Wall Maps and Bird’s Eye View
By Jared Fairfield/ Contributor
I was on the bus from Gorham to Portland, traveling to the event called “Maine on Display: Nineteenth Century Wall Maps and Bird’s Eye Views”, put on by the Osher Map Library. I was going only so that I could write this article and, honestly, I didn’t know anything about the event, the Osher Map Library, or even maps in general. My busy schedule caused me to make the decision to forgo any research, and to walk into it merely with an open mind. As I looked out of one of the bus windows, I found myself noticing the American flags on almost every other telephone pole. It was something I had never noticed before. What caused me to see these for the first time was something that I had heard about people in America losing a meaningful sense of ‘home’, and that this contributes to a sense of meaninglessness characteristic of the modern age. It was interesting to see these flags as we passed from Gorham into Westbrook, and Westbrook into Portland. Although we moved at fast speeds across miles of road carved into the Maine landscape, there were probably hundreds of flags. This was one of the only things that stayed constant in the rapidly changing view of the bus window. And this route between the campuses is only the tiniest sliver of the entirety of the United States. I noticed the Maine State Flag as we neared the USM Portland campus. These flags, these symbols, are so commonplace that I never think of what they mean; What does the Maine flag represent, much less the American flag? Across thousands of miles of landscape, there are these flags which seem to convey that there is an identity that binds it all together. Obviously, there are geographic boundaries that are carefully mapped to outline the state and the country. Obviously there are civil codes and laws and institutions. But what are these unifying symbols conveying beyond law and geographical borders? Maine has been “Maine” since 1820, but how many lives have been lived here? How many different people and cultures are interacting, how many families becoming entangled through marriage and new children? Is this our home? If so, what does that mean?
I arrived at the Portland campus with time to kill before the event, and decided to check out the Glickman Library, which I had never been to. I went up to the 7th floor for no other reason than that it was the highest floor. After aimlessly poking around the books for a bit, I happened to come to the other side of the shelves, revealing large windows that overlooked Portland, and I could see all the way to the elementary school on the Eastern Promenade. “I need to come here more often,” I thought, “I need to see more views from high up.” These reflections and the view turned out to be fortuitous, so much so that I had to wonder if the “Bird’s Eye Views” in the title of the event had seeped into my subconscious and gestated out of sight.
The first half of the event took place on the ground floor in the small gallery. The first thing I heard was someone make a joke: “Just looking at this map, trying to figure out where I am”. The exhibition contained a number of maps, mostly from the 19th century. The wall maps were the more familiar straight-down view, and I found the maps of particular towns to be especially beautiful; the depictions of water in many of the wall maps had these gorgeous patterns of liquid lines that became closer to one another as they neared the shore, like a stone had been dropped in and created ripples. The maps referred to as being ‘bird’s eye views’ had a perspective of, well, a bird; views looking down on and to the side of towns, giving them a feeling of spatial dimension. I found them to be incredibly satisfying to look at, with the buildings and trees and streets looking like miniatures. There were even depictions of tiny people in some of the maps, maybe to give a sense of proportion, but also giving a sense of life and character. These people were depicted wearing Victorian era clothing with horse drawn carriages. Looking at the towns from this high-up perspective gave a sense of them being like a gestalt self-organizing the cells of an organism, or like a flock of many birds undulating in collective intelligence. These bird’s eye views gave a distinct sense of acommon spirit unifying the many.
The second half of the event was a panel discussion that took place on the 7th floor of the library in the meeting room, moderated by co-curator Libby Bischoff with a panel of four speakers: Matthew Edney, Osher Chair in the History of Cartography; Earl G. Shettleworth Jr. Maine State Historian; Christine Carpenter, Conservator at Green Dragon Bindery; and Rachel Gilbert, a senior at USM with a major in history, as well being the other co-curator of the event.
Matthew told us that these maps became important after the American Constitution was ratified, with individual states gaining autonomy and therefore a distinct identity that they wanted to show off. He told us that expert cartographers from Philadelphia began making the bird’s eye view maps that we had seen, which were incredibly popular to the people of the towns and helped foster a sense of local pride. The maps would even sometimes be sent by locals to their relatives who had moved West, as if to say, “We’re growing and thriving now. Come back!”.
