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CatamountSo my friend Drew is writing another book.  The last time he did so he asked me to produce some maps for him, a process I detailed previously, and which we plan to repeat (roughly).  This time, Drew’s book is about an individual, who happens to have been born close to where I live.

Being the kind of person he is, Drew has decided to set foot upon all the places most significant in his subject’s life.  Naturally, his birthplace fit’s into this category, so I applied myself to determining where, precisely, said event actually occurred.

Drew already had some pretty good ideas about this, having narrowed the search down not just to a small Massachusetts village but to a particular mountain within said village (coincidentally a mountain I had had occasion to map several years ago, so I already knew my way around rather well).

To narrow our search even further, Drew gave me a copy of a map he had found in a manuscript buried in the local library:

Stacy Map

On the surface, it looked to be a workable map, so I converted it into a format I could work with and set about georeferencing it with QGIS.

The result was less than pleasing.  When it came down to it, I was not working with a map so much as I was trying to georeference a rough sketch.  With a capital “R”.  Under normal circumstances, this is where the process ends, and I simply produce a wildly inaccurate result with a pile of disclaimers attached to it.  But this was for an old friend, which is considerable coin.  Besides – I had some spare time with no pressing projects.

So I turned to one of my favorite mappers, Fredrick W. Beers.  There are Beers maps for everything within a sizeable radius of here and, being an archaeologist and historian, I have had to consult them on numerous occasions.  I can personally vouch for their accuracy whenever they depict objects that are still on (or under) the ground.

The mountain in question – Catamount Hill – is located in the town of Colrain Massachusetts, so I acquired the Beers map which includes said village and hill, which I then clipped to just the area of interest:


Unfortunately, the Beers map doesn’t show any of the landmarks that specifically interest Drew, but it does show a half dozen or so that are also on the aforementioned sketch map (the Stacy map), so I figured I could use the Beers map as a stepping stone.

The first order of business was to georeference the clip of the Beers map.  I have found that GIS software is only reasonably good at warping images, so I usually begin this process by helping them along with a little Photoshop chicanery.  As you can see, the Beers map shows a decent amount of local roads, and I have found through experience that most roads in New England haven’t moved much in centuries.  So I opened up QGIS and used a current local road shapefile to make a template image:


I then opened the template image in Photoshop, made the background transparent, and loaded the clipped Beers map underneath it.  Using Photoshop’s image transforming tools, I manipulated the Beers clip until it approximated the template image.  The result I saved for use in georeferencing:


Note that neither the Beers map nor the Stacy map had any real reason to use any sort of projection whatsoever, so I used Stateplane for the template (and for the rest of the georeferencing process, as well).

I then loaded the tweaked Beers map into QGIS and georeferenced it to the same road file I had used to make the template.  Once that was done, I created a point file of all the landmarks on the Beers map that I planned to use to georeference the Stacy map.  Then I added every other feature on the Beers map because I’m me.

I knew the roads on the Stacy map were out of kilter, so I decided to just ignore them altogether.  I loaded the map as an unprojected and unreferenced raster into QGIS and created a point file of all the features depicted on the map.  I named them all in a column in the table for use in labeling.  I then created a raster image of the labeled feature points, which I then georeferenced to the previously referenced Beers map, using the common features as control points.  I used this final, fairly accurate replica of the Stacy map to create a new point file of all the features in the Catamount Hill vicinity, numbered, typed and labeled in the table accordingly:


Finally – since I wanted to be able to use all of this to locate features on the ground – I reprojected everything and packed it into TileMill, which I used to create tiles for use with an app in my phone (similar to one I wrote about previously, only updated for use with a later OS).

Next week Drew and I plan to go out and put all this to the test.  Part of my plan is to locate a feature that intrigues me just because of its name:  Aunt Dinah’s Stairway.  I’m dying to know what it actually is.  Unfortunately, locating it will entail traveling to a place called Catamount Hill and hiking past landmarks called Bears’ Den and Black Snake Swamp.

Wish me luck.


Update:  Just got an email from Barb (Drew’s wife) with details of the upcoming publication of Drew’s book, Red Ink:  Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period.  Feel free to buy it as soon as you can.


At this stage in my life, making a map has become very much like writing or driving – it’s something I largely don’t think about.  These are all tasks that I usually just sit down and do.  Only rarely do I actually have to think about the process involved in what I am doing.  Recently, though, I made a couple of maps that I really thought about, beginning to end.

