Maps, Muses, and Magical Markings

I once worked in a map library. Every day, I’d touched maps that’d been folded into knapsacks in the cold of the Antarctica or squiggles on paper that’d meant the difference between life and death for explorers in central Africa. Fragile edges of ancient paper crumbled at my touch. I remember thinking that even the breeze whipped up by a butterfly’s wing could do the same.

Most of these maps slept in Army-green metal filing cabinets, their wide clanging drawers reminding me of the tiered ovens used in commercial bakeries.

Maps now fit into the palms of my hands, whittled down to 3 X 5 inches.

Thanks to GPS, the art of map reading seems to be a dying one. Disembodied voices bark directions in millions of cars with top-of-the-line GPS systems embedded in most cars manufactured around the world. One of the funniest film scenes ever occurs in “A Good Year,” in which an arrogant prig named Max Skinner, played by Russell Crowe, drives helter-skelter around Provence, seeking the location of his uncle’s vineyard. He speaks no French, except for “Merde,” and the car’s GPS jabbers at him in bullet-fast French. Of course, he has no paper map on which to fall back.

Maps tell stories in and of themselves.

There’s history. Consider John White’s watercolor of “The Arrival of the Englishmen in Virginia.” Held by the British Library, this map shows English ships approaching what is now Roanoke Island in North Carolina. The whole of the North American continent lay before them. But they didn’t know that.

Maps store memories as well.

Early maps portrayed a place, sense of place, that resembles nothing of what we know now. We become maps, with the hidden streets and back alleys, filled with flowers or piles of debris, leading us through a maze of memories.

Maps tell us who we are.

We remember places differently, forming our own maps in our minds.

In Map of Another Town, M. F. K. Fisher’s rapturous prose embroiders a tapestry of words and fills the white spaces of her verbal map of Aix-en-Provence with defining details. Like the smell of a place, the way the sunlight shines “through its summer cave of leaves” on the Cours Mirabeau, the gleaming skylight of artists’ garrets, looking for all the world like “bloodied copper.”

Maps promise possibilities.

Streets so cold and sterile on a map may lead to plazas filled with trilling fountains, morning markets overflowing with bugged-eye fish that’d swum in the sea that very dawn.

Like Columbus, though, we must sail off the edge of known maps to live in the world as our authentic selves.

Arrival of the Englishmen in Virginia (John White, 1584)


  1. No really, I mean it, Cynthia.
    I’m a map hoarder.
    Wherever I go,( and I like to travel) I bring all the maps back. My justification is that they are as significant to me as photos for remembering what I did and where I went.
    Please tell me you’re a map hoarder too; or perhaps you don’t need to be because of the map Library?
    Regards. Marie.

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