The Potential of Maps

Google, we need you're help! Plus marvelous map links, and news from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine.

I love maps. Steve and I still use paper road atlases on our wanderings. One reason is that navigation programs like Google fail to point out the most interesting part of the drive — nature.

A lot of us now know that our environmental woes are fueled by humans regarding nature as a novelty, not as an integral part of our daily lives, and an extension of our own health and well-being.

We could change that with maps.

Instead of bombarding us with every restaurant, pharmacy, and place to buy shoes, what if Google told us the names of the mountains and the rivers, and pointed out a nice old stand of spruce trees? What if it reminded us that it’s migration season, and that we should take a trip to the wetlands to see the plovers and ibis?

If they did, it would integrate curiosity toward nature into our society.

Right now, it’s only people who actively seek out nature who understand how vital it is for us to reconnect with it. But what if everyone was reminded about nature every time they punched in an address on their GPS? What if instead of having commercials blaring at the gas pumps (a most annoying invasion of privacy) we learned about how trees talk to one another, or the lifecycle of a woolly bear caterpillar?

I think the more places we can integrate nature into the forefront of our thoughts — and seriously, how much more wonderful is it to think about nature than chewing gum or car insurance — the more people will naturally grow closer to it, without much effort at all.

It only takes a little bit of knowledge to start a lifelong intrigue.

For example, once you know names of a few types of clouds or geological formations, or the sound that a squirrel makes when he’s defending his territory, or how finches turn red during mating season, you suddenly feel as if you are part of a whole new world. You no longer see the landscape in terms of buildings and roads, but as a flowing, interconnected planet of alluvial fans, oxbow streams, cumulus vagabonds, and horny birds.

And gneiss. Here’s nice piece of gneiss in the Colorado high country, with just a peek of mountain rose and aspen. One of my favorite boulders on one of my favorite trails. Photo: Karuna.

While we’re on the subject of new perspectives and putting nature before commerce, here’s a side thought. Everyone really only needs one or two coffee mugs over their whole lifetime (okay, maybe three or four for those of us who are particularly clumsy). So why do I see a cool coffee mug and want to buy it? I don’t know, but I’m trying to rewire myself so things like that don’t happen.

Similarly, Steve and I have been pondering what would happen if the world just stopped making plates. We would surely still have enough plates for everyone on Earth for a long time to come. Maybe instead of everyone having 12 place settings for the annual Thanksgiving feast, we just all brought our own plates when we visited people. BYOP. Kind of catchy, eh?

Okay, maybe BYOP is not the sole solution to our climate, biodiversity, and pollution crises, but I like how ideas like these get us rethinking our lives, which are currently so insanely burdensome on nature. Spend a moment. Think about where you can subtilly introduce nature over commerce in what you do with work.

If we could directly see who we are hurting with our excess, then we would change faster. These howler monkeys are in a protected forest in Belize, so they’re okay for now, but I liked the mother and child. May we teach our children how to see nature for the necessity that it is. Photo: Karuna or Steve, I can’t remember.

One more thought, and then on to a cool rundown of online maps and atlases.

This has been a difficult summer, with the Delta variant, Hurricane Ida, the California fires, the unhealthy smoke-filled skies across the West, and political footdragging. My mom, always a source of inspiration, offered this bit of wisdom for dealing with it.

“I think we have to accept that we’re always going to have bad air, covid or something like it, and a continual effort against greed, anger, and ignorance. Or maybe it’s better to think of it as a continual effort for generosity, kindness, and wisdom.”

Thanks, Mom. I keep reading that. It makes the world a little happier each time.

Maps, Maps, Maps

For you map fanatics out there, here are some of my favorites.

Here’s a good happy one about tracking fall foliage from the Washington Post.

What to know who’s funding Line 3, the origins of common house plants, or bus routes to abortion providers outside of Texas? Then the Decolonial Atlas is the place to go. Their free collection of maps “help us to challenge our relationships with the land, people, and state.”

Japanese architect Hajime Narukawa figured out how to flatten the globe more accurately, solving the 447-year-old problem of the highly distorted world map.

Health watchdog nonprofit EWG mapped forever chemical (PFAS) contamination in United States water supplies.

The Anthropocene map is enlightening… but as with anything with Antrhopocene in the title, it’s also a little depressing.

Another slightly shocking map is this one, which shows what land is predicted to be lost to sea level rise, on a very detailed scale.

Barcelona published a biodiversity atlas of the city’s flora and fauna so “everyone can enjoy contact with nature close to home, which enables us to achieve a better quality of life.” This is something we can all encourage in our communities or neighborhoods.

Need something to read? Here’s a map of all of the registered little free libraries in the world.

This one is a little outdated, but might become relevant again in 2024. It maps out the former president’s corruption.

This fire and smoke map, lets you know which burnt-down forest is keeping you from exercising safely today.

I don’t know what to do with this wind map, but I really like looking at it.

For a beautiful interlude and meditation on how everything is connected, artist Robert Szucs maps illustrate the water sheds and forest cover of various countries. There are nice articles about him here and here.

And finally, Mapnificent shows you areas you can reach with public transport in a given time.

News from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine

The first twinges of fall have come to Colorado’s San Luis Valley. It’s the largest high-alpine valley in the world, and near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. Yesterday as we crossed the river, the brush on the banks was just starting to show yellow-orange. Also yesterday, the nighttime temperature dropped about 10 degrees, and is now in the low 40s. The late summer is such a magical time of year.

We had a family of boysterous rufus hummingbirds all summer, but I haven’t heard them for a couple of days. The rufus undertake ambitious migrations, from northern Canada to southern Mexico, so maybe they’re headed back south for the winter. We’re seeing more geese these days, too.

Most of the yard is dead weeds, but in one corner a wildflower mix took off. It’s like an oasis, or a fairy garden, in the middle of an otherwise desert. It makes me so happy everytime I see it, along wtih the visiting bumblebees and butterfies.

On the inside of our abandoned house project, we’ve completed the drywall, and we’re now in the long-haul of spackling it all. The propane lines are nearly complete, which means we are not far from having a furnace (just in time for winter), and retiring the camping stove for a more grown-up range. There is still a lot to be done, but we are well over the halfway point, and it looks optimistic that we will get what we need done before the cold hits.

A Parting Thought

The prairie sunflower bloom at the base of the Great Sand Dunes might be one of the world’s greatest seas of flowers, certainly on par with the southern California’s poppy bloom. Unfortuantely, we procrastinated on bringing the big camera out for a photoshoot until they were past their prime. But if you ever are able to visit the dunes in August, don’t turn it down. Nothing brings joy like a sunflower, or a million sunflowers.


For now, unpaid subscribers get all of the same benefits as paid subscribers, except the happiness that comes from supporting a struggling journailst. So, if you want to chip in, I won’t complain.

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Have a wonderful autumn, and savor the changes in season. They are precious.