Mental Maps

DSC00301.JPGI am interesting in how people come to know a place. This is something that I have been thinking about for a long time, but has been on the forefront of my mind since reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) at the turn of the year. Arctic Dreams is a cross-genre work centered on exploration of the Arctic landscape. In the seventh chapter, The Country of the Mind, Lopez talks about the cartography and the affect of maps on people’s perceptions of a place. He convincingly argues that geography is a subjective science, influenced by preconceived notions and personal interpretations and defines mental maps as “…landscapes that exist in the human mind.” Lopez says that mental maps are personal. “The mental maps of urban dwellers and Eskimo may correspond poorly in spatial terms with maps of the same areas prepared with survey tools and cartographic instruments. But they are proven, accurate guides of the landscape. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, stripped of the superfluous, instantly adaptable. Their validity is not susceptible of contradiction.”

G and I have very different mental maps of the same places. I navigate by overall view, by feeling, by general sense of where I am in relation to where I need to go. In my own neighborhood, I still get confused about the which street name belongs to which street, but I know the color the each house and the types of trees in each yard and I don’t get lost. If I have been somewhere before, I often trust that I will be able to find my way again. G’s mental maps seem to be very quantitative. He focuses on street names and compass directions. He finds my sense of direction confusing and sometimes infuriating.

Over the past month, I am have spent a lot of time looking at Google map’s images of Nova Scotia. The peninsula and Cape Breton Island are situated at a specific angle, and I see Nova Scotia in this position in my mind. When we are riding, I will picture our location as a moving dot on this specific map even though I have also looked at others where Nova Scotia sits at different angle on my screen. As G will also be studying Google maps and Map My Ride, I hope that our mental maps will align. But before our ride begins, I am also trying to fill my mind with other landscape stories. How is the bedrock laid down, what is the range of red spruce, which directions do the winds blow, where are the Mi’kmaw canoe routes, what are the colors of each region?

As I consider how to map a landscape in my mind, I continually return to posts by Lori Graham (@loritimesfive), who shares her place-specific journals. I am also grateful for this specific post by Kate Davies.


The photo above was taken on Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks in 2015. A place I never tire of exploring. 


2 thoughts on “Mental Maps

  1. lori

    i am very much the same as you, it’s a fascinating subject, and one to keep learning and growing with. what a wonderful trip you have planned! thank you for your kind words xox


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