Terrestrial Astronomy

[Image: “The Empty Quarter (Nevada)” (2021), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

I’m thrilled to have some map collages in the latest issue of the Yale Review.

[Image: “Groundwater Grids (North Dakota)” (2020), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

I started making these during lockdown, as part of a larger (and, to be honest, now doomed-feeling) graphic novel project using public domain U.S. Geological Survey maps as the main material.

[Images: “Keys II (Florida)” (2020) and “Keys I (Florida)” (2020), collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey; the source maps for these are particularly interesting, because they utilize satellite photography.]

The images in this post include a few collages not published in the Yale Review, but click through for the full issue’s broad selection of poetry, essays, fiction, and more.

[Images: “Morse Landscape II (Louisiana)” and “Morse Landscape I (Louisiana)” (2021), collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

And huge, huge thanks to Eugenia Bell for the editorial interest!

[Images: Various collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

If you’re looking for someone to design a book cover or album cover or event poster, hit me up.

[Image: “Terrestrial Astronomy (Nevada)” (2021), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey; it’s a pedestrian observation, but inverting the color scheme of geological maps makes them look like maps of stars.]

The Terrestrial Status of Boston

The terrestrial status of Boston is an unexpectedly fascinating topic. A city built on land rescued from the sea, it is not only unusually at risk from sea-level rise; it also hides parts of its marshy past beneath its streets and buildings.

As a project by the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center recently wrote, “No city in the U.S. has a more striking history of landmaking than Boston, with about a sixth of its present land area sitting on estuaries, mudflats, coves, and tidal basins that would have been submerged at high tide prior to the seventeenth century. Mapping the growth of the city into the surrounding ocean has been an interest of Boston’s geographers for centuries, and our modern maps of shoreline change are some of the most popular objects in our digital collections.”

[Image: Boston, courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.]

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal explained last year, some of Boston’s most expensive houses are more like docks or wharves, sitting atop wooden pilings driven deep into flooded ground. In one specific case, “the underground wooden pilings supporting the foundation had been rotting for years, to the point where the building’s walls were ‘almost floating,’ [the home’s owner] recalled.”

Recall the the incredible story of William Walker, a diver who “saved” Winchester Cathedral in England by diving beneath it for a period of six years, repairing its aquatic foundations from below. “When huge cracks started to appear in the early 1900s,” we read, “the Cathedral seemed in danger of complete collapse. Early efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations failed until William Walker, a deep-sea diver, worked under water every day for six years placing bags of concrete.”

Ben Affleck’s next movie, perhaps—scuba diving beneath the streets of Boston and saving the city from below…

While the bulk of the Leventhal Center’s project focuses on the economic value of reclaimed land in the Boston area—what they call “the ultimate financial asset: brand-new urban land, ready for development”—there is at least one amazing detail I wanted to post here.

Like buried ships in New York City and San Francisco, Boston has its own maritime archaeology: “Sophisticated networks of fish weirs can still be found buried beneath the streets of the [Back Bay] neighborhood, which were laid out in a tidily gridded pattern in the nineteenth century to facilitate the engrossment and sale of property.” Indigenous hydrological infrastructure, hiding in plain sight.

Writing just today, meanwhile, in an op-ed for WBUR, Courtney Humphries suggests that, ironically, Boston’s future survival might depend on doing more of what got it into trouble with the sea in the first place: building more land and further modifying the shoreline.

What future weirs and dams and levees and pilings, architectural anchorages all, might we see beneath the streets of Boston, a city halfway between terrestrial and maritime, ground and ocean, bedrock and marsh, in the years to come?

The Magnetic Depths

The emerging sub-genre of public service announcements about geological surveys—apparently offered not just due to FAA regulations, but to quell the growth of potential conspiracy theories—continues with this heads-up about a “low-flying airplane” over parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Image: USGS map of eastern Virginia, altered by BLDGBLOG.]

Of course, beyond the idea of simply preempting the development of new conspiracy theories, the work being done by the project is fascinating in and of itself: “Instruments on the airplane will measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and natural low-level radiation created by different rock types near and up to several miles beneath the surface. This information will help researchers develop geologic maps of the area that will be used to better understand sand resources and underground faults in the region.”

While we’re on the topic of the Virginia/North Carolina border region, I’m reminded of why there’s a strange “notch” in the state line, a story “that mostly involves collecting taxes and avoiding swamps”: “The rough and rowdy inhabitants living close to the border told North Carolina tax collectors they lived in Virginia, [Gates County historian Linda Hofler] said. When the Virginia tax man came, they said North Carolina was their home.”

