The Meanings in Maps

Ever since a child I’ve been pulled magnetically towards maps. In school geography class I would peer up in fascination at the roll-down map of the planet fastened above the blackboard. There was the bold conglomeration of different coloured countries afloat on the blue oceans, the peculiarly shaped continents, the inset lakes. From its flat surface rose the compelling contours of imagined places. Though to be fair, it was as much the romance of strange names that first sparked my imagination.

One year South America was the focus of our study and I learned by heart the capital cities and their counterpart countries: Lima, Peru; Montevideo, Uruguay; Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following year we turned our young and nodding heads towards Africa and learned that the Nile was the world’s longest river, travelling over six and a half thousand kilometres from source to sea, and that the Sahara was the largest expanse of desert sands anywhere on the planet. Rather than a sense of place, it was the political unions and distinctions of scale that formed the template of our understanding.

Maps can change, of course; particularly those concerned with the political world. Perhaps nowhere more so than where I happen to live. For nearly half a millenium the three countries merging around the shores of the Prespa Lakes – Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – didn’t exist as actualities, but were in fact part of the Ottoman Empire, labelled on maps as the province of Macedonia and ruled from Istanbul. As recently as 20 years ago, the country that begins a couple of hundred metres from where I swam in the lake this afternoon reached as far north as Austria. So when a Slovenian friend visited us a few years ago she sat on the same stretch of shore where I laid my towel in the bright, sunburst afternoon, and stared at the red-roofed village of Dolno Dupeni, the first village beyond the borders of Greece, and said, “That was my country.” Two decades ago her country spanned the Balkan peninsula, absorbing a variety of landscapes, languages and peoples into its realm. But when Yugoslavia shattered into a patchwork of separate states, it radically realigned the cartography of the Balkan mind.

Years away from the classroom I began learning in the landscape itself, discovering that the maps of my childhood contained very little of detail. And it was to this detail that I slowly became attached: the small intricacies of place, the subtle substance that swings with the seasons. In short, I began studying the creatures and moods and light of the landscapes that surrounded me. So when a job offer came out of the blue, Julia and I knew it was an opportunity too good to decline. Over the last couple of years plans have been growing to erect wind farms on the mountains encircling the Prespa national park, and one company in particular had requested a full environmental assessment of the potential impact of their intended development. When the Hellenic Ornithological Society contacted us from Athens to ask if we’d be able to carry out a study of the birds in the project area we agreed with great interest, knowing that we were committing ourselves to a single place for 45 days of field work spread over many months. Along with the importance of the study and data itself, it was an unexpected chance to unravel some of the meanings in maps.

I studied the emailed maps of the research area before we travelled there, noting the proposed turbine locations and the transect lines and vantage points of our survey, but nothing prepared me for the unique quality of the landscape we arrived at. The high limestone plateau is a classic karstic topography, shaped by water and pitted with sinkholes. The limestone has been sluiced away at its weakest points over time to form narrow flutes and runnels that course over the land. The sinkholes, or dolines, have slumped into grassy bowls where groundwater has dissolved the rocky substrate. The stony grasslands sweep over the rounded hills, dotted with bunkers dating from the Greek Civil War that erupted in the aftermath of World War Two; they’ve been built by piling the pale grey rocks that dominate the land into protective enclosures.

Villagers come to gather wild mountain tea, the region’s warming winter drink. Lark song and butterflies lift from the grasses as I walk my transect lines, counting the different bird species breeding in the area. There is a meticulous and complex pattern to the land that I’m only beginning to unravel. It’s a mosaic of small possibilities.

Our most recent field day meant hours of monitoring the haze-drenched hills from a single vantage point. While Julia spent the afternoon on the highest ridge, I was stationed on a gentle hummock that looked out in all directions towards a sea of stony swells and tree-lined valleys. Marbled white butterflies skittered between fading flowers and a great banded grayling attached itself to my arm, its striking black and white wings opening and closing like vents. A pair of hobbies scythed the stone, revealing their scarlet underpatch when they rolled or tilted in flight. A hooded crow landed beside a long-legged buzzard in the skeletal arms of an oak. Through the telescope I watched the raptor swivel towards its new neighbour, beak the air for a moment before turning back to face the sun again, unbothered by the new arrangement. I then heard a flute being played by a shepherd to a chorus of cow bells, its light and airy sounds drifting on the wind. I could never have found that song on a map of the plateau, but its notes still reach me while I’m away.

19 thoughts on “The Meanings in Maps

  1. Hmmm, very interesting post and some lovely images, Julian. That’s a wonderful looking karst region you were conducting your ornithological review in.

