Maps are fascinating. I particular like the blank spaces in ancient maps: those strange countries and uncharted seas beyond the pale and o'er the bourne. When fear and fancy conspire in the mind of the cartographer, whatever he can conceive might truly be. Maps are illuminating projections of their creators, revealing much about their relationships to others and to their surroundings.
The Babylonians who wrote by pressing a wedged stylus into wet clay also had the tools and facility with mental abstraction to represent their surroundings in similar fashion, producing clay maps as early as 2,300 BC. The ancient Greeks understood spherical geography. Medieval Europeans piously placed Jerusalem at the center of their world view, while Sinocentric Chinese cartographers did the same with their empire.
Maps have authority, and sometimes they lie. Look at a map produced in any country with a contested border and compare it with a conventional delineation of its boundaries. Until recently, such a map of Ecuador would have included much of what is considered Peruvian territory. Or find a standard world atlas and see if it shows a locality called Rehoboth in northwestern Namibia. I have come across numerous examples of this mistake, repeatedly passing on as fact a location which does not exist in modern Namibia (although there is a different community called Rehoboth south of the capital, Windhoek). The old Rehoboth was a mission station in Ovamboland over a century ago, but it lives on in numerous maps made today and enjoys equal but fictional status with other large towns.
Here in the Berkshires, one often finds that assessors map data differs remarkably from boundaries surveyed from deed descriptions. I once negotiated a quitclaim on "80 acres of sprout land" somewhere in Mount Washington, MA, in the unlikely event that this lost parcel might eventually be shown to lie within lands to be protected by a conservation organization. The open space data layers maintained by Massachusetts Geographic Information Systems are often several years out of date, which can be a challenge for communities trying to determine how much needs to be conserved and how much remains to be developed in their area.
Very few of us, I suspect, can find our way in the forest by old fashioned orienteering, any more than we can navigate by the stars. My grandfather taught himself celestial navigation on a Liberty ship headed for the Gilberts. He was a surgeon with a Marine Air Group (MAG-15) on Apamama and Kwajalein, and often felt his skills would be of better use closer to the fighting. He would sometimes beg a ride on one of the planes heading out to the forward bases in hopes of saving more lives, yet in the end it was his skill as a navigator rather than a doctor that delivered them. On a return trip over the dark Pacific, the navigational equipment on his plane failed, and my grandfather was the only one on that flight who could steer by the stars. Somehow, they found their way back to their atoll, peering up into the heavens and down and the starlit ocean below.
Remote sensing and geographic positioning systems are marvelous tools, but they are the realm of technicians and often fail to capture knowledge of the ground. Back when conservationists were trying to identify large blocks of relatively unfragmented forest in the Northeast, GIS analysis using road layers and ecological land units identified close to 200 potential forest blocks within the Lower New England / Northern Piedmont Ecoregional Plan. It took a substantial amount of "ground truthing" to determine which of these were actually substantially unfragmented forest, or whether they had less forest cover and more development than the data suggested. In the process, the conservationists developed some subjective measures to determine whether a secondary road was a significant enough barrier to be a hard boundary for a forest block or could be incorporated into a larger area. One measure was whether two researchers could play a game of Frisbee on the road for 10 minutes without interruption: a measure of traffic volume that has not yet been adopted by our Department of Transportation.
A new map of a familiar area can reengage a community with its surroundings. The Berkshire Natural Resources Council has an extraordinary map of Berkshire County that quickly became the map of choice in many Town Halls and local businesses. It is a highly detailed topographic map with very pleasing depictions of field, forest and wetland cover. It is easy to orient oneself and locate familiar landmarks. I find that a good topo map is more accessible to many people than a high quality satellite image. All those pixels in raster data make sense to the initiated but are confusing to the general public.
The best maps I've ever seen for expanding a community's sense of itself were those scratched in the sand under Acacia trees as part of local resource mapping projects in Africa. Given rudimentary tools and an opportunity to map what is important to them, community members record what is significant to them but also build consensus when done in a participatory fashion with their neighbors. The final results include more data than if drawn individually, and are the product of the community members themselves. They own it, and when this information later appears in a highly polished GIS map, they recognize it as valid.
There is a similar community development tool called the Community Transect Walk. This natural science mapping technique has been used with great success by researchers at Clark University with inner city youth. The participants walk a transect through their neighborhood and map the changes they see along the way. In the end, their sense of their neighborhood expands by as much as 300% and they have a much better understanding of the different parts of their communities.
Here in the borderlands, where Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York lie alongside each other, the geopolitical divisions represented by Town, County and State do not neatly overlap the boundaries of community. Until we understand this landscape in terms of its human and natural communities, we are unlikely to recognize the limitations of our maps and understand the forces which shape and influence this region.