I think making and studying maps is both big fun and thought-provoking. One feature of maps I always notice is that some lines are wiggly and others straight. I have come to believe that the difference between wiggly and straight lines on maps is intimately related to the way we see the world.
Ever see a line on a topographic map that was straight? Besides the flow of water, other forces of nature almost always make wiggly lines – such as the ridges of mountain ranges, the extent of a particular mineral on a geologic map, or a map of average annual rainfall. Map lines for species and ecosystems are wiggly also. In the forms made by nature and geography, straight lines are rare. To cover both living and inorganic aspects of nature, I call wiggly lines on maps “biogeographical lines.”
In our backyards a great example of wiggliness is the Sonoita Creek Watershed, shown on a map published by Friends of Sonoita Creek. The wiggly edges of this blob were made by the forces of nature and geography over millennia. The watershed map of the State of Arizona is also a striking example of wiggly lines at work, such as the Gila, Salt and Santa Cruz River watersheds. The familiar outline of the state of Arizona has a bold wiggly line as its west boundary, the curvaceous Colorado River, separating us from California as it nears the end of its long flow to the Gulf of California. All other Arizona borders are straight lines made by human intent. The border wall follows two of these segments. Its absolute straightness is quintessentially non-biogeographical.
Straight-edged parcels of land were an aid to the carving up of the American West in “The Great Westward Expansion.” History suggests that straight-line land division was but one of many interconnected forces at work in the settlement and possession of the West. The European colonists who trekked westward carried a sense of entitlement, that it was somehow their right to take and profit from whatever resources they could lay hands on.
This belief was fueled by ethnic and religious superiority that had come across the Atlantic, a sense that Western European ideas and their bearers were superior to the “primitive savages.” In 1845, the European religious doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was rebranded as the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, whereby people “chosen by Providence” could and should occupy and exploit anything they came to.
The values underlying the “March to the Pacific” included greed at a scale that matched the sprawling Western land itself, creating a new extractive capitalism that made a few corporate owners extremely rich and increased class separation and wealth inequity for the rest. Whether for settlement, fishing, logging, mining or grazing, land became a commodity in a feeding frenzy. Ground, and sometimes waters, became objectified as potential resources that could be claimed, owned, developed, sold or speculated upon, to either produce material for profit, or be itself sold for profit.
Net result: instead of being respected as a fertile provider of life, Mother Earth was commodified as a resource, a profound shift of world view. Trampled in the empire-building land grab was the intimate personal contact with nature that had been the indigenous spirit and practice of hundreds of North American tribes living sustainably over thousands of years.
By arrogantly acting as if humans are masters rather than members of the web of life, global toxification of air, water, and soil has compounded into a rapidly unfolding ecological disaster that has led the human race and all other species to the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction and has initiated possibly irreversible climate change.
The terrifying, unprecedented world situation demands not just new technology and energy sources, but also demands value change, toward lifestyles and technologies that restore deep daily contact with Nature and replace the seductive lure of Profit with humbler, less consumptive ways of life. The environmental activist Vendana Shiva said: “In nature’s economy, the currency is not money – it is life.”
What does all this history have to do with mapping? From an amateur cartographer’s point of view, changing the way we see and map the world could make a small contribution toward survival. Operating from nature-based values, I suggest we study land and understand nature with biogeographic maps whenever possible and make new maps as bio-intelligent as we can. I believe that visualizing and honoring the wiggly lines of nature will lead us to wise ecological action much more surely than will continuing to see land simply as a commodity most efficiently described by straight lines.
We live, eat, breathe and reproduce purely because of the miraculous wiggly nature of complex living systems at every scale, and should never, ever forget it.