Mental Maps

Mental Maps, not mind maps. Mind maps are something different.

Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City, says, “A mental map is just your own personal geography of the city and all of its personal and emotional attachments.”

In other words, we carry a picture of the city in our heads. It’s our own map, one we create as we live in it. It includes, not just places and their relationships to one another, but also memories and stories attached to those places. My mental map will be similar to the mental maps of other people, but none of us has exactly the same map.

I see occasional human-interest pieces about mental maps, but not very often and nothing very extensive. This is the stuff of oral history. Has to be. Shouldn’t we be seeing it all around?

I think about the places I’ve lived: Farson, Logan, Mantua, Las Vegas, on and on. There’s a whole list. I have zillions of memories and hundreds, maybe thousands, of little stories. I love to reminisce. I remember “things”. When I’m dead, most of those stories will die with me.

How cool would it be if there was a regular structure to exploration. Not so much documenting history, although as an historian, I’m all in favor. More like personal growth.

I predict someone in the New Age community or Self Help Community, maybe someone on YouTube, will come up with a program for personal and spiritual growth by exploring personal journeys through local places, past, present, and future. Maybe it will be something like creating a vision board. And it will go viral.

So obvious, it’s gotta happen.

City States in America

The Ancient World had city states. Sometimes they became empires. And then when the empires collapsed they sometimes became nations. (Although–the modern ethnic nation state is more or less a late European invention.)

When I was a kid, I used to imagine, particularly on car trips, that the cities around me were like ancient city states. I would spend time looking for geographic features that would make good natural, defensible boundaries. Sometimes I’d even think about crops and natural resources, but that usually got boring quickly because there just isn’t much variety in the American West, where we lived.

I could never make up my mind whether Grand Junction would be part of Denver, part of Salt Lake, or be far enough away to be its own city state, albeit smaller and weaker than the other two. Spoiler alert: I never imagined it would be part of the “Albuquerque Plateau”.

Now, I’m loving a map that draws on the same basic idea, although sadly without the romantic trappings.

This map shows a United States composed of metropolitan areas and the surrounding areas tied to them by commuting. I’m not going to embed the map here. Go see it for yourself.

Nifty eh?

"Essentially, they used data describing more than 4 million commutes to look at how small units of place—census tracts—are connected into much larger units of place. One of the results from their algorithm is the map above, which shows how the country is divided into economically entwined regions that don’t conform to city or state boundaries. Pittsburgh’s region spills into Ohio and West Virginia; Denver’s tips over the border into Wyoming; and Oklahoma City’s reaches into Missouri and Arkansas."

I’ve spent nearly my entire life in the areas Nelson and Rae call Salt Lake City, Albuquerque Plateau, and Denver Front Range, with time here and there in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City.

My past wasn’t so simple in reality. It’s the abstract categories that make it so. And, as I look at the the map, and see the organic rightness of it, I also think to myself I typically use different categories—sometimes east and west of the Continental Divide; other times Colorado River Basin, Great Basin, and Missouri River Basin; sometimes the Colorado Plateau, the Intermountain West and / or the Zion Curtain*.

It’s worth remembering these different schemes are just human ideas imposed on the landscape. They don’t have any reality in the landscape itself.

* Zion Curtain. A supposed cultural boundary separating Mormons, or the state of Utah, as a region dominated by Mormons, from the rest of the country. (Dictionary of American Regional English)

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Updated May 24, 2020 to resolve problem with link to definition of Zion Curtain.

Scotland’s regional DNA

I’m still getting used to the new-ish research that shows ancient European populations were largely replaced by later invasions, but the most recent invasions (like the Anglo-Saxons in England) didn’t really replace the local population like we always thought they did. It takes a degree of mental agility to keep up.

Now there’s some DNA news to comfort my conservative soul. “Experts have constructed Scotland’s first comprehensive genetic map, which reveals that the country is divided into six main clusters of genetically similar individuals: the Borders, the south-west, the north-east, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

“These groupings are in similar locations to early medieval kingdoms such as Strathclyde in the south-west, Pictland in the north-east, and Gododdin in the south-east. The study also discovered that some of the founders of Iceland may have originated from north-west Scotland and Ireland and that the Isle of Man is genetically predominantly Scottish.”

You can read the full article at, or take a look at the underlying study at PNAS. Either way, the part that amazes and pleases me is not just the evidence of regional continuity but the fact that the evidence comes from DNA.

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Scottish Witch Map

Here’s something to fire the imagination of genealogists in Britain and its diaspora. A map of some 3000 witches in 16th and 17th centuries Scotland. Who doesn’t have (or wish for) a Scottish witch in the family tree?

It builds on the university’s breakthrough work on the Scottish Witchcraft Survey which brought to life the persecution of women during the period, with many burned at the stake or drowned.

There is a very strong feeling out there that not enough has been done to inform people about the women who were accused of being witches in Scotland There is still this Halloween concept surrounding them.

World’s Genepools

DNA mapping is giving us a new look at how the past lingers in the present.

Now, for the first time, scientists have mapped the DNA of 95 different populations to see if they can paint a clearer picture of major historical events.

This incredible interactive map looks at the mixing of genes in major populations in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America spanning over the last four millennia.