    It’s a good point that you make about the details maps can’t contain. Even if you’re adept at map reading, you can’t be sure of the terrain and conditions on the ground until you get to wherever it is the map in question depicts. Maps have no seasons.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time poring over OS maps of the South Downs lately, planning routes for the mountain-biking guide I’m working on. I’ve realised that you can never get away with describing a route based on the map alone. Once you hit the ground, all manner of features that a map can’t include – natural and man-made – loom out of the landscape. It’s important also to see – in this case – what it is that’s under your wheels: flint-studded chalk bridleway or churned-up earth track.

    In contrast to the region you live in (I imagine!), the landscape of the South Downs is constantly changing in both physical and statutory ways. Your map may well be somewhat out of date in a few short years. The Downs recently became the UK’s newest National Park, so new editions of the OS map will record this innovation by various delineations not visible on the ground – except possibly by obtrusive signage!

    Maps can also contain information about the landscape that may not be discernible on the ground except to initiates. I was delighted to see that the narrow, bumpy and tree root-latticed bridleway I was struggling along the other day was in fact the course of Stane Street Roman road – I hope it was in better condition back in the day or those legionaries might well have benefitted from having mountain bikes!

    1. Thanks for that, Pete! Glad you liked the post; and I’m sure you’d enjoy the walking terrain even more than reading about it. We’ll be working there throughout the summer and into the autumn migration. We’ll be stopping for the winter but will complete some field days in late March or April to coincide with spring migration. Even a few days in between visits is long enough for things to change: certain birds stop singing, while others double their numbers with fledglings. Flowers come and go, and storms pass over. The quality of light radically alters. But the civil war bunkers still stand their ground, stony and resolute. To mark them on maps could be an interesting project…

      “Maps have no seasons” is a wonderfully succinct way of putting it. And looking for clues as to the type of earth beneath your feet or wheels is one of the fascinating things about poring over maps. Trying to place yourself there, crafting some kind of territory out of paper lines.

      I love the thought of finding the Stane Street Roman road on a map. They can also encode stories in their place names, ones whose meaning has been forgotten over time. Richard Mabey follows this path in Nature Cure, finding meaningful connections between the past and his current location through the words and common names on maps. It eventually brings him out of a deep maze of depression.

      Ultimately, maps are a rich weave of information and imagination. The second we think of going somewhere, down comes the atlas from the top shelf of the bookcase. We might only make it to a small percentage of the places we’ve studied in the book, but we go through the exact same procedure each time! Sometimes the idea of a map is enough…

  2. Despite their limitations, I too love maps. They spark the imagination and ignite a sense of adventure each time I look at one.

    The butterflies you’ve photographed are all so colorful and boldly patterned.

    1. A sense of adventure is precisely what they offer me as well, Amy-Lynn. An entire world of possibility unfolding on each page. The butterflies are miraculous in their patterns. Glad you liked them; I’ll post some more over the course of our work. Thanks for stopping by, and hope you enjoy any maps you happen to glance at this summer!

  3. I’m in awe of these pictures, Julian. You are surrounded by such stark beauty in your current place… Those amazing butterflies!!! I especially love the pictures with the gray rocks set against the gray sky. What a fantastic job set in nature you and Julia have!

    I loved geography when I was in school, and I find historical atlases fascinating. My paternal grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants, peasants from the countryside near Lviv. The city has been part of many states and empires, Poland, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austria, Austro-Hungarian Empire, West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Soviet Union… It’s mind-boggling.

    The account of the flock of sheep bells brought back pleasant memories of hiking in the mountains around Athens. Never heard a shepherd playing the flute, though! Love the words you used to describe such a wonderful experience…

    1. Thanks very much, Barbara, for the very kind words. I’m deeply honoured that you like the words and images as much as you do. Thanks for taking the time to read so carefully and thoroughly. And yes, we both feel extremely lucky to have been offered a job in such a spectacular and evocative setting!

      I can easily imagine the fascination of working your way backwards through the historical atlases tracing the journey of your family. Just reading your list of mutable nation states gets me thinking about questions of identity and ethnicity and how artificial so many borders are. Have you ever travelled back to that part of the world? And if so, how did it feel to visit a place you’d gotten to know through maps?

      Though sheep bells remain a common and reassuring sound around us, it was the first time that I’d heard a shepherd playing the flute. The majority of shepherds where we live are Albanian, the practice having faded, for the most part, from Greek life. As Albania still retains a number of rural traditions that only exist in Greek cultural memory, I suspect the flute player was from the other side of the border. Though aware that it too will eventually pass on, the floating notes contained something of the timeless about them as they drifted on the wind…

      1. I’ve never been to the Ukraine, but my parents went when it was part of the Soviet Union. My father was bitterly disappointed, however, when they were denied permission to travel to the village where his parents grew up. It was the whole point of the trip!

