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In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir

In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir

by Christopher Norment

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Throughout his life, maps have been a source of imagination and wonder for Christopher Norment. Mesmerized by them since the age of eight or nine, he found himself courted and seduced by maps, which served functional and allegorical roles in showing him worlds that he might come to know and helping him understand worlds that he had already explored.

Maps may have


Throughout his life, maps have been a source of imagination and wonder for Christopher Norment. Mesmerized by them since the age of eight or nine, he found himself courted and seduced by maps, which served functional and allegorical roles in showing him worlds that he might come to know and helping him understand worlds that he had already explored.

Maps may have been the stuff of his dreams, but they sometimes drew him away from places where he should have remained firmly rooted. In the Memory of the Map explores the complex relationship among maps, memory, and experience—what might be called a “cartographical psychology” or “cartographical history.” Interweaving a personal narrative structured around a variety of maps, with stories about maps as told by scholars, poets, and fiction writers, this book provides a dazzlingly rich personal and intellectual account of what many of us take for granted.

A dialog between desire and the maps of his life, an exploration of the pleasures, utilitarian purposes, benefits, and character of maps, this rich and powerful personal narrative is the matrix in which Norment embeds an exploration of how maps function in all our lives. Page by page, readers will confront the aesthetics, mystery, function, power, and shortcomings of maps, causing them to reconsider the role that maps play in their lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

"Relational correspondence" is how a map translates to the real world, and environmental scientist and lifelong outdoorsman Norment (Return to Warden's Grove) has built a warm, sentimental memoir around the role maps have played in his own life-from being "seduced" by them as a young child in Saratoga, CA, to his last-ditch experiment to backpack Washington's vast Pasayten Wilderness for two weeks without them. What started out as an escape from sexual abuse and family tension turned into an obsession with cartography and nature; Norment has driven across country 33 times, taught navigation for Outward Bound, spent multiple summers in a lookout tower in Wyoming, and "traveled deep into the Sierra, Utah, and Himalaya." As the narrative ranges across the contour lines of his past, he draws from poets, philosophers, fiction writers, and postmodernists, often meandering into detailed explanations about such disparate trivia as the decibels produced by a steam engine and the number of acres in a "pedestrian shed." While some tangents-like the full chapter about tracking feral burros in Death Valley-stray too far from maps themselves, Norment never fails to be an authoritative storyteller, a nature writer who can wax about grace, "love and longing," and the world's "multi-dimensional dovetail of sense and emotion" with sincerity and charming self-deprecation. Maps.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From the Publisher

“Anyone who has ever been moved by the lure and fascination of maps—the wilder coastlines, the farther mountains, the road to somewhere—will find this book a bracing excursion. How the hard facts of the hills meet the map-lover’s boots, on the ground or in the imagination, is the seductive territory of this deeply felt and richly lived book.”—Robert Michael Pyle, author, Mariposa Road

“Throughout Christopher Norment’s life, maps have shown paths through physical and metaphorical terrains—from youth through adulthood and from home territories into wildernesses of harsh and stunning beauty. Most important, the author’s cartographic fascination has led him to experience those rare transcendent moments in which he could relish maps’ opposite: the gape of the infinite. Norment’s ranging intelligence makes In the Memory of the Map a lovely, well-charted journey.”—Katharine Harmon, author, The Map as Art

“A sensuously lucid memoir built from a lifelong and loving relation with cartography, In the Memory of the Map brings forward a writer revising and coming to terms with life through the practice and spirit of location. A stunning meditation for readers wishing to explore how maps and personal experience are interwoven.”—Tom Conley, author, The Self-Made Map

“Christopher Norment has produced a wonderful book blending a memoir of personal challenges and growth with a nonfiction account of maps he has encountered over his lifetime. Norment’s writing style doesn’t simply tell a story—it evokes the sights, smells, and feelings of the places. I am constantly conjuring my own history as I read his.”—Fred Swanson, USDA Forest Service

Kirkus Reviews
A biology professor's memoir concerning maps, memory and the importance of the natural world. Norment (Environmental Science and Biology/SUNY Brockport; Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows, 2008, etc.) begins one dreary March day when, tired of grading papers, he pulled out a map of Mount Whitney, Calif., and began to ruminate about maps, boyhood, marriage, fatherhood and life in the outdoors. The author writes of his longtime passion for trails and highways and describes many experiences on the twisted, tangled trails in remote regions of North America and, eventually, of his life. Although an Edenic aura often glows around his accounts, the snake is present, too, in the form of a sexually abusive, alcoholic stepfather. Norment does not offer graphic descriptions of his boyhood trauma, but at various times the dark memories of abuse drip their poison on his prose. Roughly chronological (but with flashbacks), the narrative covers his boyhood wanderings in California, his childhood fascination with gas-station maps, his experiences following feral burros in Death Valley, his pleasant memories of working with Outward Bound and his hikes with his children and a lifelong friend, with whom he hiked, sans maps, in a remote area of Washington State. He writes eloquently about the allegorical aspects of maps and evinces a wide acquaintance with scientific and creative literature, alluding to Faulkner, Chabon, Vonnegut, Muir, Hugo, Shakespeare and many others. A journey through life with a guide who knows the trail and its wonders and who delights in the unexpected vistas that elevation can offer.