In any case, check out the USGS for more on the low-flying geomagnetic airplane and The Virginian-Pilot for more on VA/NC border history.

(Related: Geomedia, or What Lies Below.)

Antarktikos

[Image: How do you resist a map with features like Labyrinth, the Asgard Range, and Inland Forts?! (via).]

A new magazine called Antarktikos has launched with an open call for papers on the theme of “Mapping Nature.”

For the inaugural issue, they’re seeking “any kind of research, story, or visualization related to the mapping of Antarctica. From ice cores containing the information trapped in 20,000-year-old air bubbles, to the architectural drawing of research stations, to imaginary maps of Antarctica in the year 3000.”

Click through for more info.

Tactical Geography

[Image: A map of the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

A vast collection of old military maps has been made available online through the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, taken from the collection of King George III, thanks to the exhaustive work of Yolande Hodson. While the troop positions and tactical maneuvers they document are fascinating, the maps are also a spatial survey of building types, terrains, and urban plans, including star forts, walled villages, protected natural landscape features, from bays to river valleys, and other strategic environments.

As the blog Ian Visits explains, “Maps were an important part of George’s early life and education, and he built up a huge collection of more than 55,000 topographical, maritime and military prints, drawings, maps and charts. Upon the King’s death, his son, George IV, gave his father’s collections of topographical views and maritime charts to the British Museum (now in the British Library), but retained the military plans due to their strategic value and his own keen interest in the tactics of warfare.” The new website apparently documents a mere 3,000 of those documents.

The whole thing is searchable by conflict, which means that you can look specifically for maps related to, say, the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, including the Siege of Cremona (1648)—seen below—or, say, the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-43, which included the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), the image that opens this post.

[Image: A map of the Siege of Cremona (1648), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Perhaps even better, however, you can also click on maps by region, from North America to India to, of course, all over Europe and the Caribbean. This includes, among the thousands of examples, an incredible map from the American Revolution depicting New York City in all of its topographic glory.

[Image: Long Island, New York and Staten Island (1776), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Indeed, as Ian Visits notes, “Highlights of the collection include two-metre-wide maps of the American War of Independence. These vast maps were probably hung on purpose-made mahogany stands in Buckingham House, enabling the King to follow the steady erosion of his hold on the American colonies.”

The collection is spectacular. The Siege of Memel (1757). The Siege of Olmütz (1758). A view of Gotha (1567). The Siege of Prague (1757). I could go on and on. The Plan of Pilau (1757). The Siege of Bangalore (1791)…

Check out the guide to the online catalog, then dive in.

(Vaguely related: Feral Cities, Indirect Streets, and Soft Fortification.)

Phantom/Null

[Image: Saxenburgh Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Musician Andrew Pekler has composed soundtracks for “phantom islands,” or “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality,” The Wire reports.

“Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions),” Pekler explained to The Wire, “most phantom islands were unintentional fictions—the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.”

The accompanying website is pretty rad (although it apparently does not work in mobile), though, fair warning, it will easily consume a great deal of your afternoon at the office.

[Image: Antillia Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

While reading about Pekler’s work, I was reminded of the so-called “Null Island” effect, a different kind of phantom island that invisibly inhabits the space at 0°N, 0°E in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.

“Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s called Null Island.”

This digital “island”—the paper describes it as “the default destination for mistakes”—exists as a result of programming errors in geographic information systems (GIS).

“Unfortunately, due to human typos, messy data, or even glitches in the geocoder itself,” Tim St. Onge wrote for the Library of Congress back in 2016, “the geocoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly. Misspelled street names, non-existent building numbers, and other quirks can create invalid addresses that can confuse a geocoder so that the output becomes ‘0,0’. While this output indicates that an error occurred, since ‘0,0’ is in fact a location on the Earth’s surface according to the coordinate system, the feature will be mapped there, as nonsensical as the location may be. We end up with an island of misfit data.”

[Image: Hunter Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Alas, Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands project doesn’t include a soundtrack for Null Island, but perhaps other musicians and sound designers will take that as a challenge. A fictional ethnomusicology for digital nowhere.

(Thanks to @RJCeetoo for the heads up about Phantom Islands and to Wayne Chambliss for telling me about Null Island many years ago.)

Ghost Reefs

[Image: 18th-century nautical chart by George Gauld, via Geographical].

