I have long admired the Mississippi River meander maps designed by Army Corps of Engineers cartographer Harold Fisk but have somehow never written a whole post about them. So when my pals at 20×200 reached out wanting me to write a blog post for them about their Fisk prints, I jumped at the chance. It gave me an excuse to write about art as time travel and, in particular, how Fisk’s clever map compresses thousands of years of a river’s activity into a single image.
From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, European powers sent voyagers to lands farther and farther away from the continent in an expansionist period we now call the Age of Exploration. These journeys were propelled by religious fervor and fierce colonial sentiment—and an overall desire for new trade routes. They would not have been possible without the rise of modern cartography. While geographically accurate maps had existed before, the Age of Exploration saw the emergence of a sustained tradition of topographic surveying. Maps were being made specifically to guide travelers. Technology progressed quickly through the centuries, helping explorers and traders find their way to new imperial outposts—at least sometimes. On other occasions, hiccups in cartographic reasoning led their users even farther astray.
Happy endings come from an understanding of the compass, not the presence of a useful map.
If you’ve got the wrong map, the right compass will get you home if you know how to use it.