Navigating by Inconceivable Cartography

'Much of how we understand our place in the world, we carry around in our heads.' Nathanael Bonnell re-examines the role of maps in the context of place, culture, colonialism and future-history, asking the questions: what will the new maps look like, and how do we create them?
is editor of New Maps, a quarterly of short fiction about life during and after the end of the oil age. He grew up in Cincinnati, gathered some book-learning at Grinnell College, and furthered his education through years of vagabonding. He lives in northern Wisconsin by Lake Superior.

 There are very few things we can know for certain about the future, but one of them is that it won’t look quite like the present or the past.

Physically – climatically, technologically – we all know more or less what is in our extended forecast. Big changes. Days of reckoning. But what we don’t always consider is that this is equally true of the mental and cultural worlds coming: we and our inheritors won’t even see that changed world with the same eyes. 

Since 2019, it feels as though we’ve passed into another world; none of us grew up here, and it feels disorienting and foreign. And to really show the vastness of the difference that can exist between two different times, it can be useful to dig into a little ethnography. The difference between two times is much like the difference between two places. And it only takes a few examples from other territories to see that our inheritors are likely to understand the world – to piece together even the basic information coming from their senses – in ways we can’t even imagine. After enough change, it’s not enough just to redraw the borders on a map; it becomes necessary to entirely reimagine what a map even is.

In the 1880s, Danish explorer Gustav Holm paid a visit to Ammassalik Island on the craggy east coast of Greenland, and there met a village of Tunumiit Inuit. He wintered with them, and gathered notes from them about parts of the coast he hadn’t visited. After a while, one Tunumiit man presented him with a set of maps of the coastline a little further down. They consisted of flattened pieces of wood, with deep grooves and teeth carved into them to represent the inlets, points, and islands along that stretch of coast. He mentioned that maps like that were often made to acquaint people with coastline they hadn’t visited, or to tell stories where the characters’ locations and changing viewpoints of the land were important.

If this seems like an unnecessary length to go to in order to tell a story, it’s worth knowing that in the Inuit language family, orientation to places is a very exacting and constantly practised science: where English has here and there, the Inuit system has fully 80 words, and there is no way to say simply ‘there’ without specifying who it’s there relative to; whether it’s up, down, or over there; whether the shape of there is roundish or longish; and how the thing that’s there is or isn’t moving. Likewise, the stretch of coastline represented on the carving is apparently curvier than the medium allowed the carver to show, but here again it is necessary to consider that the old Inuit way of understanding space is very different from the Western one.

After enough change, it’s not enough just to redraw the borders on a map; it becomes necessary to entirely reimagine what a map even is. 

A different visitor some decades ago handed some photographs to his Inuit hosts, and found it strange that they looked at them without turning them to orient ‘down’ toward them. It transpired that the Inuit, including the children, also found him a bit loopy and possibly slow-witted for always turning pictures a certain way before looking at them, and that when they put pictures up on their walls, they tacked them happily any which way, with no impediment to understanding them. Drawings from 1920s Inuit are a Cubist-postmodern mindwarp of shifting horizon lines and perspectives, all invented without benefit of Western art schools.

In fact cultures around the world, especially before the homogenising dominion of globalisation, have maintained very different spatial worlds for probably as long as human beings have organised themselves into different cultures. Australia is particularly rich with highly non-Western ways of understanding space. Among the Thaayorre of the northern coast, for instance, there is no word for ‘left’ or ‘right’; instead all orientation is done according to compass points, so that you might tell someone, ‘Your southeast shoe is untied.’ Furthermore, in the Thaayorre language, the usual way to greet someone translates as ‘Which way are you going?’ and the proper response is along the lines of ‘West-northwest, in the middle distance,’ so that if you don’t know which way you’re pointed, you can’t even negotiate ‘hello’.

Elsewhere on the continent, an account exists from someone who rode with a small group of Aboriginal people on their first trip in a motor vehicle. They were very quiet before they got underway, but as soon as the Jeep began moving, one of them began telling stories one after another, as fast as he could possibly talk. The stories, it transpired, were travelling stories, meant to be told along this route, which was of course usually travelled at walking pace.


Drawing of a musk ox hunt, from Ascher, Marcia, (1991): Ethnomathematics

Even in Australian  gift shops run by English-speaking Euro-Australian entrepreneurs, you can find world maps oriented with south at the top of the sheet (‘down under no longer,’ they say wryly).

