psychocartography 1

I once heard about a study that had concluded that men and women navigate in significantly different ways. Men, the study said, are more grid-type navigators, and, especially in an urban setting, will pay the most attention to street signs and house numbers. Women, on the other hand, are said to navigate mostly by landmarks.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but as a female I can verify that I do navigate mostly by landmarks. For instance, rather than say that house number “so and so” is at the corner of “this” and “that” street, I will describe the place I am going in this way: Its the red building with the birch tree in the front yard that has the peeling bark and the concrete gnome on the porch.  This has its benefits—I am more aware of my surroundings, in many ways. But it also has its detractions. For example, I had a friend who lived in one of those suburbia townhouse developments where every house really does look the same. I found her house by seeing the ceramic plaque next to the front door that recommends a person remove their shoes before entering. One day that plaque had apparently fallen off and shattered and she had set the pieces to the side of the porch. I couldn’t see that from the street, however, and I was completely lost. I had to go home and get my paper address book and actually look up the house number (I was too embarassed to call).

With this in mind I made the psychocartographic leaf map you see in the above picture. This map (made with a leaf I found on the longest depicted street) is all about where I urban forage for hawthorn berries and rosehips every fall. Looking at it now, I know the name of that longest street—but I can’t remember the names of the two other streets. However, I know exactly where I get each thing, which bushes are easiest to pick, which are in the cleanest areas, which have the best tasting berries.  The map is not to scale, does not contain street names or accurate distances, does not even show the buildings that are on the street, yet this is the thing that is in my mind when I navigate to forage for my fall gatherings.

This doesn’t mean I can’t use conventional maps. It just means that my brain, or my psyche, prefers that I steer by landmark. I am not against conventional maps (I have lots) nor do I think people, men or women, who primarily navigate in a grid-type way are inferior somehow.  I do believe, however, that landmark navigators are possibly more engaged in the character, even the spiritus, of any given place.


One thought on “Psychocartography

  1. Dver says:

    I think I do a little of each. In the woods, of course, one must go entirely by landmark, and I am very comfortable with that. But my father was in the map industry and I grew up surrounded by maps and also became comfortable navigating in that manner, and I do like knowing the names of streets and whatnot (also helpful in giving someone else directions). Still, I agree with you – paying attention to landmarks rather than words and numbers is a more embodied way of interacting with one’s environment.


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