“Gros Morne Lookout Trail’ (2016) by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

“We have no maps without the maps that came before. Lift one map of the body
and find another. Navigating back. Mapping through.”

Barrie Jean Borich, Body Geographic, 71.

 “All maps tell stories: the story their maker intended and the story they tell
about their making – that is, how, why, what purpose they served and their impact.”

Judith A. Tyner,
Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, 6)

 Years ago, as a grade 6 student learning Canadian geography, I remember telling my teacher that I could easily remember Quebec because “it looks like a witch.” This was no negative statement towards Quebec, I’ll hasten to add. As a child, I loved witches and all things ghoulish, and I could find them in all sorts of places…including, apparently, a map of Canada. Years later, during the Quebec referendum of 1995, I wondered how that map might change should Quebec have received a mandate to separate. Would the whole witch disappear from the map of Canada? Or would there be a re-partitioning? What would this new map look like, and what story – and stories – might it tell?

Thanks to the questions of a probing graduate student (thanks, Laura!), I’ve been thinking a lot about space and how space operates on a ship. The Ship’s Logs at the Maritime History Archive mark space and time with precision, notating the exact date and time alongside specific geographic coordinates. While some locations can easily be fixed – Isle of St. Helena, for example, or River Hooghly, or Cape of Good Hope – others, in the middle of the Atlantic, cannot. Here, the Master resorts to measurements, notating the numbers that mark points on the invisible grid that organizes ocean spaces. In this sense, the coordinates can provide comfort; security in a space otherwise almost completely devoid of conventional place markers. If I wanted to, I could – like researchers working out of the Zeeuws Archief – plot a ship’s journey almost perfectly.

Such projects are fascinating, in that, much like the Flight Aware app that my teenage son obsesses over, they can reveal much about how ships moved through space. But such mapping projects can’t tell us about what happened in that space, not really, anyway.

Maps, as numerous scholars have observed, are representations that reveal much more about the beholder than they do about what they purport to represent. As Jeremy Black writes, “A map is a show, a representation. What is shown is real, but that does not imply completeness or entail any absence of choice in selection and representation” (11). Why is the global South comparatively small? Why is Europe at the centre? Why are Australia and New Zealand down at the bottom? Why, on an English-language map, is the Faroe Islands spelled in the Danish way, rather than the Faroese way? How did Quebec come to look like a witch? How come Alberta looks like a piece of sliced cheese with a corner crumbled off? And why didn’t Indigenous territories make the cut? All of these represent choices, and each of these choices can reveal something about the map’s creators, and further, about the map’s intended audience.


“The Romantic Archipelago,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

The map on my older son’s wall, pilfered from a stash of wall maps abandoned in a hallway by a retiring professor, shows major shipping routes around the world. The ‘world’ itself looks geographically similar, at least on the surface, to the ‘world’ I see on contemporary maps. But over the last half century since the map was produced, borders and boundaries have shifted, countries have appeared and disappeared, names have changed and, in some cases, changed back again.

A map on a New Zealand friend’s wall told a very different story: here the map was, to my eyes, upside down. I don’t have access to that particular map anymore, but similar maps are easily searchable online. Centering New Zealand/Aotearoa where the map I’ve grown up with centers Europe, it has the South Pole on top and the North Pole at the bottom. Where the map I’ve grown up with centers the Atlantic Ocean, this one centers the Pacific. North America has taken on – in a curious way – the contours of South America, its tail stretching down towards the Arctic. I look once. I look twice. And I have to keep looking again and again and again, my coordinates undone by this process of unmapping and remapping.

The colonial maps of Suriname with rectangular strips along all the rivers, tell stories of land claims, plantations, and colonial power. They tell, too, of different waves of settlement: plantations with Dutch names clustered along one river; those as yet unclaimed, and which would later have English names proliferating along another.


Alexander de Lavaux, Landkaart (van Suriname). twee aan elkaar geplakte bladen, ingekleurde gravure; de plantages aan de verschillende rivieren staan aangegeven. Links en rechts: kolom met de “Naamlijst der Eigenaars van de Plantagien”, totaal 519 nummers. L.b.: Kaart van de wijdere omgeving van het gebied. l.m.: cartouche met de schaal. r.b.: cartouche met de titel en het wapen van Suriname. Gesigneerd; rechts boven in cartouche. Amsterdam, 1737-1757. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain.