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Sightline Books
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Read an Excerpt

In the Memory of the Map

A Cartographic Memoir
By Christopher Norment

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2012 Christopher Norment
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-077-9

Chapter One

The Past Is Always with Me

As a small boy, living in Saratoga, California, with my mother, stepfather, and younger sister, I spent as much time outside as possible and even now, more than four decades later, my memories of the landscape are vivid, in contrast to what little I recall of my home's interior. The layout of the house's rooms, its furniture and ambience, mostly remain a mystery. I must have shut most of these memories away, for that house is where I was first molested by my stepfather—a wrenching, tectonic event that led me to seek refuge in the comforting world that surrounded my home. We lived in the midst of a plum orchard in the Santa Clara Valley, which in 1960 was an agricultural paradise being quickly and inexorably inundated by a tsunami of urban and suburban sprawl. The plum and apricot orchards and truck gardens were metamorphosing into tract homes and shopping centers, but at the time the land still offered up a world of possibilities, one where kids could roam freely in what I now recall, undoubtedly falsely, as an endless succession of mild days. And so I wandered. I kept my distance from the white stucco house with its red tile roof, and turned toward the waiting world. And as I wandered I encountered my first map—not one of paper and ink, but one that I constructed myself, a cartography of taste and touch and smell, a mental representation of the physical world in which I sought my home, my place—what developmental psychologists and cultural geographers call a cognitive map.

Although I belonged to that class of preadolescent children who exhibit maximal ranging habits—fourth- and fifth-grade boys with bicycles and parental permission to roam freely ("Just be home by six for dinner.")—most of my time outside was spent in a relatively small area, centered on the plum orchard and bounded by the two lanes of Saratoga Avenue to the southeast, railroad tracks to the southwest, Saratoga Creek to the northwest, and the first few blocks of a subdivision to the northeast, where my friends Mike, Billy and Gary lived. Except for trips to and from school—in second and third grades El Quito Park Elementary, in fourth and fifth grades the newly constructed Brookview School, about three quarters of a mile to the northeast—I spent most of my nonschool waking hours within this home range, which my memory estimates as being no more than three hundred yards by eight hundred yards in size. Within this space, and even beyond its informal boundaries, we wandered freely, with little direct supervision, our parents being of a generation less burdened by fears for their children's safety than are many parents today—less concerned about physical danger, sexual predators (the irony here is obvious), kidnappers, and children who disappear into the void.

The world my friends and I inhabited was what Rachel and Stephen Kaplan call "nearby nature," and its locus was the cobbled necklace of sand and rock that traced Saratoga Creek. There, in the gray gravel, we built an endless succession of dams and watched caddis fly larvae haul their debris-encrusted shelters across the bottom of the intermittent pools that lined the streambed. Along the creek's banks were stands of willow, cottonwood and California sycamore, riparian refugees from the surrounding, semi-arid landscape. The sycamores, in particular, offered a wealth of amusement for my friends and me. We climbed and scrambled amongst their tangled trunks, built ramshackle shelters beneath their branches, picked apart the mottled plates of the picture-puzzle bark, and tossed the prickly, spherical fruiting heads at each other. Among the sycamores were thickets of poison oak, which turned from bright green to brilliant red during the course of the year. We all had been warned to assiduously avoid the stuff, but of course we didn't always do so, and my friends often wore pink, crusty badges of calamine lotion on their arms and faces. Thankfully, I didn't react to poison oak. I paid no penalty for my trespasses and instead took false pride in my immunity, perhaps my first flirtation with hubris. And scattered among the sycamores and patches of poison oak, along the steeply sloped margins of the creek, were small dumps where we salvaged old Gallo wine bottles for target practice with BB guns, rocks and dirt clods, an expression of our young males' fascination with breaking things.

