Argumentum Ornithologicum and uncertain cartographies


Mosgiel and Dunedin, Otago

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

Argumentum Ornithologicum, Jorge Luis Borges

I spent years staring at maps. At my previous job, roughly half of any of given day was devoted to working with ink and pixel landscapes. I remember mapping skinks in Sinbad Gully, soils of the Wairau Valley, possum habitats in the Tararua Ranges, Māori freehold land suitability in the Wairarapa and hydrological networks in the Canterbury Plains. All those hours spent creating and poring over cartographic representations of New Zealand honed and deepened my understanding of this country’s physical landscapes and urban forms. They may even have changed the way I think.

(Some nights I dream in shaded relief.)

Invercargill, Southland

Invercargill, Southland

Places where I once lived are deeply etched in my mind. Given a blank sheet of paper, and a little lenience, I can draw a respectable map of Murrays Bay, Mount Eden, Kingsland, Longburn, Summer Hill or Mana from memory. Yet most New Zealand localities are at once familiar and largely unknown to me. When presented with an unlabelled map depicting a random part of the country, I can identify most places purely on the basis of their shape. But, when I close my eyes, their forms fade away and I’m left with a cartographic analogue to Borges’s birds. Elusive assemblages flicker, squiggle and shimmer, slipping out of reach when my mind’s eye tries to focus on them directly.

Whangaparaoa Peninsula

Whangaparaoa Peninsula, Auckland
The maps on this page are an attempt to translate my head landscapes into cartographic artefacts. I am trying to recreate of what I see when I close my eyes. They are rough approximations—the stuff in my head is far stranger and more difficult to pin down—but they feel honest. I share them because I find them beautiful and evocative.


Cromwell, Central Otago
The maps were created with TileMill. Most of the effects were achieved through doing unnatural things with the line-smooth and polygon-smooth parameters. Here is a Gist containing the CartoCSS for anyone who might be interested. All data from Land Information New Zealand: NZ Mainland Road Centrelines, NZ Mainland River Centrelines, NZ Mainland River Polygons and NZ Mainland Lakes.

Rakaia River

 Canterbury Plains around the Rakaia River

6 Responses to “Argumentum Ornithologicum and uncertain cartographies”

  1. Jennifer Mange says:

    Your maps are intriguing and beautiful. I will surely revisit them.

    Apropos of your dreams is an evocative memoir, Journeys in Dream and Imagination, by Artur Lundquist, revisting his experience of a coma from which he recovers. He begins,

    “I know I am traveling all the time, possibly with no interruptions, also with no tremors or noises, soundlessly and softly, and then I am no longer lying in my bed but stepping out into the world where everything is awake, sundrenched, comforting, and I am there clearly as a visitor, and I am quite at ease,

    it must be a dream journey I have undertaken, a definite dream journey where all is real precisely the way all journeys ought to be, but maybe one has to be dead in order to journey like that,

    by the way, how can I know I am not dead, even though I have no sensation of being dead, and it is as if I rest in a middle zone without feeling either warmth or cold or hunger or any human needs

    No wind, not even the slightest breeze, complete stillness and silence, yet I am traveling or have a definite sense of traveling, but how can it happen without a sound or feeling of movement,

    can I travel motionless or glide onwards without the least resistance from the earth or the air, can it be that time has stopped or speed no longer has a meaning, that I have reached the crossroads beyond motion and stillness . . .

    but yet I am here, can feel my body and sense my breathing, it is a nothingness that is definite, but without any wind or air or sound whatsoever, as if all but my own being has ceased existing
    I feel that I am again traveling, that immobility and silence no longer reign, but I do not know what the women are singing or what the song means, it is simply there, filling the room which was only silence and emptiness

    The silence is like a fine spiderweb against my face, I cannot rub it off, it is simply there without being tangibly real, it does not flutter like a leaf in the breeze, nor is it entirely immobile, it feels like the impression of a wind that is already becalmed, it is hardly the beginning of the weave and it does not betray a pattern, it is the most insignificant matter, yet it makes itself known . . .

  2. […] I found this awesome post on Uncertain Cartographies (via Flowing Data), and it immediately took me back to something I made when I was in college and […]

  3. Adam Lofting says:

    These maps are beautiful, and this project sent me back in time to a similar project (with a very different outcome) that I worked on when I was an art student.

    Reading your post prompted me to dig out an old file and I wrote a short post about it in response:

  4. […] purely on the basis of their shape. But, when I close my eyes, their forms fade away …. The maps on this page are an attempt to translate my head landscapes into cartographic artefacts. I am trying to recreate […]

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