The longitude-and-latitude maps familiar to us Westerners are in some ways just one more culture’s particular way of warping the spherical world to fit inside brains that comprehend reality more readily in 2D. The elite navigators of the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean make landfall on islands hundreds of miles distant using a complex technique that involves imagining their boats are stationary and the islands themselves are moving, while the Marshallese make ‘stick charts’ that show wave interference patterns from islands far beyond the horizon

In other ways, though, Western maps appear to reflect a uniquely emotionless attitude toward place: one that conceives land not as a home to be celebrated, or an entity to be related with, but as a resource to be used. It’s not hard to imagine a tribal war council drawing a map in the sand or on a skin in order to plan a battle. But perhaps only the expansionist Western mind could draw up a plat map of other people’s land, and then (as happened with the U.S. Midwest and West) dole out parcels of it to people hundreds of miles away who’ve never seen it, sending them to build their 16 cabins per square mile as though the land were empty, uniform, fungible: conquest by mathematics. 

By way of contrast the Western Apache of Arizona hold their maps substantially inside their heads rather than on paper. In fact an earnest cartographer would probably find it impossible, even with snazzy gimmicks like Google Earth, to get these maps down satisfactorily: because they extend not only spatially but also temporally and mythologically. Central to the Western Apache’s understanding of their world are place names, which (in compact phrases that become unwieldy in English) carry meanings like ‘Trail to Life Goes Up’ (’Ihi’na’ Ha’itin), ‘Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water’ (Túzhį’ Yaahigaiye’), and ‘She Carries Her Brother on Her Back’ (Kolah Dahch’ewoołé). The names attach to even small landscape features like a rock in an evanescent stream, called ‘Children’s Footprints’ (Chagháshé Biké’é).

These names anchor the place to a story, historical or mythical or somewhere between the two. Moreover, unlike a name such as ‘New York,’ which we pass over without any thought as to what a york is or why we needed a new one; or ‘Oxford,’ which brings to mind oxen fording a river only for the most peculiarly minded of us, the Western Apache place names retain enough meaning and emotional power that, as anthropologist Keith Basso tells, after thinking of one, an elder stopped to shake his head and ask, ‘What were they thinking?’

These things are small building blocks of a way of life. Accrete together a lifetime of them, and your whole world is mapped out in stories.

But perhaps the rest of us aren’t so different from the Western Apache in that. Glovebox full of road maps notwithstanding, much of how we understand our place in the world, we carry around in our heads. Imagine the neighbourhood where you grew up. What’s on your mental map of it? For me there are suburban houses and busy streets, but in my mind these mostly recede into a desaturated background behind the vividness of the little creeks and woods that I explored with my younger brother in those days.

The importance of those woods and the stories that clustered around them, or around all the little creeks we explored, aren’t transferable to another person, but they’re part of a thought-world that he and I share. These things are small building blocks of a way of life. Accrete together a lifetime of them, and your whole world is mapped out in stories. That, of course, is how all of us see our worlds: by way of these story-maps woven around the material circumstances of our lives.

And as those circumstances change, our story-maps will need to, too, if we want to stay afloat. Through learning new tricks as individuals, on to the accumulating differences between generations, the minds of the people of the future will in time be as foreign as modern city-dwellers might find the Inuit, the Thaayorre, or even the wig-powdering denizens of the 1700s Euro-American diaspora, who by and large believed the Earth to be a few thousand years old and slaveholding to be morally defensible.

What will those new maps look like? Well, of course, we can never chart the future in all its detail. But by looking forward with a little wisdom, a little intelligence and imagination, we can get somewhere helpfully close. After all, those are exactly the tools that the people who create the future will have at their disposal. And in fact, in reading and writing stories that map out some of where we may be going, we help create that same future we’re trying to discover. Because the stories we tell in the present are the same ones that those who come after us will use to guide them. In effect, we create the maps of the future despite having no idea how to create them. We know only the present, but then, how do we arrive at the future, except by an infinite series of presents?


For more information on New Maps journal, see here.


Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS

Our Autumn 2021 journal is a special all-colour collection of art and writing that delves into the legacy of extractivism


Read more
  1. Great piece, Nathanael. Thanks. Modern maps as tools of use and control, not enlightenment and discovery. And now they are inside our language and thoughtforms. Much to think about here.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting article. I’d like to add two more areas of study – the mapping of cyberspace, and the mapping of virtual reality environments. The first has already generated some very interesting research. I’m not aware yet of any detailed research into the second, but I’m sure it’s already underway. Your article is a reminder that the cartography of these abstract spaces will probably be equally culturally-specific.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *