Nature diary > Maps and the hidden landscape


One of the joys of living in my town is the large number of open spaces preserved from development. The thirty-odd parcels of town conservation land are old farms, wetlands, or other abandoned properties. While they are hardly wilderness - there are houses at the perimeters - they have gone wild. Fields are in the early stages of succession, grown over with aspen and sumac, on their way to growing into mature woods like those nearby.

One odd thing about these meadows and woods is how they have disappeared from the map and from most resident's awareness. Most maps show streets; the open spaces are just holes in between streets. In the map on the left, the void between the streets at the center is the biggest tract of conservation land in town, Dunback Meadow, some 200 acres or more in size. To be fair, some maps of my town show Dunback as a green area. When you actually go to Dunback Meadow, you begin to see how much more is missing. A stream runs on a diagonal through the full length of the tract, and the "meadow" is a mixture of mature pine woods, marshy fields, and mixed hardwood forest. A topographical map is a big improvement.

Once you see a topographical map, the hidden landscape begins to emerge. You see the brook, hills, and some, but not all of the marshes. Bacon Street turns out to be not some busy residential street but a road leading out to single house in the middle of the meadow. Our streets cut through the hidden landscape of water, hill, and woods. Sometimes the street maps show water, but never the network of connected waterways shown (but still obscured) in the topographical map. Even the topographical map doesn't give the common name for the stream, Clematis Brook. As a result, it's hard to connect the topographical map with historical descriptions of the area.

Recently I spent a fruitless hour or two trying to locate a fairly famous quaking bog in Concord known from Thoreau's journals. Sometimes called Thoreau's bog, sometimes called Gowing's swamp, I can't find it by name on any number of maps. It is a part of the landscape that remains hidden.

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