An old friend (Drew) stopped by for a visit a short while ago (by ‘old friend’ I mean one of those few who has been a good friend through thick and thin since high school and still seems magically blind to my faults).  He asked me to put together maps for a book he’s authored that’s heading for publication.  I assented, of course.  Hell – I would have done so even if we hadn’t been drinking.

Anyway, I anticipated questions about the maps, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the choices I was making and why I was making them.  The questions never materialized (I should have realized that someone who’s been a friend this long would know enough to just get out of my way and let me do what I do), but anticipating them forced me to articulate my creative process in a fashion I haven’t experienced in years.  I thought I’d share it with you all.

Disclaimer:  As a Map Dork, I am almost completely self-taught.  Those of you who have actually taken classes and/or earned degrees in this stuff may find this to be painfully obvious or stupidly off base.  My only response to this is:  “Hey – it works for me.”

As you may have guessed, I spend a lot of my time looking at maps.  All sorts of maps.  These days, I see a lot of ugly maps.  And you know what, kids?  Ugly maps don’t work.  Allow me to explain.

A map is a document.  Like any other document, the point of a map is to convey information to an audience (the audience being whoever is looking at it).  In order for this to occur, the audience actually has to look at the map long enough to absorb whatever information the map is intended to convey.  Since the overwhelming majority of humanity does not particularly enjoy looking at ugly things, chances are an ugly map will fail in its purpose.

Part of the problem (I’m sad to say) is the advent of geographic information systems (GIS).  GIS has taught us that maps are, in fact, collections of data.  While it is a good thing to know this Basic Truth, sometimes it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the map is about the data, rather than the other way around.  When this occurs, bad maps happen.  In an army hygiene film sort of way (“Men – don’t let this happen to you!”), allow me to demonstrate:

This hideous monstrosity is not something I cooked up just to make a point.  It’s a detail of a real map a company actually paid a GIS firm to produce.  It’s so damn ugly it’s almost beautiful.

Simple is good.  I cannot stress that enough.

I’m not entirely clear on the details of Drew’s book (I haven’t read it yet), but I know it has a lot to do with 17th- and 18th-century New England, specifically in regard to English settlements and Native ‘Praying Towns’ therein.  I know this because he needed me to produce maps that depicted these things (a lot of e-commerce has bounced back and forth between here and Texas as of late.  That’s right – Texas.  Poor Drew and his family are Liberals In Exile).

Luckily, the sort of maps Drew wanted are the sort I like to make.  Maps of landscapes.  Coming to GIS through archaeology and history, I’m particularly drawn to maps that depict things as they are (or were) on the ground.  It may (but probably won’t) surprise you to know that maps do not always depict a physical landscape.  This is as it should be – not all maps are trying to convey physical information (such as maps of the internet or mind maps), while others only loosely refer to actual geography (like the annoying red/blue maps we Americans are stuffed into every four years or the iconic London Tube map).  Personally, I’m most comfortable when dealing with the actual face of the planet.

Drew wanted maps of two specific landscapes: one of the Boston/Cape Cod/Rhode Island area (Map 1) and one of the eastern New York/western Massachusetts and Connecticut area (Map 2).  The only restrictions being that the maps needed to be black and white (greyscale, technically), and they had to be easily readable at a size typical of a scholarly work (let’s say 8” x 6”).  I approached them the same way I approach any area I want to map.  I first looked for the Big Reality.

Every location has the Big Reality.  It is the single enormity that pervades life in a specific location.  The Big Reality is often a geographic feature of some sort (a volcano, a river, a mountain range, a desert, an ocean), but oft-times is of a different nature (making paper, the hostile neighbor to the south, winter, tourism, growing corn, jazz).  Every place has the Big Reality, though (some have more than one).  It is huge, and it affects almost all aspects of life, but usually not overwhelmingly so.  Generally the Big Reality runs in the background, as it were.

Living in close proximity to both areas (as well as having gotten a degree in history from a New England university) made determining the Big Realties for both maps a cakewalk.  For Map 1, the ocean.  Map 2, the mountains.

The problem with the Big Reality is that it can be rather tricky to map (this is especially true if the Big Reality is less tangible than a geographical feature).  It needs to be pervasive but not overwhelming.  Unmistakably present, but not hitting you over the head with its presence.  In a word, the Big Reality should be the background.  In Map 1, this was achieved with a simple drop shadow.  In Map 2 with a slight bump.  It pays to spend a lot of time thinking about a map before you begin to actually produce it.

