Literary cartography


I had some pictures left over from Wednesday

My brother recently gave me volume 1 of George R. R. Martin’s hit series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Like any good fantasy series, the front pages were dedicated to maps of the imaginary kingdom in which the action takes place. It seems that if you were a budding cartographer, your best bet for a creative challenge would be to team up with a fantasy writer or create a series of your own.
As I tried to find more maps in literature I came across some other interesting projects, such as Google Lit Trip, in which educators chart the journeys of literary characters such as Odysseus and MacBeth; and an Italian’s attempt to document every quote in literature about maps.
But I wanted the maps themselves, so I went straight to the source, the fantasy series to end all fantasy series: Lord of the Rings. Who doesn’t love Middle Earth, with its idyllic Shire and terrifying Mordor?
Other fantasy cartographers create more unapologetically European landscapes, like those of my childhood heroine, Tamora Pierce. Many of her series are set in the kingdom of Tortall, with knights and forests in the north, and nomadic tribes wandering vast deserts in the south. Oh, and they’re separated by a narrow strait that leads into the “Great Inland Sea.” Hello, Mediterranean.
My other favorite childhood fantasy series was that of Brian Jacques’s Redwall. In the first book we are given a map of Redwall Abbey and the surrounding countryside, which covers no more than an acre. In each successive book, though, we are gifted more and more maps of the landscape beyond. It reminded me of a computer game my brother used to play in which you begin in a blackened territory, and only by moving around the countryside do you reveal the geographical features of the land and, often, the enemies awaiting you therein. Here’s Redwall:
And more of Mossflower County:
Back to George R. R. Martin. Though his books are similarly filled with knights and peasants and pirates, most of whom sport European-style names and traditions, his kingdom of Westeros is nothing like a known territory (check out a larger version of this map to see all the features):
Can you think of other good maps in literature?

The United Maps of America

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Relief map of the United States of America

The United States inspire some pretty good-lookin’ maps. Since the land mass is so enormous and the landscape so varied, our weather maps always end up a veritable rainbow of temperatures. And because each region and state have their own identities we can plot our differences in multifarious and beautiful ways.

Let’s start first with our history. This is what the fledgling country looked like in 1800 (I especially like the contrast of the named states to the pink “Claimed by Georgia” territory):

After spending so much time studying a modern highway map on my road trip two weeks ago, it’s fun to look back on the roads available to the early driver:

And let us not forget the origins of the place names of our country, most of which we don’t really understand. The following is a map of English translations of the Native American names that have stuck with us. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version to find out that Manhattan means “where one gathers wood for bows” and Chicago means “at the skunk place.”

Poor Chicago “Skunk Place,” Illinois. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s state, especially after looking at the following map that shows what each state is worst at (thankfully, my state, Minnesota, is only the worst place for tornadoes!):

And perhaps some of us would feel embarrassed–while others would be proud–of which country our state’s GDP most closely resembles:

The next map is as lovely as it is shameful–a rendering of the lower 48 through the locations of every McDonald’s:

Wash that burger and fries down with a nice soda…or is it pop? Obviously we disagree:

Ah forget it, let’s just crack open a beer instead. At least we can agree on the name, if not the brand:

It’s a good-looking country, really, as long as you don’t divide us up by political leanings. Then we end up looking like a constrained heart, just one McDonald’s vanilla shake short of a heart attack:

How to be a cartographer


What you’ll need: a location to map out, an artistic sensibility

Songlist: Maps by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs

Further reading: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, Maphead by Ken Jennings (yes, THE Ken Jennings, aka Jeopardy millionaire)

Back during World Traveler week I was going to dedicate one post to maps. But then I started looking at maps and I remembered how much I frigging love maps. They deserve more than one day.

I don’t have a lot of experience in map-making. Sure, there were the occasional elementary school projects for which I had to create an economic map of Africa or label a map of the United States with the 32 American football teams (much like the baseball map above). And sure, I once created a map of a fictional town, about which I was going to write a YA series. But nothing like professional cartography.

