Monday, June 07, 2004

Up North

DW Griffith’s Way Down East used to unsettle me. It is a beautiful film–Richard Bartholmess running across the breaking winter ice to save Lilian Gish is breathtaking. The title never made sense to me–going down or going east, neither word accurately describing moving into this frigid climate. When I first saw the film I was still living in LA–the concept of Maine being “way down east” made little sense in my Pacific worldview.


Atlantic Coast as seen by Joannes Jansson

What did not occur to me is that people interpret geography through their level of geographic experiences. Students of Roman history are always confused when they are told that the province of Lower Rhine was north of Upper Rhine. When one thinks about it, the level of the Rhine is obviously higher in the south where it is nearer to its source, lower in the north where it is nearer to the ocean. Going down the Rhine means a northward journey, going up a southward journey.

The confusion between north and south, up and down has some roots. One German scholar of English, Franz Stanzel, was disturbed by American travelers who would go up the Rhine from Switzerland to Cologne–a downhill journey from the Alps to the Lower Rhine Plain. When he informed the Americans of their error, they quickly and easily switched usage. The question that he pondered is whether the relationships between north/south and up/down was a reflection of what they expected geographically. The Mississippi flows north to south, and it is obviously what it means to go down the Mississippi. Looking at a map, it is easy to extrapolate those directions onto any north-south river.

The relationship between up and down is not simply a matter of how the rivers flow–large American rivers generally flow south, although the St. Lawrence goes north as well as east. It is also a matter of elevation. Most American mountain ranges run north south, meaning that east and west could equally (perhaps even more accurately) describe up and down. The political division between north and south is problematic–more of America is west of the South than north. Oddly, the interior conceptualization of the “South-west” as “El Norte” persists–perhaps as a means of designating a peripheral badlands.

But the notion of north and up transcend the American experience, nor was it always present. The traditional Chinese view was one dominated by its relationship with the sea–up and south were synonymous. Even the traditional view of Europe was southward–toward the Mediterranean, where all the valuable commerce flowed. Perhaps even more than looking south, the ancient Mediterranean civilization looked east and west, seeing the sea as a long road. The perspective of Europeans changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Atlantic trade became more important and London and Amsterdam were the “centers of the world” (most important points in the early modern urban network). As it became more important to move goods to Atlantic ports, ‘north’ became more prominent in the European mentality. Other north-south divisions reinforced this thinking: Latin versus Germanic, Catholic versus Protestant, commercial versus agricultural. Even subaltern sets itself off against north.

The north-south perspective in which north dominated probably originated with Gerhard Mercator himself, the Flemish geographer whose projection method allowed for models of the world that were more whole and more useful. By making the meridians parallel to one another, navigation was made simpler. But doing so exaggerated the area of lands that were more distant from the equator, and more of that land was present in the more northern latitudes. It appeared that Europe was physically larger than in reality in global representations. But Mercator also placed Iberia and Europe in the center, reflecting the growing power of Portugal and Spain. Considering the Mercator projection helped navigation, maps of the world could have been centered more on the oceans rather than on land. The tradition of seeing north as dominant was carried on as other northern powers fought for and achieved empire.

Still today maps pay greater attention to the lilliputian European states and the empty American spaces rather than to countries like China, India and Indonesia which are both populous and vast. Arno Peters, the maker of the anatomically-correct (yes, I know what it really means) projection, says that the north-up perspective is not being preserved merely for reasons of empire:
[M]ore recent global maps which abandoned important qualities of Mercator's map, thus mitigating distortion of area. [T]hese maps that have contributed to a survival of our Europe-dominated view of the world were not untenable because of a failure of exactitude; rather, they lacked just one quality: equal representation of space.
Mercator's map is superior to more recent maps not only because of its vertical representation of the North-South direction (fidelity of axis) and its! realistic representation of climatic position (fidelity of position). It is superior also for esthetic reasons: because of its proportions that approach the dimensions of the Golden Section, and because of its beautiful and dear cartographic representation.

The defining of the North also occurred between European powers fighting over empire. Peter Stuyvesant turned to cartography as a means of defending the claims of the United Provinces in the New World against the English. The best maps of the seventeenth century were produced in Netherlands, and the maps that they made of the Northeast were still in use in the eighteenth century. Stuyvesant used the maps to place the Dutch imprint on as much of the New World as possible. The Dutch cartographers placed their colonies in New Netherland at the center of the New World, putting the more prosperous English colonies “in the south.” The maps were powerful tools of diplomacy, but the Dutch were edged out by the strength of the English presence. However, the English were at pains to ignore Dutch cartography–they erased the Dutch names, but had to rely on the maps themselves in order to produce their own.

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