Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wind Blows Where It Will

or Mapmaking for Beginners

Suddenly, today, Renaissance cartography all makes sense.  You're probably familiar with the kinds of maps I'm thinking of—beautiful woodcuts from the early days of European empire, shortly after the discovery of the New World.  Blobs with randomly scalloped edges depict the continents.  Waves and the occasional sea-monster disturb the oceans, emphasizing the terrors of the deep.  Grumpy, bodiless, messy-haired gods personify the winds.  They puff out their cheeks and blow strongly and visibly in the directions of the compass rose.

All to say, it's been windy lately, and I'm ready to do some personifying.  The wind the last few days has been a capricious one, with whims and moods and changes of heart, possibly even ADHD.  It's the kind that picks up loose drifts of leaves, whirls them into mid-air and sends them spinning across the street, and just as suddenly loses heart and lets the leaves lapse into drifts again.  It grabs hold of a flock of blackbirds and tosses them into an updraft, where they swirl helplessly until the eddy falters, freeing them to huddle in the closest tree.  It plays with skirt hems and old newspapers, seed pods and dusty roads, tree branches and telephone lines, fingering everything with an insatiable curiosity (while it lasts), teasing, questing. It isn't a storm wind, but still one that would make setting out to sea in search of a new world seem like a Very Bad Idea.

It's a wind that keeps us all busy.  As I walk back from the mailboxes, I'm trying to keep my skirt at bay with one hand while clenching the mail with the other and holding the keys in my teeth.  The neighbor's miniature dachshund is perched on a patio table, her nose working frantically to process all the wind-borne information; she is clearly ready to explode with excitement.*  The blackbirds make occasional attempts to go wherever it is that blackbirds want to go, flapping with all their might to no purpose before subsiding into their tree again.  The inanimate world looks perilously close to being animated.

One knows that it is just wind, a product of high and low pressure systems coming to grips, or something of that meteorological sort.  Isobars might come into play (N.B.:  a handy NY Times crossword puzzle word to remember, even if we don't really know how to use it correctly), but probably not grumpy demi-gods.  Yet the wind is so willful that it seems like the product of some sentient being.

This is where I draw the line between myself and Renaissance cartographers.  (The Cartographers' Motto:  You have to draw the line somewhere.)  If I were planning to risk my life crossing the Atlantic in some wooden planks with a sail or two on top, or to send my ship/collection of wooden planks on such a voyage, or to fund it, I'd probably portray the wind as being pretty irascible, with god-like powers (and ferociously messy hair) myself.  As it is, I'll be hanging out inside a nice warm house in a fuzzy bathrobe this evening.  I can afford to see it more generously, not as an inimical, superhuman being, but as, say, a golden retriever puppy of a wind—one that doesn't know its own strength yet and that has no fine (or even large) motor control, allowed out off the leash after a long, cooped-up day.  One moment it slams into you, robbing you of breath; the next it comes and whuffles enthusiastically in your hair.  It flings itself headlong after a scent and then suddenly can't remember what it was doing and so flings itself headlong just for joy.  It wreaks havoc with your garden, your patio furniture, your outfit, and your sanity, but it doesn't actually mean any harm.  Good luck calling it to heel—when it comes, you will be bowled over, laughing.

I've been fascinated this week by the way early modern maps combine fantasy, experience and geography:  they actually show weather conditions, risk, and adventure in more detail than they show the land.  A plan of Albuquerque drawn in the same spirit might show, instead of leviathans, signs saying "Here Be Scary Drivers;" instead of waves, seas of potholes and undulating orange construction flags.  The actual streets wouldn't be labeled—but then, so few of them are.  Golden retrievers would sit, panting, on the outskirts of the map.  Or, if we were to stay with demigods, possibly the ambivalent, boundary-pushing trickster, Coyote...

Now there's an adventure waiting to happen.

* But then, she is always ready to explode with excitement.


  1. Here, the wind doesn't typically have ADD. Here, it is purposeful, intense, and COLD. I'd much rather have a golden retriever, lol.

  2. I don't blame you! We get some of those purposeful winds, too, but I won't complain about them to a South Dakotan. :)

  3. I think I can feel the wind you've written here... Maybe the dachshund and the early mapmakers were processing similar information, which is a bit out of our contemporary, concrete frame of mind... This is what your post made me feel, anyway, and it's an idea I enjoy - a welcome reminder to pause and notice the weather and energy around me.

  4. Zoe, I love your image of the dachshund processing the adventure and risk and excitement. :) Yes, very subjective measures—not "verifiable" but still important. Thanks for your comment!