In the process of researching and writing the Mary Edwards Walker (the only female Medal of Honor recipient) story map, I came to be fully impressed with her. I didn’t know about her before this, but I’m so glad to have come to learn part of her story, and also excited to share it. As the father of three daughters, I’m encouraged by her mind-blowing commitment to principle. And I’m inspired to brew some like-flavor of boldness in my kids. I think we’re doing alright so far.
So how to go about making a set of maps that would suitably honor the tone of her story? You just don’t. I don’t know how. But I had to make maps anyways, so, here are the common elements:
- Aerial Imagery Base
- Hillshade and Mist
- Grain Texture
- White Vignette
- Tilt Shift
- Sprite Symbology
Here’s the process, one step at a time, and my probably-misguided thinking. Click to embiggen any of the images…
Aerial Imagery Base
I wanted an imagery basemap to help link something real to a person who lived in the past. It’s easy to let time and history drift our perception of a remarkable human into the abstract. But Mary was real, and she lived on the surface of a real earth. So that’s why. Here’s an area of Upstate New York -her stomping grounds. This is just the Satellite basemap option (no labels) in ArcGIS Pro.
Adding hillshade on top of aerial imagery is a fun, sneaky, devious trick. It adds a cool sense of texture and retro dimensionalityification to imagery. Aerial imagery is cool. Dimensionalityified imagery is cooler.
I added a hillshade service layer from the Living Atlas.
The trick is in transparency. Transparency is your map-making friend. You mostly want to see through to the imagery, with little highlights on the sunny side and shadow side. Here’s the color ramp I used for this hillshade.
Position | Transparency | Color
0% | 0% | #000000
31% | 0% | #00293E
73% | 100% | #00293E
75% | 100% | #FFFFFF
100% | 40% | #F7E8FF
You can really crank up this effect to make your map look intentionally fake. But I didn’t want that. So, here we have it; a bumpier map:
You can mis-use DEM data to fantastic effect; I encourage any and all DEM shenanigans. In this case, I added an elevation layer and colored it to look like a low-hanging fog, clinging to valleys. All war-time maps in the Mary Edwards Walker story have this effect, a heavy-handed representation of the literal and figurative fog of war.
This is the color ramp I used for the mist…
Position | Transparency | Color
0% | 0% | #FFFAFA
2% | 3% | #FFFAFA
4% | 90% | #FFFDFD
100% | 100% | #FFFFFF
Find more than you care to know about this effect, here. Here is the resulting enfog-ified map:
I just like vignettes. Usually, my stand-alone maps will have a dark vignette. But since these maps were made to live in a story map with a white background, I instead used a white vignette. I also wanted to invoke a little of the effect of a blurred edge around an uncropped photographic print, to pair with many of the period photos in the story.
Aside: When I was a photography student, sometimes we would take a file to the inner edges of our negative holders to get a gritty-but-beautiful incidental framing of the exposed print.
You can apply gradient fills to overlay rectangles in an ArcGIS Pro layout. The whitened edges give you a map like this:
You’ll probably have to enlarge this image and squint to see it, but I applied a grain filter (in an image-editing program) to all the Mary Edwards Walker maps. It gives a print feel that I like in this context. Even if I’m the only one who knows it. Specifically, it reminds me of the muted tones and fine-stone ink textures of lithographic prints that would have hung on everybody’s wall in that (Civil War) era.
At this point it gets a little trippy -I encourage you to stop reading. Tilt shift photography does some pretty specific things to my cognitive wet works. I think about it. A lot. And I wanted to borrow some of that for this story.
I took some specific efforts to not describe Mary as a historical figure. I made no mention of the year, but rather translated events to Mary’s age at the time, so I wouldn’t think of her academically as having lived long ago, but rather as having lived.
By blurring the edges of the maps I felt like maybe I was looking through some impossible key-hole, an effortful look into the past. I imagined the tilt-shift effect was an optical artifact of whatever fantastic tool that would allow it. I know, right?
The visual theme for Mary throughout the story is that she carries the fire -stolen outright from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Mary’s representation in any map, and accompanying her in any photograph, is a glowing sprite. Most descriptions of Mary in the narrative mention a spark or glow, to help link text and imagery. Maybe a little over the top –but so was she, and no dumb map pin was going to cut it.
You can use images as point symbols in any GIS. I created the sprite graphic then used it for any of Mary’s locations referenced in the story.
Here’s the graphic. You can download it and try it out yourself. Life is too short and sweet for pushpins.
Anyway, that’s that. If you made it this far, try to do some extra work today, to make up for the ten or so minutes you just squandered reading this. Better yet, try some of the things out! I’d feel a lot better knowing you’d got something out of it.
Oh, and go read the story map!
5 thoughts on “The cartography of the Mary Edwards Walker story”
As always, a lovely take on the cartography. I especially like the tilt-shift effect and the image symbology.
Thanks! Tilt shift blows my mind.
Spectacular story, and brilliant story telling medium and methodology. Thanks!
Thank you, Kyle!
It was a remarkable lesson for me, as the father of three daughters.