Looking for the Local in the Age of Unilever

The branding of Ben & Jerry’s “Home-Made” ice cream exploited Vermont’s appreciation of its local dairy farms from its very start:  the image of the green grasses that fed Vermont cows and independent farmers helped promote the home-grown qualities of what once passed as artisanal ice cream in America–as much as its super-premium swirled chunks.  But fears that the famously reputedly socially-conscious manufacturer of ice cream might lose track of its local origins as it was distributed by the Unilever ice-cream Anglo-Dutch conglomerate seem to have been borne out by the shifting relation of the brand to space, to judge by the relation of the ice-cream maker that long trumpeted its specific geographic origins to the farms that lie in its back yard.

What are the costs at which the Vermont ice-cream maker that  cast its use of local dairy–before the allegedly Scandinavian recipe of Haagen Dasz–as a defense of the home-made forsaken its ties to the very state that it once announced as its  home?  While long known for paying premium prices to Vermont dairy farmers, as well as for its super-premium ice cream, recent questions about the company’s treatment of migrant workers may lift a corner on some deep transformations of its ethos.  Despite the celebrated smoothness with which the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate fielded a CEO to the guys who marked “Imagine Whirled Peace,” and spun other up-beat slogans into their wares with the abandon of clusters of chocolate-covered caramels and toffee while donating percentages their pre-tax profits, the transition of the ice-cream maker’s identity may have been far less smooth.

The early appropriation of the image of local Vermont dairy farmers’ cream and milk was no small part of the allure Ben & Jerry’s long cultivated as a locally sourced ice-cream, created only with milk purely from Vermont cows–and co-opting the support for local milk, long, long, before ban-RBGH concerns began, when ice cream appealed primarily to the local sweet tooth, and the milk was unproblematically local.  Has the sweetness of Vermont dairy curdled in an age less tied to place, and where the community of Vermont dairy workers is no longer entirely clear?  For even as the external values of the corporation remain fairly intact since 2001, despite its continued philanthropy, embrace of progressive politics as well as of organic, sustainable, and Fair Trade suppliers,the ice cream maps far less closely onto the local community.




Ben & Jerry’s Finest ice cream quickly became a local icon in Vermont; its Waterbury location is near the now legendary first site of ice-cream churning with an old VW bus, where it has served as a sort of shrine, tourist destination, and site for indulging in ice-cream concoctions, and the official burial site and graveyard of retired flavors, and the firm has long reached out to support worthy local causes to illustrate the centrality of its membership in the local Vermont community.

The brand has of course long capitalized on exclusively using locally sourced cows for its milk and supporting Vermont farmers–years before and after they went public in 1984, and back in the late 1970s.  But something slightly odd happened to “all those quirky values” in the agrarian economy of the state and the local status of the brand that is all too evident in the geography of its current Scoop Shops.  For the renegade ice cream of two regular guys changed from one of the most popular items at local gas stations, general stores, and Scoop Shops in Vermont, to being an object of relative revile in some areas of the same state.  While the celebrated “quirky style” of super-premium flavors boasts by Ben & Jerry’s Homemade was long part of the local geography of a region dotted with dairy farms, the promises of the glocal mission of a corporate distribution of the expanding flavors has swiftly bent the rainbow of Scoop Shops to the forces of marketing with visible results.

The result is to warp the landscape of local loyalty, spreading with a density that seemed like broken “Oreo”-style cookie bits throughout the northeast and eastern seaboard, albeit with large, empty distances apparent on Google Maps.


In this condition of national expansion–and distribution world-wide–it makes sense to consider the relation of Ben & Jerry’s home-made is to the Green Mountain state with which it still publicly self-identifies.

For the embrace of global causes by the ice-cream maker seems to dovetail with the distribution of a globalized world, so that as it has spread across America, the ice cream seems to have become distanced from Vermont.  When the store-owner of one store was politely asked whether they carried the ice cream advertised on a poster showing the smiling faces of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield from days gone by, the amiable if gruff shop owner seated directly behind a worn wooden counter replied “Nope,” and when asked why grumbled the equally reticent if slightly exasperated and drawn out “Because they’re assholes,” without further comment.  None was needed for the shopkeeper, who kept a worn Ben & Jerry’s post in the window as if in memory of times past.

The local shop-owner of few words wasn’t referring to Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield, long locally celebrated stars, but rather to the distributors of ice-cream since 2001, Unilever–an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate who snapped up the once “Home-Made” company, with far fewer ties to the Vermont farmers and stores than the company’s founders, and linked it to the corporate world at $43.60 a share.  Free cone day–famous as the day that its internet site crashed because it coincided with the hottest day of the summer–was in fact celebrated in relatively few stores in the Vermont area, according to B&J’s own website . . .

scoop shops in age of Unilever

The story of what happened to the local ice-cream after its acquisition by Unilever is interesting to map.  The acquisition reflects the transformation of a local success story into a cultivated boutique factory that claims to boast local charm, but ships worldwide to big stores and cultivates college towns, as it neglects its very own back yard.  So much is suggested in the relatively glaring absence of celebrated Scoop Shops across Vermont nearby the factory store itself, which still attracts visitors for tours.  The story surely demands to be told in relation to the changing landscape of ice cream–a $32.4 billion market in 2006–and the currently quite indistinct relation to the concept of the locally sourced, and depends on supermarket chains where the seemingly ever-more-candied and cream-rich confection is sold.

The ice cream makers seem to have themselves cultivated a numinous relation to world freedoms in flavors like ‘Rain Forest Crunch’ and ‘Imagine Whirled Peace’ (an overpowering caramel and sweet cream, swirled with fudge peace signs), the self-satisfied ‘Save our Swirled’ (Raspberry Ice Cream with Marshmallow and Raspberry Swirls, and Dark and White Fudge), pushing new limits of swirling, or ‘Brewed to Matter’ that exclusive uses shade-grown coffee?  Is its promise of “euphoria” a bit too stratospheric in its aspirations?

globe of ice cream cone


The fears of an eventual loss of the small-town culture once cultivated by the successful if once renegade ice-cream makers of Waterbury, who opted to sell their company as the notion of broadening their commitment to social justice was effectively dangled before their eyes, when Unilever co-chairman Niall Ferguson, arriving to meet Ben & Jerry sporting a knapsack rather than attache case, addressed concerns by promoting his own interest in sustainable agriculture for three hours, and then let Richard Goldstein, head of Unilever’s North American operations, approach Ben Cohen himself with the words, “Ben, do you realize the opportunity you have here to help this company grow in its social commitment?” as a teaser of the still-greater “social impact” the ice-cream maker might have in this new business arrangement.

The broad social platform Ben & Jerry’s has since eagerly assumed have channeled its brand recognition to advance causes from non-GMO foods and marriage equality to rain-forest preservation and global warming.  It has led to the creation of several persuasive maps that are identifiably promoting the font and iconography from cartons of the premium ice-cream, in ways that seem to lend if not cement the ice cream’s logo to progressive causes.  The playful “Ben & Jerry’s” font was used to follow the evolution of states’ legal stances toward marriage equality in previous decades, providing a platform to direct public attention toward tracking the advance of marriage equality in the United States in the very lettering that we might be more familiar from reading in scoop shops or on ice-cream cartons:

B&J Marriage Equality Map Same-Sex Ruling OCt 6

B & J Marriage Equality

And, of course, the Burlington Scoop Shop was indeed often made the symbolic center of advancing progressive causes–especially when Vermont was one of the few states in the union where same-sex marriage was legally allowed–that seem fueled on the sugar-backed ice cream served across the street on Pride Day, adopting the trademarked lettering and rainbow backdrop for cows to sport heart-shaped pink-tinted eyeglasses that echo the nineteen-sixties’ counter-culture it has effectively reclaimed:

B&J Marriage Equality march

Is the political platform of Unilever offered, by allowing the ice-cream to go “hands free” that can promote social causes also a bit of an inevitable abandonment of the very rootedness in the Vermont dairy community that once defined the ice cream’s core values in the days before it marked such core centers as fudge, caramel, or real raspberry jam?

The costs of becoming one of Unilever’s “global brands”–and among its 2000 brands of ice-cream it owned by 2006, in what was a growing 32.4 billion ice cream market, in which place or locality seemed to mean much less.  The contradiction was apparent as the ice-cream began to loose market shares quickly–even as it gained a global presence, and “went warehouse.”

Ben & Jerry's vs. Haagen Das

One visible consequence of “going warehouse” is present on the map.  The distribution of scoop shops in the state of Vermont sharply reduce once abundant celebrated stores on the state map.  For the distributors of the locally produced ice cream have, in a snub to their clientele, closed many of the very shops that once sprouted up with the density of candy and cookie bits that once seemed so specific to the super-premium ice cream.  The maps displayed on the company’s website which allows customers to find the stores nearest to their zip suggest the considerable costs of the greater remove from Vermont at which that buyout came–and of the shift to a global/glocal ice-cream that the company adopted in its new corporate guise.

absence of scoop shops

Panning out nationally on the OSM slippy map, one finds a paltry three Scoop Shops in the state that once seemed inseparable from the charm of an ice cream that promoted local values, but seems now more glocal, and more with an eye on outside markets than the state for which local farms were long said to produce the milk and cream–or the notion of Scoop Shops were less appealing, and too much overhead, in comparison to supermarkets after the big acquisition removed the ice cream from the community, and its social mission expanded to making “the world a better place” by taking on climate change through Rain Forest Crunch and GMO farming through its reliance on somewhat carefully sourced ingredients, and its economic mission geared primarily to “sustainable financial growth.”  Although “climate justice” is difficult to see as compatible with a product that depends on refrigeration, long-term trucking, and huge freezer storage space in the warehouses it employs to distribute its product nation- and world-wide–despite some notable attempts to introduce innovative low-energy freezers.

scoop shops in age of Unilever absence of scoop shops Scoop Shops Post-Unilever


Those few Scoop Shops easily located on the company website indicate the increasingly market-driven nature of the locations of a chain that seems somehow less based in Vermont, site of its main factory that offers year-round tours.  A cute map uses chocolate ice-cream cone designators that pop out of whatever landscape “near me” at its website–yet few stores have survived in the state apart from three scoop shops in Waterbury, Burlington, and Rutland.

Scoop Shops Post-Unilever

southern us

One can’t go home again, to be sure.  But is the disappearance of the local in this once locally-produced confected treat more symptomatic of a deeply corporate design of the marketing and the production of ice cream?  For the production of an ice cream that long vaunted locally sourced milk from Vermont dairy farms seems to depend far more on migrant labor–and poor working conditions–than the brightly colored ice-cream containers would suggest.

But has the ice cream once boasted “Vermont’s Finest” deeply divorced itself from the site of its first success?  For the recent spate of complaints and protests that the ostensibly socially minded brand of super-premiums actually rests on the sweat of migrant workers and low wages raises more than an eyebrow about the wage and labor conditions that go into producing all those rich flavors, and cannot but echo the chagrin of the local shop-owner.  For the problems of profit-sharing–almost a mantra in the early days of the ice-cream makers–has launched a Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign that aims at improving the living conditions and wages as well as work conditions of the   1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers who help manage milk production on Vermont’s 868 dairy farms.  The sort of demands for  greater autonomy and a say in working conditions is not specific to dairy production or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but range from better housing to leave time in ways that would surely fluster the former ice-cream makers.  

For despite the vaunting of global causes on the tops and sides of those containers of ice cream, the local conditions of work for many seem horrendous, and hard to defend.  Of the workers recently surveyed, some 40% earned less than the minimum wage.  Many lack health insurance, are denied medical care, or allowed breaks for eating during their workdays, which sometimes exceed twelve hours in length–in ways hard to square with the company’s stated social mission or its stated ethical imperatives from fair-trade bananas to non-RBGH milk, or cage-free eggs.  Despite the continued window dressing of imperatives that resonate with Whole Foods, the ’s signature do-gooder brand seems to have neglected the workplace conditions of many of the dairies with whom it contracts, and failed to adopt an agenda of improving workplace conditions besides vague hopes that try to link humane farming practices about cultivating a work/life balance.

Milk with DignityMigrant Justice

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The Tragic Consequences of Over-Crowding our Country with Factory Farms

Questions of scale, distribution, and crowding are increasingly central to mapping and data visualizations.  The increasing geographical crowding of factory farms in the country offer a cautionary reminder of our shifting relation to the production of food–and the perils not only of concentrating most livestock in inhumanely crowded conditions, but concentrating our farmlands at a physical remove from most populations, by a perverse twist in the logic of economic conditions that lead to the expansion of farmlands even if this means a deterioration of food.  This post seeks to tease out some of the consequences of this crowding and of application of pesticides to produce the huge quantities of grain that enable such industrial-scale mass ‘farming’necessitates.  Despite a renewed culture of small farming in select economies of food-choice, the increasing remove at which factory farms lie from populations have wrecked a deep change in our relation to the land whose after-effects we have only begun to unpack.

Although the fairly quotidian nature of our food supply is rarely so explicitly tied with the anthropocene–especially in comparison with the carbon footprint or petroleum products–the density of factory farms in America has left inroads in the landscape that seem difficult to erase, from the growing number of “food miles” that much meat now travels to processing plants and restaurants and supermarkets, where it reaches consumers, to the damage that technologies of over fertilization and pesticide-use creates in the dense concentration of farms in the United States–revealed in the disquieting distrubution that Chris Kirk of Slate has created in a web-based map that calls to attention the select space in which American farmers/1,000 people lie–a map that implies the growing distance of most farmers from markets of food, and indeed the concentration of areas where farmers constitute a sizable share of the population.

Farmers:100 eah state

Chris Kirk

Even more striking, perhaps, is the limited range of locations where the production of crops retains greatest value.

Crop Value

The consequences of this quite uneven distribution will be increasingly significant.  Indeed, the greatest environment impact of varied foods are most easily measured by the distances food takes to reaching consumers, the growing “food mileage” fostered by factory farms located in landlocked regions of the country are one of the most strikingly inefficient ways of delivering food–and provide one of the best indices of the impact of food on our environment.


Robert A. Rhode (2000)

The data visualization of the distribution of factory farms in the header to this post places in evidence the concentration of factory farms to reveal a story of the changing nature of animal husbandry in a world where markets have become dissociated from agricultural production.  It  indeed suggest the absence of attention to the origins of most meat, and the redrawing of husbandry, as well as the redrawing of croplands, from centers of densest inhabitation.  For the intensity of the concentration of factory farms in America is emblematic a strange but powerful illustration of economic disequilibria, where expanding farms have rendered independent farming barely profitable, and driven farmers to become technology-happy in their purchase of new tools of pasturing that almost erase the need for pasture.  The business model that has replaced crop rotation, and open fields of pasture, has not erased the differences between the farming of cattle, pigs, and chickens, but dramatically decreased them to create a terribly terrifying sort of man-made experiment that may not be only waiting to occur.

Increasingly, technologies of mass-farming livestock are not only removed from pasturing, but marginalized to areas that lie at a frightening geographical remove from centers of population.  The turn toward a dense clustering of factory farms offers a fairly terrifying view of the marginalization of the space where pastured animals dwell–and, of course, chickens have it hardest, both given their size and manipulable conditions.  The remove of current conditions from sustainable roaming and feeding on nutritious grasses may be ironic, given the clustering of factory farms in many areas of the Midwest, but they are particularly torturous to livestock–animals are increasingly raised with limited access to sunlight, fresh air, or open space–and indeed consumers, as such farming techniques increasingly necessitate antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease from high-grain diets that are far less healthy for livestock.

The influence of such a concentration of farms seems to leave an increasingly indelible footprint on our environment.  The arrival of the anthropocene is rarely related to the congestion of farming–but in a sense begins from the poor stewardship of the land in which the free market has led to a wholesale promotion of the inhumane and unhealthy crowding of a concentration of over-fertilized farms in the so-called heartland of the midwest, a deep distortion that the recent funding for the Farm Bill perpetuates in ways that make it seem difficult to turn back the page on the density of factory farms in many states–and the consequent degradation of the surrounding lands and the environments that factory farms pollute.  Mapping factory farms is not only about communicating the incredible scale of current-day farming, but the increasingly indelible traces that they leave on the land by their use of broadly cast nitrogen-rich fertilizer, neonicotinoid insecticides and other herbicides, for which farm workers–or handlers of produce–are rarely provided any protection.

And although interactive maps have yet to develop adequate synesthetic models to render the human sense of smell, the concentrations of factory farms demand models of integrating interactive with scratch-and-sniff techniques to adequately indicate the 13.8 billion cubic feet of waste factory farms collectively generate, in greater excess of what the land can absorb or incorporate–at considerable danger to polluting drinking water and air, since factory farms fail to use manure to fertilize in the manner that farms did in the past, as well as one of the greatest sources of the release of methane gas.  Neil Gaiman’s Wednesday recently ruefully remarked “San Francisco isn’t the same country as [the imagined town of] Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis,” despite “certain cultural signifiers [like] money, a federal government, entertainment” that perpetuate the illusion of one country like money, television, and McDonald’s.  The area occupied by factory farms suggest something of an actual country within the country, apparently insulated from the population at large, but plays with different rules that stand in increasing danger of contaminating the world from which it appears removed.

For maps suggest significant evidence that the arrival of the anthropocene may lie in the disequilibria of ecosystems around factory farms.

1. The clustering of factory farms charts an ever-expanding distance between food production and consumption, and a deep re-understanding of man’s relation to the environment.  The alarming scale at which we have come to produce food has entailed a warping of agrarian environments that produce a limited range of foods on ever-increasing scale.   The pockets of the deepest red–the instinctual signifier of danger–marks an extreme congestion of the landscape with factory farms for livestock and intensive agriculture grown in a scale beyond bulk, whose density carries clear costs.  For with over nine million land animals killed each year in order to produce food for Americans in 2014, factory farms have reached a scale and concentration rarely dreamed of, and the scale of its farming has provoked unfamiliar environmental effects:   the amount of animal manure produced in expanding factory farms in the United States have come to produce the fastest growing source of the greenhouse gas methane in the US since 2007–and as well as producing animal waste, stream harmful quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter.  And their geographic concentration by 2012, largely in an areas of cheap land, and landlocked states, removes them from the possibility of any transport save trucking–


Distributions like the above show the concentration of such “factory farms” across the lower forty-eight states as recently as 2012 demand scrutiny as an object-lesson of a post-industrial agrarian age, whose pockets of deep red or crimson sharply contrasting with wan yellow expanses where factory farms are absent from the landscape.

The distribution demands comparison with a more finely grained map showing the declining number of smaller farms. But its totality confronts viewers with the increasing saturation of pockets of the farms cape in such indelible reds to force us to ask not only about the desirability of producing food so intensively in select regions, but to try to investigate the steep consequences, costs and effects of the colonization of the farmscape by radically intensive factory farms, dedicated to cultivating mono-crops on a far greater economy of scale (and subsidization) than was previously imagined possible. The result is to create a farmscape that increasingly removes the industry of agriculture–either in the form of crops or animal pasturage–from the very notion of stewardship, and indeed from most inhabited land.


Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Dept of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

Whether or not it is still true that, as Gertrude Stein once said in her Geographical History of America, that “in the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” there are surely a deeper concentration more farms built to “feed” Americans than anywhere else.  By using a range of data visualizations, this post poses questions of how best to orient ourselves to the increasing crowding of the spacious farmscape with monocultures that the monopolies of farming Big Agra has introduced and the steep consequences they pose in our society of laws.

2.  For the drastic dependence on synthetic fertilizers–which now consume a fifth of fossils fuel use, and allow new economies of scale of monocultures releasing farms from a diversity of crops, at the same time that their production was increasingly subsidized, freeing them from the market.  The consolidation and concentration of food-production are enabled by large-scale production freed from sales at the marketplace, doubling of the size of the average farm, while decreasing farms have decreased from 7 million in the 1930s to almost 2 million today, based on an increased ability of production that diminished the nutritional value of produce; animals that are fed almost entirely on a diet of corn produce meat far higher in saturated fats.  The  toxic cocktail of such distorted land-use is complicated even more by the regular release from factory farms of nitrogen and pesticides into the environment posing problems from oxygenic depletion to drastic decreases in local species’ fertility:  the factory farm, liberated from biological constraints of earlier times, has grown to meet radically new economies of scale.

Rather than grow corn, squash, peas, pumpkin, parsnips, carrots or onions, the landscape of the factory farm is focussed on corn–the over-subsidized as the dominant mono-crop grown across the perpetual harvests of over-farmed fertilized lands.

2002 Factory Farm All Map USA

legend factory famrsFactory Farms in the United States, 2002/Food & Water Watch, analysis of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

By adopts a crude sort of map algebra comparing data visualizations, this post juxtaposes a range of datamaps that raise pressing questions about such steep levels of concentration of factory farms, and the severity the extreme crowding of space by factory farms that is scarily demonstrated in the above data vis.  While they are able to go unnoticed, the proximity of small blue dots that designate “meat plants” in the data vis above seem worthy of special note, both because of the considerable geographical remove of such plants that “feed” much of the nation and the clear bands on which they are situated.  Eyeballing these maps of the colonization of much of the midwest, and a density of farming that places a demand on overwatering–and okverfertilizing–select regions, in ways that put an increased premium on long-distance trucking, unfreeze farm products, and huge storage houses.  The concentration of factory farms for hogs, for example, creates an intensity and crowding that cannot be conceived as healthy–where sows pumped nurse piglets in gestation crates, as breeding machines, before being led to the slaughterhouse.



The concentration of hog farms is abstractly rendered in a map, but their increasing intensity is elegantly communicated to viewers of the several interactive visualizations Food & Water Watch devised from GIS data of USDA agrarian censuses from 2002 to 2012:

hogs 2002

Hogs 2012

Food and Water Watch

For such livestock and poultry factory farms, largely out of public view, are quite aptly characterized as concentration camps for animals, which “aren’t farms at all”, and the dangers of such a segregation of such segregation of factory farms, which aim to ban observation by journalists or observers.  Recent attempts to ban observers from reporting on the practices and conditions in farms run by corporations like Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and Borden–“Ag-Gag” laws–make the mapping of such farms more compelling.  Despite the spate of state legislators seeking to tar the observers of the animal factory as guilty of “an act of terrorism,” their mapping far more necessary. For the mapping of the factory farm and the pesticides and fertilizers they spew provides the best way to embody crises otherwise difficult to comprehend from antibacterial resistance to colony-collapse disorder, which have resulted in a decline of 40-50% of bees at farms in recent years that may be due to the increasing use of neonicotinoid pesticides that may reduce their homing abilities–


–to deeply uneven distributions of epidemiological imbalances, examined in detail at the end of this post.  The density of the colonization of farmlands with factory farms and commercial crops provides a way to embody such complex patterns of causation–even if they hardly resolve the problems they pose.

Such severe environmental imbalances are the product of the concentration of agricultural practices that are increasingly removed form a sense of land-stewardship. The severity of the imbalance created both by the isolation of farms from the landscape and the poor practices adopted by big agra without adequate oversight is difficult to resolve.  But the effective cordoning off of such spots as “off the map” make it important to take stock of their distribution and presence but the distortions created by their economies of scale–both in diminishing foods’ nutritive value, endangering farm workers and regions, and the very inability to isolate the environment costs and consequences that occur at specific sites where they exist.

3.  The over-use of the “anthropocene” contains sighs of deep resignation, but is rarely tied to the production of food or the bloating of farms beyond a responsible stewardship of th eland.  Even if numbering is knowledge, the quite extreme quantitative density and concentration of of the spread of factory farms across what remains of the arable expanse of the central states suggests a shift in our relation to the land from which there is no clear turning back:  the data visualization in the header to this post may only scratch the surface of an ill-fated agrarian revolution that entails a shifted relation to the land. This data reveals not only a deep distancing from farmed land, but a change in how things grow and live in the land, and how people work the land.  The remove of agribusiness from policies of land management is apparent not only in the changing farmscape of the nation, but the broad potential for agrarian mismanagement that the recent proliferation of unmonitored factory farms represent in the United States–where they seem something like the perverse inversion of the yeoman farmer ideal.

For the dramatically increasing density of factory farms in focussed geographic locations have wreaked systemic changes in ecosystems so deeply devastating to be difficult to map in quantifiable or quantitative terms.  Indeed, one would be challenged to isolate the very indices by which such devastation might be meaningfully measured or capture the shifts in landscapes of food production of which they are among the most extreme, so removed are they from notions of captivation and husbandry of the recent past, and so widely have they changed not only the produce–GMO or not–and the livestock and animals that are maintained for slaughter.  The radically changed relation to the land.  Viewed in aggregate, the contours of an almost unbridled presence of Big Agra across specific states offer a striking landscape–and farmscape–that profits from the continued availability of groundwater and aquifers.  The consequences of intensive raising of livestock and drastic consequences of agricultural runoff whose abysmal results is readily revealed in other maps.

What notion of the custodial relation to the most intensively farmed regions If the notion of “rewilding” the landscapes of industrialized nations is a response to the growth of the anthropocene, the factory farm epitomizes an expansion of anthropogenic pollutants that have shifted the environmental landscape of developed countries, and come with significant human costs.  A growing range of GIS data visualizations that can be seen as symptomatic of an age increasingly obese with data–and difficult to process let alone comprehend, as navigating robust data streams quickly leads to a sense of drowning and disempowerment, the ability to distance oneself from the changing landscapes created by the increased intensity of factory farming provides the possibility of regaining a sense of critical perspective on the anthropogenic changes in the ecosystems of agricultural life.  The density of the aggregation of factory farms reveal an imbalance due to lack of clear restrictions on the intensity of their development, the excavation of whose consequences call for more careful comparison to other data maps. To be sure, the lack of restrictions on such intensive farming reflects, in a global context of aquifer depletion, provided by researchers at UC Irvine with NASA data, profiting from the continued supply of groundwater in the central states–

Global Water Storage 2003-13

legend UC Irvine

and the peculiarity of that abundance in a global context, which has created a particularly warped perspective on the feasability of continuing to water such large-scale farms.

The retro maps of annual rainfall in the US produced by Flowing Data reveals, based on NWS data, how weather patterns in 2013 facilitated the sort of spatial distortions in the farmscape that the map in the header documents.


But the intensity of the landscape of factory farms that has been fashioned by Big Agra facilitated a huge rise in GMO crops, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics that suggest the systemic unhealthiness in the ecosystems that result.

1.  The quite rapidly shifting nature of the landscape of farming that has emerged in recent years, when factory farms have gained an unheard of density in many regions that signal a radically changed relation to food, suggests a new horizon of the anthropocene that demands excavation as an infographic that depicts our shifting relation to how Americans inhabit terrestrial expanse–and the risks we run in doing so.

Big Agra Maplegend factory famrs

The landscape of farmlands big agra has colonized and settled reflects a shift in the notion of land-use tied to globalization.  Even as glob tied that have freed humans from their dependence on local or regional ecosystems, the extent of alienation form an agricultural landscapes that have occurred in the past twenty years, and even over the last ten.

For the map reveals a profound super-personal alienation and remove from the farmed landscape, and remove from an ever-increasing density of farmland truly “extreme” in its narrowing of concentration on the potentialities of abundance and perverse privileging of an artificially induced economic abundance of select regions of cattle raising, dairy farming, hog farming, and chicken breeding that cannot be healthy or sustainable as forms of stewardship.  In a time when McDonalds promises us artisan grilled chicken of a “stringy interior” distinguished by a “somewhat chewy texture” and “fake butter flavor,” the broader relation of most consumers to the meat that they eat seems distinctly challenged.

Even if the clustering darkest crimson that denote an extreme density of factory farming happens to aptly indicate the masking of an emotional attachment to place–more central a premise of factory farms than economic demand–the deep unsustainable nature of the density of factory farming is only scratched in the data visualization that is the header to this post.  For the deepest reds blanketing central states (and the Central and Imperial Valleys of the western states, as well as clear concentrations of crimson in pockets of North Carolina, Florida, western New York and the northwest) suggest scars that may prevent us from recognizing the places in a map that we might otherwise have recognized or know.  The illusion of economic security is in danger of erasing emotional attachments to place, in ways that have only begun to be appreciated or understood.

4.  Such strikingly dense concentrations of factory farms in such regional pockets–indeed, their confounding resilience–is all to evident in the data visualizations that Food and Water Watch compiled form agricultural censuses of the USDA over the past decade in the recent assemblage Factory Farm Nation–an evident reference to “Fast Food Nation,” whose commercial injunction to overeat, “supersize it,” put the blame on the business of purveyors of easy meals that were sold at illusionistically cheap prices, without asking about their future health costs.  Yet what of the rewriting of agriculture that has concentrated dense sites of overarming into our national landscape, as if to meet the nation’s ever-expanding and insatiable taste for meat?  Far from a pastoral landscape, the zones of intensive farming of such subsidized monocrops as corn, soy or sorghum so often encouraged by subsidies and so readily converted to a plentiful source of animal feed.

The collective distribution of factory farms spread across the country are not so surprisingly concentrated in its Central Zone.  But the business model has taken seed in regions from California to Washington and Idaho, and to Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina–as of 2012, the concentration of both the largest farms and the centers of meat processing were increasingly concentrated not only from decades past, but even over the past ten years, as large regions of deep red–marking extreme concentrations of factory farms–come to overwhelm large regions and specific economies, and be absent from other regions removed from agribusiness.

The spread of factory farming, facilitated both by state subsidies and GMO crops, is partly premised on the economic transformation of agriculture.  Less visible are its deeply deleterious environmental consequences and ecological effects–as well as create an increasingly unhealthy food chains–and systems of production that seem forcefully remove the consumer from the farm and manufacturing of food that arrives in most supermarkets across most all of America.

Big Agra Map

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

What makes the concentration of large farms such a troubling contraction is both the remove of food from markets and the conditions of growing that factory farms create–from both slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, shown here by asterisks, and the sacrificing of freshness (and nutritive value) in the over-producing of megacrops, and the challenge they pose to the survival of small-scale farming outside very select economic niches, from parts of California, like Silicon Valley, to parts of New England and Vermont–and the steep challenges small farms face from big agra even in these areas.

The formidable concentration of cattle farming–a quintessential staple of factory farming–reflects the total distribution in 2012 of factory farms in the country, and even more intensely concentrated in the economies of the midwest,

Factory Farms: Cattle

legend factory famrs

With dairy farmers almost living in a somewhat greater variety of other states as of 2012:

Factory Farm Dairy 2012

legend factory famrs

and hog-farming occupying a similarly concentrated, if further contracted, set of select sites largely in the central states:

hog farming

legend factory famrs

The incredible intensity of carmine clusterings revealed in the data visualization above had profoundly changed from 2002, when the agrarian landscape was marked by a robust density of relatively high factory farms, but with fewer extreme concentrations, and an apparent greater range of meat-packing plants–

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

and even from the levels of large factory farms across the nation in 2007–

2007 Factory Farm Map Concentration

legend factory famrs

The state of Iowa appears as a uniform red that render its borders indistinct:


Or the uniform red spread across similar farming states that border the Mississippi, which has helped create one of the largest hypoxic site in the world within the Gulf of Mexico, which absorbs the agricultural runoff emptying from the Mississippi River:

midwest factory famrs

The shift in the notion of a farm is suggested by the concentration in bordering regions of the apparatus of farming–including the threat of resistant strains of bacteria, large feed lots, and almost insoluble problems of the disposal of animal waste.


The parallel radical contraction of regions of chicken-meat “farming”–the raising of “broilers”–suggests an unwarranted density of what was once the most familiar of barnyard animals, and now seem to serve much of the country from select areas of megafarms in the southern states, as well as parts of Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin and Washington, and a range of factory farms along the Mississippi in 2012, that suggest a landscape little changed from 1997, if even more localized:

chicken breeding

What happened to effect such a change save weak agricultural rules and opportunistic farm policies?  One can see a notable consolidation of those “farms” that raise “broilers”–chickens destined for cooking–during the decade and a half between 1997 and 2012, with a rising density of factory farms and and the industrialization of poultry farming.

broilers 1997

broilers 2012


5.  The rise of large-scale supplies of feed was doubtless encouraged by the subsidization of ever-larger farms that allowed geographic concentration of intense factory farming in the central states, the densest clustering of centers of meat-packing.  Fertilizing practices are a part of the picture of creating large feed lots that are in need of better mapping, and provide the possibility of the supersizing of farms across America, and the expansion of the application of herbicides–as much as pesticides–that have increasingly come to characterize the agricultural practices of most factory farms in America.  For indeed the practices of no-till agriculture, large feed lots, mono crops, and over-fertilized lands are the enabling factors, as much as the consequences, of the spread of the complexes of factory farms across so much of the agricultural landscape of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent Agricultural Census.

How these practices encourage the unhealthy degrees of concentration of factory farms raising animals for slaughter suggest not only hugely increased animal suffering.  The increase of some 20% of livestock that are raised in large factory farms created, for example, a huge amount of manure–some thirteen times that produced by the human population of the United States–that pose a risk to local ecologies.  It also courts the steep risk of effectively creating reservoirs of antibiotic resistant bacteria, not only in specific regions, but in the meat that arrives on one’s table or in restaurants, and provokes the evolution of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics that are regularly fed at low dosages to all livestock–effectively increasing the threat food-born pathogens that industry has minimized.  Indeed, the mapping of AR bacteria across the United States (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) have begun to be mapped themselves, although the data and certainty of the distributions mapped interactively by Extending the Cure based on particularly resistant infections has created a distribution that demands to be further refined in future years–but have already shown a huge rise over time.

mrsa_us_map_blog_final p4-us-maps

Indeed, the extreme density of such factory farms in areas such as Iowa and Nebraska, whose almost undifferentiated terrain of deep red is studded with staggered meat-packing plants that serve a far greater area, preoccupy–as the steady rise of resistant antibiotic strains of bacteria across our national space, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and the huge expenditures of health care that both rises threaten to bequeath.  If increasingly sweeping the more developed world, related to both different standards of eating and to the marketing of anti-herbicides, as well as to problems in the recycling of wastewater, the resistance of antimicrobial bacterial strains pose a range of immense health risks–and a current health care cost in the United States that is estimated at 21-34 billion dollars a year, and some 100,000 deaths.

Although the diffusion of AR bacteria are to a large extent dependent on meat consumption, as much as actual locations of factory farms, the distribution of deep crimson in the central states and north and southwest offer an image of disturbing trends that demands to be excavated for its consequences, as well as contemplated for its intensity.  (They parallel the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds.)

This seems to mirror both the extreme concentration of factory farms evident in the central states, as seen above in the case of Iowa,


midwest factory famrs

or pockets of the American South,

Southern States

legend factory famrs

These images trace the increasing remove discrete stretches of farmlands from the bulk of the population, if not an actual alienation of farmlands as the raising and butchering of meat migrates into controlled settings where antibiotic-resistant (AR) bacteria flourish.  Resistant strains of staph are a problem worldwide, as the below prevalence map reveals, and Methicillin-resistant bacteria have become common across many of the regions consuming factory-farm raised poultry.



Registered incidence of MRSA in human blood (2008), Wikimedia

But it is one in which the United States remains in the lead–and far ahead of Mexico and especially far ahead of Canada, our neighbors to the north, where one finds anti resistant strains to be a fifth of the prevalence of the US:


–and which seems concentrate din the eastern southern states, where it seems predominantly communicated in meat:


Such intensive areas of factory farming are more directly tied in the United States due to the unique geography of intensive farming promoted by Big Agra, the Sisyphean twin of the factory farm.


6.  Agribusiness is the not-too-silent twin of the factory farm, generating the copious abundance of cheap feed that is the bread and butter of factory farm feed lots–the shortsighted widespread use of herbicides Big Agra increasingly adopts, with minimal federal oversight, has facilitated the suppressing of factory farms of similar short-sighted agricultural practices and the poor stewardship of the land they reveal.  Even as the existing studies by the WHO’s anti-cancer arm found “sufficient evidence” that the herbicide glyphosate causes cancer in non-human animals, and “limited evidence” of its causation of chromosomal damage and kidney disease in humans, the Monsanto produced pesticide was reclassified by the EPA with the result of allowing its increased use within the food chain, much as it had earlier shifted the herbicide’s classification as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity”–a shift of 180 degrees–after Monsanto petitioned to increase the allowable amount of the herbicide that in 2001 was already the most-used agricultural herbicide–and constituted 74% of the herbicides farmers used in California in 2012–having increased some 65% in commercial agriculture during the previous decade.

While the widespread uses of such herbicides are not mapped and readily measured with the relative precision and exactitude of factory farms, whose census offers a projection of the estimated extent of the pounds of pesticide used in the US in different states, and indeed an estimated projection of the diffusion of their residue, that demand reflection.   The spread of Atrazine, among the deadliest herbicide that is most concentrated in the groundwater of the US, may be largely used on corn, but the subsidization of corn and sorghum have created a dense concentration of sites of cattle feed–some 80 million pounds were used in American crops in 2014, with a rather striking geographical concentration:



The extremely high concentration of the particularly pernicious pesticide that has been so aggressively marketed by Syngenta is not only dumped in the ground in massive amounts in the ground.  But its traces persist in rivers and streams in 2007 in ways that reflect the expanding scope of its use in agricultural lands including more than half of all corn acreage–two-thirds of sorghum acreage; and up to 90 percent of sugar cane acreage in some states, creating run-off that by agricultural overflow that quite perceptibly pollutes the ambient waters–where it has, Professor Tyrone Hayes has shown, apparently creating sexual abnormalities in amphibian life–conclusively enough for Syngenta to pay $105 million to reimburse cities for the cost of implementing water filtration systems to remove atrazine from drinking water in 2012 to conclude a class action lawsuit, and a multimillion dollar campaign aimed at discrediting scientists suggesting its the dangers of biological mutation its residues have been compellingly argued to cause.  Only long after the EPA had banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in homes due its close correlation to ADHD, reduced IQ, and poor cognitive development, the same pesticide was widely used in the Central Valley of California on crops of almonds, walnuts, oranges and alfalfa, ignoring the clear dangers that it poses to farm-workers and in run-off, even though the Pesticide Action Network urges an immediate and complete ban to protect agricultural workers and rural communities. The recent plan to restrict the pesticide’s use in farms came against arguments of its manufacturer, Dow Agrosciences, that its presence in runoff has a “negligible” effect, and noting that it is approved for use in some eight-eight other countries.

The spread of atrazine in streams and waters that has been mapped on the basis of its agricultural use–if hypothetical and based on modeling–indicates the range of its potential spread into the regional groundwater of much of America.



Are the evident traces of herbicides such as atrazine that seem evident in the environment similarly passed on through meats from nearby factory farms–and are they indicative of the sorts of attitudes to the environment that factory farming creates?

The strikingly intense and expansive use of the most popular herbicide Paraquat in crops from corn to sorghum to tubers and as well to sugar–leaves a considerable residue on crops, even if it is designed mostly to eliminate weeds and other plants.  After being both notoriously and extensively sprayed from the air by helicopters in the late 1970s on marijuana and opium fields in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, in a historical roll-out of the pesticide, it has gained wide sales–but also tied to liver, lung, and kidney failure, it has made a huge comeback with the rise of no-till farming at many large farms, broadly distributed across the nation.  Also marketed and produced by Syngenta, the corporation has spent considerable funds to dissociate from studies that suggested the close ties of its residues to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s disease.


And the remarkable promotion and rise of the agricultural use of Glyphosate–the most popular herbicide across the country–and its residual effects tells a similar story. From 2009 to 2012, is estimated agricultural use was particularly prominent across California’s Central Valley, but expanded across the big farming states of the midwest and eastern seaboard in ways that echoes the distribution of large factory farms.


Untitled 5Glyphosate high 2012

A strikingly similar estimated distribution of the potentially devastating neonicotinoid Imidacloprid–believed a major factor in apiary colony collapse disorder–is scarily similar, if not even more widespread geographically–and has only grown.


CB-FIgure-1The most common herbicide in America, whose application pretty much mirrors the disposition of agricultural lands in the country, was long ago approved by the EPA, the potential carcinogen glyphosate has been used without the degree of harsh criticism that use of atrazine faced after repeated studies indicated its potentially debilitating deformities on wildlife. Yet increasing ties of the herbicide to autism have been terrifying–and led Stephanie Seneff to the recent prediction that half of American kids will be autistic by 2025, and the Environmental Working Group to create a quite sophisticated ESRI interactive map designed to help parents learn whether children’s schools lie within zones where glyphosate is sprayed, and reveal the particular concentration of pesticides in close proximity to schools across the central US and Mississippi.

elementary schoolsEstimated Glyphosate Application/Environmental Working Group/www.ewg.org

EWR legend

The probability that the nonselective herbicide, marketed since 1992 under the trade names designed to appeal to a sense of security–like Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster, actually allows residues to accumulate with carcinogenic effects in produce like soybeans and wheat has been suppressed, despite the mapping of its potential effects.  This may especially have grown Monsanto has introduced GMO glyphosene-resistant crops–greatly expanding the market of an herbicide still widely marketed at Walgreens and other stores, and used in residential areas as well as in agricultural sites.


The rapid rise of GMO crops has encouraged the ascendancy of Roundup, now patented by Monsanto, which has replaced atrazine.  As the effectiveness of atrazine declined, and since many crops no longer tolerate glyphosate, the chemical prohibits the rotation of crops once a common agrarian practice, and suggests a new landscape of over intensive farming, which in corporates herbicide residues–as well, predictably, as glyphosate-resistant weeds in some thirty-five states.

resistant weeds

As much as we demonize nefarious chemical corporations who are the purveyors of poisonous sprays, from Syngenta to Monsanto, perhaps the true culprits lie in the lack of agricultural regulation, and poor economic planning that allowed the rise of factory farms, where the rise of cheap feed created by large-scale agriculture has generated the not-so-astoundingly parallel rise of feedlots in factory farms, in ways that have changed the landscape by which much food is eaten across the country, encouraging a free market of consolidation of farms, without calculation of its costs.

Increased population in suburban areas, often quite close to farmlands, has increased the risk of exposure to known carcinogens and rates of childhood cancer.  The results of such factory farms and economics of subsidized agriculture has led to an increasing number of schools that lie beside areas where GMO crops are planted, and roundup used, in ways that create considerable risks we haven’t bothered to adequately envision, even if they might be easily foreseen.

Total Schools in States within 1,000 feet of roundupd:GMO corn or soybeans

Well-funded teams of publicists and scientists help the PR machines that are run by firms such as Syngenta have effectively blanketed the media not only to undermine –and even created its own PR groups, spin teams, scientists, and “grassroots” groups–in a malapropistic move apparently oblivious of its own odd choice of terminology for a producer of herbicides–that is dedicated to misinform American consumers.  Such a legacy of promoting agribusiness and factory farms seems a lasting legacy from two Bush administrations that will continue to afflict the country’s landscape in future years, as engines of disinformation further distance the meaning of actual debate from the general public.

Based on data that the National Resources Defense Council acquired by a Freedom of Information Act during litigation with the Bush Administration, from the EPA’s “Ecological Watershed Monitoring Program” and “Atrazine Monitoring Program” that they released in August 2009 and from a report on atrazine contamination in surface and drinking water across the Central United States, the hidden topography of atrazine pollution across the United States reflects the dangers that even low-level pollution in groundwater has created in ways that give a new meaning, if with some symbolic appropriateness, to the much-bandied about notion of what constitute our nation’s “reddest” states.


Indeed, the data on the growth of herbicides and pesticides so central to the spread of agribusiness in America, and the consequent reproduction of oversized factory farms, demands mapping and remapping in terms of the prevalence of cancer and other potentially environmentally-induced genetic mutations, and increased incidence of cancer among the young–especially in regions that border beside farmlands were use of Glyphosate and other herbicides or pesticides has rapidly increased.  One study that mapped potential exposure to carcinogens commented on the rising populations near to farmlands in the agricultural powerhouse of California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of a state known for using a large share of all agricultural pesticides and herbicides in the US–to reveal their increasing proximity to residential settlements.


What are some of the ways of taking stock of the considerable damage of such widespread use of carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic pesticides, both to farmworkers, neighbors, and also in the food chain?

While few contractors provide protective clothing or respirators to migrant or local workers, and many use clothing or cotton bandanas that, when washed with family clothing, risk spreading contaminants within a family, the recent creation of adequate protective costumes farmworkers can easily don, such as the Seguro Protective Suit, are actually designed to be worn everyday by farm workers who work with fruit and and vegetables in California’s Centeral Valley, lest workers be forced to dispose of or wash clothes separately:  the suit features materials able to repel and absorb airborne pesticides that might otherwise settle on skin or clothes, and prevent them from lodging in the lungs of farm workers who would otherwise be exposed to them.  If many workers bring home high concentrations of pesticides into their home and exposing them to steep risks both of birth defects and genetic mutations–despite protective goggles, chemical gloves, or masks.

uitesThe residual pesticides lodged in handkerchiefs and bandanas lack adequate chemical filters and carry carcinogens into the home and belongings; and despite current proposals of the Berkeley Expert Systems Technology Lab, producing or providing workers with adequate protective suiting actually rarely occurs.

7.  The topography of pesticide use is not exactly news.  But the widespread nature of the concentration of factory farms, which approaches terrifying intensity in specific census blocks, seem destined to have an increasing effect on human life.  Despite the lack of acceptance of confirmations of the risk of pesticides like Roundup, due to their corporate production, the diffusion of pesticide use exposes both farm workers and populations to increased medical risk, as well as nearby residents and transportation workers.

The lack of adequate measurement of rising level of risk is shocking.  But its ill effects can be measured and visualized in a recent bey of maps of causes of hospitalization throughout the state, using data generated by the California Health Care Foundation, to map local variations of operations and disease based on state-wide hospitalizations.  Viewing these maps, striking in themselves, is a chance to perform the simple relational algebra to compares the intensity of distributions of farming with the prevalence of illness that might be termed a mental form of map algebra for California alone, without getting into GIS tools, to observe the otherwise unexplained regional and zonal concentration of illness:  even without subtracting those areas of least farming, a picture emerges, even without the prevalence of farming areas in or around the central valley.

One might profitably run through a list of reasons for the radical local variations in the distribution of hospitalization for hysterectomies,

hysterectomies in California

cases of bilateral mastectomies,

bilateral mastectomy

or gall-bladder removals

Gall Bladder Removal CA

in ways that raise clear and pressing questions about the effects of ambient areas.

The different distribution of operations such as coronary angiographies throughout the state rather reflect the relative availability of diagnostic services in specific areas.

coronary angiography

The practice of such “map algebra” involve, properly speaking, creating relations, as by subtraction, of spatial incidence over a set of cells, in order to reveal relations among two temporally sequential or related (or potentially related) raster datasets to reveal interesting homologies, as these maps of NASA’s Land Surface Temperature in North America of 2014 and 2015:


A similar subtraction of individual cells is less able to reveal so clear a contrast of regional variations, perhaps, in the intensity of pesticides and cancer, or the presence of pesticides with the possible likelihood of cognitive impairment and dementia–by Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, or even of depression, and heightened neurotoxicity especially in the case of parquat–would provide a compelling correlation over space and a map that would be difficult to ignore.  One might begin from a negative map of the correlation of diseases to those areas where pesticides are less prevalently used, or a simple ratio between incidence of illnesses in cells correlated to with the prevalence of pesticide use.  In either case, a focus on the increased chance of illnesses in those areas where pesticide use is most intense–and potential carcinogens most intensively applied–demands correlation to hospitalizations as well as to length of chemotherapy treatments.

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Sleeping Roads, Ancient Highways, and Paper Towns

What is the significance of what names lie on the map?  The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps.  The recent reclassification of registered but unnamed byways in the state, a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways but have fallen out of use to different degrees.  In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape, offers more than evidence of the rise of property development.

It poses a problem of registering the shifting nature of land use, and the tensions between any move by state government to abolish roads long overseen by local municipal corporations.  But as the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in certain cities, and the state does not want to be seen as introducing obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape.  The quilt of county regulations of roads was rarely challenged until the introduction of interstate federal highways across the state from the 1970s, but can legal recognition of the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by Selectboards, even able to be transferred to the state?

A Quilt of Counties

What may be read as a sharp challenge to the status of common law property is also an interesting instance of the resurgence of re-mapping as a form of excavating hidden pathways and expressing the state’s historical identity.

For mapping serves here as a way of articulating a challenged relation to the land.  It is particularly striking that in an era when surveying seems displaced by the authority of Google Maps as the preeminant medium of way-finding, the resurgence of resurveying ancient roads in towns across the state of Vermont has offered a way of affirming the existence of dormant “lost highways” to redraw the state’s map.  The retracing of formerly dormant roads suggest a cosynchronous image of the use of space in the state, analogous to the image Sigmund Freud famously conjured in Civilization and its Discontents:  while visiting Rome, the young Freud was suddenly impressed, he remembered, standing at the Capitoline hill, surveying the city’s ruins, by the superimposed nature of multiple destroyed layers in its urban topography, which he saw as a figure of the presence of the past in an individual’s psyche.

Roma Forma Urbis

Freud perhaps presented the forma urbis as a powerful image to assert his own ability to excavate those layers of past trauma, as a master-archeologist of multiple layers, in ways that Vermont’s legislature has set its task of discriminating what common law by-ways will be recognized as “actual” roads that enjoy legal status.  Freud described the coexistence of past chronological layers in Rome as if he was attracted, although also terrified, of discriminating and distinguishing the architectural layering of the city, whose structures seemed built atop one another, revealing hints of destroyed layers partly visible beneath its surface, difficult to comprehend in their entirety, but that simultaneously captivating attention.

Like the cosynchronous presence of multiple pasts in the historical layers in Rome, the roads across Vermont’s “ancient” townships reveal traces of past uses of and motion in space.  The resurveying and submission of these “ancient highways” of the predominantly rural state creates a problem of how to envision the complex of routes competing for federal recognition.  How could these past common-law pathways and byways be mapped, and what would their collective mapping look like?  Should they coexist in a map, or could one imagine something like an interactive map, above a time-sensitive “slider bar”, allowing the viewer to view the different town highways, roads, and unpaved roads over almost three centuries that have constituted the constellation of collective courses of travel across the state?  Or can one better map the state, using new tools of GIS and LiDAR, as a palimpsest of roads and common-law paths, by which to create a blueprint for its future development?  While one should be wary of naturalizing their built environment, and how such pathways served to negotiate the region’s topographic variations, and unbuilt land, one alternative might be to recall the mid-twentieth century surveys of the ancient paths by which the Mississippi river meandered in its basin, although the hope would be to established a more fixed–and far less fluid–relation to space.

Mississipi River Basin and Meander Belt-Ancient Paths

1. Debates about the erasure of once-recognized roads in Vermont towns and hamlets raises questions of what constitutes a sufficient thickness of a cartographical description.  All maps transmit public relations to the land, and the decision of which roads should be preserved in a map–or devolve into the possession of local landowners–raises questions of the status of common-law lands in a still relatively sparsely settled state, whose rural character is increasingly protected.  Vermont has famously preserved much of its woodlands intact, with forested acreage growing considerably since the late 1960s, and public uses are protected in many ways by the unique combination of public and private land-ownership.  Private land-owners in the state are traditionally bound to work with public authorities more closely than many other states, and constraining private property ownership, and particularly doing so in relation to the preservation of public rights-of-way–the inventorying of historical preservation in Vermont placed few obligations on owners, but requires consideration of the impact of any new buildings, demolitions or subdivisions on the state’s historical landscape.  Is the prospect of the disappearance of public roads from the official map, despite llong traditions of their registration in town records–a willful amnesia designed to erase public rights of way?

What recourse exists for the respect of sanctioning such historical amnesia?  It has taken considerable effort to calm concerns among Selectboards and local Aldermen about how the state’s “ancient roads” will be either reclassified or incorporated in the state map in an “Ancient Road Practicum” to assuage fears of the erosion of public rights of way. Regional maps create a distinctly affective relation to place, beyond registering locations:   which unmapped public paths and roads recognized as common-law trails, but often only preserved in property deeds and registers, however remain on the books in Vermont, as all surveyed roads, and raise the problem of what to do with them–and what role the accretion of “Town Highways” long on the books across the state’s municipal corporations will play in an age of private property development, where the flexibility which was characteristic of most common law “roads” that were open for public use have become problematic in that they have been seen as pretexts for lawsuits–and obstacles for regional development.

2.  The legal status once accorded such unnamed ancient roads seems emblematic of a shift in relations to space, and the forests which constitute the majority of Vermont lands, whose patrimony carries clear consequences of stewardship indeed.  For the construal of “roads” is perhaps less the subject of contestation in the re-mapping Vermont’s phantom roads that have devolved into “unidentified corridors” than the construal of use.  The measure now known as  Act 178 claimed to assist towns in determining the “legal status of roads or public rights of way” in their jurisdiction, and provide a protocol to reclassify their legal status as “unidentified corridors” not requiring local maintenance.

The decision to ease the removal of the legal status of such paths provided a protocol to resurvey town highways by 2009, or be effectively voided and erased, based on the lack of their current public use. The response to Act 178 was worthily called attention to by tireless BLDG BLOG blogger Geoff Manaugh, who followed the unfolding of attempts to recover the state’s “lost roadways” with interest since 2008.  Manaugh has written quite sensitively and in detail about the particular resilience of the local in a state that prides itself on the independence of municipal rule and the preservation of local property deeds and local repositories of historical memory.  He followed how the Vermont Agency of Transportation has responded to the interest in clarifying the role of such  “Ancient Roads” to explain protocol to sifting through submissions to be granted legal recognition with special attention to the local remapping of the state by self-styled surveyors who, empowered by GPS, have undertaken to tirelessly re-trace images of ancient roads and to reclaim the rapidly receding past knowledge of the local landscape in Vermont, and to preserve a record of an earlier common-law roads that were registered in the state.

The prospect of discontinuing all unidentified corridors from the map–and the ruling that they will revert to property owners–might be placed more centrally both in the environmental history of this least-populated (and perhaps most decentralized) state of the union, and the new reaction to space that the arrival of developers in the state have posed. The phantom roads preserved raise specific questions of the reception of maps’ contents, and have received considerable local attention as they have become emblematic of a past relation to the state’s local lands. The roads of Vermont have long been classified in relation to local and state authorities, and often depend on public liens of private property, in ways that respected local public usage of roads, and create limits on what statutes bind towns to be responsible for their upkeep.  While usage of roads is not easily mapped, an interactive map, with a slider at its base, would offer a basis for measuring actively used roads over the previous two centuries as a sort of virtual compendium of rights-of-way–that preserves the traditions of land-use, and perhaps affords a palimpsest of local traditions of land-use that may be valuable for determining the course of local development.

The stakes that were driven into the earth for interstate I-89 around 1970 created a break in how cars moved through the state.  For the interstate offered a different sort of road through the Green Mountain state–not without some resistance.  Indeed, a new notion of the “Highway” provided both a new relation to landscape of the state, and introduced a model for travel through its space–something like the major chemins in late nineteenth-century France set a standardized mode of transport linking Paris to the French provinces, as fellow-cyclist Graham Robb recently argued in The Discovery of France.   But whereas Robb described a loss of past ways of moving through the countryside with the rise of a centralized system of roads, the long-decentralized nature of administering Vermont’s roads creates a unique repository of mapping space.  Although the local ecology of roadways and byways in Vermont’s formerly thriving economy  created in a relatively small space a flourishing network of some 4,000 miles of unpaved earth and gravel roads–in addition to some 11,000 “town” roads–around World War One.  Much can be learned sometimes from the legend of a map, sometimes more than from its contents, and especially about attitudes to the land.  The legend to this map of “selected highways” in the state of 1916, for example, illuminates a considerable amount about the legendary back roads of the state of specific relevance to the debate about the permanence or disappearance of the state’s phantom roads, and deserves to be closely read for the heterogeneity of roads and thoroughfares that it noted:

legend 1916 The specific ecology of such network of roads was long maintained by a system of easements to allow public use of byways, and encouraged all town roads to be registered locally–and to not disappear from the books–in ways that seem increasingly to be replaced by the monoculture of the highway.  The creation of a large class of “ancient roads”–roads not comparable in actual age to the common notion of antiquity, but rather than reveal the administrative network of paved itineraries that organized and gave unimaginabel coherence ancient imperial spaces, are associated with notions of “use” judged of almost analogous remove.  They seem unwanted distractions of an bygone era of local municipal corporations.



straight1 DEA/ G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Are these common-law byways rather evidence of a well-tended landscape, as much as a bygone relation to moving through space?  Rather than dealing with the roads, of course, debate about the mappability of Vermont’s ancient dormant roads, focusses on maintaining local public highways in maps.  The very legislation that has destined roads preserved by local ordinance alone from the legal landscape has provoked the growth of interest in re-mapping as a way of asserting local identity and knowledge is far more than a curiosity in cartographical practices; the combination of such research into past roads is profoundly populist in its fervor.  For it suggests a deep shifting the lived relation to the land–and an economic interest in the redefinition of public space, and the value of preserving recorded pathways and preserving town’s existing rights-of-way.

The proposed massive reclassification of roads has elicited fears of a major revision of ways of moving through the land.  Maps are not only repositories of meaning and interfaces, but offer a terrain often actively contested.  The Vermont General Assembly laid the groundwork for a massive reclassification of the roads recorded in local registers as “unidentified corridors” in ways that would render them legally obsolete from July, 2015, and erase the very easements that created the unique combinations of public byways and private property that long distinguished Vermonters’ relation to the land.

The adoption of  Act 178 diminished Selectboards’ authority to determine byways, but in taking the mandate for preserving roads form local municipal corporations, it reframed a local struggle on a cartographical canvas that promoted GIS-enabled amateur cartographers to view their maps in distinctly self-empowering ways.  For while local interests established town highways and common-law byways in ways once mediated by powerful municipal selectmen, the growing demands of the exchange of property and development in Vermont have redrawn relations to the land. Environmentalist George Perkins Marsh once bemoaned the “decline of Vermont” on deforestation, agricultural runoff, overfishing of its rivers, and dams, back in 1864; the threat to strip ancient roads of legal status are less directly a problem of land stewardship, but of the articulation of one’s relation to the land as well as the history of land-use in the state.  If not explicitly environmental, the costs of erasing such unnamed roads and dormant byways create environmental consequences, based not only on a new set of principles for organizing land, but the abandoning of a long-conserved local customs of the conservation of how one moves through space.

It is perhaps interesting to compare how much of France’s provinces were, as late as 1867, not only poorly mapped and known when some 43% of its territory was seen as “dominated by the forces of nature,” from wildlife to forests to shores.  France’s principal roads were defined from Paris; the the nation’s residents often existed in isolation from each other through the expansion of rail before the First World War, when a national system of roads created dominant routes of automotive travel that erased or displaced earlier relations to the land.  Vermont enjoys a far more decentralized notion of the recognition of roadways.  Yet in legal terms, much of Vermont’s terrain has remained relatively uncentralized and were both locally administered and understood.

Such long-dormant paths are not the unmarked tracks taken around or through hedgerows or running through tunnels of vegetation, but rather are routes that shaped places–and are most often found off the roads and in unexpected places, in the partly submerged stone walls, boulders that might have marked the edge of fields, or old paths that create a pattern as off the main roads to reorient ourselves to place and rediscover familiar places, but which may soon revert purely to being private property.  The complex relation to local roads–now reclassified en masse as “unidentified corridors” that will be absent from the State Highway Map, and without legal basis–suggests a new relation between place and space.  But existing maps provide few tools to help us move from one perspective to the other, or from the gradations of paved and unpaved roads, legal trails and discontinued roads, trails, and footpaths which are not so clearly classified or apparent in a view from a state capital.

Norwich Gen Highway map town


3.  The prospect of pruning of the legal roads seems tintended to favor property owners, erasing previous claims to “sleeping” roads lest landowners be surprised that they lie across their property, and create lawsuits that impede projects of future construction.  But it has also opened the possibility of private cartographers’ re-negotiation of their survival.  Vermont’s thinly distributed residents have resisted proposed erasures of rights of way, town highways or byways before selectmen or select boards in the past.  The authority of municipal corporations have gained less economic authority in the state, a standardization of the mapping of property laws has been promoted to prevent the possible lawsuits, considerably expensive and unwanted, that plague many towns, by the “massive reclassification” of town highways no longer in current use.

The decision to extinguish the legal status of unused roads which would devolve into the owners of adjoining lands, reflects the diminished authority of local select boards in the state. The enactment of Act 178 has effectively restricted recognized rights of way, in a gift to property developers desiring to be less hampered by building restrictions.  The massive reclassification of rights of way has offered limited recourse to towns without access to surveyors and attorneys save unpaid volunteers.  The multiple classes of roads–some maintained, other not–were effectively redrawn in deference to property lines and developers, rather than local Selectboards.  Such resistance to remapping place reflects the deep-seated local resistance to projects of development across the state, which, while dismissed by many as essentially romantic, build on deep fears of the loss of localities which survived the paving of the I-89 interstate in the 1970s–and have cathected about the possible disappearance of roads from the map as if they affirmed a loss of local knowledge. The issue turns on the slippage or rather permitted coexistance of both a public right to passage and a private right to landholding that is specific to Vermont in the United States: for while easements on privately held land were long permitted to create public ways in Vermont, in a common law highway creation, the creation of town highways in many cases only require recording an act of surveying, after which it can’t be voided or extinguished even by non-use; the act of collective reclassifying “class 4” highways–town highways for which no statutes exists stipulating that town is obligated to maintain–has only rested with the town, either because of a petition from town residents or a decision of the town’s local select board.

Local property lawyers have hence bemoaned “the curse of Vermont’s phantom roads.” As much as an exercise specific to an underpopulated state, the support for affirming former thoroughfares on the books by local statutes and in town clerk’s registers reveals the deep persistence of local mapping–and assertion of the importance of their mappability.  Vermont possesses more unpaved roads than anywhere in the US, and many residents want to keep it that way.  Perhaps the contest as to whether lost thoroughfares as less deserving of legal recognition–and the state’s “Ancient Roads” discontinued–indicates a shift in attitudes toward the land in a state once predominantly agrarian, but whose former farmlands have been increasingly open to turnover and resale. It mirrors a deep defensiveness, almost proprietary in nature, of the state’s agrarian history embodied in its roads.   For battles of local litigation were openly waged on a cartographical canvas, to defend the prospect of the disappearance of landscapes once described as so deeply known as the back of one’s hand. But that landscape is hardly uniform, as mapped below–in an image of the different ways of moving through Vermont’s almost three-quarters wooded land.  The increased number of paved roads in some regions underly the fears of the prospect of a deep change in attitudes to space and how the landscape is navigated; dirt roads have long distinguished perceptions of the state’s landscape, and the advent of paved roads on the counties near its borders suggest a considerable change in the local landscape.  The majority of Vermont’s roads remained unpaved as late as 1996, revealing the deep-set defensiveness about the dirt road in Vermont, where the 8,000 miles of unpaved dirt roads, overseen by roads commissioners, make the state distinct in the United States, and where the central interstate that is increasingly clogged with traffic and transport rigs has only been around since the early 1970s, when it joined the Eisenhower interstate system.  Unsurprisingly, those regions where the ratios of unpaved to paved roads are significant, the interest in defining ancient roads has been particularly pronounced.  For such roads constitute regional icons that are inseparable from a map–and defines the integrity of local landscapes.  Whereas more than 14,000 miles of roads exist in the state, only a fifth belong to the state highway system—roughly 2,700 miles. public assets, Where the Roads Go Static version of Public Assets’ rollover map available here, from GIS data of the Vermont Agency of Transportation

The uneven presence of paved roads concentrated around Lake Champlain, the state capital, and the state’s edges in “Where the Roads Go,” a map taken from the public maps of a public agency responsible for the maintenance of state roads, reveal shifting attitudes to space and in the human geography of Vermont’s predominantly forested lands, as well as profound differences in how space is passed through that come increasingly into evidence in central Vermont, where they are highly valued.  A more relevant map would be, of course, of road use, but that would require a complex tracking of roads by sensors or real-time maps.  But the above map suggests clear pockets of the conservation of dirt roads–and the surprising local persistence of an earlier relationship to space, not registered in land maps.  Indeed, the unique metamorphosis of most state highways that shift to town roads while passing through Vermont towns offer evidence of the uneven integration of a state-wide road system into a network of town highways. Unsurprisingly, in municipalities where paved roads are in the minority, after examining data in the rollover map of Public Assets Institute, “ancient” roads has been contested. Because this rollover map plugs the GIS data of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, a public agency responsible for the upkeep of rads, and omits those roads labelled “unimproved/primitive” or “untraveled,” the addition of ancient roads would only increase the ratios of unpaved to paved roads.  In many counties of Vermont, the sense that la diritta via era smarrita has encouraged the redesignation of “unidentified corridors” as official town roads, and the resurveying of byways in danger of being definitively written off the books once absorbed into privately owned property lots, as such “unidentified corridors” without proper names vanish from existing state maps.

5.  The growing demand for a standardization of property deeds encouraged the rewriting the legal status of Vermont’s byways–and the reasons for which formerly sanctioned public roads would continue to remain on the books and to be recognized as legal roads.  And the race to map common-law byways was the subject of Geoff Manaugh‘s post, which provides the starting off point for a contemplation of the power of how a state like Vermont is mapped, and exactly how adequately “thick” a description might be preserved in a highway map of the state. 2.  Although many local statutes to maintain and create “highways” have long remained the same, the retaining of the term “highways” pertaining to roads that towns were granted authority to legally create on the basis of a survey from 1808 has made it difficult for the term to not be a topic of deep misunderstanding–as does the declaration by the town that the “highway” was open, even if the town select-board did not place it on the state highway map.  But the place of such Ancient Roads, however frustrating or obfuscating they might appear to modern property deeds or development, are artifacts of a local ecology of mapping, revealed in a local survey of the range of highways in Vermont mapped in 1939 in Berlin, Vt., outside the state capital, which discriminated thirteen varieties of roads, from “state highway” to “untraveled road” and “primitive road.” These classes of roads are continued in the five classes of roads as they are currently mapped–the fourth and fifth lower ranks of which have been recently subsumed as “Unidentified Corridors.”


The parallel existence of four classes of state-supervised highways, town highways and county roads had been clarified in the legend of a 1916 map of the state’s highways, before funding for Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921,  the Golden Age of paving of roads from the 1920s and long before stakes were set in the forests for the paved artery of I-89 after 1970 that eventually allowed big rids like eighteen-wheelers to carry goods across counties without encountering any steep grades, and to leave trails of pollutants from drip to fossil fuel emissions across the state.

legend 1916 1919 mapVermont Highway Dept./Fish and Game Dept. State Map (1916)

Continuing questions prompted by the semantic slippage between “state highways” and town highways were revisited in 2006.  The passage of what was later known as Act 178 promised to reclassify the roads recorded in local registers as obsolete and vanish from the landscape into homeowners’  property deeds if they weren’t approved by July of 2015.  The hope was to open the state to further real estate exchanges, declaring earlier highways null and void, to clear the slate for a new relation to the land by cleansing the map of what many saw as the true basis to help local development and growth, dismantling the local diversity of mapping of common-law by-ways by their massive reclassification. The approaching July 2015 deadline mandated by Act 178 has however encouraged several self-styled surveyors to dedicate themselves to effectively excavating “ancient roads” by reviewing town records and re-surveying their courses by GIS so that they may recover former common-law byways suddenly threatened with erasure and mandated obsolescence, and to resurrect past “highways” which property owners did not want to recognize as rights of way. For the persistence odd amalgam of local statutes and common law in Vermont has so confused the question of the uniformity of landowners’ titles and property claims that it was seen as necessary to guarantee homeowners from not having to learn about undeclared thoroughfares that once crossed their lands.  (The confusion encouraged a new map comprehending those “clearly observable” byways and highways, but nonetheless acknowledging the ability of towns to declare “unidentified corridors” as a class of roads–lest they be extinguish from being grounds for legal action.)  The longstanding unpaved highways in much of the state were so much part of its landscape that the prospect of voiding these thoroughfares’ legal status has provoked a resurgence of counter-mapping to take cartographical note–if not possession–of corridors, thoroughfares, and sleeping roads whose “un”-mapping constituted a deep local loss in a historical patrimony. image001 University of Vermont Landscape Change Program/Vermont State Archives

The lack of clarity has lead many to seek to reclassify such “unidentified corridors,” lest they be swept from the map as public rights of way and effectively . . . lost.  “Maps Don’t Show Vermont’s Sleeping Roads,” announced a banner headline of Yankee Magazine alarmingly back in 2009.  The article describing the dilemma that although most landowners want to leave roads open to cross-country skiers or snowmobiles:  if they are annoyed by finding beer cans and garbage as the snows recede, the considerable imprecision of where such roads lie across privately owned lands has created disputes between not only hikers and homeowners to a conflict between private property owners and conserving Vermont’s fading agrarian past–and opens up a shifting relation to the land’s use as the agricultural society that defined the state in the 1970s seems definitively on the wane, despite the survival of former cornfields and roadside farm-stands.

The dynamic of documenting Vermont lands may reflect the outlier nature of Vermont as a site of local towns’ record-keeping.  Town clerk offices and town halls in the once largely agrarian state have retained written records that document any road which had been surveyed in the state stay, and the legal recognition accorded this network of hidden roads or planned was directly addressed by the state legislature in 2006:  but for the first time, Act 178 introduced a window through this July for submitting any additions to the map–fashioning a feasible protocol for adding “ancient roads” to the state’s general highway map.  It has encouraged the drawing of a counter-map responding to the imperiling of the past landscape of the state, giving voice to the unrecognized in the compilation of lists of sleeping roads lest they atrophy from collective consciousness and be removed from a historical patrimony.  To be sure, only in select regions of the country where systems of record keeping are still stored in town record books and vaults, and localities retain a certain preeminence that the local government respects from having to take the time to absorb, can the confusion about what constitutes a highway or “open road” exist.

But the semantic sedimentation around the word “highway” seems only half of the problem, sine their existence is the bugbear that developers face.  For the existence of roads can continue if they remain long on the local books, “even if nothing of them remains except a musty record book in a book in the town clerk’s office,” as Paul S. Gillies of Montpelier puts it in his recent Ruminations, and if “they only survive as legal ideas.”  The poor maintenance of town highways in the state already muddies the issue of their maintenance.

6.  Does the umbrella term of “highways” create both a contextual and conceptual problem of what remains on the Highway Map, proving far more confusing to the question of processing where a road lies and who bears responsibility for its upkeep?  What is a road, anyway?  Well, who wants to know?  The debate about what constitutes a “town highway” has provoked local reluctance to relinquish routes not visibly used, so the question really turns on the construal of use–and questions of  converting easements attached on privately owned land that was prevsiously made to public use.  Can such easements that were made for “reasonable and convenient” “public use,” asked Alexander Hood in 2010, be converted to “state use,” and can the process outlined in Act 178 prevent local statutes from being adopted to reclassify “unidentified corridors” as a permanent road, and thereby further cloud the hopes for its extinction?  This is certainly what the petitioners who intend to re-open the designation of “unidentified corridors” in the state had hoped to achieve. “The challenging task is a recovery of lost knowledge once familiar to many residents of the town, and then lost through unintended neglect,” Paul Gillies has advised local map makers who had volunteered to undertake the “worthy task” of excavating town highways and old roads, and advising them to undertake to document the “full history of the highways of your town” in a “fully-annotated, correct map of the road network” for future use. For what constitutes an “ancient road” is itself of course a matter of perspective.  If ancient roads embody an idiosyncratic Vermonter sense of the antique, they are no doubt a consequence of the perceived stakes of a loss of earlier inhabitation of space. The recent attempt to rediscover the roads that have remained off most maps of the state, and were never listed on official Highway Maps, reveal a lattice-like network hibernating common-law roads that were ever proposed in the public record of routes from the reign of George II.  A proviso in a dormant law has long granted all towns authority to enshrine laws on the books allowed common law transit routes to long accumulate across a state, ensuring many seasonal roads to be used in alternation by Vermonters.  Yet as insurance companies have come flatly to refuse to write title deeds in certain towns, and some towns to deny applications to build additions to their houses outright, what as emerged as a site of access to a historical patrimony of how the land was lived have threatened to significantly dampen an active real estate market.  The hope for relabelling such common-law rights-of-way as “unidentified corridors”–in the words, allowing sleeping roads to be identified and some to be added to official town highway maps, while allowing others to be stripped from the official books and wither away. Act 178 was adopted to strip the state map of the legal baggage of surveyed roads that have long fallen out of use, as if they were a system of vines or unwanted underbrush, in hopes to facilitate the future fungibility of a brisk traffic in property sales by minimizing home-owners’ risk, it has set off an alarm for the a reassessment of local roads–lest “unidentified corridors,” not only be stripped of legal status, but disappear into the local landscape rather than provide active precedents for easements.

Mutatis mutandi, the dream of assembling the hidden or virtual lattice of unused roads and hidden pathways across old agricultural lands has become a goal in itself and a sort of hidden patrimony of the state, as individual nameless roads have been recovered from title deeds and town records and relocated in the landscape by GIS.  Which goes to show, debate that focusses on the addition or subtraction of places from a map–and the map is accorded explicit authority as a repository of memory:  there is a strong sense that what is or is not included in the final version is perceived to have potential consequences far greater than folks might usually feel.  Whether the network of unused roads which still on the books constitute an actually active repository of knowledge or a hindrance to property sales is immaterial to such surveying–Act 178 prompts of a loss of the way-finding and foresting long central to Vermont lore in a state whose landscape still carries the imprint of its agrarian origins even as property sales increase, and the mappability of byways is increasingly contested as impinging on homeowners’ property rights.

Sleepin Road in Vt? Brookfield, Vermont (Photography by the author)

The authority attached to the practice of surveying–and Vermont was quite intensively surveyed since the eighteenth century–invested an authority in written records that are increasingly being supplemented by re-surveying, GPS, and even flyover LiDAR surveys to mark  abandoned “ancient” public roads across the state, and often across forests and private property, was increasingly seen as more than a hindrance to encourage a market of local real estate and development:  for as the number of non-industrial landowners in the state, almost 80% covered by forest, has grown consistently from the early 1980s–and by a third in the fifteen years from 1983 to 1998 alone–the briskness of property transactions in recent years have provoked a challenge to the sense of its spatial order where the demand for the fungibility of land may lead the recorded roads once preserved in public records to disappear.

The authority of an apparent atrophying of local knowledge about place–a prized possession in a state of relatively strong localism and regional autonomy as well as pride–has been met with a range of remapping place with an energy often not seen, or imaginable, by a crew of retirees who have acted as a crew of self-annointed local historians. The identification of ancient roads by GIS systems or LiDAR has mustered an increasingly ideological weight in Vermont.  For in recent years, as a deadline for filing requests for the recognition of roads, increasing individuals have sought to remap routes, acting as self-styled renegades in the tradition of the Green Mountain Boys’ brigade–not to fight with arms for their land, but to reclaim place as they re-survey Vermont’s ancient roads to inhabit the region’s historical patrimony.

The search for old trails and ancient roads that were filed with local town councils over time created a sedimentation of routes that once open for review have helped generated excitement to reclaim place in a world registered by GoogleMaps.  The shifting sense of the social that the elimination of accumulated rights of way suggest an unnecessary challenge to the ecology of information in the state in a state where some counties remain 94% forested, and the state is the second least populated. The acts of reclaiming roads have created a drama worthy of attention because of the local efforts of remapping that they have inspired.  In places such as Huffington, VT, a group of ten volunteers taking the defensive-sounding name of the “Ancient Roads Committee” composed of a GIS analyst, ski patroller, and biologist for the Audubon Society, moved by their ties to the local landscape, retirees have emerged as latter-day Green Mountain Boys to remap some 138 roads in the region to enshrine their legal recognition.  Their ringleader, Aaron Wortheley has hurled such defensive inspirational battle cries as “For us it’s about old maps, history, and a way to better understand the town.”  The battle is met on the ground and by archival research in town records.  The former forester Norman Arseneault, of Granville, VT–with dirt roads of 17.6 miles, and paved roads of 11.9, and adjoining the Broadleaf Wildnerness–has worked assiduously to compile a survey of “ancient roads” to be submitted for consideration as “ancient,” and which, even if not enshrined as permanent rights of way by the state legislature, will be self-published for locals and visitors. Even if many such “roads” may remain GIS shapes, lacking names, waiting to be placed on a topographical map, and were only mentioned in the 1850s, by remaining on the books they have either become spots that seem in need of pruning, to use an agrarian metaphor of gardening, or preservation–either being fetishized as historical remnants or providing access to a receding past.  In the town of Hinesburg, VT, near Melbourne–dirt 34.9 miles, paved 29.1–the local Selectboard is working to identify roads that “state law dictates that towns retain the rights to . . .  whether they have remained in use or not,” even if the only evidence of their founding remains in the town vault, establishing an ‘Ancient Roads Committee’ specifically dedicated to reviewing old records to map old roads, working to reclassify “unidentified corridors” lest they become defunct, and absorbed into private lands.

7.  What generated this efflorescence of map making and feelings of local bereavement at the reclassification of unused thoroughfares?  The roads lie between common law usage and thorns in the side of a booming market of private-property.  This still-unmapped aporia of legal interpretations have created a cartographical combat zone about the relation of roads’ relation to space.  For only the preservation and legally binding nature of local geographical land deeds have documented the rights of way being collated to fashion a palimpsest of phantom roads that remain on the books across the state, and provide a legible record of how it was once inhabited in the past–even if listed in coordinates by eighteenth-century surveyors and have gone unused for over 150 years. Much as “paper towns” that exist only in maps were designed by cartographers to provide protection against cartographical copycats, but acquire an after-life after being encoded in maps, the hope is that mapping such “phantom” roads may prevent them from disappearing into the local landscape.  (Randolph Center on Route 66, below Mt. Ascutney, and enjoyed fame as an early site for the capital since it stood at the geometric center of the state–it remained a contender for being its capital into the 1800s–but is now barely noticed by drivers save as an intersection with one General Store.)  Popular YA author John Green loved the cartographic conceit of the “paper town”–an invented place on a map existing only on maps, devised to serve as a copyright trap, rather than point of orientation–and adopted it as an idea for the setting of a road story of teenagers trying to measure their own relation to the world. The conceit of the “paper town” raises questions about the world as it exists on a map, and its existence at an angle to reality, in the heads of his characters, as it becomes something of a basis for self-discovery for its protagonists in Paper Towns, who have to loose themselves until they can find themselves in the final weeks at the end of High School:  the voyage to the invented town of Agloe, devised by cartographers Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers at a crossroads as a sort of cypher  composed only from their own initials, not only existed as a site that “was imagined, and then real, and then disappeared, [before it was] then imagined again in my story,” as Green said, but suggests the gap between all maps and reality.   If Agloe seems the secret of the mysterious Margo, and the most complex of clues she leaves for her repeated disappearance in her teen years, it becomes a gateway to a lost world. The sleeping roads of Vermont, if long absent from any official state maps, provide an important site for local contestation in a state designated in its entirety among the “endangered historical places.” warren trail at falls A trail near Waitsfield, VT; photograph by author GranvilleAncientRoads17web Town Log Book of local property deeds in Granville, VT; photograph by Geoff Manaugh

Mapmakers have long invented the “paper towns”–places that exist only on paper–as a form of copyright that allowed them to spy copycat mapmakers who relied on their own inventions: such “copyright traps” have been so common in print that the wised up editors of OpenStreetMaps hence actively discourages its contributors from relying on past printed maps, but only rely on images of Google Earth or live photographic feeds to limit errors that might otherwise creep into OSM maps:  and the idea that OSM would introduce errors into maps is distinctly unpalatable.

Debates as to whether such “sleeping” routes and ancient roads belong on the map, or are more properly permanently expunged from it, have raised the stakes about the worth of including “unused” roads on maps. The resurrection of such abandoned or only-registered roads have gained attention as they have emerged as obstacles to a brisk traffic in property–and as that traffic is seen as a burial of the deeds and customs that affirmed local autonomy and knowledge in the state–in ways that may lead them to be definitively expunged from the maps that seek to define a new standard in the fungibility of property and real estate.  While the debate is about what is included in the map, the lines on which the debate are drawn reflect different notions of land-use.  The combat lines in this cartographical struggle are as difficult to disentangle as the roads from the leafy landscape.  For as much as create a coherent map of actual thoroughfares, the archeology of abandoned pathways and proposed a common-law roads evoke a spatial imaginary and palimpsest of Vermont’s former economies by a range of mapping techniques.  The excavation of these roads document began as a way of defending property rights against claims, and calming homeowners uneasy with the quirks of local laws, but the official appeal of the state legislature to invite claims to roads has fostered an attempt to retrace these ancient roads as a sort of “commons,” if it began as an attempt to scrub the cartographical palimpsest across fields and forests that might be invoked as local legally binding precedents. Written records have provided a durable way to retrace the byways and highways surveyed or noted as a matter of public record from the founding of  Vermont’s towns, cities, villages, grants, and gores that extend in the public record from the reign of King George II.  But do these byways need to be preserved, if the state’s economy has definitively moved from its predominantly agricultural past?  Since Vermont’s General Assembly resolved in 2006 to redefine the ownership, responsibility for, and access to those “unidentified corridors” that were “not otherwise clearly observable by physical evidence of their use as a highway or trail,” and which might devolve to property owners.  Since then, something like a charge has emerged for using such records to recognize roads “not clearly observable as highways or trails on the landscape.” recalled Jonathan Croft of the Vermont Agency of Transportation‘s Mapping Organization.

Is the charge to affirm the existence of those “unidentified corridors” not on town highway maps is a peculiar instance of the persistence of the local in the world of maps?  It may also have been encouraged by the familiarity of the landscapes in a rich tradition of regional mapping, and a sense of the value of the preserving the local in a landscape that some fear to be soon lost. The impending end-date of Act 187 created something like a clarion call for the emergence of local historians to reclaim the lost landscape through unidentified corridors and ancient roads to preserve them in the Highway Map of thoroughfares to be  subsequently published, and uncover the lost landscape that digitized maps failed to register or comprehend–although a field of green in which I-89 runs like a ribbon of red from St. Albans to Montpelier to Brattleboro has created a basis for transport in the state.


8.  Remapping the land is perhaps the clearest way of taking it back for local cities, who have increasingly encouraged the resurveying of local roads.  The deadline of July 1, 2015 has provoked cartographical investigations of localities and a scrutiny of past maps, deeds, and manuscript records to serve as mediums to let land speak, and provoked an Ancient Road Practicum for all local governments, in an attempt to describe the hopes for augmenting the inclusion of all legally recognized public rights of way on new state highway maps. The project of pulling back a corner on an almost lost history of the rural back roads of state increasingly preoccupied about the danger of traffic on its overcrowded interstates, the new image of the state is particularly exciting, and especially interesting as a bottom-up exercise of collective mapping, expanding the notion of the “highway” in a debate about what constitutes a public road. Whereas many of these roads were not registered in Google Maps or on official state maps, the re-mapping of nameless roads seems to have grown within the gap of how the way we write maps:  as absence of local knowledge became increasingly clear in LandSat images, roads could not be seen cannot be seen but within the almost epistemic chasm of map making styles incarnated between a Google Maps API and the openly editable OSM state map.  Given these alternatives, the prospect of losing the accumulated knowledge seems a deeply alienating prospect of alienating oneself from how the land was once lived, already stripped from the sanitized image Google generates.  In contrast to the information the web of local roads offer about how the land was once lived, the loss of such nameless ancient roads seems a loss of a historical patrimony of micro cultures of mapping that once distinguished the territory of the state.  The absence of a diversity of mapping abilities in the monoculture of Google Maps remains striking.  But so is the difficulty of mapping a region more defined by rivers, in most maps, than by roads, where rivers and mountains have long provided the primary forms of orientation to the topography and other byways were only ever intended to be known to the locals–rather than openly mapped for housing development.

cnetral VT around Waitsfield OSM2 VT Such a contrast was, of course, not the original intent of the decision to include these trails and local town highways to Vermont’s General Highway Map.  When Vermont’s General Assembly passed Act 178–“Adding Ancient Roads to the General Highway Maps“–they perhaps intended to winnow the number of roads on the books.  Yet, as said above, the revisionary Act of streamlining has opened doors to remapping, and provoked a fighting ground where paper maps become weapons whose arguments are effectively rehabilitated to present a more polyvocal map of the second most uninhabited state in the union.  The point isn’t to offer better commute routes to Burlington or Montpelier, of course but rather to uncover how the hills were once inhabited and navigate what has most often become landscape by following the few surviving clues.  The effort has offered an impetus to a way of rediscovering the landscape that was lost, as local legal battles are increasingly enacted–or projected–onto a cartographical canvas, by a heterogeneous variety of mapping tools including GIS, old maps, LiDAR, and on-the-ground surveying to reawaken a network of “sleeping” roads from local registers, property deeds, and tax records not only a romantic quest for part of an earlier agrarian economy or protecting rapidly receding a body of common law rights of way. 6.  It is as if a window of resistance was opened against the local view of inhabiting space that have been preserved over time, barely visible on Google Maps or the and the carving of property lines.  In this context, what constitutes a road is a topic of contentious debate.  The idea of comprehending and reviewing all legally established highways has created the category of “unidentified corridors” stripped the legal status of unwanted roads, perhaps running across private properties, even though they were laid out by due process in the past.  The network of these roads that the state wants to be pruned from official roads goes beyond the roads that tied towns, mostly founded in the late eighteenth century, that linked rural areas, but were proposed over two hundred years in ways that suggest the accumulation of a relation to a lived landscape around the rivers and across jurisdictional regions. Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.25.40 AMScreen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.24.57 AM The use of paper records as repositories of memory may be limited to specific areas in the United States such as Vermont, but provide tools that can be interestingly paired with GIS and LiDAR tools to record a changed relation to the land of “lost highways” that have heretofore gone unmapped in state records, but still remain legally recognized in the state.  In Vermont, the declaration of past roads not only stays on the books, but has proved to gain considerable appeal as a way a point of access to the not entirely departed past:  for the records of such “sleeping” roads suggests an enticingly new way of occupying the land.  For even with the long existence of printed maps and public surveying, local trails, logging roads, non-paved byways and commercial roads not noted in a tradition of state mapping that privileges Vermont’s major thoroughfares, railroads, rivers, quarries, and streams–rather the trails that often lie along or beside them.  The question is whether these roads deserve preservation in a map respected as a true repository of memory, or what might be a place to preserve the precedents of local knowledge of place that a monoculture of mapping would effectively erase. FullSizeRender-15 Photo by the Author

Indeed, the romance of the recovery of the informal byways and common thoroughfares hearken back to an ideal of common law land ownership, at odds with the individual claims to property with which maps are often associated:  the uncovering of “sleeping” roads, or what the current state has labeled “unidentified corridors,” lest they be endowed with legitimacy, are a way of romancing the past of the local at the same time as it seems on the verge of vanishing from our national landscape, particularly focussed in a state at last count nearly eighty percent forest.

Vermont map legend 1796 “A correct map of the state of Vermont : exhibiting the county and town lines, rivers, lakes, ponds, mountains, meetinghouses, mills, public roads &c.” (1796)   Library of Congress

The effective cartographical reconstruction of such once well-trammeled routes in a landscape of green mountains uncovers the division of the state’s mosaic of counties by the current parcellation of its largely rural and forested expanse along private property lines, disrupting the notion of common greens and pathways along which towns were long functionally organized–rather than an inorganic understanding of individual property lots, that might be understood in terms of the best view, or remove from highway noise, but are often removed from history.


9.  The attention to both serves as a basis to negotiate the common-law rights-of-way in Vermont’s countryside, and indeed to explore the habitation of past landscapes that might seem increasingly removed from current conditions of land use.  The recuperation of such “lost” or “sleeping roads” across the state of Vermont began as a legislative exercise in trimming legal precedents, but its expansion in recent years seems to have stemmed from an active and collective effort of refamiliarization with the lived landscape that proves both the power of the paper map–and the power of paper records to orient oneself to a landscape that was once lived–and the interest in proposing new additions to the promised revised map of the State Highways that will be the result of this call for towns to curtail the plethora of local roads–“unidentified corridors,” to not even grant them the standing of roads or highways–that once provided a basis by which to understand space.

One is struck by the active heterogeneous culture of mapping, drawing on both written records, new surveys, exploration, and remote sensing in the recuperation of a lost landscape of the Vermont hills, working to recover a landscape of such “sleeping roads” which often lack names or were only proposed, but which are all of a sudden being re-mapped lest they be lost. As if a low-tech form of collective mapping that hearkens back to the days before open source data, the composition of a guide to lost roads and byways that were, of necessity, locally excavated, suggests an oddly retrograde–if ultimately postmodern–compilation of geographic knowledge, which privileges the local far above LandSat imagery, and seeks to discover past testimonies of land-use as much as the condition of the current network of state highways by rereading and breathing life into long unused surveys to find precedent of past land-use.  The more minor roads that were long noted in logbooks of local towns were rarely if ever included in early state maps.  Such maps were largely limited to placing the major thoroughfares in relation to rivers and train routes.  The attempt to uncover evidence and precedents of common use of the ancient roads of the state of Vermont has proceeded not like out of a perceived good of public history, but the relative nuisance that the accumulation of so many unused roads and trails enjoy as being on the books.

The hope from which state legislators acted by setting a decade for the recovery of such “sleeping” or ancient roads in local log books was to trim the local sedimentation of unpaved byways rarely are, registered in local repositories and only now recovered.  But the romance of the recovery of old roads that have been abandoned within the current landscape may also lie in the hope to rectify the “false totality” offered viewers by Google Maps or Earth View, or the complex relations between topography and noted roads in the state map that takes into account the long-term history of land use.  The map below was made for drivers, indeed, who have little interest in the unpaved byways inaccessible to their vehicles, but the monoculture of mapping it imposes is quite limited view, given its omission of locally accumulated geographic knowledge.  For no doubt the increasing claims of totalistic coverage of contemporary mapping media turned cartographical scrutiny to what the state has referred to as its “ancient” roads, ones no longer used or kept up, as well as the rapidly receding sense that old timers share in where those “ancient” roads lay.

The hope of legislators who enacted to clarify their legal existence, given that most only exist conceptually–and may be either in utter disuse or perhaps never even constructed, although surveyed.  For the translation of what is surveyed into a living cartographical tradition is by no means evident.

10.  While the majority of these roads were simply never transcribed with comprehensiveness, perhaps, no doubt, because they remained of local concern and were administered by municipal Selectmen or later Selectboards, the standards of common law by which they were recognized are now in the sights of state legislators.   Despite the demand to recuperate the records of all roads officially surveyed–even if they were never built or paved, or are not maintained–within the collective rights of way  belonging to a landscape rapidly receding from public memory. The archeology of ancient roadways was a consequence, rather than ever being an intent, of legislators’ desire to protect homeowners from claims brought regarding the existence of thoroughfares that homeowners did not know to have existed.  But their compilation triggered a collective familiarization with remapping a landscape as it was once locally known, and recreating the maps of Vermont regions and towns.  One important back story of the remapping of unwanted roads is in the growing value of home-ownership across the state, evident per capita income in the state–now the twenty-fifth in the nation, with an average income in five places of over $35,000, creating some pockets of clear wealth, and a substantially higher home ownership rate than the USA–albeit also a state with relatively low income differentials.  In a state with long claims to local autonomy, the economic upswing in has provoked a shifting relation to place, rooted in the security of land ownership against legal claims, manifested in the new interest in erasing the recognition of ancient roads.

2009 Northeast INcome Distribution by county Median Household Income in Northeastern United States, 2009 per capita income Vt Per Capita Income across eastern United States, 2012

A quite considerable gain in county-by-county median incomes in the northeast between 1980 and 2010 were located in Vermont, whose individual counties colored in dark green are among the greatest growth of median incomes in the nation:

1980-2010 Patchwork Nation/Jefferson Institute

The states of both Vermont and its slightly wealthier neighbor, New Hampshire, registered the largest gain in median incomes and growing property tax values, placing an increasing premium on the protection of homeowners–according to a 2005-9 visualization of the Tax Foundation.  Even if this map has been accused of cartographic deceptiveness, as it exhausts at a “low” rate of $2,000, it colors Vermont, once considered a poor state, a solid dark blue at the time Act 178 was first passed.

newimage-1 from TaxProf Blog/Paul Caron

The division of the state by “designated downtowns” in red, villages in tan, and centers of economic growth in green suggests the landscape of economic revitalization Smart Growth imagines and a project of the consequent transformation of the state:

econ growth vt At the same time, much of Vermont has long insisted on the value and preservation of the local–manifested in new ways in both the anti-factory farm movement, the foodie prizing of a Vermont Fresh Network, and local stewardship of lands such as the Vermont Land Trust and Woodlands Organization.   While not linked in any formal way to one another, boosted by the wedding of an environmental as well as a preservationist ethic, many of these organizations are based on a new concern with the loss of a traditional sense of place and for which the cartographical rehabilitation of what were once “sleeping” roads provides a powerful cartography to the highway map.  Any consideration of the amplification of the search for local roads that was provoked by the desire to set a limit on what can be recognized as a legal claim to a road in the state, in part to protect the sale of property deeds without concern of the future declaration of pathways or thoroughfares as open to public access. But the desire to winnow out the number of legally recognized roads in the state–and reduce the number on the books–seems to have led the Assembly to seek to clarify which “ancient roads” towns wanted to preserve, and which “ancient roads” would be left unmapped, and become “Unidentified Corridors” that would cease to be public roads–or town highways–and should cease to be difficulties to private land-owners by remaining possible public rights-of-way.  Yet the “unidentified corridor” offers valuable evidence about how the land was once occupied.  In ways that test of the power of the accumulation of a surfeit of written documentation of roads in an age of Google maps–the limits of whose accuracy of rural regions in Vermont I’ve earlier noted on this blog–the remapping of these roads by spirited amateur cartographers combines local history, foresting, and oral history, with a love of the local to re-survey lost paths and scratch the surface of a past landscape in unprecedented detail.

11.  The reliance on manuscript maps to excavate the hitherto “unidentified corridors” and concealed thoroughfares of Vermont–routes that, while legally confirmed as roads, are overgrown with greenery and hardly navigable to a car–remind us of the peculiarity of resilience on repositories of paper maps to recover traces of roads rapidly receding into the landscape, as they also provide a basis for breathing life into the lost landscapes of transit.  The excavation of heretofore “unidentified corridors” or “sleeping roads” in Vermont is a curious archeology of the deep history of place:  long recognized in property deeds and towns’ Survey Books, the investigation into the ancient roads of the state stand at the intersection between large-scale maps and the local terrain, and offer an interesting case in the persistence of paper maps and local surveys in an age of digital mapping. vt_1795_Carey_200KIL2 The peculiarities of what survives–and what doesn’t–within maps that might be taken as comprehensive cartographical authorities.  The case of deciding what counts–or what doesn’t–as a town highway may depend on the perspective of the user, but reminds us of the peculiar power of maps.  The collective memories that are synthesized within any map’s surface make the a repository of information:  the invitation to find evidence of the traces of ancient or sleeping roads may lie most clearly in written town records, if they must be teased out of the landscape in order to be officially recognized, and they have been recovered in light of the ultimatum of the state legislature to review the existence of any road legally recognized in the past two hundred years by the lapsed date of July 1, 2015. Despite apparent state hopes to erase such “unidentified corridors”–those town highways which were once legally recognized by local governing bodies–and banish their legal precedent has galvanized interest in ancient roads revealed tensions not before so explicit between Vermont’s legislative body and local jurisdictions by actively pruning “ghost” or “sleeping roads” from legally recognized roads.

The compilations of roads locally preserved on paper in Vermont towns are, to use a rural metaphor, being pruned and weeded in an attempt to create a uniform authoritative record of roads municipalities are responsible to preserve.  Indeed, the invitation that Vermont’s General Assembly extended in 2006 opened the doors to an unprecedented amplification of byways that had fallen off the official books, inviting localities to define routes on the record books stored in vaults and past deeds resting in town halls over the next nine years–or with the cut-off date of July, 2015.  For in confirming Act 178, the legislature has openly encouraged a search for previously “unidentified corridors” or unmapped thoroughfares among self-styled local historians combing through local archives to assume the status of mediums of the dead to remap lost ancient roads and otherwise unmarked byways for the preparation of a revised state map–with the proviso that no future claims to add roads be accepted or recognized.  And the considerable frenzy of cartographical feeding before this deadline unearthed hitherto unknown layers of “unidentified corridors,” which, even if not registered in the revised Highway map, will survive in local compilations rather than be forgotten for good. What became known as the now-notorious  Act 178 has necessitated several subsequent glosses of clarification, because its meanings were not immediately or clearly locally understood.  It established a window of ten years for the locally inventoried “ancient” roads from 2006, designating July 2015 as the final date for submission of roads that might be legally recognized.  The flurry of attention responded that followed represents a particularly compelling case of the resilience of the local in a state that prides itself on the independence of municipal rule by selectmen–or selectboards–and the preservation of local property deeds and local history.  The Vermont Agency of Transportation an entire page to explain protocol and state of play for adding such “Ancient Roads” to future General Highway Maps–not to gain aid in their upkeep, but grant them legal recognition, but discontinue all unidentified corridors which will revert to property owners.  Such a pruning of the legal road network seems to favor property owners, it also opened the possibility of private cartographers’ re-negotiation of their survival:  the state legislature has allowed ten years for the local inventorying of local “ancient” roads in 2006, known locally but not noted on state maps, by designating July 2015 as the final date for submission of prospective roads. The idea is theoretically interesting, because it raises question, in a logical sense, about the mappability, or about how many roads it makes sense to include on a map–putting aside the clear value of an cartographical cleansing for attracting non-local homeowners to the state.  The possible absences in the mapping of roads in such internet-based map providers are readily imaginable, and makes the intensity of mapping “unidentified corridors” particularly exciting as an exercise of putting them on the map.  There are important instances of assisting archeologists, ecologists, and farmers by aerial mapping can reveal local landscapes most sensitive to coastal flooding allows England’s Environment Agency to provide open data on sensitive issues that affect multiple communities–a prospect that seemed particularly suited to recognizing hidden paths through the woods.

CJ4A282WcAEeXxRDetail of LiDAR map issued by Environment Agency (UK) after 2014 Winter Flood

12.  The use of LiDAR to excavate a relation to space are not widespread in Vermont.  But the tools might help uncover many of the lost ancient roads that criss-cross the Vermont landscape, in concert with the consultation of a large body of paper and printed maps from the nineteenth century to search offer evidence of their past use, even as practical knowledge of these ancient roads has diminished across generations, and slowly atrophied as mapped pathways, to disappear from most all printed maps despite the long and respectable history of state-wide surveys and detailed topographical hiking maps–as well as trails maintained from the 1930s by the WPA. The memory of the landscape revealed in local deeds suggest strong local traditions of surveying that supplemented traditions of surveying the principle state-wide roads that run through the valleys, beside the state’s multiple rivers and railway lines.  But the lowly populated state included many of these “unmapped paths” and byways once important for regional commerce to mills, lumber depots, and tanneries.  Large-scale printed surveyed maps of the state from the early nineteenth century show a parallel growth in roads and rivers that embodied the state’s economy, offering something of a parallel resource to recover ancient roads.  For printed maps offer a template for coordinating such investigations in parallel with LiDAR surveys, to provide a picture of how the state was traversed before the introduction of the interstate I-89, and indeed, perhaps, before the train routes that so reshaped the perception of space across the state, but might be suggested before the roads and rivers by which the state was surveyed before the Civil War.