A highway map of Wyoming

Maps astound me. When we were driving back from Wyoming to Minnesota a few weeks ago, I was constantly checking our atlas for the small towns we passed (an atlas that is so well-loved and well-travelled that both the Wyoming and Minnesota pages have fallen out). Yes, there were Wyoming’s descriptive towns Sundance and Tensleep, and there were South Dakota’s rather more unpleasant sounding Murdo and Pukwana. And every town was placed exactly in proportion to the next–a fact that I once took for granted but now amazes me. How do cartographers do it?

It’s not so much the technology that amazes me–GPS, lasers, and computers can make short work of a landscape–but the idea of every place on earth being documented. I remember hearing about the goal of Google’s Street View, which is, ultimately, to provide images from every street in the world (although not all countries yet have planned visits from Google’s Camera Cars). I immediately thought of the Borges-like short story possibilities: what if a single person decided to walk down every street in the world?

What I love most, though, is that for every map out there there is a person for whom it is unnecessary. Which is to say, every street in the world is known well by at least a small group of people. While we can feel proud of being familiar with the famous streets of the world–knowing, for instance the expanse of the Champs-Élysées or 5th Avenue gives one a certain cachet–isn’t it our unique knowledge that sets us apart? When we are able to associate memories and intimacies with the smallest names on a map, those maps come alive.

House gurus

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When I read Eat, Pray, Love, I was struck by Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to find a guru and go seek out her ashram in India.

Though I’d done yoga moderately throughout my life, I never quite understood the commitment that goes with true practice. When my uncle was learning yoga he travelled to India to study with an acclaimed guru–a prerequisite at the time for becoming a teacher yourself. I didn’t think I wanted to be a yoga teacher though, so it never occurred to me to book a ticket to India.

A yoga ashram in upstate, NY

It is easy in the United States these days to find teacher trainings in any major city, just as it is easy to find a yoga retreat center in a beautiful location. Yoga Journal, that behemoth of all things yoga, lists six destinations that “offer visitors accessible, affordable, and rewarding retreats–not just for serious seekers anymore.”

The search for a guru–an earthbound individual who can provide spiritual guidance from a higher plane–seems to defy the mass-marketed appeal of what yoga has come to mean in the United States. Certainly anyone can make that search, just as anyone can achieve the status of guru (I, in fact, won the title of House Guru at my sorority, for which my job duties included sharing pieces of wisdom and making sisters laugh at our meetings). Of course, the attainment of guru status requires a specific lifestyle, discipline, philosophy, and attitude, yet it is not so rarefied as being a religious savior. Perhaps that is why some of us seek out gurus, in different shapes and guises–they are people who may be closer to enlightenment, yet they are still human. As much as we might long for the mystical, it is through the teachings of other humans that we know what we are capable of.

Yoga is for posers

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When I was a kid I had a book of yoga postures for children and loved to page through it, trying out my favorites: archer pose (in which your foot touches your ear as if you were drawing an arrow), eagle pose, and the one where you got to walk around on your knees. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it disabused me of the idea that I’d created my own pose–I was sorely disappointed when I came across the shoulder stand pose, photographed and documented.

Following are some of my favorite poses, done by people in beautiful locations. Let’s start with Eagle:

yoga eagle poseTree Pose:

yoga tree poseWarrior Pose:

yoga warrior poseSide Angle Pose:

Dancer Pose:

yoga dancer poseKing Pigeon Pose:

yoga pigeon poseAnnnnd, Shoulder Stand, the pose I once invented:

yoga shoulder stand pose

Partner yoga dance fusion

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I recently heard a complaint that in America every yoga class now has to be some sort of “fusion”–though yoga on its own seemed to work fine for a few thousand years, now students are looking for something new every other month. Aerial yoga, yogilates, booty ballet, tribal fusion–now yoga will never get boring! (Unlike that totally dull meditation stuff).

But every once in a while, fusion can lead to an incredible new form. My yoga teacher from Spain, a Facebook friend, recently posted this video. UH-mazing:

How to be a yogi

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What you’ll need: yoga mat, bendy limbs

Songlist: Faith Hill’s BreatheTwist and Shout by the Beatles

Further reading: The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, or, ya know, Eat, Pray, Love

I was always “different” as a kid. My parents stopped eating meat while living in Morocco for the Peace Corps and raised my brother and me as vegetarians. My friends would give up meat for Lent to see what it was like, and complain after a few days, wondering how I didn’t have constant cravings for burgers (hint: it’s easy if you’ve never had one). Furthermore, one of my hobbies was doing yoga, a strange-sounding practice that no one had heard of in 1993 in my elementary school (“But I thought you were Christian?” they’d say in confusion).

