Deep Maps

William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth is an close exploration of the place now called Chase County, Kansas. The book is large and sprawling. I read it over several months, usually just a few chapters at a time, letting the details build up like the old prairie soils. Much, as he notes near the end, has been left out, as must inevitably be the case. Yet there’s a richness here that is amazing. You’ll learn, for instance, the 140 different variations of the word for the Kaw, the Wind People; one of these names was used to name the state by those who cheated, robbed, and finally ethnically cleansed the eponyms.

For naturalists, the chapters on cottonwood, osage orange, and wood rats are worth the price of admission. The rats are also known as pack rats and trade rats, since they’re known to swap what they’re carrying home with something nicer they find along the way: “campers have awakened in the morning to find a pocketbook or compass traded for a pinecone or deer turd.”

Melville said “It’s not down in any map, true places never are.” Now, I love maps, but recognize them for what they are: human representations, with all the caveats that implies. Such simplifications and flattenings have reached their nadir in the most commonly used digital maps, where the streets are all that seem to matter.

John Hansen Mitchell’s Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile and Tim Robinson’s two Stones of Aran books of a similar deep-mapping genre. I’ve read Robinson, and highly recommend him, and have Mitchell on deck.

1 Response to “Deep Maps”

  1. 1 Paul Lamb September 5, 2017 at 5:09 am

    Yeah, I love maps, too. I’ve read Prairyerth (and Moby Dick) and now you’ve got me wanting to read the Mitchell book!

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