Addison 1859 rivers and rods Middlebury to GranvilleRivers and Roads in Map of Addison County, 1859

The attempt at an erasure of past town thoroughfares hopes to streamline the historical accumulations lest the state be compelled to acknowledge legal challenges to private property challenges.  But they ran into counter-claims of the prominent place such roads and byways enjoy in local history.  The existence of roads in the state were not noted in the early 1838 survey of the state, created by the authority of the US Congress, which was limited to the rivers that ran through all its counties, which is distinct for its absence of railroad routes–and indeed leaves local byways and roads off the map, as if they were more important for town-dwellers than for the map-reader:

Rivers in Vt 1838 The attempt to reconcile local and state land maps, in ways that suggest not only greater centralization of mapping byways and highways across the state, but a potential wiping away of a well-archived local historical memory.  The memories do not survive in the many maps of the state that were surveyed and printed though the nineteenth century, a particularly fine collection of which do survive–and exist online, but which are dedicated to major thoroughfares and routes, but seem more attentive and exact when it comes to rivers’ paths from the great Payne map of 1799 to maps of the Beers atlases–as rivers were the main sources of power, commerce, spatial connectedness, and settlement that unified largely agricultural areas of settlement, and no roads seem to be noted, as if most travel remained local. Payne 1799Payne Map (1799) Beers 1834 Beers Atlas, 1843 Vt 1877 beers Beers, 1877 vt 1878 beers Beers, 1879 Many of the county maps note local roads and rivers, but they are, as in this map of Addison County of 1858, loosely sketched below, but however only skim the surface of the collective lattice one might come across today, and suggest as many questions as they resolve as to their founding, construction, or use, but suggest the deeply fragmented nature of travel in state counties and the relatively small scale nature of local itineraries and knowledge. roads and rivers The combination of efforts to recover such ancient roads indeed offers the possibility of mapping a far richer and hitherto unseen landscape of the local and the back roads never or very rarely noted in USGS topographical maps or earlier state atlases, like a Beers Atlas.

13.  The legal recognition traditionally accorded to any roads that were filed in Vermont towns developed in ways that offer a rich paper repository in local towns to act as a medium to uncover the landscape of what once was.  The particular state of affairs in Vermont, whose “forgotten roads,” “ancient roads,” or “sleeping roads” are just beginning to be recovered, may derive from the 1781 mandate that highways be surveyed “by the Compass” within two years or lose whatever status they locally enjoyed as legal roads, led to the proliferation of Road Survey Books in local municipalities, which have been continued to be laid by Selectmen, even after they have not been maintained or those very points, pastures and buildings that they connected have been lost to memory, until it was decreed in Act 178 of 2006 that the “ancient roads” should finally become “dead roads,” and “All class 1, 2, 3, and 4 town highways and trails shall appear on the town highway maps by July 1, 2015.”  A keen sense developed that the longstanding tradition of the public ownership of legal rights of way were being undercut by private property, and that the memories that log books, if not maps, preserved, were being all too suddenly erased and collectively junked–and the repository to knowledge about the lands potentially sacrificed.

But there are records of these roads, often described as “beginning . . . near a maple tree” or “beginning in the middle of the road from the Burnham farm to the river on the southerly bank of said river, thence north,” as Geoff Manaugh wrote in a recent article, written after witnessing wide popular local interest in recovering the state’s “lost roadways” back in 2008. Manaugh’s account captures the conflicted politics of remapping the region’s lost roads of which few traces or “use” remains.  While the state of Vermont is bisected by a “Y” of interstates, between the 89 that runs from St. Albans through Montpelier to White River Junction, where it joins I-91, running on the New Hampshire side of the state down from Canada to St. Johnsbury to Springfield, the road system of Interstates that avoids Mt. Mansfield was effectively created and laminated over a far more sensitive register of spatial knowledge–a range of pathways of movement and communication that are often forgotten for drivers, and unused save by intrepid snow-shoers, cross-country skiers and runners, removed from the spaces down which we drive, leaving streams of fuel emissions across the green state. Since such roadways are often absent from Bing or GoogleMaps, the search for lost roads has evoked a wealth of detail and local knowledge that would risk being lost, and unearthed roads rarely pictured on the blank green of highway maps, or on many USGS topographic maps of the state’s surveyed terrain.


Yet there is a move to make these maps far more legible. The deadline to grant legal recognition to earlier historical rights suggests something more than a concern of local historians, but a question of the survival of a time-honored tradition of how to inhabit the local landscape the the land.

14.  As much as a form of cartographical assertion of the value of local knowledge, the deadline has precipitated something of a struggle for public memory through the remapping of the otherwise unmarked network of the state’s lost highways, that, even if it is trying to be stewarded by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, has encouraged a resurgence of local public history, pouring through Town Record Books and going through over 200 years of property deeds to find roads pinned by surveyed coordinates of rights of way that would otherwise fade into the landscape and the roadless light green regions of the state highway map, which the state seem to have, after so long a time, decided to wipe clean of prior claims.   This led to some to propose the benefits of Foliage Penetrating Radar like LiDAR to detect these ghost roads, but the search for precedents of public mapping of roads, or the hope to find old-timers who might detect the lost ghost roads that run through the landscape, most always without names, that provide a palimpsest of how the land was inhabited. Uncovering the abandoned geometry of lost lot lines that once bound the now-forsaken orchard, the stone wall of the past property line, the lost farm, and the abandoned paths of logging.  These submissions provide a new set of tools to explore the back-country and woods, to be sure, like the self-published “History of Granville Roads” compiled with both considerable attention and loving dedication by Norman Arseneault, combining searches of property deeds in the town vault in Granville and Survey Books in conjunction with the surveying skills needed to explore forests he gained while working as a forester for the US Forest Service in Oregon:  Arseneault has lovingly tracked and retraced the courses of lost roads on the detailed printed topographic maps of the state where they are lacking, and will probably gain a larger audience for his findings not only because of his expertise, but because of curiosity into this landscape of the past, which suggests the matrix of roads of a vibrant local economy. Granville rivers and roads 1859 For the sense of remapping the ancient roads of the state is a way of discovering new landscapes in maps, as much as preventing old roads from reverting to landscapes:  the discovery of these new landscapes in old maps is indeed more than half the fun, together with navigating the unused roads themselves to puzzle over what sorts of landscapes they fed.  The routes suggested will also ostensibly result in the attempt to weigh and combine the results of regional and local searches that have been submitted within a new version of the state’s official highway map, which sets the bar from now on on what is a recognized road and what is not.  But the conversion of these ghost roads or forgotten thoroughfares by including them on a printed map is an odd form of remember of a medium that is not usually kind to including new information, or uncovering lost landscapes. But there is long precedent, of course, to having landscapes discovered in old maps.

15.  The introduction of sites from which one might engage the toponymy or routes of a map is in a sense the oldest basis for fiction, but the indication of new landscapes have a neat parallel in the “trap streets” that some cartographers have placed in their printed maps as a form of claiming priority on their designs.  So notorious are some of these “traps” as forms of cartographical signatures that OpenStreetMaps hence warns contributors not only to rely on past printed maps, but use live satellite views to limit the number of errors that might otherwise compromise their maps.  An inversion of restoring past routes and memories exists with the significance that the addition of invented copyright traps in printed maps of fake (or paper) towns. The excavation of Vermont’s “ancient roads” suggest a replacement or renegotiation of sites on the map in ways that echo the meaning that was read into the placement of one invited city–Agloe–at the crossroads of two roads.  Aloe is one of the most famous of such copyright traps, for its insertion set in motion a cartographical fiction.  In the New York maps designed by the General Drafting Company, the town is “shown” as if it bordered the Catskill Forest, where two actual roads meet.  Its location has gained renown as it became the central mystery that the emblematizes the arrival of adolescent high school seniors to embark on a road trip in John Green’s Paper Towns, where the fiction innocently devised by Otto G. Lindberg (O, G, L) and Ernest Alpers (E, A)  provided a destination that stood as an analogy for growing up, or recognizing the realities behind the images that each of them constructs for themselves.  The imaginary town of Agloe was Lindberg and Alpers included by combining their initials in a concealed signature, but soon appeared as a place. The placement of the copyright trap in upstate New York had an afterlife Lindberg could have imagined since it offered a way to move through a new space:   after the map was distributed for free at a chain of Esso gas stations from 1925, described as a town was listed as having a population of 0 to 500, it led folks to travel to it to found a fishing lodge and a General Store to provide for the folks who supposedly lived there. twcikl9tqwg1wogxucgm At first, the trap soon seem to have done its work well for the General Drafting Company:  employees noted with surprise the name on a Rand McNally map of the region, and quickly threatened suit.  But the investigation that followed revealed the power of maps to embody place and bring them to being.  Although Lindberg believed he spotted fraud as the encoded signature cropped up in other maps, a visit to the intersection of rivers revealed the site of the Agloe General Store.  For his idiosyncratic map had provided a new way of reading the landscape, allowing discovery of a place hitherto unknown.  Esso not only distributed free copies of the General Drafting Company maps, but had decided to found a station at the “Agloe General Store” in the place it was located on the maps, and in doing so they had released the proprietary name into the common domain, about the same time that purchasers of a home at the intersection of Beaver Kill and Spring Brook proudly gave their new property the odd proper name of “Agloe Lodge.” 29AGLOE2-articleLarge The discovery of Agloe in the actual landscape of upstate New York had migrated to Google Maps through March 2014, when if supposedly deleted–as an “unofficial town”–it also persists, amalgamated with the nearby town of Colchester, as if to satisfy those who want to visit the area which readers of John Green’s young adult will remember he located the final scene and culmination of Paper Towns, the destination of the collective road-trip that makes the end of high school, and offers a particularly enchanting metaphor for the defamiliarization of place, and reconstitution of an already tight coterie of friends. FictionalAgloeNewYork A C The enchantment of Aglow grows out of the map, on which Quentin traces, in Green’s novel, the elusive and perhaps endangered disappeared Margo, and it provides the surface for reconstructing her itinerary by a set of pushpins on a map. For Lindberg’s map created the place as it spoke truth to its readers so persuasively to realize what was only a conceit.  The purely propositional place helped create a settlement where Otto Lindberg had placed a signature to catch lazy cartographers became a place that other map-makers mapped, and opened up the landscape in new ways.  As Rand McNally successfully claimed in court that their “Agloe” did not derive from Lindberg’s map, the mapmakers’ invention persisted in road maps distributed by Esso (and later Exxon), and from the 1930s, a fishing lodge was founded in Agloe, and  a 1957 travelogue about rambles in the Catskills described scenic drives through Agloe, as the cartographical creation became a reality.  John Green smartly observed that “the idea that a fiction created on paper could become real was really encouraging to me as a writer”–and Lindberg and Alpers have created a place for self-discovery as much as a cartographical conceit, as their fiction provided a nice way for Green to construct his compelling book.  One might even wonder if the popularity of this book–and the upcoming movie version–lead this imaginary town to be reinserted in Google maps?  For the lost landscape that the map evoked lead its readers to find this interesting lived landscape this fork of two rivers. agloe-sign-4e00954ce4d97bd3612e5b62964bc06acb0182ba-s1600-c85 Perhaps the restoration of “forgotten byways” that have been excavated in Vermont’s landscape will effect a re-enchantment of the rural landscape.  For even before they are weeded for consideration on the Vermont Highway Map, the new repositories of local mapping, born out of consultation with paper records, will not only to serve hikers or cross-country skiers, but nurture a new understanding of the land and reach a new audience of map readership.  Perhaps the uncovering of sleeping roads will counter-intuitively lead people to drive off of the interstates, raising the prospect of listing new numbered roads where none were until quite recently even thought to exist–and even if the roads are not included in the future highway map.  But their accumulation and deciphering from the landscape has prompted a curiosity for codifying such unidentified corridors and lost highways, and exploring the sorts of landscapes that they will find. Maps are repositories of meanings, if they are interfaces that are always being contested as well.

Whether that means opening them up to to individual and commercial exploration is unclear, but by making long lost navigational tools available to the public, one effect of Act 178 will be to help us experience the historical landscape as it was once lived, and distance the starker highway map’s uniform green colors.  They might provide a new way to inhabit the land Google maps will most likely never allow.  The rehabilitation of such nameless roads may lead developers to places they might not otherwise travel–but loss of the roads may suggest more devastating development, deeply divorced from the past.

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Filed under GIS, Google Maps, Vermont

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

As suggested by the recent review of the disastrous consequences of a rise of two degrees Centigrade on the land-sea boundary of the United States, created by a sea-level rise of at least 20 feet, the effects of such a shift in how we see the seas was calculated and mapped by Stamen design in the Surging Seas project–a set of interactive maps that cause us to rethink our shorelines, in ways made particularly graphic in centers of population particularly low-lying, where there has been a huge investment of human capital, as New York City, where it might seem credible enough to be mapped that they are poised to melt not into air but vanish beneath ocean waves.  For if Marx predicted with spirited apocalypticism at the very start of the Communist Manifesto that capitalism would destroy value to money as it expanded into future markets, as market forces abstracted all things into money–and “all that is solid melts into air”–the twentieth-century expansion of possibilities of environmental and human destruction have lent unprecedented urgency.

While for Marx the metaphor of melting of inherent value was the product of the capitalist system, the capitalist system bodes a strikingly similar image of sinking into the seas.  For huge expanses of the old industrial city–the piers and the old manufacturing zones, most all of the Jersey shore and area around Newark, Long Island City and the Gowanus canal seem sink apart from the shoreline in the future New York that Surging Seas creates, in ways that seem the consequence of industrial production and carbon surging far beyond 400 parts per million (ppm), with the addition of some 2 ppm per year, in ways that make it a challenge to return to the levels deemed healthy–let alone the levels of 275 ppm which the planet long held through the mid-eighteenth century.  That drought, hurricanes, disappearance of arctic ice (up to 80% in summertime) and rising sea levels are tied to the growth of greenhouse gasses hint how global capital might be closely linked to the sinking into the seas, and suggest the surpassing of a tipping point of climate change that is the counterpart to melting into air might be viewed, in New York City’s economic geography, as if to offer a poetic reflection of the migration of capital into the financial centers of the city downtown from its piers or areas of industry–


–although half-hearted joking references to Marxist maxims (or geographers) is hardly the topic of this post, and the island of high finance that would be created in downtown Manhattan would hardly have ever been planned as an island.

Lower Manhattan Island?

What one might someday see as the lopping off of much of lower Manhattan might be far better tied to the runaway markets of a free-trade economy, rather than rational planning, and has no clear correspondence to property values.

lopped off lower Manhattan

Indeed, the mapping of the prospective loss of those residential parts of the city “where poor people dwell” (as do minorities) is undeniable, if one looks at the 2010 American Community Survey, regarding either in the city’s distribution of ethnic groups or households earning below $30,000, who remain the most vulnerable to the danger of rising ocean levels.

ACS 2005?

Income under 30,000American Community Survey (2010)/New York Times

But the disappearance of the Eastern Parkway and the Jersey shore are a blunt reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the built environment that lies close to sea-level–

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

–and an actually not-too-apocalyptic reminder, but the mapping of consequences of man-made change that goes under the rubric of anthropocene, and is most apparent in the increasing quotient of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the warming that this may bring.  For if it has been approximated that there has already been a rise of sea-levels by some eight inches since 1880, the unprecedented acceleration of that rate, which will increase the dangers of floods from storms and place many of the some three thousand coastal towns at risk, are likely to increase as the sea level may rise from two to over seven feet during the new century.


The distribution is by no means uniform, and more industrialized countries, like the United States, are producing far more particulate matter, although they have been recently overtaken by China from 2007, and have atmospheres above 380 ppm in the Spring, making them more responsible for rendering higher temperatures–although the lower-lying lands below the equator may be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.22.35 PMVox– A visual tour of the world’s CO2 emissions

The increasing levels of particulate matter are attempted to be more locally mapped in Surging Seas.

The changes extend, in a nice dramatic detail, into the Central Park Meer rejoining the East River with the predicted inundation of much of the posh residential area of Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Fifth Avenue.

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

It is difficult not to compare the scenarios sketched in Surging Seas maps to some of the maps of those future islands of New York that Map Box and others allowed Sarah Levine to create maps of the heights of buildings from open data after the pioneering maps of Bill Rankin’s 2006 “Building Heights.”   When Rankin remapped Manhattan by taking building height as an indirect index of land value, he saw the island as clustered in distinct islands of elevation above 600 feet:


Radical Cartography (2006)

Levine used similar data to chart the fruits of Mammon in buildings above sixty stories.  Maps of skyscrapers beside the gloom of Surging Seas suggest those towers able to withstand the rising seas brought by global temperatures jumping by just two degrees Centigrade.  If one moves from the map of the bulk of lowest sections of lower Manhattan–

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

with reference to Levine’s brilliantly colored carmine mapping of the highest buildings in the Big Apple, above forty-seven or fifty-nine stories, which one imagines might provide the best vantage points that rise above the rising waves, especially when located on the island’s shores.

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

There’s a mashup begging to be made, in which the tallest buildings of over fifty stories at the tip of the island peak up above the cresting waves, and the rump of buildings in lower Manhattan offer contrasting vistas of the city’s contracting shores.  The buildings that create the canyons of urban life, the buildings of elevation surpassing sixty stories might suggest the true islands of Manhattan’s future, as much as the points that punctuate its skyline.

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

The realization of this possible apocalypse of property made present in these maps offer the ability to visit impending disasters that await our shorelines and coasts, and imagine the consuming of property long considered the most valuable on the shore–as rising seas threaten to render a whispy shoreline of the past, lying under some six meters of rising seas.  The prospect of this curtailing of the ecumene, if it would bring an expansion of our nation’s estuaries, presents an image of the shrinking of the shores that suggests, with the authority of a map, just how far underwater we soon stand to be.

Eastern USASurging Seas: sea level rise after 2 degrees centigrade warming

All actual maps, including Levine’s, provide authoritative reporting of accurate measures with a promise of minimal distortions.  But visualizations such Surging Seas offer frightening windows into a future not yet arrived, using spatial modeling to predict the effects of a rise in sea-level of just five feet, and the potentially disastrous scale such a limited sea-level change would bring:  the coasts are accurate, but their inundation is a conservative guess, on the lower spectrum of possibilities.  For in a country in which 2.6 million homes are less than four feet above current sea-levels, the spectral outlines of chilly blue former coastlines peak at a future world are still terrifying and seem all too possible, as much as potential cautionary tale.  The concretization of likely scenarios of climate change remind us that however much we really don’t want to get there, how potentially destructive the possibility of a several degree rise in ocean temperatures would be.

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Filed under American Community Survey, anthropocene, Climate Change, data visualization, spatial modeling

Around the World in Submarine Internet Cable

The spans of privately-funded fiber optic underseas cables that have been lain across oceans floors, some stretching over 28,000 kilometers, provide an image of global circumnavigation as well as offering the most massive engineering feat on earth that is hidden to human sight.  And the rapidity with which further cable is being lain to link the world’s data flows along faster and more secure lines of communication provides a telling model of interconnectedness, suggesting new senses of connectivity and warping past concepts of proximity–and unifying the differently owned cables as if they constituted a coherent and open information highway.  The adoption of the antiquated format of a nautical chart serves both to suggest the increasing interconnectivity of the Information Age, but also to reveal the ways that TeleGeography, a global telecom, has helped channel information across seas by familiarizing viewers with a distinctly concept of space less by foregrounding its peculiarities than to naturalize an image of high-speed connections.  Rehabilitating a somewhat romanticized earlier mapping of oceanic expanse orients viewers to the new mental space that such mapping creates–and domesticizes the transcendence of distance through the increasing interconnectedness of information flows.

