Meaningful Mapmaking

Posted By Rol on May 7, 2015


I went on a journey once—you may have heard of it—and even though I traveled through completely unknown lands (at least unknown to me), I felt comforted knowing that I was generally heading in a direction that was familiar.

How could that be? I had a map.

The actual places I visited were all new to me, such as Tisbetterhere, but many of the locations seemed familiar because I had seen their names on the map I was carrying—the map that helped guide me and reassure me that I was making progress in the right direction as I moved toward my goal—home. I had to get past the Straits of Straight-up Pain and Grubbyfingerston, but at least I could see that they would be ahead on my journey, and I could prepare for them—although you can’t prepare much for carnivorous butterflies.

Maps can be extremely helpful and are almost always very easy to use. And even fun. There is a good chance that someone in your family has a map of the area where you live, but if not, it should be easy to find one. You can even make one, and I’ll discuss that in a moment.

To use a map, a good way to start is to open it up fully to get a sense of the big picture. You may not travel the full distance displayed, but it helps to see how big of an area the mapmaker shows. (By the way, another word for mapmaking is cartography—the study and practice of making maps.) Once you see the full scope, you can then focus on the area that interests you.

You probably already know this, but a few map basics you may see are: shapes of the land forms or designated territories; indications of the type of terrain, such as mountains or rivers or caves; possibly roads or paths; some kind of direction indicator such as an “N” for North; and possibly even a scale to help you determine the size of an area or the distance from one location to another. As you look at more maps you’ll realize that there are many different ways to make maps, and they each have a different purpose. Some maps are amazingly detailed, some quite basic. Maps can have words that identify towns or interesting sights, or they may not have any words at all. There are some maps that even tell you how many people live in certain areas and what those communities mainly produce to eat or sell.

Surprisingly, maps are not difficult to make. Just decide what you want to communicate, then put together the pieces that you know. Start with what you see directly around you. If you live in a house, draw a small picture of that on a piece of paper—or animal hide, bark, or whatever you have handy—and label it “house.” Then draw a tree that is in your backyard, a friend’s house, a field where you may play sports, a nearby store, and more. Try to determine where North is, by the sun’s location in the sky in comparison to the actual time of day, and indicate that on the map. If you aren’t sure, or if it is cloudy, you can use a compass or ask an elder. If you want to add more details to your map, draw a path or road, your favorite crackly spindle-cracker shop, and even measurements in yards or miles or footsteps if you know those. If you aren’t sure, you can estimate. You now have a map of your very own. You can update it as you like if a new house is built next to yours or if you find an ever better crackly spindle-cracker shop. Did I mention that those are my absolute favorite snack? Mmmm…crackly goodness.

Back to maps—Have you ever wanted to go on a journey to exotic places where nobody has ever gone before? Well, you can…sort of.

Make a map—just like you did with real places around you – but this time using your imagination. Think of a strange land full of interesting locations and draw those on an adventure map. The places Fhfyrd, Kearth, and I discovered along our journey had interesting names such as Smelton and the Breathtaking Mountains. You can come up with different names such as Cindyville, the Swamp of Seriously Sticky Stinkness, or the Hills of High Adventure. What about a map that something tiny, such as a centipede, would use showing an area that is only a backyard to you, but is a land of forests and mountains to the insect? That could be fun as you imagine a world that seems familiar to you but looks completely different from the viewpoint of your shoelace.

Anyway, it’s up to you. Use your knowledge, skills, and creativity. Have fun with mapmaking (cartography), and enjoy the world around you.