Surrounding the house was the orchard of Italian plum trees, with their egg-shaped, bluish-purple fruits, which when dried were transformed into the prunes that my friends and I detested. But any plums that escaped the migrant workers' hands were great for fights once they ripened sufficiently, although by then they also drew the bees and wasps that we feared with irrational fervor. Each knobby plum tree was ringed with a garland of a yellow-flowered herb we called "sourgrass"—most likely the exotic Oxalis pes-caprae, sometimes known as Bermuda buttercup—that we picked by the handfuls and chewed for the tart flavor, thereby receiving our minimum daily requirements of oxalic acid (I wonder if any of my friends are plagued with kidney stones in their middle age) and the pesticide du jour. Amongst the trees was the glorious dirt, which under the proper moisture conditions was transformed either into viscous mud, grand for filthy wallowing, or into chunks with just the right heft for tossing at each other whenever impending testosterone poisoning induced the urge for a good dirt-clod fight. And immediately behind the house was a persimmon tree, which produced inedible fruits—at least as far as I was concerned—and in the fall, more weapons for further battles.

It seemed, then, that we were always moving, always fighting—not in anger, but in the generally good-natured way in which little boys usually tussle, yet also with the incipient spirit of aggression that in eight to ten years would help lead many young men of my generation into the rice paddies and jungles of southeast Asia. We roamed the orchard, streambed, nearby suburban streets, and railroad right-of-way, digging in the dirt, breaking bottles, and constructing forts of various sizes, which were suitable for either "little army," which we played with small, olive-drab plastic toy soldiers, or "big army," in which we became the olive-drab soldiers, outfitted with plastic submachine guns, canteens, and helmets, again in the manner of young boys practicing for bigger and far more serious things. Still, we were mostly outside, away from television and parents, certain enough in our navigation and orientation, dodging amongst the plum trees or on our hands and knees next to a creek-water pool, the distant sound of traffic from Saratoga Avenue drifting through the brilliant air of the occasional rain-washed, vernal day or the smoky, smog-ridden autumnal light that dominated the sky before the first winter storms blew in off the Pacific Ocean.

And scattered across the surface of my cognitive map was a profusion of landmarks: the nearby strawberry field, across Saratoga Avenue, where there always seemed to be several Japanese-American workers bent over their crop; the thick copse of trees along the creek, where we would build our forts; the low railroad bridge, where I once (accidentally) threw myself into the creekbed as I tossed a rock at the opposing abutment, spraining my ankle and foreshadowing my abysmal high school athletic career; the pool below a road bridge to the east of my house, where Mike split open the back of my hand with a rusty shovel while we dug in the gravel. And in the nearby subdivision, Mike's backyard, with its tree fort and its sandbox full of the bright-yellow Tonka trucks that I lusted after because my parents could not afford them. Billy's house was around the corner from Mike's; his parents often fought, but my friends and I were awed by the sporty turquoise Thunderbird sheltered in the garage. A bit farther down the same street was Gary's house, with a thick grove of bamboo in the backyard, ideal for games of "big army" and hide-and-seek. And just beyond the front yard was the corner where, in his tenth year, Gary was hit and killed by a truck. (The inarticulate, yawning blackness and blankness flushed through me when the news came and I stood silently holding the phone.) Finally, the school bus stop at the end of our driveway on Saratoga Avenue, where in my ninth year I came within a second and foot or two of foreshadowing Gary's fate when I disobeyed the school bus driver and sprinted into the path of an approaching car—almost instantaneously aware of my mistake and shutting my eyes as my world collapsed into a loud screech of tires as I veered away from the impending impact and felt the car's grille come to rest, ever so gently, against my outstretched hand. And afterward, having so recently touched the edge of annihilation, my tears, nausea and shaking body as the bus driver screamed at me for my stupidity, as well she should have. But whatever the joys and terrors of our physical world, my friends and I understood our space and navigated confidently through it.

Psychologists and geographers interested in children's use of space and development of cognitive mapping abilities have, in the manner of academics, divided themselves into competing schools. There are the "constructivists," intellectual descendants of Jean Piaget, who view children's spatial awareness as progressing through a series of rather distinct stages until they reach a "formal operational stage" at ages twelve and beyond, in which complex spatial relationships between objects, as defined by proximity, order, separation, and enclosure, are fully developed. According to the constructivists, until children reach this stage they are not fully capable of using spatial images (maps) that entail what the landscape theorist John Jackle has referred to as "unreal transformations." Opposed to the constructivists are the "incrementalists," who argue that an innate and relatively sophisticated ability to comprehend spatial relationships exists even in young children, and that cognitive mapping ability "opens up" with experience rather than following a strict pattern of sequential development. If my memory is correct—and I have an innate suspicion of long-term memory—my eight- to ten-year-old friends and I were fairly sophisticated in our use and understanding of space. Young incrementalists that we were, we learned about and used the local geography in rich and complex ways. Within our world we knew where we were and where we were going, and if some researcher had asked us to map our surroundings, we would have obliged him or her with a detailed drawing of our home range.

