A textured, metallic image of a town, with slanted streets and trees for folks to touch. A rusted street layout with buildings. Browns and blues and greens.
Photograph | Timothy McNeil

The Cartography We Can’t See

WE ALL CREATE MAPS IN OUR MINDS. Though our topographies vary, the inner calibration of the hippocampus perpetually swings like a compass needle, reading the signals that bring us our bearings. Some Manhattanites I met when I lived there couldn’t point north or south, but they were still guided up- and downtown by trains, the spire of the Empire State Building, the open skies over the water bodies that bound the edges of the island. Heading to Brooklyn, brain synapses fire as the R train screeches in its underground bend and descends under the East River. The city’s iconic subway map, by which eight million residents orient themselves, was designed in part by a man who rode the lines with his eyes closed, feeling the way the lines should look, the bends, the straightaways.


So what becomes of the maps if your eyes stayed closed?


We live in an ocularcentric world, writes Dr. M. Leona Godin, author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. So what becomes of the maps if your eyes stayed closed? What if the single sense that dominates the way most humans perceive and interpret their surroundings is shrouded in some way? Over four decades, Leona has transitioned from a sighted person to a blind one, making new maps along the way and joining the sixty thousand other New Yorkers who navigate the metropolis without sight.

When visual cues vanish, we make order out of soundscapes. That subway screech alone. The singular sound of the bell hanging on the corner bodega door. The different resonances of raindrops upon water, rather than asphalt, that help you sidestep a puddle. “There’s the feel of an opening when you get to the end of a block,” Leona tells me, describing a combination of the way the air moves and an echolocation, sometimes active, sometimes passive. (“Echolocation is not the same as mind-reading,” writes poet and scholar Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs in Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. “Some of this magic is just the complexity of being a mammal alive in sound.”)

As ears tune in, nostrils flare. Smellscapes around the world have been mapped by British researcher Dr. Kate McLean, who reveals, in spectral portrayals, the scents of a NYC block where one can whiff coconut or fresh baked cantucci, urine or old fish, clean cotton or milky coffee. Smells can reveal the rich redolence of leather and rubber from a sex shop. The sign of autumn not redflamed trees but the overpowering aroma of gingko trees in fruit and both the sound and smell of dried leaves crunching underfoot.

I once met a young man named Victor Andrews who was being trained by VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired to expand his mental map beyond the routes he normally traveled with his walking cane sweeping in swift arcs: the Clinton Hill apartment in Brooklyn where he lived with his grandmother to Edward R. Murrow High School to Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church. He was an aspiring DJ and he wanted to be able to travel from his home to Beat Street Records in Fulton Fish Market, where he could get hip-hop and reggae on vinyl.

He made it there, eventually, the day I joined him on his route. He had helpers: the bus driver who kept him close, the fellow pedestrian who offered to guide him across the massive intersection where Flatbush meets DeKalb. The packed metropolis was abundant with humans who might help—a far contrast from the sparsely inhabited land of rural America, where I used to live, and where I sometimes saw a man walking with a cane on the side of the road late at night, the glint of his cane captured in my headlights. But it was still a difficult journey for Victor, with disorienting triangular intersections containing multiple lanes of traffic and the screech of brakes that could be the B38 bus he wanted … or just another truck.

We all inhabit imperfect geographies: countries, cities, bodies. Places where we feel at home and places where we’re lost. Whose maps provide a way forward? Perhaps those of Dr. Joshua Miele, a blind inventor with a doctorate in psychoacoustics who stresses universal design. It’s not just about tactile-Braille transit maps for the visually impaired (although he made those for BART), but also about creating accessible software that allows those without sight to have the tools to be part of the design process from the very first step. Listened to GPS instructions lately? Or said hello to Siri? Everyone—sighted or not—can benefit. “The word crippled has been thrown away,” the inventor once said. “Disabled will be thrown out soon too.”

As for Victor, he’s moved from aspiring DJ to lead plaintiff on multiple class-action lawsuits demanding companies make their websites more accessible to the blind.

How might we draw on the maps of our imaginations to create a world we want to inhabit? To leave behind what’s useless, dangerous, or both: whether the crumbling road maps celebrating the names of colonizers or the flood plain maps that fantasize future coastlines unmoved by climate change? What new means can we create to wayfind ourselves into a better future, and who will we choose as our guides?


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Meera Subramanian is an award-winning independent journalist and author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, and a contributing editor of Orion magazine. Based on a glacial moraine on the edge of the Atlantic, she’s a perpetual wanderer who can’t stop planting perennials and looking for critters. You can find her at www.meerasub.org.


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