Friday, March 27, 2009

Maps, Questions, and Walking

This map is one that I generated on my laptop using software and land use data from iMapData (you can click on the map to enlarge it):

The image below is my room and the USGS quads on my wall (you can click on this one too, if you really want to):

Both show a transect of the state of California from San Francisco and the Pacific in the west to Yosemite and the Sierra in the East. On April 6, I will begin walking this transect, as part of research on land use and land management, past and present, in California.

The map on my wall is a constant reminder to me that the trip is coming up. But it reminds me of more than that as well. It reminds me of the questions I will be asking. How has the land changed, from one side of the state of California to the other, since John Muir’s time? Muir was the man who put conservation on the map in many ways. What is the legacy of his effort? Looking at the patchwork of green parks around the bay, the gridded and subdued whiteness of the central valley, the vast and unbroken verdure of the Sierra, the map is a reminder that there is a history behind the land, a hidden axis in time coming out of the Cartesian plane. Since Muir’s time, and certainly before too, a myriad of forces, attitudes, and decisions have all contributed to shape the map as it appears now.

Standing closer to the map, there is great detail. This canal, that access road, those tailings, big features, small features, all have their history, a swelling lineage of forces that shaped and continue to shape what is now printed and posted on my wall.

Two things strike me about this last sentence. First, an expectation might be that a “swelling” complexity of land management and land use ought to produce an increasingly “disturbed” landscape, like a chalk board that becomes more difficult to wipe clean. Truly, when used unsustainably, the land can only sustain so much. Yet the landscape pictured is neither entirely sculpted, nor scarred, nor “improved” by man, nor is it entirely “natural.” I use many quotation marks here, because I have heard many arguments about what qualifies as natural and what as human. I have observed a resilient nature, able to incorporate some human changes into its own narrative. On the other side, I have observed relentless development and relentless protection of nature by humans. Nature and man both blur the line between nature and man. The story of this blurring, of this murky and permeable boundary, maps a tangled management history, and helps explain why even in the face of dramatic change, parts of the chalk board are unrecognizable, while others remain green.

Second, along one historical strand is the printing of this map. The map provides a quantification of the landscape. It provides something readable and accessible at a small scale, even when in large format, as it is on my wall. The map then, reminds me of another question: can a landscape be read? Can it be understood in this quantified, simplified, two dimensional form? If not, can it be understood in three dimensions? Can someone speeding across the actual area represented in the map understand the state better than someone reading a map? And if not, can the landscape be understood in four dimensions? Can someone walking across the physicality of the land, slowly, at a pace biologically rational to humans (rather than a faster, incomprehensible speed developed only in the last few hundred years in which, as the Pope quotation popular in the 19th century goes “time and space are annihilated” ) understand the land? Can the land be understood at all, and what does it mean to understand the land?

I do not imagine that the land of California can be understood in all its detail. A map is one way to compress data, however. It is one way to focus on some data but not all, to rationalize, connect, and explore a region made up of a great deal of academic and casual pieces, far too many to be totally absorbed. A walk is another means of compression. Research is another, talking to people yet another.

I hope to engage all of these, in the hope that I might develop at least beginning of understanding of one aspect of the landscape: its protection. By telling a new story, one comprised in part of the components mentioned above, I hope to shed new light on the past and future of land conservation, and of man’s role in protecting the land, home to the gene, the ecosystem, and everything in between.