Both maps needed clear distinctions between British settlements and Native ones.  The looming pitfall here was the lure to overdo it.  We often underestimate the human brain’s ability to notice subtle differences.  For Drew’s maps, I made the distinctions through slightly different symbology and separate fonts.

Which brings me to another point I cannot stress enough:  choose your fonts with care.

For these maps, I used two fonts – one for the English settlements and one for the Native settlements.  For the English settlements I chose a font I use often: Souvenir.  Souvenir has a few things going for it – it’s clean, it’s easy to read and (important for these maps) it has serifs.  In this case Souvenir has an added bonus that caused me to use it for the titles and other miscellany.  It is a font used regularly by the U.S. Geological Survey on their quadrangle maps.  Because of this, when many Americans see this font they automatically think ‘map’.  Also, it serves to lend a certain air of legitimacy to a map, which never hurts.

The second font I used to label Native settlements and spheres of influence.  To make a clear distinction from the British settlements, I wanted a font without serifs (sans-serif).  I also wanted a font that was more organic/natural looking.

A quick aside – many white people have funny ideas about Native American peoples (or any other aboriginal group, for that matter).  There is this tendency to think of them as Tolkein’s Wood Elves – living in an idyllic state, completely in tune with the natural world around them, at peace with all living things.

Crap.  This way of thinking presumes the existence of the ‘Noble Savage’, which is, in fact, a myth.  The truth is that Native Americans were and are human beings, and you know perfectly well that humans tend to be annoying, stupid and downright mean.  Put another way, there is absolutely nothing, then or now, stopping any particular Native from being an asshole.  In fact, if you compiled a list of the meanest people in human history, the Mohawks would clock in pretty high on it.

However, the simple truth is that most Native groups at the time lived considerably ‘greener’ lives than their European contemporaries.  Even more important – they did so by design.  In general, Native American peoples did not view the natural world as something that needed to be beaten into submission.

What I was really looking for was a font that would appear more as a part of the landscape than stamped over it.  Something rounder and smoother.  There are a ridiculous number of fonts to choose from, but my decision became easy when I stumbled across a font called Pigiarniq.  It’s a font adopted by the Government of Nunavut that allows for all of their spoken languages to be represented uniformly.  This isn’t the only Native font out there, but it’s the only one I’ve seen that includes English characters.

Yes – pretty much any clean, sans-serif font would have gotten the job done.  But using Pigiarniq has style.  Don’t underestimate it.

Giving the Native labels a ‘natural’ feel was enhanced on Map 2 due to the added bump.  By adding the labels before applying the bump, it gives the labels a subtle appearance of being ‘draped’ over the landscape, as opposed to the British labels which were applied flat after the fact.

At the end of the day, I have to say I’m pretty happy with the way these maps turned out.  Drew is very happy, which is even more important.  Here’s a detail from each:


Appendix: The nuts and bolts (for any of you who care):

The data used for these maps came mostly from just a few sources – MassGIS, USGS and Google Earth (because I am who I am, I endeavored to place the English settlements in as historically accurate a manner as possible.  The easiest way to do this was to locate the town hall, town common, or original church.  Searching for a town hall, though, often gets you directed to a structure that was built in the 1990s.  I got around this by using Street View in Google Earth to get a look at the building in question.  In New England, it’s a pretty simple matter to identify the structure that’s three or four centuries old [I told you I found a use for Street View, Bill]).  Other data came out of Drew’s brain, based on extensive research.  I filled in a gap or two myself.  The projection used was NAD83 Stateplane.  Software used was QuantumGIS, Bryce and Photoshop.  No British or Native American settlements were harmed in the making of these maps.

Beer On May 1st 1980, a group of my friends and I attended an anniversary party.  Actually, I suppose I should say ‘attempted to attend’, because we arrived early and there were, as yet, no festivities.  Being young and easily bored, we cast about for something else to do.  Someone (I don’t recall who) suggested we all go to a nearby abandoned quarry for some swimming and rock climbing.  It seemed like such a great idea at the time.

Upon our arrival at said quarry, I cast my gaze upon a 100-foot sheer cliff face, a remnant of mining operations past.  Without a thought or concern (hell – I was 16 years old, for chrissake) I strode up to the wall and began my ascent.

Everything proceeded beautifully until I reached a point about 30 feet up the cliff.  As I looked about me, searching for the next handhold, my friend Jason shouted to me from behind and below.

