Some time ago, while I was working on a wood-looking map of undersea cables, my 10-year-old daughter Willow, who was mightily into the movie Trolls at the time, told me my map should be made out of felt instead of wood. So, here is that map, using a photo of a swatch of her craft felt…
Here is a link to a SlideShare where I walk through the steps of creating the wooden version. Just imagine I’m using a felt swatch.
Why make maps that look like they are made from a tactile material? I’ve asked myself that and the quick answer is because it’s so fun. But there is a lot going on in that word, fun. Why is it fun? Here’s what I think…
Maps are abstractions of reality. They are a conveyance of a geographic phenomenon. What is more real than the very environment in which we live and breathe and walk and think? A map is a little cartoon of reality. So, when I make a map that uses real, tactile, touchable textures I feel like I might be touching two live wires of reality together in that bizarre abstract medium of cartography. And there is a spark. Seeing something real represented by something real short-circuits our learned suspension of disbelief and there is a trippy detour around the very real fact that the map is an abstraction.
Awesome dioramas at state and national parks give us a bit of that fizz, as do globes. These are real things modeling the real thing. I feel like maps, like Willow’s, above, borrow some of that sense of wonder at seeing and allllmost touching a small model of the real thing. And when a map stirs a desire to reach out and touch it, that’s something pretty good. They break down our calloused fourth wall of precision and coolness that we’ve grown to associate with a digital thing.
More than that, they’re intrinsically interesting to children. When kids see maps like this there is more of a sense of possibility in them to create one of their own, or a desire to make a version in some other material that fits their interest. The felt map is a case in point. Maps made with real textures carry the potential of waking, or empowering, the Cartographer inside every kid’s brain.
That’s all I have to say about that.
Here is Willow, working on a spectral diagram, labeling the wavelengths! What a great kid.
Like any appropriately-nerdy geographer, it was an opportunity to talk about how the spectrum is like waves that are closer and further apart, and our eyes and brains are made to understand that as color. Longer waves, like reds, have the power to bust through our planet’s thick blanket of air when the sun is low in the sky, which is why a sunset looks red. And the weak blues and greens get bounced all around by the bits that make up our air and that’s why the sky is blue. She nodded politely.