Earl told us about how these maps are now used to date buildings built in that era, but beyond the practical use, they are marvels of Victorian art. He explained that surveyors would have to go street by street in order to gain the incredible detail and accuracy in the maps. One town’s newspaper even published an article forewarning the locals that these surveyors would be doing this, and not to mistake them for thieves scoping for places to rob. The largest bird’s eye view map of in Maine was of Portland, produced in 1876; even though the Great Fire had destroyed a significant part of city just ten years prior to the production of the map, we could not tell that it had ever happened just by looking at, which goes to show how quickly the city had repaired itself.
Christine told us about the laborious process of restoring old maps, of soaking them in acetone to remove varnish, as well as taking the individual parts of the maps apart and putting them back together again. She told us how the clients who come to her with maps ranging in conditions, sometimes with tape, sometimes with Civil War-era soot, and even one map that was removed from a bathroom ceiling. She told us she generally has to comply with the wishes or her clients for their maps, even if she finds them distasteful, except for requests that may be unethical; one of these unethical she received was to tamper with the map and change counties in order to give the impression that it was created at a different date.
Rachel gave a much more personal presentation, telling of how, similar to me, she began her internship with the impression that maps might be boring and impersonal, at least in comparison with her interest in the rich stories of real people in history. She told of her hometown Westbrook, where her French-Canadian ancestors had migrated in order to work at the mills (also similar to me). Their intention was to work and save money and return to their home in Canada, but it quickly became clear that they would not be able to earn nearly as much money as they had expected. They made the difficult decision to ground themselves in Westbrook (formerly Saccarappa) and make it their new home; they pooled their money together to build St. Hyacinth’s Church, which is still present in Westbrook to this day and was also visible on the bird’s eye view map. Rachel stated again and again that the little houses that appear as blips on a map contained real people with all their complexity, all their suffering and all their joy. Her talk was particularly moving because it was so personal and there was emotion in her voice. It made me think of how quickly and shamefully we forget about these real people and their real struggle, summing up and dismissing whole groups of people by lazy racial signifiers that whitewash their humanity, like erasing the details of a map. If you dig into the earth of the places depicted, you will not find merely dirt; you will find spirit and blood.
Matthew said something towards the end on how important the materiality of these maps is, and how they should be kept intact as they were intended. He shook his head and told us of how an unnamed ivy league university had maps taken apart so that they could be stored away in a filing cabinet. There was an actual gasp from the audience. This was an interesting moment to me—even though we exist hundreds of years after the making of these maps, where their importance to our identity is often forgotten, there still seemed to be a visceral shock at idea of the maps being fragmented and hid in dark drawers; an echo, I imagine, of the reaction their ancestors would have had at idea of these images of local identity and pride being torn up and buried. Something about the materiality and wholeness of these maps still seemed to maintain the unifying spirit of these places, the spirit of many of our ancestors. Often, we think of honoring and even praying to one’s ancestors to be a foreign or archaic religious practice, but this moment indicated that it might not be as foreign as it seems.
There is a contemplative exercise, derived from Stoic philosophers, that is referred to as ‘a view from above’. The prompt goes something like this: Imagine yourself sitting in this room. Imagine floating above your body and looking down at it. Float higher up and see the whole building; then higher to see the neighborhood with all the people moving about and having such widely different experiences and interactions with one another; then float higher to see the town, then the state, then the country. Then float higher still, and see the world, resting silently in a vast expanse of darkness, and look down at this strange sphere we inhabit. The prompt is followed by its temporal equivalent: Imagine this time you live in. Now imagine going backward days, weeks, a months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, until your mind is finally unable to penetrate the unspeakable stretch of time behind its mysterious veil. Now do the same for the future. Although from its description it may sound as if this exercise would create a sense of futility at your smallness and insignificance, it in fact does the opposite; an immense gratitude wells up spontaneously, and with it a sense of wonder at this vast mystery that we get to a part of, and a sense of connection to others in a shared commonality, participating in a shared story of humanity in the cosmos, a story of smallness in greatness, and greatness in smallness. I came away from the “Maine on Display: Nineteenth Century Wall Maps and Bird’s Eye Views” with an unexpected appreciation for these old maps that I never would have thought twice about if I hadn’t attended. They have a power to invoke a similar feeling as the meditation I described; a sense of connection to the past, a connection to the place, and a connection to others now, in our communities that make up the community of humanity, all swirling in their collective organisms on this earthen body in space. That is the power of having a view from above. Welcome home.