art: this was the first thing I had understood. We are now used to regarding cartography as an endeavour of exacting precision, whose ambition is the elimination of subjectivity from the representation of a given place. Such a presumption is hard to set aside, for we are accustomed to trust maps, to invest confidently in the data with which they present us. But in its pre-modern expressions, map-making was a pursuit that mingled knowledge and supposition, that told stories about places, that admitted fear, love, memory and amazement into its projections.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of maps: the grid and the story. A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, lent a new authority to cartography. The power of grid maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. But their virtue is also their danger: they they reduce the world only to data, that they record space independent of being.

Story maps, by contrast, represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and their perimeters are the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and place are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance. (141)


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