Map making as a way of knowing

By Paul Belz

Do people really know where we live? “I grew up in a rural area on the east coast,” Judy Goldhaft told an enthusiastic group of seekers. “When I got out here, I was astounded that I didn’t know one tree or one plant. The flowers – where did they come from?”

Judy directs The Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco organization that has emphasized bioregional thought since the 1970s. Planet Drum calls a bioregion a unique ecologically defined area. Climate, geology, soils, and landforms define a bioregion, and determine which native plants and animals live there. Human communities also deeply interact with the natural world around them.

Some environmental thinkers see people’s lives as separate from their surroundings and focus on our negative impacts on the earth. Mid twentieth century scientists and activists focused on negative actions such as litigation to prevent people from polluting, overdeveloping, and otherwise harming their world. “It’s what you don’t do to protect the place where you live,” Judy commented.

Planet Drum Foundation definitely recognizes the ways people harm our world, but stresses that we can also connect with our home places. “What are the proactive actions you can take to make your region sustainable? “Judy asked. The excited group mentioned alternative energy, public transit, permaculture and farmers’ markets as positive projects.

Judy stated that our current ecological changes require people to understand their bioregions. “Things are changing faster than they have since the ice ages,” she said. “We have seen the ice age and it is us.” We impact on the world in both large and small scales. Climate change leads to sea level rises; it also contributes to rapid evolution in microorganisms and the development of new diseases. “Microorganisms are very adaptable,” Judy reflected. “We need to be just as adaptable.”

People often create maps that deepen their knowledge and connection with their surroundings, and help them think about sustainable directions for their local cultures. The group examined several bioregional maps. One showed the development of the San Francisco Bay Area between the 1750s and 1990s, including changes in the shoreline.

Another map presented the perspective of people in northern Scandinavia, with the North Pole as the center of the world. This map shared pictures of weavings and musical instruments from the area. “This is more than a map of the land, it’s a map of their culture,” Judy said. A map of the Ish River Watershed included a poem that described all the towns whose names end in “-ish”.

Judy now distributed paper and markers and guided people through the process of bioregional map making. She asked everyone to indicate the direction north on their maps, and to mark an X to show their homes. People drew the dominant water bodies near their neighborhoods – San Francisco Bay, Lake Merritt, and local streams. They added clouds that showed storm’s paths.

The map makers laughed and shared information as they drew landforms, including the highest point in the area. Judy mentioned that streams flowing downhill distribute soils. When several people mentioned that they didn’t know which soils were in their areas, Judy said, “Part of what this map will do for you is to help you figure out what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Native plants came next. People drew redwoods, California buckeyes, coyote bush, poison oak, poppies, and many others. Judy commented that while eucalyptus trees are an invasive pest in the Shasta bioregion, koalas control these trees’ populations in their native Australia. Microorganisms there break down the acidic leaves that change the chemistry of northern California’s soils.

Now the excited designers added coyotes, red tailed hawks, banana slugs, and other native animals. Judy mentioned that ground squirrels are native to California; early settlers from the eastern United States imported the tree squirrels they missed from home.

The last step was to show human influences on the area. The artists drew the most negative human action, and the most positive. Judy stressed that these suggestions were subjective and unique to each person. She asked each group member to think of a name for their map, one that expressed their feelings towards the bioregion.

Mapmakers now took turns sharing the maps they named “Ever Changing Land”, “Lake Merit Bioregion”, and “The Berkeley Slide.” They showed negative human impacts such as freeways and the lack of public transit, high rises that crowd the Berkeley bay shore, urban runoff into Lake Merritt and other water bodies, and trash that winds up in landfills. Positive impacts included recent improvements to Lake Merritt, daylighting of creeks, Oakland’s pollination corridors, and neighborhoods where citizens debate community issues.

Judy praised the mapmaker’s focus on their surroundings. “Many people – PhDs, activists and many others across the world have developed these maps,” Judy said. “How you use your map will be determined by how you feel about it.

“I think of it as a little like a love affair,” she concluded. “When you meet someone, and you want to instantaneously know everything about them. Maps go on and on, there is so much more information you can add.”

May the relationships deepen!

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