The appealing charting of the hidden network of submarine cables designed by TeleGeography didn’t only borrow the antiquated iconography of marine charts from an Age of Discovery in order to promote the expanding spread of submarine fiberoptic cables in amusing ways.  For the image served to suggest the shifts in spatial connectedness that such increasingly rapid data flows have allowed, and to suggest a map that, in focussing on the seas–and the overlooked areas of marine space–returned to an interesting if somewhat overlooked spatial metaphor to consider and visualize the extent to which global financial networks and information systems move in particularly flexible ways across the permeable boundaries of nations, if not the degree to which national units have ceased to be the confines that matter, as cross-border flows are increasingly the primary sorts of traffic that matter.

Phone Calls in 2012

A more familiar global remapping of phone calls,constructed on a study by students of business, Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, partly funded by the logistics firm DHL, an approximate quantification of globalization was made by the metrics of cross-border telephone calls in 2012 worldwide, in which the thickness corresponds to the minutes spent on the phone–and presumably the closeness of connections, if filtered through the relative costs of calls and the ability topay of them.  In a sense, the chart featured by TeleGeography openly incorporates less data, while noting the varied speeds of connections, in an image of interconnectedness, and positions itself less as a cutting edge snapshot of globalization or globalized than at the dawn of the possibilities of future interconnectedness that the laying of fiber-optic cables of greater speed can promote.  If the map of telephone calls raises questions of information flows, some 41 percent originating in what the authors identified as “advanced economies” to “emerging economies,” and only a small fraction (9%) originating in an “emerging economy,” the technology may also illustrate the precise demographic that continue to adopt telephony:  the authors observe that the dominant “calling patterns” reflect “interactions due to immigrants,” with most international calls being placed from the United States to Mexico and India, countries of first-generation immigrants–rather than reflecting actual information flows.

TeleGeography seems decidedly optimistic about the possibilities for global circumnavigation fibre-optic cables can promote.

In place of offering a map of actual flows of data, or a revealing look at where cables lie, the adoption of an aestheticized image and iconography of the nautical chart to map the ever-expanding web of cables that connect the world advances an argument about the sorts of ties cables facilitate, in order to illustrate and promote the ever-increasing multiplicity of ways information can travel across the globe without regard for the bounds of the nation-state.  Even as we bemoan NAFTA, or raise concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the networks of cables that currently span the terrestrial sphere divide into 285 separate privately owned segments show a coherent network has rapidly grown–its extent more than doubling in length over the past three years–and seems poised to only grow in coming years, to render national protectionism a thing of the past:  the map leavs viewers only to imagine its benefits.  While not seeking to quantify actual data flows, the scope of the map seems to be to naturalize the broad range of traffic lying such cables allows.

The submarine network now totals upwards of 550,000 miles.  Although it is never seen above ground, and lies concealed beneath the seas, it now seems to animate most international commerce.  There is a pleasant irony in adopting the decorative aspects of marine charts to map a contemporary image of global circumnavigation, since they gesture to deep shifts in the seas of information, but also evoke the marvel of rendering visible what is all but unseen.  The exact locations of such cables are not displayed, of course, but the stylized presence suggests a decidedly early modern form of totalistic boasting to transcribe, “according to the best Authorities [and] with all the latest Discoveries to the PRESENT PERIOD,” the extent to which the infrastructure of the Information Age spans the seas.  What once was a site of marvels revealed by the officer turned conservationist Jacques Cousteau is a field for information carriers, even if monsters inhabit its depths.


The “New Map” updates the recent rapid exponential expansion of the network fiber optic cables in recent years as a sort of corporate promotion, rehabilitating the marine chart to naturalize the submarine network that now carries a large share of global financial and administrative information worldwide.  Retrospectively mapping the expansion of this exoskeleton of the anthropocene ignores the technologies on which such mapping suggest, recalling the abilities to technologically harness steam, wind, and power to recreate the romance and adventure of global circumnavigation in an updating of the 1873 romance and fast-paced adventure Jules Verne told of a race against the mechanized clock by a constellation of transit networks.


Verne en 80 Jours

For much as Verne offered a quickly-paced adventure mildly disguised celebration of technological unification of the globe, the retrograde if glorious map masking as an engraved superimposing high-fibre cables on image of the ocean as understood in days gone conceals the clear corporate interests or material technology that underpin the Information Age.

The map of the oceanic unknown celebrates the laying of a material web of the world wide web as if it were another oceanographic detail, but masks the unseen nature of the cables that were lain in hidden fashion underneath the seas:  indeed, rather than the slightly earlir Verne-ian classic of 1870 with which it is often paired, the map doesn’t heaven to futuristic science, but sublimates a similar story of submarine itineraries.  Indeed, the map offers a picturesque recuperation of an aesthetics of global unity that serves to reframe the newly prominent submarine network that ships recently strung across the ocean floor.  It conceals the labor and mechanical drudgery of doing so–both the engineering or the fragility of the fibre-optic network, and the material basis of an electromagnetic carrier lurking deep under the seas.  In the Cable Map Greg Mahlknecht coded, the spans of current cables already connect hubs of communication across oceans at varied but increasing speeds,

Greg's Active

but the planned additions to the network, in part enabled by warming waters, are poised to greatly expand:

Greg's Transatlantic

Greg’s Cable Map

The work that the map modeled after an engraving of global seas does is serious, for it integrates the growing network of fiber-optic cable at the ocean’s floor into the seascape that nautical charts showed as a light blue watery expanse.  For as the price for fiber-optic cables precipitously dropped since 2000, this material infrastructure of global financial markets has not only grown, but kept up with the rapid improvement in network communication along a growing network of 250,000 km of submarine cable most folks have limited knowledge, and whose public image is in need of PR.  The addition of such fairly florid decorative detail from nautical charts to invest the routes of hidden submarine cables’ with an aesthetic that both caused it to be named one of the best maps of 2015 and exemplifies how to lie with maps.



The 2015 map, published online, but emulating the paper map, seems to conceal the extent of work that went into not only laying the cable, but ensuring that it was not disrupted, but blended seamlessly into the surrounding oceanographic landscape.  FLAG–the Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe–after all offered a sort of modern updating of the boast of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg.  For Fogg wagered £20,000 that the speed of the combination of trains and steamboats would allow him to travel around the globe so that he could return to the very same seat he occupied in the Reform Club in London in only eighty days–a boast based on his trust in the speed of modern conveyances of steam travel.  For Fogg’s image of interconnectedness was realized in the copper cables that conducted telegraphy traffic.  These telegraphy cables lain under the Atlantic by the 1880s by the Eastern Telegraph Company across the Atlantic and Pacific, which by 1901 linked England to North America, India and Malay in a network of communications that offers a vision of corporate interconnection spanning the expanse of the British Empire and providing it with an efficient communications system that was its administrative and commercial underpinning.


Eastern Telegraph Company (1901), planned cables shown by dotted lines–Wikimedia

But rather than perform the feat of circumnavigation, the matrix of underwater internet cables is based on the creation of a submarine matrix to carry any message anywhere all the time–when it can be linked to an on-land cable–save, that is, in Antarctica, where the frigid waters, for now, would freeze the cable and disable it.  Fogg staked his wager after noticing a map showing the construction of British rail exchanges that allowed long-distance transit across India, believing in his ability to achieve global circumnavigation on a network of carriers, based on his trust as a passenger and subject of the British Empire–and the infrastructure the enabled news, commerce, and administrative connections to travel with velocity, leading twenty-four of the thirty ships capable of laying cable-laying to be owned by British firms by 1896.  The framed cartouche in the upper right of the 2015 Submarine Cable Map echoes the triumphalism of the “present day” in boasting of the achievements by which, since “the first intercontinental telephony submarine cable system TAT-1 connected North America to Europe in 1958 with an initial capacity of 640 Kbps, . . . . transatlantic cable capacity has compounded 38% per year to 27 Tbps in 2013,” as US-Latin American capacity has nearly quadrupled.

The map, revealing the material network to what most of us perceive as coursing through the air, less effectively places the course of cables in evidence than depicts their now naturalized course.  The seascape of the Information Age seems, indeed, to demand the naturalizing of the courses of submarine cables, shown as so many shipping lines, running across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean, around the coast of Africa, from India to Singapore and to Hong Kong and Japan, before coursing across the Pacific.  Is its quaint cartogrpahical pastoralization of the courses of communication under the oceans, we see a reverse rendering of a materialized image of globalization, disguised by a faux nostalgia for the mapping of the as yet unknown world that will be revealed by the impending nature of an even greater increase of data flows.  Indeed, the breakneck speeds of data transport are noted prominently in some of the cartouches framed at the base of the map, which suggest the two-fold subject of the map itself:  both the routes of cables that were laid on the ocean floor, and the speed of data transport their different latency allowed.  The cartouche is a nice rendering of the corporate promise of delivering data that TeleGeography presumably makes to its customers, despite the different ownership of many of the stretches of cable that exist, and the lack of harmony, proportionality or geometric design in how the cables are in fact lain.

Latency of cables

That the network of submarine cable retains a curious focus on relays in England that is a telling relic of the nineteenth century.

The internet’s network still seems to start in England in Porthcurno, moving to Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and then turn down the Gulf of Suez through the Red Sea, and around the Arabian Peninsula to Dubai, before moving across the Indian Ocean to Bombay and on to Malaysia and through the South China Sea to Hong Kong and up the coast of China, it creates an even more expansive set of exchanges and relays than Fogg faced.  For while Fogg was dependent on rail to traverse the United States as well as much of Europe, where he could pass through the Suez Canal to reach a steamer engine, and then cross India by train, before getting a ship at Calcutta to Hong Kong and Yokohama, the multiplicity of connections and switches that the submarine cables create disrupt any sense of linearity and carry information at unheard of speed–fiber-optic cables carry information at a velocity that satellite transmission cannot approach or rival.


Voyage of Phineas Fogg by rail, steamship, and boat–Wikimedia

The relays of paired cables now enable the instantaneous transmission of information between continents realize a nineteenth century fantasy of an interlinked world in ways that expanded beyond contemplation, the possibility of visiting the countries that FLAG traces are actually verges on impossibility–if only since the network offers multiple pathways of simultaneous transit.

The ambitions of those earlier Telegraph cables in connecting the world far transcends Fogg’s plan to create a path by which he could move between transit hubs.  His plans are dwarfed by the ambitions of modernity of the range of active and future underwater cable revealed in Greg’s Cable Map in ways that suggest the ambitions of creating an ever-more intensely interlinked world, where increasing number cables have been laid to fashion the actual physical infrastructure of the internet.

Greg's Cable Map

Greg’s Cable Map (click here for detail on each lines)

We often render the “hidden world” of privately owned transatlantic and other cables as a separate underseas world of cables lying on the seabed, able to be disrupted at its nodes, but removed from alike the shoreline and terrestrial world.

Underseas World

In strong distinction from such an image, the recuperation of something like nautical engraving by TeleGeography makes the clever point of naturalizing the greatest infrastructure of the Information Age–one that sometimes seems to have outweighed investment in the visible infrastructures of our cities and roads–within the currents of our seas, and as colored by the very hues by which the land is mapped as if to show the seamlessness of the communicative bridges that they create.

Given the extreme overload of data that these maps reveal–and the eeriness of a world created by the extent of cable laid–It’s in fact quite apt that the telecom firm TeleGeography showcased the interconnected nature of global communications this year by adopting the style of nineteenth-century cartographic tools.  It’s probably not at all a coincidence that in this age of big data, there’s a deep romance in the symbolic reclaiming of the crisply engraved lines of nineteenth-century cartography that folks like Nathan C. Yau of FlowingData pioneered in the online publication of a Statistical Atlas of the United Sates with New Data, refiguring information of the 2010 Census and 2013 American Community Survey.  Although designed in bits, the maps emulate the engraved delineations created for Francis Amasa Walker’s first Atlas:  Yau announced he had done out of some disgust that budget cuts prevented the Bureau of the Census from creating the atlas displaying its data in a Census Atlas–despite its success in accumulating so much data.

A quite clever graphic designer, Yau has posted sequences of  detailed non-dynamic maps that evoke the lithographic detail and crisp objectivity with which Walker created multiple legible embodiments as the Director of the US Census from 1870, when his interest in data processing led a set of new maps of the nation to be printed in Harpers Magazine, and the Census to grow to 22 volumes.  So well are we trained in grasping information via elegant visual forms that Yau bemoaned the absence of a similarly set of stately maps by evoking the project Walker envisioned as a form of mapping serving the public good:  and his online images embody data lying in the repository of Census data, from geological records to the distribution of human populations–and digest data to recognizable form, whose individual snapshots seem a nostalgic embodiment of data available from the American Community Survey.


FlowingData, “Map Showing the Area of Land Cover for Forests within the Territory of the Coterminous United States” (2015) from data compiled by American Community Survey (2013)


Flowing Data, “Map Showing Five Degrees of Density, the Distribution of Population” (2015) from American Community Survey (2013)

It is somewhat less expected that the format of an engraved or traditional map be showcased to reveal the system of submarine cables lying on the ocean’s floor:  few would consider the invisible network with nostalgia for the medium of the paper map.

To be sure, the very subject of internet cables are more appropriately rendered in an appropriately futuristic mode that habituates us to its ambitions by expanding the colors of a public transit map to reveal an image of an interlinked world–


The decision to “go retro” breaks conspicuously with such a choice for the futuristic design, and accommodates the multiplying extent of fiber optic cables that have been laid across the world’s waters so as to network the globe.  Only in 2014, TeleGeography issued a staggering map of the improvements in linkages of relays in submarine cable systems, suggesting the extent of the interlinked world to which we have become familiar not only thanks to Edward Snowden, but to our reliance on global data flows that increasingly enable financial markets worldwide, surpassing material constraints.

2014 Telegeography

TeleGeography (2014)

Such a map is overly schematic, indeed, since many of the cables’ paths are not openly disclosed.  From the land, we cannot see the landing sites where such fiber-optic cables go underwater, as Trevor Paglen has recently reminded us, in a series of diptychs that contrast the cables barely concealed in NOAA maps and the otherwise placid landscapes of the beaches beneath which they run; few realize the extent to which the information that travels on them is likely to be monitored as a form of mass surveillance, which we are far more likely to associate with satellites or surveillance.

But the complexity of the how information is carried along such cables is as boggling to the mind as the awesomeness of its ambitions.  Perhaps recognizing the sense of overwhelming its readers with data overloads in its maps, the 2015 map of submarine cables from Telegeography updated the format of an engraved map, and put in online in a fully zoomable form, to allow one to examine its lovingly rendered detail in a map that harkens back to charts of nautical discoveries but celebrates the rapidity of delivering information in an updated version of the corporate triumphalism of the Eastern Telegraph Company.  That map, which boasts in evocative language to be revised “according to the best Authorities with all the latest Discoveries,” foregrounds the multiple linkages of fiber optic cables that carry the vast majority of communications–of which “oversea” satellites link but a fraction–so efficiently they at first carried upwards of a thousandfold as much data compared to the older copper cables that lay below the sea recently–280 Mbps of data per pair–and moved 100 Gbps across the Atlantic by 2012–and the prediction 39 Tbsp is even feared to barely satisfy demand.  For transatlantic cable have come to carry some 95% of international voice and data traffic, and are viewed as a fundamental–if unseen–part of our global infrastructure, potentially vulnerable to disastrous interruption or disruption.

The familiarity of the “New Map of the Submarine Cables connecting the World” is not only charming; it is a somewhat subtle naturalization of the  new materiality of information flows so that they are regarded as a part of our new lived environment.  To be sure, the paths of cables are highly stylized, as if they fit within the oceans’ currents, although they sacrifice accuracy even though they suggest their private ownership and considerable density.


The open-ness of this mapping of submarine cables has been rare until recently–as recently as 2009, the location of the cable that arrives in the UK at Cornwall Beach was kept secret even on military maps, although commercial fishing trawlers and other boats are provided with access to them, somewhat paradoxically but unsurprisingly, lest they run across and damage the underseas cables that relay so many vital data flows across the globe under the seas, and whose severing could potentially come at a cost of as much as $1.5 million per hour.

America to three continents

The actual density of such cables laid at the bottom of the sea is not displayed on the above map, of course, which conceals their precise locations or the complexity of their routes, which are tantamount to secrets of state and off most maps.

interactive Map 2013-04-20_093527

The map designed by TeleGeography is indeed a romanticized vision of the pathways that information courses around the world, underseas, in an information age; the recuperation of the iconography more familiar from a printed map of the seas than the layers of a web map or data visualization naturalize the presence of such submarine cables in an odd exercise of familiarization.  We might be more suspect of the cartographic tricks of naturalization of the courses that submarine cables take when we examine the definitive maps of actual submarine cables or study the extent of such offshore cables in an interactive map and more carefully scrutinize their actual expanse.  (Such maps are not actual renderings of their situation on the seabed, if the starkness of the layers that chart these cables are decidedly less harmoniously balanced with the light shades of the mock-engraving, Submarine Cables Connecting the World.)

Decidedly fanciful if naturalistic sea monsters could denote the limits of the known world or the boundaries of secure navigation in many early modern charts, the inclusion of this most pictorial of cartographic iconographical traditions in early engraved maps are aptly appropriated to suggest the absence or gaps in the interlinked nature of space and of what passes as our sense of continuity in 2015–as well, on a not so subliminal level, to evoke the dangers of their disruption.


So naturalized is its cartographical iconography that the map suggests the new environment of internet cables in which we live.  This naturalization might be nowhere more evident than in the exotic appearances of marine creatures included in its seas.  A longstanding historical association exists between sea monsters with the North Sea, after monsters were first rendered as crowding its overflowing oceans in glorious detail by the bishop-geographer Olaus Magnus in his 1539 map of the land and waters around Scandinavia, who seems to have borrowed from bestiaries to illustrate the dangers that sailors would face in its waters, and to delight his readers and attest to the variety of the created world.


James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

A strikingly similar sort of horned seal and spouting fish quite appropriately make an appearance in the 2015 Submarine Cable Map of  TeleGeography within the North Sea and Arctic Ocean, as if to suggest the frigid waters that restrict the services such cables deliver–the spouting animals and seal lifted from Olaus Magnus’ Marine Chart frolic just beyond the regions that are currently covered by the cables’ crowded course.

Is this a hidden representation of what actual spatial limits constrain where countries are able to lie further submarine cable?

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Filed under data visualizations, internet service

Refugee Traffic Scars the Surface of the Globe

Almost any graphic is inadequate to represent the plight of displaced refugees.  The aggregate numbers astound: the sixty countries from which 30,000 people were forced to leave their countries each day over the previous year.  While these number only approximates those fleeing from persecution and reflect only those designated candidates for asylum and refugee status have expanded so widely in recent years–with asylum-seekers numbering over 1.2 million in mid-2014–the quantities of those considered for refugee status can hardly be adequately processed, let alone mapped in aggregate.

But the problem of effectively mediating the growing plight of stateless and displaced from “hot-spots” across the world poses not only a problem of the geographic imagination, but of the ethics of mapping.  For the aggregate mapping of those deserving or awarded refugee status not only presses the limits of the data visualization, given that it is bound to simplify itineraries of refugees far more i fragmented and indirect than can be mapped, but that no data visualization can group the individual stories that the sheer numbers of those displaced by conflict and violence are barely possible to comprehend.  Refugee traffic suggests a level of instability difficult to condense in any map.

The hot-spots from which those crossing borders were readily recognized as refugees were increasingly focussed on wealthier countries since before World War II, but the growth in those granted humanitarian status as refugees had already been defined around clear epicenters back in 2007, when millions of the population in Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Iran were accorded status, after having crossed borders, as refugees, and large numbers of asylum seekers in the United States, Canada, and Europe had started to grow–the map, which seems an earlier version of the decentered azimuthal projection later chosen by the graphics editor and cartographer at the New York Times, similarly serves to suggest the global nature of a problem largely centered in the Middle East.



The choice of trying to map the data of those declared refugee to show the arcs of their arrival from global hot spots on a decentered azimuthal terrestrial projection aptly maps the crowding of the globally displaced in 2014.  But the choice of transferring the collective itineraries to a global projection–in a sort of perverse mapping of flight paths suggests the most deeply troubling side of global inter-connectedness, and perhaps its deepest source of stress–by scarring the world’s surface in a frenetic criss-cross of arcs.   UNHCR data of the global monitoring of refugees’ origins and points of arrival in new homes served to reveal an aggregate picture of resettlement in “Global Trends in Migration of Refugees” based on the accordance of refugee status, but in doing so erases the complex negotiation of the fate of asylum seekers, as well as the painfulness of the itineraries the globally displaced increasingly suffer.  Is it ethical to hope to draw equivalences of the growing problem those claiming asylum as refugees by showing their arrival along idealized clean arcs?

