The Mentally Healthy Geographer (May – June 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Steve Weathers
May – June, 1996

I’m perhaps closer than ever before to pinpointing exactly what constitutes mental health in a geographer. And the most recent clue came from an unexpected source—a painting.

Recently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington hosted an exhibition of 21 paintings by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist. I became interested and bought a copy of Smithsonian, which was running a rich photo spread on the show. Interestingly, one of the works reproduced was titled The Geographer.

In the painting, Vermeer depicts a scholar bent at the waist over an open chart. But he has captured his geographer at a strategic moment—the moment when the cartographer’s compass has been lifted from the paper and now lies limp in the man’s hand, the moment when his eyes have risen and drifted from the artist’s representation before him. At the very moment when, with thought-tilted head and a vacuous stare, the geographer seems to have apprehended with his inner eye the reality beyond the map.

Studying the picture, I couldn’t help but reflect on that knotty question I’d been struggling to answer: What constitutes mental health in the geographic profession? Vermeer’s painting spoke clearly: A geographer is at the peak of mental health, his inner life absolutely robust, at the very moment when the map to which he’s devoted such time and attention no longer satisfies. At the moment when he looks past the two-dimensional representation to the reality beyond.

The painting spoke again. A map, Vermeer seemed to say, has performed one of its highest functions when it cultivates within us, not an appetite for more map reading—for more longitude and tatitude, for more color-coded countries, for more topographical symbols—but when it cultivates within us an appetite for that exotic, tropical, spice-laden land only inadequately depicted in the cartographer’s chart.

The painting spoke much-needed truth. Because we’ve all known geographers, I suspect, whose mental health was … well, questionable.

We’ve all known geographers who seemed so enamored of map reading itself—the technical thrill of tracing clean straight lines to their discrete point of convergence; the intellectual mastery one feels when he’s committed all mountain and river systems to memory; the subtle and delicious pride one feels in knowing, “Whoever else may be lost, I possess the sure coordinates to my position and a foolproof course to my destination!”—we’ve all known geographers so enamored of the mere act of map reading itself that they showed no serious desire to travel. They never seemed to lift their eyes from the chart to stare with heartsick longing at something the map could never do justice to.

From appearances at least, geography had become an end in itself for these unhealthy individuals: an arena for demonstrating one’s technical expertise, a stage upon which to display one’s intellectual prowess, or—worse still-the basis of a subtle supercilious disdain for less accomplished practitioners of the trade. But Vermeer’s painting said it’s when those things don’t matter anymore, it’s when the map reader’s eyes have drifted dreamily to the window, that we’re witnessing the apex of the geographical experience.

Let’s guard against a misunderstanding. There’s nothing wrong or abnormal about loving a map. On the contrary, it’s natural, isn’t it? When you’ve fallen in love with a foreign country or some distant city and yet you know that you’ll likely never get to visit it—no, not in this life—it’s natural to fall in love with the map as a surrogate of sorts.

There’s a charming anecdote told about Branwell Bronte, the lesser known brother of those famous sisters responsible for so many Victorian novels. Like his sisters, Branwell was brought up on the bleak moors of Yorkshire. But at an early age he fell in love with London, that distant city of light and life. He consumed travel literature on London. He devoured maps. He memorized street names. And he lived between doubt and hope that one day he’d actually set foot in the unseen metropolis.

The story is told of a Londoner who stopped overnight in Haworth, the rural Yorkshire village in which the Brontes lived, and of the local tavern keeper who immediately sent for Branwell. A cosmopolitan visitor, the taverner felt, would expect refined table talk, and Branwell was the only male in the village well-read and well-cultivated enough to provide it. So a runner was dispatched, Branwell summoned, and the boy sat with the visitor to provide dinner conversation. In the course of their talk Bronte spoke of London fashions, amusements, points of interest, short-cuts—displaying, in effect, a thorough familiarity with all things Londonish. It was only at the conclusion of his meal that the astonished visitor discovered that this youth had never actually been to the city—that all of his knowledge was derived from reading.

Such knowledge is not to be despised. There’s something natural and laudable and even beautiful in the devotion one feels to a map when he knows that, more than likely—not in this life—he’ll never set foot in that distant city of his dreams.

Another misunderstanding must be avoided. It’s not surprising in the least that a person should come to reverence a map, the physical artifact itself, when that map has rescued him from dangerous disorientation.

If you’ve ever taken a wrong exit ramp off the interstate in a strange city at night and found yourself in what was obviously “the wrong part of town,” you know how it feels to snatch up the road atlas and flip desperately to the appropriate page. And if there (praised be Rand and McNally!) you discover an enlarged street grid of the very neighborhood you’re lost in—almost as if the cartographers knew how easy it is to be fooled by that wrong exit, almost as if they knew how serious it is for a naïve tourist to stray into this area, almost as if they’d somehow anticipated your personal ostness and fear—you know how natural it is to drop that road atlas by a bookbindery and pick it up two weeks later, now covered in tasteful calfskin, a silk ribbon sewn into the spine, the pages gilded and thumb-indexed, your name now monogrammed in gold in the lower right-hand corner.

Who could blame such a response? There’s something natural and laudable and, yes, beautiful in treating the source of one’s rescue with due reverence.

But a map is a map.

Its beauty and inspired artistry may tempt us to make it a wall hanging. Its vision and uncanny accuracy may prompt us to decorate it in reverential awe. But a map is, ultimately, a map. And maps are made for travelers.

So a map lover had best ask himself on occasion—preferably in the quiet of his study, far from the headiness of the geographers’ annual conventions—if he’s in earnest about traveling. He’d do well to ask himself regularly, in fact, “If I had my choice today, would I gladly fold the cartographer’s compass, push aside the parchment, drape the globe, and go there?”Wineskins Magazine

Steve Weathers

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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