Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Unnamed lands

No reason you should know this, but I'm a nut for cartography. If you have a look at the About me page on my website, you'll see me with my nose in a book: it's a beautiful volume called Mapping Boston.

But being a writer, a particular fascination for me about mapping is the naming of places and features. If you don't already know this, you may be startled by just how much rage is stirred up by toponyms: there are several places in America called "Squaw Tits", for example, and somewhere in the States there's a "Nigger Point". My first reaction is to change them, but if you erase them, aren't you sanitising history? And if you don't, aren't you perpetuating the offense? That's my ideal drama: two opposing sides, both deeply felt and both rousing anger, but both sides right and both wrong.

I've learnt today about an almost opposite thing: a place that has no name. It doesn't sound possible, does it? You think of the world as having been thoroughly and completely explored, named, practically settled. (Incidentally, the UK is the most-mapped region of the globe, seriously. And of course it was started for military reasons; why don't we twig the reason it's called Ordnance Survey?).

But imagine a place with no name. You'd want to name it, wouldn't you? And pretty quick. So, yep, one of the current issues being debated by the US Board on Geographic Names is what to call a stream in Washington state. I'd tell you where it is but I can't find it, it doesn't have a name.

It will. I just can't decide whether this is good silly or bad silly: it's likely to be called Lambee Creek - "in honour of a nearby resident's 12-year-old cat, Lambee".

Quote from USA Today.


1 comment:

steve said...

I believe historical reference points should not be sanitized. Further, I know of at least one location known as "Nigger Point" and think it a logical name for a place a black man settled in the 1830's in Iowa territory. The venacular of the times suggest this is a perfectly legitimate name and certainly draws attention to the uncommonly early settlement of Iowa as being open to all. Unfortunately the Territorial legislature, like many northern states in the east, began writing "black laws" attempting to make it impossible for people of color to live here. Maybe that is why we don't know who the person was who first settled this locality and the only thing that draws our attention to the fact he was even here is this seemingly awful name for a small cemetery located on land he settled. Iowa has history that rolls like the landscape. We are for things and then against things, black history in Iowa is peppered with inconsistances, some progressive and other times hopelessly regressive. The very first court case in Iowa was the case of "Ralph" a slave who was going to be taken back to his master since he failed to fulfill his obligation to pay for his freedom out of the proceeds of his mining activity in the lead mines around Dubuque. Iowan's took up Ralphs cause and stopped his return to slavery based on Iowa was a free territory and once here, you were considered free. Slavery was not recognized here. Later, another former Iowan would have his case overturned by the Supreme Court based somewhat on the case of "Ralph", his case is much more well known, it is the "Dred Scott" decision that sent slave hunters into free states looking for former slaves and allowed them to be dragged back into bondage. Keeping even a small bit of this old history alive is encouraging, if it takes the use of an 1830's term to get peoples attention and make them look into the history of that area, so much the better. Sometimes sensibilities need to be knocked about in order to keep important memories alive. History is way to important to be cleaned up. it needs all its components to be useful, including its warts.