Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Map-Makers Colours

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colours?
- What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favourites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historian's are the map-makers colours.

'The Map' by Elizabeth Bishop

Mapped waters... can water be mapped... yes, as voids surrounded by land.

Water more quiet than the land is... seas may be wild, much more wild than the land, but ironically, in a mapped sense they are featureless, without topography, and therefore quiet.

Conformation - the sea conforms with the land, its waves break evenly on the coast, and currents navigate the coastline as sailors do. That conformity describes the ying and yang fit of sea to land, the masculine land and feminine sea nestling together.

Norway's hare runs south in agitation - Topography equates to noise, and thus a country such as Norway, mountainous and embayed with fjords, is noisy. More mountainous in the north, it frightens its own hare-like profile into running south...

Profiles investigate the sea - a country with the profile of a hare, or of a dog, a man or a woman. Or perhaps the profile of a face seen in the jagged outline of a cliff.

Can the countries pick their colours - no indeed not. The map is a way of defining the world and the map-maker the person who defines where the boundaries lie. The colours lying within those boundaries have particular meanings defined by the map-maker. The map-maker emerges as a symbol of power.

What suits the character - it's not clear... is it a suggestion? Yes. A whimsical but profound one.

North's as near as West - wherever we go North and West are constant. All places are equivalent in this sense. They have equal currency. This seems an argument against the previous imagery of the map-maker as a powerful arbiter.

More delicate than the historian's are the map-makers colours. - What are the historian's colours? I  think that 'colours' here refers to the flags that indicates nationaility, with a military flavour... Compared to the colours of flags which are brash in their symbolism, the map-makers colours are indeed more delicate. They reflect the precarious and unstable nature of countries and borders as defined by the changing character of those states. In some ways these delicate colours contradict the bold and simple ones of flags, challenging those who stick their flags in a new region of the map, by that means trying to claim it.


Rosemary said...

You post reminds me of the current exhibition in the Stavanger Museum of Modern Art. It illustrates mapping as a very abstract concept. However, mapping helps us make sense of the world.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Rosemary, well, the poem charts various abstract notions based on concepts of mapping. The poem is not easy to understand as these notions are played one against the other in a complex and dynamic way. I've tried to bring some interpretation to the poem. I don't think it's the only possible interpretation, and some of the interpretations go a long way beyond what is in the poem, for example the ying and yang. Mapping can indeed help us to make sense of the world. Different maps for different senses I suppose. I imagine a tactile map for a blind person, or an olfactory map for those who prefer to follow their noses... A map is just a small scale representation of the world. It might help us to locate ourselves and find our way to the supermarket. In a busy world, that might help us to make some sense of things. But say there were 20 official roadblocks between here and the supermarket which were not marked on the map. Say the roadblocks would never allow us to reach the supermarket.... Then the the map would be misleading and not at all allowing us to make "sense" of the world. Even such a simple thing as the absence of a scale can render a map totally misleading. So I would agree that maps can help to make sense of the world, but only if it is the right map for the purpose intended, with a trustworthy map-maker. The maps in the Stavanger exhbit did not appear at all trustworthy being full of holes and crossing contours. I think that was supposed to communicate something about the potential untrustworthiness of maps, and their inherent two dimensionality in a three dimensional world.

Rouchswalwe said...

I have been intrigued over and over again by the map-maker's notation that "here there be monsters" when the boundary of the known world is crossed.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Rouchswalwe, yes indeed. That says something about the supposed civilising and controlling aspects of making maps I guess. I used to have several maps blu-tacked on my wall when I was young. My favourite was the Hereford Mappa Mundi of which I had bought a black and white copy after visiting the cathedral. I spent a lot of time looking at the strange monsters that are pictured on that map, not all at the limits of the mapped world by the way. I suppose in some sense these monsters could serve as a raison d'etre for extending the maps, and that perhaps was why they were placed there. I like the image of map-makers always spotting strange and monstrous shapes on the horizon and spending time to annotate them on their maps, though I suspect these monsters mainly arose from the imaginative or over-inflated tales of travellers.