“What is a Map?” is More Relevant than Ever #TNMUC

by Matt Ball on May 12, 2011

‘“What is a Map?” is More Relevant than Ever’ was the title and topic of The National Map Conference keynoter Frederick Reuss, author of five novels, including his recent “A Geography of Secrets” that addresses secrecy in public and private life in present-day Washington. Reuss provided a layman’s perspective as a user of maps, a fan of the USGS in terms of its value to his work, and also as a romantic in terms of the use of a map as a means to unlock your imagination.

Reuss focused on the X on a map from the imagination of our youth as the location of a pirate trove, or as an X to mark our spot, or as the means to create that X in our history of surveying and mapping the unknown. He provided a rich discussion of history, the legacy of mapmaking, and the power of the map.

Reuss sees the map as a narrative, and a story, with the X taking on a dual function of character and narrator. The map has inspired Reuss in the way he approaches his storytelling, and related his personal experience when a certain map inspired a different way of looking at maps. A Guadalcanal map with annotations in Japanese and British notation helped illustrate the use of a map to narrate differing viewpoints. The profusion of X’s on the map with different perspectives is crucial for understanding of facts with both subjective and objective categories.

Maps offer views on a variety of levels, but also offer a cultural reference point. As an author Reuss uses maps as a creative ingredient to lend coherence to fictional worlds, as well as a means to explore the internal geography of his characters. He is currently working on a book about the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, and his talk turned to the transformation of this area, using a map to explore these changes. As an author, Reuss is looking for a deeper geography, or a way to explore the broader landscape, its history, and the connections of the people that have moved through the landscape.

Reuss flashed through the different USGS maps of the Pine Barrens area, looking back through the eyes of a pioneer in this area whose eyes have seen dramatic changes of the area where he lives. Maps work both forward and backward in time, as well as to relay the relation to nature and the environment. A glimpse to the past occurs through the existence of old place names that still appear although all traces of past settlement no longer appear on the land.

The change of mapping and our ability to zoom have changed the way that we use maps, but the looking through maps is certainly not unique. Reuss asserts that because we break out of a particular way of seeing doesn’t make the existence of frames obsolete, just more variable.

Reuss’ one-hour look at the relevance and change of maps and mapping was absolutely one of the more compelling keynotes that I’ve ever listened to at a GIS and mapping conference. I hope to share more of his compelling perspective on the change of maps and mapping, and their role in exploring our national identity.

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