“Map out your future, but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.”John Bon Jovi
Navigating to a Sense Of Place
What is a map? Most of us think that a map is a tool that helps us navigate from one place to another. While this is true, maps can mean so much more. With a bit of research, you will find a diversity of maps to help us make sense of the world around us beyond getting from point A to point B.
There are political maps, road maps, topographic maps, weather maps, species distribution maps, and plate tectonic maps. Some maps tell us the exact location of a plane or a subway train. In our world, where instant gratification is the norm, some wonder how we ever survived without today’s digital GPS technology. The funny thing is we did survive; we just had to work harder to figure out where we were going! Did this make us more observant as our eyes tried to burn landmarks into our brains so that we wouldn’t repeat wrong turns; or are we able to observe more now because our brains are not so stressed out?
Maps help us to explore the world, but they also offer exploration within their boundaries. Making maps of your personal world asks you to sort out what you think, feel, see, hear, and even desire in a place.
Maps that tell stories
The kind of maps that help us think more about a sense of place are maps that tell a story about some area in particular. These are the kind of maps to focus on in this art activity. There are two excellent places to look for maps that tell a story. One is in literature, and the other is maps from Indigenous cultures.
I remember reading Winnie the Pooh books as a child, and I would spend a significant amount of time looking at the map of the 100-Acre Wood that was in the front and the back of the book. Look for examples of maps like this from other classics such as Treasure Island, The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and there is a map of Neverland from the classic Peter Pan. Ask your students about contemporary literature or even gaming that may be enhanced with maps of fantasy worlds.
The Wabanaki tribes navigated the lands now known as Maine for thousands of years. They moved freely about the land, migrating with the seasons. Their way of life built a deep relationship with the natural world that is reflected in their place names and maps.
The Wabanaki place names are concerned with communicating something about the place or something that happened there. According to the Abbe Museum, when traveling to remote areas, Wabanaki guides and other members of the tribes made maps on birchbark (Wikhikon) to communicate with one another. If separated from your party, you could use such a map with a few simple symbols to learn where your party has been, where your party went, and where their final destination would be.
By considering examples of maps such as these, your students can begin to answer the essential questions of whether a map can tell us something about a place. Can it also tell us something about the past?
“In Wabanaki traditions, places are most often named either for their geological features or for important resources that could be found there. Other names are rooted deeply within traditional stories.”–George Neptune, Passamaquoddy,
Abbe Museum Educator
Reuben “Butch” Phillips, Moose Call, 2016. Birchbark, cedar, waxed twine, 18 x 8 x 6 ½ in. (45.7 x 20.3 x 16.5 cm). Courtesy of the Penobscot Nation Museum.
The art of cartography
Cartography is the art of making maps. As a general tool, maps are known to be sterile, using latitude and longitude and marking out areas and borders in traditional symbolic ways. But some maps go way beyond their utility, helping us to recognize more about the stories behind the places. Exploring different kinds of maps from past centuries can be as fun as taking a journey itself.
If you travel to any new location, you might find a tourist map of the area. These tend to point out in fun ways many points of interest where you might want to explore, and may even give a brief history. Some maps are selective in their focus, showing only all of the lighthouses in Maine or other particular interests like the best places to fish.
There exists a rich history of women cartographers in Maine. This is not a profession that many would imagine to be available for women. Nonetheless, since the 1800s, women have played a significant role in creating intricate maps for tourism, road maps, and some even embroidered maps of the globe. The Osher Map Library in Portland is a great resource to find out more about women cartographers.
One female cartographer and artist was a Mainer, Mildred Giddings Burrage. She was born in Portland in 1890 and died at the age of 93. Burrage had an extraordinary career and life throughout the 20th century. Her body of work includes historical maps, impressionist paintings, and patriotic posters. She was also influenced by Jackson Pollack’s unique style of abstract action paintings.
She experimented with Mica as a medium in her work, which gives her artwork a special inner glow. I found that looking at her maps and looking at her fine art, there are some dynamic similarities. The top work is an abstract image with oils and mica. The bottom work is a map of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Have your students think about the elements and principles of art as you compare values, lines, shapes, and unity in both of these works. If you don’t know the artist’s name for each piece, ask your students if they could guess the same person who made them?
