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Maps have always captivated me. When I was eight years old, my dad gave me a topographic sheet of somewhere in Eastern Europe. It depicted every power pole in the landscape. He said it had been used by American pilots in the Second World War. The paper square mesmerized me, every time I looked at it. I have owned and used many maps since. As an anthropologist I have also become acutely aware that not all people feel about maps in the same ways. For many the colonial imposition of new names and borders marked by maps has been an extremely oppressive experience. But today I want to talk about some of the more liberating and positive aspects of cartography.
In her most recent book, “Nomadic Pastoralism among the Mongol Herders: Multispecies and Spatial Ethnography in Mongolia and Transbaikalia” my friend and colleague, Charlotte Marchina at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, provides an excellent example of how we can combine satellite tracking technology (or GPS), digital mapping, and ethnography to learn an awful lot about how land, animals, and people collaborate on a daily basis. By equipping select herd animals with satellite trackers, Marchina was able to form for herself a better Image of how local herders envision the landscape they inhabit with their stock.
For a long time now, academia has been divided into the sciences and the humanities. In crude terms, this divide polarizes researchers into two camps: The materialist camp (the scientists) who believe that our actions in the world are determined by the material reality that surrounds us, and the idealist camp (the philosophers) who hold that our actions are largely the outcome of ideas in our heads. In actuality, the lines between these two camps are of course more blurred. But Marchina’s maps provide a way to transcend this divide. Her colourful lines track the actions of animals and of people, as they jointly move through a landscape packed with both ideas and materials.
When I say “a landscape packed with ideas,” I mean the herders’ multigenerational knowledge of spirit entities that reside in specific locations of the landscape. Some of these are benevolent and must be visited out of reverence, while others are potentially dangerous and should be left in peace. These “ideas” are not just pretty old tales. They actually co-direct the actions of herders and stock in the physical landscape. They have a tangible effect on how and where grasses regenerate, which is measurable not only through the stories told by herders, but also through Marchina’s GPS data. The herders have known this all along, but the anthropologist is hugely aided in her visualization of herders’s accounts by her satellite logs.
It gets really interesting, though, once we take into account the role of time and change. How can satellite imagery and tracking help us visualize human and animal adaptive capacity (in part by way of changing ideas), following political, economic, and environmental or climate change? Marchina’s maps show us how different herders and their stock respond to different changes in shared landscapes. But what fascinates me most is how the maps are able to show us how different species make use of different styles of movement in the landscape. Once we understand species-specific movement styles, we can then study how different species can (or cannot) work together to adapt to external changes.
Taken together, Marchina’s mix of satellite tracking, digital mapping, and careful ethnographic observation is a hugely promising example of how environmental anthropology can help us prepare for what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls ‘life in capitalist ruins’. Now is the time learn the rhythms and needs of all living beings—not to lock them away more efficiently, or to better control or exploit them, but in order to figure out ways of sustainably living together in a shared world. Marchina’s Mongolian maps invite us into a lively and promising discussion at a shared fire between the camp of scientists and the camp of philosophers. That’s rare enough and it deserves our attention.