Mapping Through Heartache

Cartographer’s Story #2, by John Nelson


I hadn’t made much of anything for several months, and wondered if I was done with mapping -or if mapping were done with me, more like it.  The previous winter I had made a flurry of maps in a dark time for people that I loved as an impotent gift, and for myself, as a meditation and distraction. This map is most memorable to me as a bright spot, a turning point that pulled me out of a rut.

The year leading up to this map had been the most difficult, but prolific, of my life. My parents, both lifelong geography teachers and lovers of maps and travel, were holed up in their northern Michigan home, my father tending to my mother who was living through the final stages of cancer. My feelings of helplessness were pervasive, and I found myself mapping furiously through weekdays, to share on visits. In hindsight, I suppose I felt compelled to feel productive in an area I associated with their happiness and in so doing channel an unfamiliar darkness.

Following my mother’s death I found that I had fully mined my mapping volition and felt no desire to create. Months went by; I would have ideas but absolutely no will.

Then Robert Staskowski, a meteorologist with young children, reached out to me the morning after a terrible loss of life in Moore, Oklahoma, when a tornado struck a school. His idea was a tornado warning system that was informed by the regional tendencies of tornadoes to follow a certain bearing. Impressed by his motivation and sincerity of vision, I started considering the idea of storms flowing along prevailing directions and felt compelled—for the first time in a while—to explore how that map might look.

Robert’s email and this map’s inception mark a moment when I was, reluctantly, pulled from a slump and brought back to a place where making felt alright again. I still make maps to appease some sense of creative compulsion within me, but I do it with a somewhat finer understanding of why that compulsion exists. I make maps because I must. There is comfort in knowing that dry spells, for whatever reason, will come. But they are temporary.

When I look at this particular map, I’m encouraged by a willingness to start over and create even when there is no tugging within me to do it. Sometimes the tugging is a gift from without, and a reminder of how good it is to make, setting us back on our path.