“Don’t go up that way, Terry,” Jason admonished.  “You can’t make it to the top that way.  You need to go up where Dion [another friend, scaling the cliff 25 feet to my right] is.”

My response to this was elegant in its simplicity:  “Fuck you, Jason,” I yelled over my shoulder, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

And then I fell off the cliff.  30 feet onto solid rock.

Much craziness ensued.  Dion ran barefoot more than a mile to summon help.  All my friends got soaked to the chest helping the emergency personnel transport my stretcher across a raging river.  My mother was summoned to the hospital on the second try (the first try was Jason, who called at my request.  My mother failed to answer the phone because she had grown tired of answering the damn thing that particular evening.  Jason let it ring for so long, though, that when a nurse called back, mom felt guilty enough to answer).  I was x-rayed almost unto glowing.  End result?  A broken and dislocated wrist, and multiple contusions and abrasions.

And May 1st officially became Fuck You Jason Day.  It’s my favorite holiday of the year, and I celebrate it without fail.  Traditionally, celebration of Fuck You Jason Day took the form of calling Jason on May 1st – preferably at 2 am, necessarily collect – just to say ‘Fuck you, Jason.’  This is the way in which I celebrated the holiday for the first 15 years of its existence.

But then, in 1995, Jason died, making it impossible for me to call him, collect or otherwise.  Cancer came for him, first showing itself in his lungs, eventually invading the entirety of his body.  It pretty much ate him alive, and believe me, boys and girls – cancer is evil, evil, evil.

Let me tell you a little about Jason.  I used to call him ‘tall, fuzzy and ugly’, and he was all those things.  And yet, he was constantly surrounded by stunningly beautiful women.  Just one more damn thing I’ll never understand about women, I guess.

Despite the many attempts to canonize Jason post-mortem, saintliness was never anywhere near him.  He was obnoxious and belligerent, and I loved him like a brother.  He was stubborn and opinionated, and he was just about the best friend you could ever ask for.  More than once I have insisted that he was actually a comic book character.

I remember a night in the early eighties when Jason and I went to a local bar.  We were disinclined to pay the cover charge that night, so we endeavored to sneak into the place.  The bouncer caught us and promptly kicked us to the curb.  Not to be outdone, Jason and I walked around to the back door of the bar and quickly snuck our way in.

The bouncer who had initially booted us noticed our unauthorized presence and immediately escorted us back to the door.  At said door, I insisted on finishing the beer I had purchased, a decision the bouncer reacted to by attempting to wrest the beer from my grip.  There was a brief struggle that ended with the mug of beer falling (I swear I remember it in slow motion) to the ground and shattering spectacularly.  The bouncer and I shouted at each other for a few minutes, after which he threatened to call the police, a threat that Jason and I met with the kind of disdain that can only be achieved by a couple of 18-year-olds who have never really had to pay for their own mistakes.

So while the bouncer returned to the bar to call the authorities, Jason and I wandered into the parking lot and sat upon a stranger’s car while we awaited the arrival of our (alleged) doom.

It only took a few minutes.  A police car came screaming down the street and turned into the parking lot, tires squealing.  It pulled up alongside the car we were sitting on, and a police officer threw open the door and leapt from the car.

Jason jumped to the ground.  “They saw you coming,” he exclaimed, pointing westward, “They took off that way!”

The police officer said “Thanks!”, leapt back into his car, and drove off.

I stared at Jason in dumbfounded admiration for a moment, then joined him as he fled the scene.

That was the kind of guy Jason was.  He could actually pull shit like that off.

So I’m missing Jason a little more than usual – thinking about him a little more than usual – because it’s that time of year.  Tomorrow is Fuck You Jason Day, and I will celebrate in the fashion I have done so since Jason died:  I will go to the cemetery and drink a beer (or two) with my favorite dead guy.  And I will be careful to pour the backwash upon his grave.  It’s only fitting.  I know some people think it’s a little odd, but I don’t really care.  I haven’t stopped loving Jason just because he died.  Our friendship endures.  And it’s the kind of friendship that gets the joke.

And so I wish you all a most pleasant May Day.  I know at least two couples who were married on the day, and I wish them a most sincere Happy Anniversary.  For me, though, May 1st will always be Fuck You Jason Day, and it will be a personal holiday that belongs to my dead buddy Jason.  So there’s really only one good salutation:

Fuck You, Jason.



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