        When I found my grandmother’s name on a 1910 ship passenger list, her nationality was identified as “Ruthenian,” a term I had never come across until then. It seems to have many meanings, but is apparently referring to an an eastern Slavonic language which has a Carpatho-Rusyn dialect, which is spoken in Ukraine. I was told that my grandmother’s mother was from Bohemia and came to Ukraine to find work “in the salt mines.” All these clues I’d love to investigate some day when I have fewer responsibilities and more free time.

        I recently had Dad’s DNA analyzed, maybe I’ll blog about that one of these days! I agree with you about how artificial borders are. We get so many surprises when we look into our genetic code!

        When my other grandmother came to visit us in Greece she once spotted a shepherd and went up to him, and with gestures tried to ask his permission to take his picture. He wound up giving her a wooden sheep collar with a bell attached to it! She kept it hanging up in her kitchen and my grandfather gave it to me after she died… So many memories…

        1. Sorry for the late reply, Barbara, but I’ve been out of internet contact for a while. I love the tale of the shepherd bell being passed on to your grandmother who hung it in the kitchen. I’m fascinated by these small intimacies and exchanges in our lives.

          A great shame that your parents couldn’t reach their ancestral village. I can only imagine the difficulty of travelling freely through the Soviet Union at that time. But perhaps you can make that journey at some stage. It certainly sounds like you’ve done a great deal of research into the place and its peoples. A visit yet to unfold!

          Many thanks for sharing your stories, Barbara; I really appreciate it. They add a nice touch to the meanings in maps…

  4. I used to teach European history and I appreciate the personal insights about people’s lives as they were juggled around by the powers-that-were of the previous century. As I used to teach, the concept of statehood resides in people’s minds; and in the tumultuous history of the European continent, sometimes pocket communities were the ones that were tossed around the most.

    Loved the pictures again! My word! This read is poetry in prose and photographs! Will be visiting your blog often!

    Rex Raymond

    1. Many thanks, Rex. I like your thought about statehood residing in people’s minds. Even when the borders fall on a difficult history (lets say Albania or Germany, as European examples), the internal boundaries often remaining standing. And as you rightly point out, many communities aren’t in the position to resist the decisions made above them.

      And thanks for the kind words; I’m really pleased you feel this way about the writing and photographs. It means a great deal to me. I’m looking forward to having a look at your blog as soon as I get a chance!

      Until then, cheers…

      1. I have, in fact, subscribed to your blog! I was just web site hopping when I found it but I am ever so happy I did!

        Would be honored if you will get some time to read my blog, albeit my themes are not as universal as yours. Still, it would give you an insight into life in the Philippines. So please do, thank you kindly!

        Rex Raymond

        1. It would be my pleasure, Rex. I had a quick glance in between replying to comments and liked the look of it very much. I also saw something about a football blog, another love of mine! I’m away for a few days of late summer holiday and then hope to catch up with your blog about the Philippines next weekend. In the meantime, many thanks for the subscription. I deeply appreciate your interest.

          Best wishes,

  5. I loved this post, as I am a cartographer! I learned back when everything was done by hand, with a darkroom and screens and scribe coats, but over the years I have had no choice but to create with computer programs. It isn’t what I signed up for though. I prefer creating with my hands. Oh well!
    Anyway, it is tricky to get across everything that needs to get across to the user, and the interactive maps sure do help with that…but I prefer my paper maps any day! Great photos!!!

    1. So glad you liked it; it’s great when a piece of writing connects to a person in some particular way! Thanks for taking the time to read.

      I’ve always loved the idea of cartography, but never really known what it entailed. I’m putting together a wonderful image from your mention of “a darkroom and screens and scribe coats” however! I wonder what the equivalent of a darkroom would have been for an earlier age of cartographers! I know exactly what you mean about using your hands. Though I use the computer, my actual writing is still all done by hand with pen and paper. That physical connection with the words is so important to me, and I don’t get nearly the same feeling from tapping keys in front of a screen. So I’m quite sure that I’d prefer your paper maps as well! There is great beauty in unfolding a map on a table and leaning slowy over it trying to take in the sense of space encapsulated. Do you get a chance to work by hand at all?

  6. It has been a long time since I made a map by hand…I do other things to feed this neccessity of my being. i quilt, sketch, play guitar, and chop wood. I could easily do it though, given the time, create a series based on hand-drawn interpretations. I did a job one time replicating the Aboriginal method of mapping for a textbook. It was a great experience.

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