My uncle spent several years living at Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts, learning and then teaching yoga. We visited him often, and sometimes took classes there as well. In a photo album from 1990, my uncle is in a picture-perfect downward dog, while I, all of four years old, am doing my best to imitate the pose next to him.

By the time I got to college, yoga was no longer a foreign concept, but I had become a stranger to it: I hadn’t practiced in a decade. Luckily, my college had a PE requirement, which could be fulfilled in numerous exciting ways: white-water kayaking, snowboarding, and yoga. I chose all of the above.

I became so enamored of it that the summer after I graduated I got an unlimited pass to a nearby chain-yoga-studio, CorePower. True to its mass-produced nature, every class I took had the exact same sequence of poses. From June to August I appreciated this fact, always knowing what was coming next, and realizing when I could go deeper in a pose than I’d been able to before. By September I was bored. And then I moved to Spain.

The author, at far right, doing yoga in the mountains

Somehow I got lucky enough not only to be placed in a town with a yoga instructor, but also to move in to an apartment directly across the street from where that yoga instructor taught her classes. Every Wednesday afternoon my roommate and I would stroll across to the centuries-old monastery and do an hour or so of yoga, led both in English and Spanish (I learned the words for body parts in Spanish really quickly). In the springtime our teacher–who had become one of our closest friends–drove us out to the Spanish countryside and we would do yoga in the mountains or facing up at our gorgeous white town.

Now back in the United States, I haven’t yet found an analogous class. In Spain there were rarely more than about five or six students, so our teacher shaped the class to our capabilities. She knew what we struggled with, and what we were getting better at. I certainly never got bored.

I’ve gone to CorePower a few times since returning, but sometimes I notice myself getting competitive, glancing around to assure myself that my leg is higher or my back straighter than my neighbors’. But, of course, yoga is not about competition, and it’s not only about the body. The original intent of yogic practices was to attain spiritual insight and inner balance. And while balance is difficult to find in the midst of a packed schedule and an even more crowded yoga studio, it is certainly attainable in the mountains of Spain. Yoga retreat, anyone?

Gods and geodes

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I remember one time as a kid cracking open geodes with my grandfather. It felt like a mini-experiment in mining–you didn’t quite know what you’d find inside.

My favorites were always amethyst geodes, those glittering purple cavities inside such ugly exteriors. If we are to believe Greek legend, amethysts were created when a god’s tears turned white quartz purple. Dionysus, god of wine, pursued a young lady, Amethystos, who didn’t return his affections. She prayed to remain chaste, so the goddess Artemis turned her into a white stone. Dionysus wept tears of remorse over her crystalline form, and stained her purple. Having thus chastened Dionysus, amethysts were considered to be strong antidotes to drunkenness, and wine goblets were often carved from it.

Geodes themselves are fairly interesting creations, as they form in the cavities of sedimentary and volcanic rock. While the rock layer hardens, silicates and carbonates filter through and form crystals. And then, if a geode is lucky, a Greek god cries on it and turns it purple.

Sitting inside the geode in Almería, Spain

The largest geode in the world was found a few years ago in an abandoned silver mine in southern Spain. It’s 26 feet long and 6 feet tall; it can comfortably seat 10 people inside (however, people are discouraged from being inside it, for fearing of increasing the humidity too much and destroying the crystals). The gigantic geode probably formed when the Mediterranean started to evaporate 6 million years ago, leaving behind thick layers of salt which then filled up a cavity near the Spanish coast. Seems like the gods might have had something to do with that one, too.

The diamond planet, the sapphire island

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Underneath the outer layer, the planet is just one huge, cut, glittering diamond...right?

Less than a month ago, astronomers reported the existence of a planet that consists largely of extremely dense carbon…otherwise known as diamond. This diamond planet is just 4,000 light years away; I’m sure evil geniuses are already at work figuring out how to harvest this gigantic gem and ship it on home. Science fiction writers are no doubt similarly thrilled.

While the logistics of a mining a diamond planet may still be a little tricky, there’s a location closer to home that–at least until recently–had its own vast, untapped gemstone deposits.

