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October 13, 2003

Finding the Way

Columbus had maps, of course; it’s just that his maps didn’t accurately depict the territory he was sailing into. He thought he’d reached the “Indian sea.” Which is to say, his preconceptions compromised his capacity for surprise. Discovery is what’s left once misinterpretation is sorted out.

The names of places are important. Calling America the Indies did not make it so, but tracing our winding path of misnomer, appropriation of native terms, nostalgic invocations of the Old World, and visionary evocation of a new one, may lead us to a better understanding of where we are and how we got here.

But to be really useful, a map must also show us how to get where we want to go. The rub is in the “want”; it’s harder to put a name upon desire than on a hill or stream, though the names we choose for the places in our lives may tell us much about our desires. A reasonably accurate depiction of the field, and thereby a display of possibility, is about as much as we can reasonably ask of any map.
Beyond the edges there may be dragons.

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In taking the occasion of Columbus Day to present a map of the Park’s North End, I’m responding mostly to inquiries from the birding community. Reporting sightings from the less-familiar North End, my use of traditional nomenclature, (even more than idiosyncratic coinages,) has occasionally led to confusion as to just where I’m actually talking about. I’m used to being told I don’t know what I’m talking about, but where is another matter. I don’t mean to be willfully obscure, and in my defense I would say my concern is analogous to the effort made by Roger Tory Peterson and others in the mid-twentieth century to restore the traditional names of the American raptors. Just as I’d rather see a Kestrel than a “sparrow-hawk”, I’d prefer to see it perched on the Mount, rather than “at the dump” or “the compost”.

In fact, most of what I know about the Park’s nomenclature can be found on readily available maps. The Greensward Map is the best, including all the original names applied by designers Olmstead and Vaux, as well as providing elevations and historical features.
This map from New York Focus, with annotated links, is also useful.

My map is a bit simpler, but it does include some of the non-traditional names used by birders. These are ad hoc coinages, subject to the vagaries of usage, developed by various North End birders, or else just whims of mine. Many spots remain nameless; you may invent your own appelations. Invention aside, the map remains less fantastic than the one in The Lord of the Rings, though it may also be less sophisticated than the one in Winnie the Pooh. At least it is more accurate than what Columbus had. I only hope it has as much power as any of those to open up a space where imagination and actuality can intersect in an arena of unknown potential.

Map of Central Park north of 100th Street, with a few notes.

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