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Gallery Exhibit, Catalog No. 71

A traditional Marshall Islands sea-chart

THIS MARSHALL ISLANDS SEA-CHART is reproduced in an essay which critiques the eurocentric bias of “most writing on mapping,” before proposing that we turn back to the future by way of aboriginal maps and the bioregional perspective they model.

A Marshall Islands sea-chart, showing sticks and shells tied to an outside frame.
Reproduced on p. 10 of Doug Aberley’s essay, “Eye Memory: The Inspiration of Aboriginal Mapping,” chapter 2 of Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment, edited by Doug Aberley.

View an enlarged 1090 x 766 pixel JPG image (173KB)

TO SEEK NEW INSPIRATION in the study and practice of aboriginal mapping is no mere “romantic quest,” writes Doug Aberley, editor of and contributing essayist to Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment. In suggesting that we attempt to refashion past practices for a postmodern age, Aberley outlines a strategy for relearning how “to live in complex harmony with other life.”

Mapping as conceptualized and executed by aboriginal peoples is at the heart of what reinhabitants need to rediscover. How did societies that were rooted in place, that were wedded irrevocably to the land, use perceptions of time and space to provide order to their actions? Owing to the relentless subjugation of aboriginal cultures, it is difficult to find the answer to this fundamental question. Thankfully, there remain several paths of investigation available. This chapter looks at how aboriginal maps were physically made, how the environment was conceptualized, and then how contemporary aboriginal cultures are using maps.
Before proceeding an important assumption should be made clear: all humans originate from aboriginal cultures. In all of us is some remnant of an ability to understand relationships of physical space to survival and the evolution of stable community life. In admiring the mapping of aboriginal cultures, the goal is not to copy others, but to rediscover in ourselves a genetic memory of ancient skills. This is no romantic quest. What we seek is inspiration from the best attributes of those who remain close to the land — rootedness, spirituality, and the ability to live in complex harmony with other life.

(Doug Aberley, “Eye Memory: The
Inspiration of Aboriginal Mapping,” pp. 8–9)

Aberley, and the other contributors to his book, explore the democratic potential of “creative” mapping for communities interested in “learning about and communicating the intricacies of places.” They give examples of local groups using overlays, tapestries, and stories to map “what’s crucial to them” (water and air flow, community patterns, distribution of species, local history) instead of the conventional roads and political boundaries focused on by “distant bureaucrats or companies.”

Harnessing the power of maps to build collective wisdom about our communities and the world in which we live is not necessarily at odds with early-modern European habits of mapping or with an evolving “scientific” style of cartography (too easily reduced by the book’s authors to the mere advancement of “mapping technique and precision”). But it is, for the most part, a lost art in modern communities that now let others do the mapping (and planning) for them. Aberley argues that becoming reacquainted with ancient ways of describing and living in place is one way to revive this art, by emphasizing the creative play and ecological know-how that is in all of us.

Given the importance of oceans for human life on Earth — a watery “blue planet,” with 70.8 percent of its surface covered by Ocean, not land — traditional sea-charts, with their different ways of conceptualizing this vast resource, are valuable records. With the growing problem of “shifting baselines” in our oceans, and recent reports warning of how our oceans are in severe decline, the knowledge of ocean ecosystems embodied in the traditional maps and cultures of the Marshall Islanders can teach us a great deal about how to live mindfully in place, surrounded by ocean.

ABERLEY’S INTERESTING GLOSS of the Marshall Islands sea-chart reads in full:

As just mentioned, most books on mapping give the same two or three examples of aboriginal maps. The most quoted example is of the sea-charts used by Micronesians living on the Marshall Islands in the north Pacific. Islanders construct these maps from pieces of the narrow center rib of a palm leaf tied together with coconut fiber. Grids are thus formed in distorted geometric patterns, depicting the curve, refraction, and intersection of wave patterns caused by prevailing winds. They tie shells to the frame to represent the location of islands. The sea-charts are made for differing uses. A mattang is made for instructional purposes, showing only examples of wave patterns that would be represented on a working sea-chart. A meddo depicts islands that form parts of larger archipelagos. A rebbang represents an entire island chain.
Usually only a physical description of this remarkable type of map is included in books on cartographic history. The fascinating cultural setting that has created the use of such images is left unexplained. Micronesians live on very small atolls scattered in four major clusters across a vast ocean — the Gilberts, Carolines, Marianas, and Marshalls. They face the frequent threat of devastating storms. They have needed, therefore, to devise reliable navigation techniques for moving humans to-and-fro for social purposes, for locating and harvesting resources, and for reciprocal trade. To accomplish these cultural goals, they faced two tasks. First, they had to invent a technology that enabled navigation across vast distances with the benefit of no typical landmarks; and, second, they needed a method of teaching that allowed this knowledge to be passed on. Each of these imperatives deserves further exploration.
How do you cross huge distances with no obvious physical guides? Oceans are a complex interaction of tides, currents and wind-driven wave patterns that are replicated in cycles over time. The steepness of waves, their pattern of refraction, or the amount of cresting can all indicate location. Star configurations and their movement are markers that can be used with equal reliability. Species of birds that nest on land fly at a variety of distances from shore. Birds also fly at altitudes that make them visible to the human eye far more easily than a low atoll invisible over an unmarked horizon. Sea colors, sounds, water temperature, and phosphorescence change with depth, as do the type and variety of sea creatures that can be observed. Floating debris and smells travel in predictable patterns. Speed can be marked by the time a sail keeps a certain shape matched with the memory of how fast a particular canoe travelled in an equal breeze. Clouds form over land in a manner different from over the sea. This listing could go on at great length. The point is that people living “in place” have the ability to customize a worldview that allows the physical world to become alive with nuance and opportunity.
The way in which Micronesians teach this knowledge of time and space to succeeding generations is embedded deeply in their culture. Most Micronesians navigate, but they possess greatly differing levels of skill. Those invited to learn deeper levels of mapping skills are chosen for their aptitude or interest in the craft. Many are simply relatives of master navigators, steeped from early years in the complex mental mapping required. Micronesians pass on knowledge and the power it gives by a number of methods, all connected by the need to layer information in memory. Mapping lore is preserved verbally in stories, poems, chants, and through rhymes. It is shown physically in stick charts, in dwellings whose rafter patterns depict segments of the night sky, and in imaginary canoes surrounded by stones which mark tell-tales of distance and location. In these and many more ways, Micronesians weave information on navigation into their daily lives. The point is that mapping skills are not only for experts, and not just for scholarly reference; they are an everyday part of a society that is inextricably linked to its environment.
Books which provide a far more comprehensive description of Micronesian mapping include: East is a Big Bird, by Thomas Gladwin; We the Navigators, by David Lewis; and A Song For Satawal, by Kenneth Brower. A volume which relates Micronesian navigation to the concept of “knowledge as power” is Unwritten Knowledge: A Case Study of the Navigators of Micronesia, by Lyndsay Farrell.

(Aberley 9–11)

Earth, the blue planet
As viewed from space.
Related Links

• a digital transcription in the LIBRARY of Richard Flecknoe’s letter documenting his “Sea Voyage from Lisbon to the Brasils” in 1648–50, with its account of the Atlantic’s stunning seascapes and sea gardens mid-17th-century

• digital transcriptions in the LIBRARY of Robert Hooke’s lectures and papers on oceanography

• a GALLERY exhibit on the flying fish of the 17th century

• an external link to the report of the Pew Oceans Commission, “connecting people and science to sustain marine life” (the printed report is free, and can be ordered from a link on the home page)

• an external link to the Center for SeaChange, an organization established to advance policy solutions to protect the oceans

• external link to the online companion piece for the five-part series on the crisis in the seas, “Altered Oceans,” published 30 July–3 August 2006 in the Los Angeles Times. A multimedia presentation (requires Flash 7 plug-in) and two articles from the published series — “A Chemical Imbalance” by Times Staff Writer Usha Lee McFarling (3 August 2006), and “Digging for Data” by Times Staff Writer Kenneth R. Weiss (31 July 2006) — plus Larry Crowder’s opinion piece, “Healthcare for the Oceans. There’s only one way to save the seas—a scaled up, big-picture effort.” (Los Angeles Times, 6 August 2006) can all be linked to from this page. NOTE: you will need to register with the Los Angeles Times Web site in order to view “Altered Oceans” content online (registration is free).



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