Over the years, I’ve read many hundreds of New Yorker articles, but only a few linger in my imagination. One of these is the 2006 article The Path of Stones, an account of the gem trade in Madagascar. Burkhard Bilger describes the gemmiferous nature of the island:

The far north had basaltic sapphires, formed in volcanoes. The eastern escarpment had emeralds, deposited by superheated waters that broke through the earth’s crust when the mountains were formed. The central highlands had pegmatites: veins of hardened magma sudden with aquamarines, tourmalines, and other rare minerals. There were rubies as red as those in Sri Lanka, garnets as green as those in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, and some stones, like flaming-pink pezzottaite, that could be found almost nowhere else.”

Bilger’s article is chiefly a portrait of an American gem miner and dealer, Tom Cushman, who was part of a rush on Malagasy sapphires in 1998. Cushman had been in the country for a few years already, but hadn’t had much luck until the day a man showed him what he’d told the miners he’d bought it from were “peach-blossom garnets.” Both this dealer and Cushman knew the truth: they were pink sapphires, one of the most valuable stones on the planet.

2 Malagasy miners

Cushman immediately headed for the town of Ilakaka in south Madagascar where these sapphires originated, and spent the next several years buying, selling, and mining in the midst of what he calls the Wild West. Plenty of dealers have been killed in the area, and miners have died in cave-ins, as the mines are not well-reinforced. Thai and Sri Lankan dealers have crowded the market so much that smaller dealers mostly rely on synthetics to hopefully fool the larger dealers. The only ones who really made it big are those who “mined the miners”–the man who sold ice-cold beers to the miners, the prostitutes who followed the miners south.

The sapphire mines are pretty well tapped out now. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, did not see much of an economic benefit. Its gem trade is not quite so exploitive as the blood diamonds used to fuel warlords and insurgencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Yet the injustice is great: the rough sapphire that a man pulls out of the ground may earn him a week’s pay or a bullet in the head, but will go on to fetch tens of thousands of dollars after being cut.

Time to go harvest that diamond planet…I’m sure people will trade fairly there.

Finding the Hope

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Some things have happened before my time that I retroactively mourn. For instance, Mitch Hedberg’s untimely death happened when I was in college, but I only found about him in my friends’ eulogizing Facebook posts. And now I can’t help thinking about how many more jokes he’d have come up with even in five additional years.

Now that's a nice rock

I feel the same way about the Hope Diamond. The gem is stunning. But when it was first mined in India, about 450 years ago, it was twice the size it is now. The original diamond was known as the French Blue because of its ownership by French royalty. Louis XIV was the first proprietor; it passed to his son Louis XV and then to the much more ill-fated Louis XVI. After #16 and his famously ostentatious wife were beheaded, the French Blue disappeared never to be seen in quite the same way again.

This is where my heart breaks just a little–the French Blue was butchered into smaller stones, the largest of which is the Hope Diamond. Sure, a large diamond being somewhat larger would not make any impact on my life, yet it seems so needlessly cruel to destroy something so lovely (I feel similarly despondent about the extinct fauna of Madagascar such as elephantine birds and giant lemurs).

But I suppose we should be thankful that the Hope Diamond persists at all. The recutting could have gone much worse, and there are several owners who were somewhat incautious with its care. Evalyn Walsh McLean, its twentieth-century American owner, would deliberately misplace the stone around her property at parties and make a children’s game of “finding the Hope.” And, when Harry Winston decided to donate the diamond to the Smithsonian, he sent it in a brown box through the US post office, insured for just under $150.

I’m not the only one who’s thankful that that box arrived at the museum–the Hope Diamond is the second most-visited piece of art after the Mona Lisa, and there’s little wonder why. Only 1 out of every 100,000 diamonds has any color whatsoever, and blue is the rarest color of all. A tiny number of boron atoms interspersed in the carbon structure give the diamond its “fancy deep grayish blue” coloring (yes, that is the technical term). In addition, if exposed to short-wave ultraviolet light, the diamond shines brilliantly red. No wonder people thought it was cursed. So even though we may never know how gorgeous the original stone was, there’s still Hope to be found (ha ha!)–the Hope Diamond is utterly breathtaking.

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