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Deep Maps: A Technique for Travel Writers 

An extract from The Soul Of Place — A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci

By Linda Lappin

The Soul of Place

“Deep map” is a term coined by Native American Writer William Least Heat-Moon in his extraordinary book of travel essays, PrairyErth: A Deep Map . After publishing a very successful “horizontal” travel book entitled Blue Highways, a restless, rootless ramble across America, Heat-Moon decided to take a “vertical trip” for his new project, heeding a suggestion from N. Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain: to surrender himself to a particular landscape, examining it from all perspectives, wandering across it and wondering about it.

In PrairyErth, Heat-Moon’s chosen landscape is a circumscribed piece of grassland set dead center of the continental USA, Roniger Hill, from which radiates a territory of 778 square miles known as Chase County. At first glance, this place appears to be a blank in the greater void of Kansas where nothing much happens, a lonely place of transit successively abandoned by tribal peoples, settlers, speculators, and modern residents. But by the time the author has finished tracing his deep map, Chase County is revealed to be a densely woven texture of epic narratives entwining tragedy, comedy, myth, legend, and apocalypse, dating back long before the days of King Tut.

To create his topographical word map, Heat-Moon began by first obtaining 25 extremely detailed U.S. Geological Survey maps covering Chase County to the measure of an inch and a half to the mile, which he laid out on his living room floor and studied by walking across them. As he traversed the maps, he found they resembled a grid, like the ones used by archaeologists to map out excavations. The metaphor fit: wasn’t he also digging for “shards?" He then proceeded to test the grid against the territory, hiking across Chase County section by section “in quest of the land and what informs it,” challenging the actual form of the grid itself, with its prisonlike grille of ninety-degree angles, to lead him toward his own darker, and more mysterious connection to the land.

After eight years of research and six years of writing, his end product is a vertical descent through recent and remote history into geological time. PrairyErth weaves together the discourses of natural history, local history, and folklore, oral testimony by local residents and scientific studies, autobiography, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, ecology. Readers become acquainted with possums, skunks, bison, coyotes, and varieties of prairie grasses; roads languishing beneath sediment and scrub, bottomlands and subterranean mountains millions of years old; burial mounds, log schoolhouses, courthouses, jails; and with the lives and legends of those hardy settlers and modern-day residents who chose to live in a place where the air  is so fresh, it seems as if no one has ever used it before, braving attacks by tornados and by the other apocalyptic horsemen of the prairie: Fire, Flood, and Drought. Heat-Moon’s narrative of his own past memories and current response to the place mingles with the multiple voices of the prairie and with intertextual references: Tibetan sky gods, ancient Roman roads, Japanese texts, Dante’s Inferno, and the Book of Revelation all find affinities in the heart of Kansas, entwined with the stories of native peoples who lived there six thousand years ago. Ultimately, he discovers while rambling in a half somnolent state that his real bond to the land lies deep beneath the surface, perceptible only to the non-rational mind. Facts will only carry us so far, he concludes; the only way to really know a place is to dream it.

Heat-Moon’s Deep Map resembles Bernard Anson’s Map of Imagination, which we might define as a personal cognitive model of a territory that attempts to encompass all historical, spiritual, mythic, and personal data regarding that territory, layered across time. Working with the Map of Imagination brings people, stories, landscape and history into alignment. For Anson, who combines the practices of green tourism, story-telling performance art, and research into the genius loci, the wars and peregrinations, rituals and cultural achievements enacted upon a territory are a manifestation of its genius loci, which continues to thrive and to act upon the lives and particularly upon the subconscious of its inhabitants through the centuries. By rediscovering and most especially by retelling the stories embedded in a landscape, we can better understand the ties that bind us to a place and how place itself shapes our identities.

A deep map, then, is a sample swatch of the multiple manifestations of the genius loci. The deep map configures narratives. It is a matrix of intertextual story-telling, charting our movements through the landscape or cityscape, tracing the pathways of our habits and rituals, depositing our experiences over time in its folds, intersecting at every turn the mesh of lives and stories that have preceded us. Since the publication of PrairyErth in 1991,“deep map” has become a term also used by contemporary geographers and conceptual artists to refer to a sample swath in any form—textual, visual, or performance—illustrating the layers of natural, cultural, and personal history stratified upon any given geographical spot. In its meanders circulate the spirits of place.

Writing Exercise: Make a Deep Map

Although this exercise works well in both rural and urban contexts, for a first attempt I suggest trying it out in a setting where you will feel closer to nature.

Choose a rural territory, or one deeply immersed in a natural setting—a stretch of coast, or even a city park, with the intention of investigating all its byways and obscure corners. Begin by fixing the boundaries of the space you wish to study and then explore it on foot, using all your senses within those boundaries. Sketch a map of the place, or obtain one, to use as a support for your notes and drawings. Try out different routes, pathways, perspectives. Heat-Moon calls this closely focused examination of the territory “testing the grid.”

Visit your chosen site at different times of day in different conditions of weather. Taste the atmosphere. Investigate its topology. Is there a particular landscape feature that attracts you, like a pond or an abandoned building? If there are roads or railways, where do they lead? Learn the names of trees and plants, if you don’t know them, and try to find out why they are important to that particular place. Observe other lives unfolding there: animals, birds, insects, people. Are there fishermen, joggers, Sunday strollers, mushroom hunters, or squatters? Notice what has been  left behind in the aftermath of weather events or human occupation, fallen trees, candy wrappers, traces of recent campfires or dead vehicles overgrown with kudzu? Who might go there at night? 

Observe your personal response to all this. Take notes, pictures, videos of what you find there. Although you could limit your observation period to a single visit, deep maps take time to assemble. The more time you spend actually exploring, the richer your map will be. In between your visits, research place names, local history, local natural history, folklore, gossip, superstitions related to the place. Match your research findings with what you actually find on site. Interview residents or other walkers you meet there or local experts on its history, flora and fauna. How does your own story weave into the territory as you proceed? How does the outer environment mirror your emotions or state of mind as you go along? Assemble your materials to build a text or multimedia project.

One way to organize your material could be to divide it into units of measure, which may be “miles,” “blocks” or even “paces,” and structure your text by means of your unit, i.e. you might dedicate a line/stanza/ paragraph/chapter for each unit/block/mile. Another organizing strategy is the thematic approach, selecting broad categories of themes like “water,” “fire,” “road stops,” “woodpeckers,” “danger,” or whatever appeals.

Deep Mapping will provide you with a wealth of information about an environment that you can transform into vivid settings in your writing. My first novel, The Etruscan, is a sort of Deep Map of Tuscia, the area north of Rome, where I love to go traipsing through vineyards and poking into ruins. In writing my novel, I wove into the story many strands that I picked up while exploring: images of old houses and towers, animal and plant lore, superstitions, peasant traditions, even recipes that are all part of the local color and give the book a detailed, true-to-life background in contrast to the plot that is based on fairy-tale patterns.

Keep in mind that the Deep Map is a versatile project that may take any genre, and may be contained in a single work or spawn a series of books. You can deep map any environment, including interiors, physical or mental. May Sarton’s best-selling diaries Plant Dreaming Deep  and Journal of a Solitude can be read as a Deep Map to the poet’s life, house, and garden in Nelson, New Hampshire as she worked through depression and creative blocks.  

An extract from The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook, by Linda Lappin  (Travelers Tales, 2015). 2015 Gold Medal Winner Nautilus Awards in the Creative Process Category. Isbn: 978-1609521035.

Related Topics
Travel Writing Guide
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