But maps have not only told stories of physical and political geography. They’ve also revealed intimate geographies. The Carte de Tendre that accompanied Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century novel, Clélie (and later reproduced by many other members of the French intelligentsia), for example, revealed the various waypoints along the journey from new friendship towards intimate friendship or love (tendre). Obedience. Constancy. Sincerity. Care. Generosity – all of these are marked on the map. But so too are the possible dangers: Perfidity. Inequality. Indifference. Negligence. Indiscretion. This maps lays out the complexities of social relationships, and the care that one must take in order to nurture them.

Mapping – as process – has also served pedagogical purposes. In a 2015 book, Judith A. Tyner examines the little known history of map samplers and needlepoint globes, considering these projects not as scientific tools to be used by voyagers, but rather, as pedagogical tools designed to teach geography. As a scientific tool, a map’s purpose lies in its completion; that is, the map as finished product. The map as a pedagogical tool, however, gains its purpose from the process; that is, it becomes meaningful only the making or doing of geography, in the mapping process itself. Here, Tyner makes an important distinction between using and creating maps, a point that she then develops as she considers the role of map-making to girls’ education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

An artist friend of mine, Bettina Matzkuhn – whose work visually maps this whole blog post (thanks, Bettina!) – has spent many years working with maps: geographical maps, bike routes, body maps, and more. Each of her embroidered maps tells a story, but none of them maps mere geography. She’s mapped her bike route to work, complete with the various characters and scenery that she encounters along the way.


“Commute,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

She’s mapped a suffering body, offering viewers a heat map that identifies points of pain. More recently, in a  tribute to a mother who is losing her memory, she’s developed a work that brings geography and memory together, telling the stories of their family boat travels in and out of the small harbours and coves along British Columbia’s west coast.


“A childhood in Howe Sound,” by Bettina Matzkuhn ( Photo by Bettina Matkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

But Bettina’s maps are not restricted to the terrestrial. A project undertaken with a weather specialist has seen her map weather, with embroidery, music, text and video. You can watch The Zoology of Weather here.

So, too, has Barrie Jean Borich taken up a more metaphorical engagement with the idea of geography. In her memoir, Body Geographic, Borich considers the body itself as geography, a “geography of memory” (5). As she writes:

Maps obscure more than they reveal because their flatness is contrary to the layered experience of living. Maps are representational, but life is lived in the body, is dimensional, has voice and history. So every map can’t help but contain other maps, areas of detail requiring special attention, even when the insets don’t show. The body, my body, is a stacked atlas of memory. If we think the idle of our lives are flat we mistake surface for substance. (7)

Space, geographer Doreen Massey has observed, can be understood as a “meeting up of histories” (qtd. in Goeman 5). It is “a product of interrelations,” a “[sphere] of possibilities,” “always under construction,” and “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (qtd. in Goeman 5-6). Space, therefore, is a site of contestation, collaboration, struggle, dialogue, resistance…. Like the maps that result from these encounters, space is itself inherently political. As Mishuana Goeman observes, “Ultimately, we must question our mental and material maps” (204).

In a poignant episode near the end of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the heroine, Aminata Diallo, finds herself in a map room at Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

From the portfolio marked Guinea, I removed the first map and spread it out on a table with two burning candles. It showed the typical painting of half-dressed African men and naked African women, usually with baboons and elephants nearby.

Reaching again into the Guinea portfolio, I pulled out a piece of paper with flower handwriting: “Copied from On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift, 1733.” And then I found the lines:

So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

Elephants for want of towns. I found it comforting to know that nearly sixty years earlier, before I was ever born, Swift had expressed the very thing I was feeling now. These weren’t maps of Africa. In the ornate cartouches of elephants and of women with huge breasts that rose in unlikely salute, every stroke of paint told me that the map-mapers had little to say about my land.

These maps do not tell Aminata Diallo’s story; they cannot capture how she organized and understood her world. These are the stories of European colonizers and slave traders, the same people who would put African women in travelling exhibitions (and later, after their deaths, thoroughly examine and then preserve their bodies) and set up human zoos in the centers of their cities.

Can we learn to see differently? Can we make different maps? Imagine new ways of organizing our worlds?



Black, Jeremy., Maps and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Borich, Barrie Jean. Body Geographic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Electronic book, ca. 2010. Accessed via Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries

Tyner, Judith A. Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education. Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2015.


With deepest thanks to Bettina Matzkuhn for sharing her artwork – and her thinking about maps!

Embroidered Images © Bettina Matzkuhn.
Text © Sonja Boon.





One thought on “geographies

  1. Pingback: and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer – Saltwater Stories

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