Memory Map Art Lesson
Throughout this process, students will have the opportunity to think like a cartographer to design a map from a memory. As they practice this art of cartography, take a moment to reflect on the concept of getting lost with them. When I was young, my grandfather would have my sister and I sit down and look at a map of where we were going on a Sunday before we took a drive to our favorite ice cream stand that was a few towns away. Then in the car, we would pass the unruly paper back and forth as we proceed to get lost each time! I still wonder if he did this on purpose or not. Regardless, what we learned was that you never know what you will find when you get lost.
Things to Consider When Making a Map
How are you looking at this space? Is it an aerial “bird’s eye” view or a street view or a combination of views? Is your perspective objective, or do you have a more unique point of view from this setting?
2. Space and Scope
How much space are you trying to cover? Is it just a room or is it a park or a town? Are you including a large body of water or do you want to show your place as it relates to a planet?
What symbols are you going to use to represent things on your map? Will you include a key to explain these symbols? How have symbols been used on maps throughout time and how are they used today?
4. Direction and scale
Most maps have a compass rose to show the viewer which direction they need to go to navigate this place. Will you include one on your map? Do you want to include a scale that shows the related distance? This is a great exercise for all of you math geniuses out there.
Try out your cartography skills. Make a map as you listen to the story.
DIRECTIONS: Make a compass rose on your paper, Make sure to include points like northwest or southeast etc… As a cartographer it is your job to listen to the following directions and try to create a map of this deserted island.
- The island is somewhat small. In a few hours you can walk from one side to the other. I would say it is roughly the shape of an oval with squared corners, tilted towards the northeast, maybe ten miles wide.
- There are a variety of geographical features. Most notably the southwest corner has lush forests.
- As you walk from northeast to southwest, you are stopped by a wide river. It appears to run north to south, just east of the center of the island.
- The northwest edge is a treacherous climb, with jagged rocks overlooking sandy bluffs.
- You encountered peaceful locals with established agriculture in the west.
- It should be noted that the southeast corner is as of yet unexplored, through the peaks of high mountains appear in the distance.
Your Memory Map
Start with a memory
First you need to think of a memory of a place that was significant to you in some way. Take some time to think about as many detail as you can. Here is my memory.
Recently, my sister, Sarah, took me to Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins, located in the heart of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. These cabins are right on the shore of Long Pond on 70,000+ acres of forestland permanently conserved by the Appalachian Mountain Club. This spot is deep in the wooded areas of Maine, and I am proud to say that my sister has been instrumental in helping to preserve and protect much of this land legally. One day, we stopped at Katahdin Iron Works State Historic Site. It is located about six miles down a gravel road from Brownsville Junction. For a visit to Maine, coming upon this park was like coming upon a Mayan pyramid nearly lost and reclaimed by the jungle in the Yucatan. The abandoning of the Katahdin Iron Works resulted from the nation’s new age of steel. Practically overnight, this once thriving community became a ghost town that today reveals only a few forgotten remnants of foundations partially reclaimed by nature. The coolest part was standing inside the furnace, looking up.
Recreate the memory.
Now that you are an expert on mapping, try your cartography skills out by making a map of a place you have visited or of a memory of a place that is special to you. As you recall the landscape or the surroundings, try to remember what happened there that makes your memory so significant. If you fell out of a canoe while paddling the Kennebec River, perhaps you could symbolize this event with a capsized canoe shape. Or show the giant fish under the water, right before you caught him. How big was that fish?
If you feel like you need more references, consider using Google Earth, but only after you have tried it once yourself.
Take it to the next level
For a project like this, I like to allow each student to decide what medium they will use to express their particular memory. This way, each memory map is as unique as the individual. Review some of the essential questions to guide this process.
How can we use our knowledge of scale/perspective/ and symbology to create a map?
How do we create a map from a place in our memory?
How are places important to us and can our map show our connections to this place?
Community Connection: Share your memory
Service Learning is an educational approach where students learn theories in the classroom and engage in community activities to deepen their understanding of what is being taught. I cannot think of a better way to find a sense of place than to speak with the people who have lived here for generations before you. You could find out what has changed in your community over the years, and what has stayed the same.
In the Waterville Alternative High School program, after my students created memory maps, they wrote letters describing the memory that inspired their map. I then sent them off to a local senior center, where I had coordinated with the senior center’s volunteers in advance. They will work with the seniors to review our maps and to send back memory maps of their own. This project was particularly well suited to building inter-generational connections, despite being in a pandemic when health and safety requirements have prevented in-person meetings.