In Topophilia, the cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes,

"Landscape" is not a meaningful word to a young child. To see the landscape requires, first of all, the ability to make the sharp distinction between self and others.... Then, to see the landscape and evaluate it aesthetically one needs to be able to identify an unbounded segment of nature and to be aware of its spatial characteristics.... Though the landscape escapes the young child, he is intensely aware of its separate components: a tree stump, large boulder, bubbling water in a section of a stream. As the child grows older his awareness of spatial relations gains at the expense of the quiddity of the objects that define them. ... The young child's world, then, is animated and consists of vivid, sharply delineated objects in a weakly structured space.

When I first read the above passage, I wondered if the 1960s-era landscape of Saratoga did "escape" my friends and me. Although by "young child" Tuan meant a six- or seven-year-old, and he was concerned with the development of an aesthetic concept of landscape, which he defined as "a prospect seen from a specific standpoint," my eight- to ten-year-old friends and I did have a detailed and accurate understanding of our space. Through our endless and often aimless wanderings, we created sensory and cognitive maps, constructed from the intricate details of our experiences. We were young cartographers, directly engaged with the elements of our world and mapping their structure and arrangement. Perhaps the landscape of our youth was closer to the definition proposed by the British geographer Denis Cosgrove—"the external world mediated through subjective human experience"—but what most distinguished the landscape of my childhood from Tuan's concept was its spatial scale. I don't believe that our landscape was "weakly structured," but it was almost entirely local. For example, my house was only about two miles northeast of the center of Saratoga. Just beyond the town were the oak- and chaparral-clad hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which rise more than twenty-five hundred feet above the valley, and about twenty miles to the east were the higher, more distant peaks of the Coast Range. Both ranges must have been visible from my house, at least on those days when the smog wasn't thick, yet I have absolutely no memory of this; it was as if I lived on a wide swath of prairie, not in a broad valley cradled by mountains.

Our focus on the local environment was a function of both the dimensions of our habitual range and the tendency of children to concentrate on their immediate surroundings and ignore the more distant world. Gary Paul Nabhan has remarked on this behavior in his children, who explored the natural world "on their hands and knees, engaged in what was immediately before them," while adults were "scanning the land for picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks." For the most part my friends and I restricted our daily movements and explorations to an area of less than one square mile. My lone long-distance bicycle excursion, a two-mile pedal to the center of Saratoga with a friend, was an exotic and grand adventure into what seemed like terra incognita, even though our parents drove us there often and the route was an uncomplicated ride down Saratoga Avenue. After eating lunch in the center of the village we quickly returned home, feeling just about as adventurous as I would during my first explorations of the Sierra Nevada wilderness five years later.

Forty-five years after we moved away from the orchard in Saratoga, I began thinking seriously about the ideas that would find their way into this book, including what Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble call the "Geography of Childhood." As an exercise, I drew a map of my orchard-centered world as I recalled it, which I had not seen for over forty years. I wanted to test my recollections—artifacts of my childhood cognitive map, circa 1960, transformed, to some unknown extent, by the winnowing effect of memory—against spatial reality. This seemed problematic because the world as I once knew it had vanished beneath an avalanche of McMansions, golf courses, strip malls, shopping centers and expressways, and I did not know our street address on Saratoga Avenue. But if I could locate the spot where we had once lived and thus anchor my memories in space, Google Earth would provide the necessary frame of reference.

It turned out that the distinctive nature of the orchard's boundaries—railroad tracks, Saratoga Avenue, Saratoga Creek, plus a road to the northeast—along with the small stucco house and curved pillars that marked the entrance to our driveway, which still existed, allowed me to identify where I had lived. Although the orchard had vanished, replaced mostly by tract homes and an office park, and there was an expressway running parallel to the railroad tracks, I was able to "geo-reference" my map, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate, given that I had not seen the area since the mid-1960s. Its orientation was reasonably correct, although I showed Saratoga Avenue as running east-west, rather than in its true northeast-southwest direction. I also had thought in classic geometric shapes as I drew my map, and depicted my home range as a perfect rectangle, when in reality it was an irregular polygon, narrower to the southwest and broader to the northeast. However, I did recall, precisely, the spatial relationships between our house, the railroad tracks, Saratoga Creek, the surrounding roads, my friends' neighborhood, and Brookview School. I was even fairly accurate in my map's scale; I judged the distance from our driveway to the nearest intersection to the northeast to be 300 yards, when in reality it was about 340 yards. Not bad for forty-five-year-old memories.


Excerpted from In the Memory of the Map by Christopher Norment Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Norment. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christopher Norment is a professor of environmental science and biology at SUNY College at Brockport, where he specializes in the breeding biology and ecology of migratory birds. In addition to numerous scientific articles, he is the author of Return to Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows (Iowa, 2008) and In the North of Our Lives: A Year in the Wilderness of Northern Canada. He lives with his wife and children in Brockport, New York.

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