Review of In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir by Christopher Norment University of Iowa Press

In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir. Christopher Norment. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. ISBN: 1609380770

This essay is a part of our series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal.

In the Memory of the Map, Norment writes, “is a ‘cartographic psychology,’” a combination of memoir and map designed to contemplate the use and purpose of maps in human life by uncovering the “aesthetic, mystery, function, power, and shortcomings” of maps (3). He divides his narrative into three primary sections—First Maps, Middle Maps, and Late Maps—and concludes with an epilogue. Each of the main sections contains three ten- to thirty-page chapters focused on a particular map and period of Norment’s life.

Part I, “First Maps,” centers on Norment’s childhood in California, specifically the Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains, and contains the most varied maps: a cognitive memory map, a road map, and a mountain trail map. A plum tree orchard, a creek, a strawberry field, houses, and schools served as the backdrop to adolescence. Here, Norment is clear that the abundant beauty of the natural world did not correspond to an idyllic youth; while he clearly enjoyed roaming with his friends, he also watched a truck kill his friend and was molested by his stepfather. Whether wild or contained, outdoor adventure provided a means of escape as well as growth. As a teenager, maps of the High Sierras offered “wonder and seduction” (40), opportunities to leave behind the mediocre and constricting world of high school and embrace life as “flyweight anarchists” (47) in the woods.

Part II, “Middle Maps,” traverses the landscapes of early adulthood, zig-zagging across the United States as Norment found his way in and out of college and ultimately graduate school. His path was not linear, and from season to season, he restlessly migrated from desert to mountain to water. As he describes, “it was a syncopated life of wilderness trips, hitchhiking, and sporadic work, with no melodic line” (53). Here his ineluctable love of topographic maps shines through. His favorite, the 15-minute topographic map, is a square, or quadrangle map, that shows 15 minutes (1/4 degree) of longitude and latitude, portrays a scale of 1:62,500 inches, and is commonly created and printed by the U.S. Geological Survey. In a period of figuring out who he was—a peripatetic rover, a devoted burro researcher, a resourceful wilderness guide, a thoughtful teacher—topo maps anchored liminal wandering.

Part III, “Late Maps,” highlights a more structured period of life: graduate school, marriage, and parenthood. Even as Norment settled down, first in Lawrence, Kansas and then in Brockport, New York, he carved out time to roam. Summers in the fire lookout tower in Wyoming’s Beartooth Mountains opened vistas constrained by the noise and boundaries of academic-year neighborhoods, the Grand Canyon’s long natural history countered the short lifespan of a daughter on the cusp of college, and the winding drive to South Dakota opened avenues of conversation with a teenage son.

Finally, in the book’s epilogue, “Without a Map,” Norment describes spending two weeks in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness without “the comfort and security” (202) marked by the lines of a trail guide. Getting lost was disorienting in more ways than one, for traveling without a map engendered both physical and emotional dislocation, forcing motion without direction, disrupting the rhythms of the body and the mind. As a corporeal and cerebral exercise, it dictated one clear lesson: in the final words of the book, “we go on” (234).

As a whole, Norment’s narrative grants the reader an opportunity to see the world through a field biologist’s eyes, a chance to glimpse the panorama of past and present in environmental and human scales. Although he carefully delves into the nuances of certain kinds of maps—cognitive, allegorical, topographical—he treads awkwardly between valuing maps for combining serenity and danger—both real and imagined—and resisting interpretations of maps that dwell on that very ambiguity.

On the one hand, Norment recognizes that maps are more than tangible, scaled representations of the physical world. They can, he states, “tell us much more” (3) because they prickle consciousness, generate emotions, induce thinking, instill belief, and drive self-scrutiny. On the other hand, Norment resists—indeed, derisively dismisses—any sort of “postmodern” notion of maps as subjective texts, replete with multiple arguments, perspectives, representations, and realities. In context, his hostility can seem sensible: when he recalls observing a group of Outward Bound students struggling to find their location, route, and destination via map and compass, the map represents a a singular, objective, neutral arbiter of space and place, a solid, empirical means of resolving a debate among uncertain people grappling with unfamiliar territory. Yet just as the Outward Bound participants needed to learn how to reconcile a map’s geographic north with a compass’ magnetic north in order to orient themselves in the wilderness, so too does Norment need to account for the range of cartographic imaginations that generate maps. For topographic maps comprise a small subset of the vast category called maps—which includes both types (e.g., road maps, population maps, nautical maps, election maps, climate maps, disease maps, city maps, surveyor maps, etc.) and forms (dot, pictorial, chart, and thematic).

At its core, a map is a graphical representation of data, and cartographers make conscious choices about perspective, scale, orientation, features, labels, color, fonts, and titles. By restricting his life-chart to the primary contours of topographic maps, Norment boxes himself into a cartographic world in which everything mapped appears real. Yet his memories—the most engaging sections of the book—contradict his avowed disapproval of postmodern meaning-making. His multifaceted experiences belie his rigidly evasive ruminations on the nature of maps. For, as he tells his story, maps preview the future and reappraise past, they lead humans forward and astray, on trails and in real life.

Reviewed by Ronit Y. Stahl, University of Michigan
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]