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A Pile of Maps, A Sense of Place

Text and Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

The pile of maps for the guidebook.

The pile of maps for the guidebook.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to me that one of the aspects of the guidebook I enjoyed most was editing its dozens of maps. I spent hours and hours–whole days, actually–marking up changes and noting corrections, including identifying place names that, in at least one case, haven’t been used since the 1980s. I’d check the book’s maps against multiple sources–Google Maps, sure, but also the New York State map I’d worked into tatters, historic maps, specialty maps (like topos), and a whole stack of regional and town maps I’ve stockpiled and which have come to comprise something of an unintended collection. What struck me over and over again was the simultaneous precision and imprecision of cartographers’ renderings of place, the relative anonymity of those mapmakers, and how the portrayals and naming of place change over time.

It seemed fitting that in between working on the maps, feeding my kids, and occasionally kissing my husband and mumbling a hello or good-bye as he came and went about his own work, I was reading Home Ground: Language of an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. In his introduction to the book, Lopez writes about the language–both textual and visual, but mostly the former–of maps… of how that language “radiates a sense of belonging,” as he says about the maps of Erwin Raisz or, on the other hand, sanitizes the distinguishing features of unique places by imposing a common language upon them that renders them a single and sadly conflated whole, or, as he says, “an attenuated list of almost nondescript words.”

The language of maps, the language of the literal land, is one that helps locate us in place, as well as in time. As I looked at the map of New York State rendered during the WPA-era, the map folded neatly into the back of the WPA guide I bought at The Lyrical Ballad Bookstore in Saratoga Springs earlier this year, and compared this map against the “modern” maps, I was struck by how many place names and feature descriptors had simply disappeared (or, some might contend, evolved). How long will it be before the New York towns of Seduction and Climax, New York–conveniently located near one another, I’ll point out– are “cleaned up,” changed by law to prevent the offense of someone’s sensibilities?

Cuba or Belfast?

Cuba or Belfast?

And who will remember how those towns even got their names in the first place, and be able to tell visitors who care enough to be curious when and why they disappeared? When we pulled off at the exit where you can choose– Cuba (New York) or Belfast?– and chose Cuba, no one we asked could tell us the history of the town’s name. They seemed exasperated to even be asked, as if the question, raised so often, is a nuisance rather than a reason to, well, possibly find the answer.

I can’t help but feel sad about the names we’ve already lost and all the stories that accompany them, as well as the ones we still stand to lose. As Lopez says, we “named the things we’ve picked out on the land, and we’ve held on to the names to make ourselves abiding and real….” And sadly, as he also says, much depends on “schemes…[that] hinge on our loss of memory, the anxiety of our alienation, our hunger after substance.”

I wish I could say that I’ve restored some of the places that are lost to their rightful places, but my attempts inevitably fell short. To know the places we’ve lost, there’s quite a bit of recovery work that has to be done, and really, I’m only getting started.

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