A theme that has near-universal appeal for me is when old maps reveal the presence of something in the landscape that people have otherwise overlooked or forgotten. It could be a lost road deep in the mountain forests of Vermont, for example, or it could a whole series of missing reefs off the coast of Florida.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers led by Loren McClenachan at Colby College in Maine found what they called “ghost reefs” in old nautical charts drawn by an 18th-century British surveyor named George Gauld. When the team compared Gauld’s maps with modern satellite images of the same landscape, “a stark picture of shrinking coral emerged: Half of the reefs recorded in the 1770s are missing from the satellite data,” the Washington Post reported.

There are limitations to the approach, of course: “It’s impossible to tell whether the [18th-century] surveyors distinguished between living and dead coral, for example, or how long the reefs had persisted,” the Post writes, but the idea of finding ghost geographic forms in old maps is too evocative not to mention here.

Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

chill.once.waddle

what3words[Image: Screen-grab from what3words].

Using the bizarre three-word addressing system known as what3words, the now-destroyed curb in Hayward, CA, mentioned in the previous post, is located at a site called “chill.once.waddle.”

As you can tell, of course, what3words is not a descriptive language, and these phrases are not intended to mean anything: they are simply randomly-generated sets of words used to give any location on earth a physical address.

As Quartz explained the system back in 2015, it is, at heart, “a simple idea”:

…a combination of three words, in any language, could specify any three meter by three meter square in the world—more than enough to designate a hut in Siberia or a building doorway in Tokyo. Altogether, 40,000 words combined in triplets label 57 trillion squares. Thus far, the system has been built in 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swahili, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, and, starting next month, Arabic… All together, this lingua franca requires only five megabytes of data, small enough to reside in any smartphone and work offline. Each square has its identity in its own language that is not a translation of another. The dictionaries have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms being reserved for the most populated areas

The addresses are poetically absurd—shaky.audit.detail, salsa.gangs.square, dozed.lamps.wing.

I mention this, however, because I meant to post last month that “Mongolia is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases.” Again, from Quartz:

Mongol Post is switching to the What3Words system because there are too few named streets in its territory. The mail network provides service over 1.5 million square km (580,000 square miles), an area that’s three times the size of Spain, though much of that area is uninhabited. Mongolia is among the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and about a quarter of its population is nomadic, according to the World Bank.

While, on one level, in an age of stacks and infinite addressability, this seems like a thrilling, almost science-fictional step forward for locating and mapping physical spaces, it also seems like an alarming example of national over-reliance on a proprietary address system, one that the state itself ultimately cannot control.

Imagine a nation-state losing influence over the physical coordinates of its own territory, or a population stuck living inside an outdated, even discontinued address network, and needing to start again, from scratch, renaming all its streets and buildings—not to mention all the lost local histories and significance of certain place names, from avenues to intersections, that need to be reclaimed.

Granted, in this particular case, the system is being adopted precisely because “there are too few named streets” in Mongolia, that does not change the fact that the country will soon be dependent upon the continued existence of what3words for its packages to be delivered, its services to run, and its spatial infrastructures to function. It will be interesting to see how the transition to the use of these peculiar place tags goes—but, even more so, how this decision looks in five or ten years’ time.

_applyChinaLocationShift

shanghaishift[Image: The same point in Shanghai, shifted between its map and satellite view; via Google Maps].

The slippage between map and territory is made unsettlingly clear by a mandatory geographic offset introduced into digital cartography products operating in China.

Variously known as “_applyChinaLocationShift,” eviltransform, the “China GPS Offset Problem,” and, most interestingly, as “Mars Coordinates,” this algorithmic shifting of GPS coordinates is related to China’s official mapping and survey rules, devised for national and economic security.

I’ve written much more about this in a new article for Travel + Leisure, where everything from trap streets to Jorge Luis Borges gets involved, as well as questions of technology, international borders, and geopolitics. Check it out, and let me know if you’ve had any experience with the issue yourself.

(Thanks to @0xdeadbabe for the tip!)

Comparative Astral Isochrones

[Image: Isochronic map of travel distances from London, from An Atlas of Economic Geography (1914) by John G. Bartholomew (via)].

“This is an isochronic map—isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time—and it tells a story about how travel was changing,” Simon Willis explains over at Intelligent Life. The map shows you how long it would take to get somewhere, embarking from London:

You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle within five days–to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

Earlier this year, when a private spacecraft made it from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station in less than six hours, the New York Times pointed out that “it is now quicker to go from Earth to the space station than it is to fly from New York to London.”

[Image: From Twitter].

In the context of Bartholomew’s map, it would be interesting to re-explore isochronal cartography in our own time, to visualize the strange spacetime we live within today, where the moon is closer than parts of Antarctica and the International Space Station is a shorter trip than flying to Heathrow.

(Map originally spotted via Francesco Sebregondi).