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“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?”*…




Now that we’re corralled into our homes and apartments, something seems pre-modern in how our worlds have shrunk. Unlike past quarantines, we’re also connected by digital technology to the rest of the globe, calling to mind poet John Donne’s line from a 1633 poem about making “one little room an everywhere.” Donne came of age able to envision a mental map of the globe based on new and detailed evidence about a dizzying array of locations. His poetry is replete with globes, maps, and atlases. What’s considered to be the first atlas was first available in an Antwerp print shop 450 years ago [see here] only two years before Donne was born. It was large, handsome, and expensive, with the grandiose title of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or in English Theater of the Orb of the World. Donne was undoubtedly familiar with it. Produced by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, it was one of the most popular books of the era. Ortelius had invented the world.


Never before had all cartographic knowledge been compiled together; never before could a reader imagine the totality of the Earth so completely…

Ortelius wasn’t the first mapmaker to be concerned with what the coastlines actually looked like, or with making sure that islands were in the right location. But he was the first to gather all of that detailed material in a single place. Those who purchased the Theatrum were not unlike those first seeing The Blue Marble, a photograph of Earth the members of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission took from space.

As with that image, Ortelius’ atlas birthed a new mental geography, a new imagined space. If Medieval thinkers saw themselves as living in a symbolic and allegorical geographic order, then the Theatrum presented the physical world in its totality. The cartographer didn’t prove that the world was round (people already knew that) or that the world was large (they knew that too) but he gave people the mental images necessary to imagine themselves on that large, round globe. Ortelius gave us not disenchantment, but a differing enchantment—a sense of the sheer magnitude of the planet.

It was the most expensive book ever published (up to then), and one of the most impactful: “The Book That Invented the World.”

* David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas


As we find our places, we might recall that it was on this date in 1790 that Peruvian-Spanish explorer and cartographer Manuel Quimper began his exploration and mapping of The Strait of Juan de Fuqua (known until a few years earlier as The North Straits).  Running into the Pacific at the northern extreme of what is now Washington State, the center of the Strait defines the international boundary between Canada and the United States (and in earlier maps, per the link in the quote above, contributed incorrectly to defining California as an island).

Manuel_Quimper source


“All things are metaphors”*…


For much of the 17th century, Europeans believed that California was an island.  Indeed, readers who have suffered through your correspondent’s explanation of scenario planning know that a 17th century map in which California is depicted as an island, very like the one above, figures into the talk as an example of the way that incorrect maps– cartographical or mental maps– are hard to change and often lead us astray.

But as this appreciation of Stanford’s collection of California maps points out, there may be a deeper truth to the depiction:

The fact that a number of explorers knew that California was not an island was not enough to nip the idea in the bud. Yet it would be a shame to think of the idea as simply an error, a cartographical crease which needed ironing out. Even though maps may be presented as accurate, they cannot escape their metaphorical nature. They reflect much more than physical geography. That California was mapped as an island for so long speaks to its separateness. The writer Rebecca Solnit, a student of the Stanford maps, has argued that, “An island is anything surrounded by difference.” The state contains around 2,000 plant species found nowhere else. Its borders comprise dizzying mountains, harsh deserts and immense ocean. It has been home to the Gold Rush, the psychedelic era, the silicon boom. In several ways then, California is an island…

More (and more marvelous maps) at “Maps Showing California as an Island.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


As we remember that “the map is not the territory,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that Gilles Coppens de Diest at Antwerp published Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum— a collection of 53 maps that is generally agreed to have been the first modern atlas.

Interestingly (for reasons explained in the article linked above), Ortelius’ maps, which pre-date the charts in the Stanford collection, portray California more accurately.

Title page from a 1606 edition



Written by LW

May 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

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