Are we in danger, moreover, of representing refugees by the designation that western countries who grant them asylum accord them, for lack of complete or adequate data of the dynamics of displacement and mass-migration?

1. The graphic seems apt by rendering a scarred world.  But it also seems an all too cool comment on the violent status quo, in which the number of displaced people raising risks by falling back on a modernist aesthetic that fails to capture the violence of displacement and indeed the placelessness of the refugees:  the distinctive azimuthal projection, whose particular properties orients the world around the common locus of refugees’ eventual destinations, so as to suggest the range of their flights, rendering the range of collective arcs of geographic displacement at a uniform scale.  Although the projection, which echoes the cartographical rendering of a global space in the flag of the United Nations, illustrates the actual global consequences of the heartbreaking tragedy of over fifty million refugees and internally displaced (IDP’s) across the world, their fortunes remain impossible to map, and difficult to visualize.  Indeed, despite the difficulties of mapping those displaced, and problems of protracted displacement that have eroded societies, images often remain far more powerful than maps.

displaced persons

By mapping the aggregate destinations of the displaced by flared arcs, of uniform size, the visualization maps the eventual destinations of refugees, as determined according to the UN’s Refugee Agency, and foregrounds the question of their destination rather than the reasons for their displacement.  The costs of such an omission are considerable.  The question of how to represent displacement, and how to mediate the experience of the refugee, raises questions of how to visualize population within a map.  The record numbers of those forced to flee their homes over the past year raise questions of whether resettlement can ever be enough–and if the tragedy incurred by displacement, without a clear destination and often just beyond the borders of the country one fled, trapped in war zones, or stranded in temporary settlements, aggregate trends of displacement seem oddly removed from refugees’ experience.

For while the smooth arcs of geographic relocation data are compelling, they transform the often desperate flight of refugees by an aesthetics of minimalism that rather reduces the scope of the spatial displacement that the terrifying numbers of persecuted refugees experience, and foregrounds the sites at which the displaced arrive–perhaps to remind us of the distance of the United States’ retention of an annual ceiling of resettling 70,000 refugees–and not the unrepresentable scope of the violence of spatial dislocation and tragedy of searing social disruptions.  The deepest difficulty to represent is the precipitous slide toward poverty, hunger, and poor health care of most refugees, whose arcs of travel are both far from smooth, but so rocky and economically destabilizing that the challenges of orienting oneself to its crisis are indeed immense.  And they only begin to chart the number of internally displaced and causes and scale of displacement–and the lack of political will that protracted displacement and flight have created on the ground, in their abstraction of refugee flows.  For while the distribution of internal displacement challenges one to create a compelling graphic, the dynamics of displacement by the Norwegian Internal Displacement Monitoring Center across some sixty countries seem so difficult to embody–or process–that to demand clearer visualization to comprehend the scope of internal displacement of those who are rarely granted asylum–or are accorded the so desired status of refugees.



In its gesturing to the equidistant azimuthal projection of the United Nations, the visualization of refugee traffic evokes the clear ideals of the UN as an institution in its refusal to privilege a specific geographical centering.


The focus in the visualization on UNHCR data of resettlement emphasizes a narrative of resettlement, even some sixty years after UNHCR first directed global attention to the “World Refugee Year” in 1959, with hopes “to encourage additional opportunities for permanent refugee solutions through voluntary repatriation, resettlement or integration, on a purely humanitarian basis.”  For in showing clean arcs that deliver the displaced, analogously to a frenetic set of flight paths, collapsing the time of one year, the tragedy of the unsettled are oddly ignored.  For although the flared arcs on the projection effectively pose questions to the reader about the impact of refugees’ arrival in Europe and wealthier countries, it shifts the question provocatively from the human rights abuses and disasters which provoke such flight–and ignores the terrifyingly young age of so many refugees, over half of whom are less than eighteen.

In seeking to grasp the scope of statelessness and displacement, and the psychic as well as economic questions of displacement, can’t we do better?

2.  Representing the global crisis of the displaced is by no means simple, and data visualizations are often inadequate to represent the travails of the refugee.  But although the movement of the displaced mirrors what UNHCR determined were the destinations of the displaced in 2014, the minimalist projection of terrestrial expanse oddly and dissonantly removes them from the humanitarian crises that created their displacement:  the countries noted in the terrestrial projection recedes into the background behind bright flared arcs that trace in aggregate the migratory paths refugees actually took in ways almost abstracted from experience–and in ways that may effectively unintentionally serve to diminish their plight by expressing it in an aggregate.  While an alternating focus on Southern Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Burma where many have been forced to flee their homes can afflict the most clear-headed with a temporary case of Attention Deficit Disorder as they puzzle at the multiple crises that convulse refugees to flee, leaving millions of Iraqis (2+), Syrians (3.2+), and Rohyingya to remain stateless, their flight is rarely linear, and the omission of the uncertainty of any refugee’s path or flight is troubling.

If the global visualization illustrates the increased intensity of the problem of displaced refugees over the previous year, even as it tracks the scars that divide it.  By using a set of specific points to another on a globe centered on where the greatest refugee traffic occurred, the data vis represents actual distances to countries of asylum, displaying pathways of asylum refugees took on a map of accurate distances, and traffic of truly global scope.  Although the densely crowded red arcs obscure much of France, Germany, and other sites of destination for the displaced as if to exaggerate an influx of to Europe, they illustrate a growing recognition that the scale of human displacement is a global crisis–as much as a crisis of resettling refugees.

The array of intersecting red arcs in the map underscores the proximity of an inter-related world, and provocatively foregrounds the increasingly global scope of a multiplying crisis of displaced persons that have come to scar much of the world’s surface.  The problem of how to synthesize the diverse local experiences displacing increasing refugees across the globe both internally and to other countries is resolved by using UNHCR data to map the growing traffic of the displaced that the we will increasingly be challenged to come to terms. Yet what of the image of interconnectedness that they reveal?  While foregrounded in an equidistant projection that renders evident the symbolic unity of around a nexus of departure of refugees from Africa, Syria, and Ukraine who arrive in Europe, the crimson arcs literally cut across the image of coherent harmony emphasized in the azimuthal projection, by locating sites at uniform distances to emphasize its unified image of the inhabited world–the same reasons it was adopted in different form in the flag of the United Nations–which also downplays the very national differences and frontiers more often inscribed in terrestrial maps, using an equidistant azimuthal projection of the world centered on its pole to project an ideal of global harmony.

The data visualization “Global Trends of Migration” foregrounds a marred world, however.  In it, the sites of refugees’ arrival is often even rendered illegible, disorientingly, by blotches of solid red created by converging flared red arcs.  Was there a somewhat alarmist decision to flare the ends of these arcs at the sites of the “arrival” of refugees, as has been suggested elsewhere by Martin Grand Jean?  For Grand Jean observes that in doing so, the concentration of apparent endings attract greater visual attention than the sites from which persons are displaced, or the intensity of the displacement:  we hide our eyes from the atrocities, in short, and the true nature of the crisis and humanitarian disaster, perhaps in ways informed by UNHCR data on the need to better process refugee flow.   One might go farther in this critique:  for in flaring such endpoints, the image not only oddly downplays the sites of emergency from which they seek asylum, and the unmitigated tragedy of those who remain displaced, but conveys a sense that the flights are smooth.

To be sure, the very term “traffic” that recurs to describe the “Trends in Global Migration of Refugees” seems a bit of an oblique misnomer.  It almost obfuscates the experience of those who were only recently forced to flee their homes, as much as render them for the viewer.  For the elegant aggregation of such a uniquely tragic dataset may not fully come to terms with the growing global tragedy of the apparently unmitigated spread of refugees from an expanding range of sites–and the steep human rights challenges the exponential expansion of global or internal exiles creates.  Although the attempt to synthesize UNHCR data and map those flows offer one of the clearest tools by which to process, comprehend and synthesize the rapid expansion of individuals who were forcibly displaced over the past year, and come to term with that expansion.  But it hardly comes to terms with the desperation of their travails or the difficulty of their departures.  Indeed, by covering much of Europe in busy red blotches it disarmingly foregrounds and describes the arrival of refugees who have successfully left their countries–more than the mechanics of their displacement.  And there is a sense, almost paranoiac, and to be resisted, that the arrival of these streams of refugees who enter the Eurozone almost threaten to cancel its identity.

Cancelled Europe?

What is lost in the image’s busily crowded surface is perhaps made up for by the frenetic intensity it uses to ask us to confront such trajectories of tragedy and desperation.  But as an illustration, the elegance of the visualization seems to mislead viewers through its concentration on a geometry of arrival–and the smoothness with which it invests the desperation of forced departures. Despite its impressive effects, there seem multiple reservations about the possibility of creating an adequate data visualization.  In translating the tragic dataset of forced migrations as a point-to-point correspondence, its simplification approximates the wide geographic itineraries of that the globally displaced have been forced to seek–and understates the torturously complex paths they have actually followed.

Indeed, tensions are implicit in the stark modernist aesthetics of rendering the paths of refugees and the global imperative to address the pressing refugee problems that raise questions of the ethics of mapping the displaced.  The cool modernist aesthetics of “Trends in Global Migration” obscure the messiness of refugees’ own lives.  In recent years, the Refugee Highway and others have sought to address in foregrounding the global “hotspots” of mass-migration–by combining qualitative and quantitative data.  They have tired to reveal what open routes exist for those seeking asylum and capturing the resourcefulness of the refugee–noting possible destinations of asylum, and sites of resettlement, or differentiating between routes taken in fleeing by land and sea to help viewers appreciate the scope of the refugee disaster.  In the image below, Refugee Highway reveals the presence of airplanes over industrialized nations where more refugees are apt to settle or seek asylum suggests the steep symbolic liabilities of Wallace’s far starker “Global Trends.”

refugee highway map Refugee Highway-Legend The Refugee Highway

Another alternative visualization, proposed by Grand Jean on the basis of the very same UNHCR 2014 database, places less visual emphasis on the sites of refugees’ arrival, or sites of eventual asylum, but use similar lines as the red arcs of migration, apt for suggesting bloody scars  but less illuminating of the proportions of displaced and, as Grand Jean nicely notes, not weighted in any way, so that the 6,000 Mexican refugees that arrive in Canada are illustrated in an equivalent manner to the million refugees from Syrian territory that have arrived in Lebanon.  Gran Jean has generously proposed an alternative visualization that salutary in varying the thickness of lines that denote refugees’ displacement from sites of humanitarian crisis that confronts the limits of doing justice to the representation of displacement, sacrificing the modernist aesthetics of the image to ensure its greater readability:


Martin Grand Jean

The attention Grand Jean returns to the sites of displacement can be easily rendered in ways that distinguish the different regions and countries from which the 14.37 refugees UNHCR registered have sought asylum, using color to start to distinguish the sites from which refugees were displaced–and start to diminish the information overload of the data visualization of this global crisis.

actual areas

Martin Grand Jean 

There is value to imitating the information overload created by the expanding crisis of global refugees, but it raises questions of the ethics of mapping disasters.  Much as it is difficult to comparatively map the multiplications of centers of forcible displacement, it is difficult to even heuristically approximate the varied qualitative circumstances of the world of the refugee–as much as one would like to grasp the extent of the desperation of exile from the boundaries and neighborhoods of one’s former home.

2.  The elegant economy of the jaw-dropping visualization in the Times of the refugee crisis compellingly transposes the aggregation of annual refugees to illustrate its deeply global nature.  The crisis of those forcibly displaced on a symbolic level by the harmony of uniform spatial relations–in the mode of early modern cordiform maps–although, of course, those thin red lines of scarification disrupt whatever harmony exists across the globe, despite the attention that it calls to its inter-relations, in the manner of the polar azimuthal projection surrounded by two olive branches of peace that was designed as an emblem of the United Nations to suggest the proportional representation of the continents, and lack of privileging one area of the world by Donal McLaughlin, who interest in the transparency of visual communication led him to propose its design in 1946 as a seal for the UNO.

The popularity of the visualization of “Global Trends” lies in its success in cleanly sorting a significantly large dataset in a readily legible terms in ways that insist on the proximity of accumulated crises dispersed across the globe in isolation from one another–but which effect the world and demand a global response.


One unarticulated if implicit institutional message of the equidistant azimuthal projection in the “Global Trends” graphic is the pressure that the displaced place on the ideals expressed by the equidistant polar azimuthal projection featured on the UN flag.

Even if the very globalization of a refugee crisis makes it hard to focus on the status of those forcibly displaced or the context of collective hot-spots from which folks have fled, so clearly does it abstract individual itineraries of flight from their local contexts, the intensity of its busy red lines captures the overwhelming image of desperation, even if limited to those who have found asylum–not the refugee camps clustering on the borders of Syria, Sudan and Myanmar–it captures the intensity of forced migrations worldwide, if not the circumstances of their internal displacements or their deaths in transit and at sea.  The poor and often perilous conditions of the camps and settlements are left off of the map, as it were, as are the circumstances of ocean travel often brokered by human traffickers.

For the greatest lie and fabrication in the narrative of Global Trends of Displacement is the illusion it perpetuates that all refugees possess and have a destination–and indeed that all refugees arrive.   The extreme unmessiness of rendering the actual tragedy of refugees’ itineraries in purified form with a coolness worthy of Le Corbusier or Eero Salonen frames the crisis of refugees as if tracking airplanes’ movement or allocating resources.  To an extent, this is the result of the UNHCR dataset, which focuses on the arrival in camps or countries of asylum, rather than displacement or the camps were refugees and fleeing persons congregate along the borders of nearby countries.  But the visualization deriving from the data provides readers with a quite misleading illustration of the crisis at hand.  For in concealing local details, they obscure both the individual stories of sacrifice as well as the conditions or scarcities that has driven such a steep expansion of fleeing across what have often increasingly become quite shaky and undefined border-lines, readily renegotiated in theaters of war.

Sudanese refugees mappedUNHCR, Refugees from Southern Sudan by mid-December, 2013

Rather, the image created communicates an impression of cleanly engineered arcs of geographical mobility and direct paths to resettlement.  Unlike earlier visualizations, the elegant red arcing lines adopted in “Global Trends” present the UNHCR data as if to suggest that all refugees arrive–even though the dataset is of course only about those who do seek asylum and resettle elsewhere, and predominantly in countries far removed from their homelands.  This narrative of spatial displacement may obscure a deeper set of narratives of dislocation.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

One sacrifices a sense of the local in the arching red lines in the gripping aggregation of global refugees over the past year in “Global Trends,” also pictured the header to this post.  The data vis indeed broaches the difficulties in comprehending what has become a global crisis at the end of an age of empire in readily comprehensible terms.  Although the paths of refugees’ flights threatens to muddy the specific travails from which folks are forced to flee in the data visualization, as well as their specific circumstances and travails, it synthesizes and processes the almost unsustainable streams of forced flights from refugee hot spots by foregrounding the actual routes of displacement–while misleadingly suggesting that all refugees found future homes.

Indeed, it maps the unmappable by mapping the pathways of those forcibly displaced:  yet of the 60 million displaced globally, the map focusses on the 14 million (almost a quarter of those displaced worldwide) who have left their countries in 2014 alone, offering what is probably an under-estimation of the encyclopedia of travails that can never, at another level, map or synthesize–as if the routes of fleeing can ever be adequately represented by being sketched on the perfectly engineered arcs akin to the smoothly engineered pathways of multiple airplane flights along which a very different demographic travels.  Refugees are of course unlikely to experience such travel, more characteristic of readers of the Times, who would surely be prone to recognize the map as a sad perversion of global flightpaths.

Global Trends in Displacement: DestinationsNew York Times

One feels only awe at the overwhelming nature this sort of dataset, itself difficult and dizzying to process because it offers little real cue for orienting oneself to the complex totality of narratives it collectively encodes.  Whether the augmentation of refugees worldwide can be seen as a quantifiable crisis–and removed from human terms and individual costs–is a question that cannot be here addressed.  But the conversion of the crisis into human flows is a compelling way to try to come to terms with how we’ve come to inhabit the world in rather chilling ways, by plotting some of the data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees on a global projection centered on the primary areas of regional crisis–not without posing the question of why such a global focus of the refugee crisis exists.  The nexus of the refugee “crisis” is so widely spatially distributed, indeed, to leave its “focus” dizzying as one tries to better internally process the extent of displacement worldwide:

detail refugees map New York Times

3.  The frenetic business of the long distance “traffic” pictured on the global map can also be reorganized and viewed, or disaggregated, piecemeal, luckily,  in order to make some sense of the terrifying abundance–or obesity?–of the disturbing dataset whose aggregation reveals the close relations between countries in an age of globalization, if it cannot threaten to obscure the dramatic narratives of individual experience.  The data is condensed into misleadingly orderly (if dizzyingly distracting) mesh of intersecting red lines, arcing over the earth’s surface and boundaries–as if to capture the global nature of the crisis, but which painfully erase the multiple individual narratives of struggle, internal displacement, and blossoming of the unplanned cities of refugee camps, and the different material and environmental constraints against which refugees have to contend and struggle. The comforting illusion that each refugee has a destination–or endpoint–ignore the improvised settlements now dot maps of Jordan, Turkey, Chad and South Sudan, and hold some two million souls, or the deaths of refugees in transit or at sea–runs agains the demand for an adequate dynamic map of their own, as if in a sort of reverse map of sites of human habitation inscribed on maps.

Such a map would describe dislocation in greater detail than the valiant ESRI “story map” of those refugee camps administered by the UNHCR, whose slippy map invites one to inspect the numbers of displaced in different camps, but stands at a significant remove from their actual circumstances or experiences of displacement of the story it purports to tell.

efugee camps ESRI Fifty Most Populous Refugee Camps (an ESRI story-map) ArbatDarfur Refugee Camp in Chad Arbat_Transit_Camp_3-3-2014 Arbat Transfer Camp for Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

4.  Could one rather include in such a map variables such as the length of time required for transit from each country, the amount of time required for transit, or the possibility of making such travel–all potential ways to represent the ordeal of displacement in ways that viewers might understand?  Or could one indicate the violence of the displacement in a quantitative way?

Indeed, the focus of the data vis on the routes of migration that refugees take runs against the widely accepted and reported truth that the number of internally displaced persons has expanded far beyond the growth of refugees seeking asylum in recent years–also reported by Sergio Peçanha–if the growth of IDP’s worldwide has surely increased the desperation of those refugees who leave countries of origin.

IDP's New York Times

The greatest single lie that this elegant map of refugees across the world tells in its distribution of a dataset is that all refugees have a destination to which the flee that can be mapped–a lie that the red arcs that imitate the paths of air traffic encourage.  For the paths of those fleeing are of course rarely so removed from the ground or so truly globalized in their dispersion.  In addition, there is a shift of attention from the sites where a truly unmanageable set of crises for refugees exists to the density of points of arrival in European countries as France, Germany, England, Italy, and Sweden, as well as Australia, Canada and the US–all rendered by but a single point or nexus of arrival, or destination–and often obscured by clotted red lines.  Does this detract the readers’ attention from the sites of humanitarian emergency that prompted the rush of refugees? The crowded the image evokes the image of something like a blood splatter, the result of the expansion of the intensity of combat in multiple theaters that, after all, set the mechanisms of displacement in motion, which the practice of aggregation erased.  In ways that imitate the The Refugee Project’s attempt to map arcs of resettlement of those seeking asylum since 1975 in interactive fashion within a single globe, the density of lines that converge in Europe and elsewhere suggest the deeply linked question of the global multiplication of forcibly removed refugees, and the proliferation of a forcible statelessness across so much of the modern world. Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 12.10.41 PMThe Refugee Project 

But, on the other hand, the visualization’s immediate popularity, registered by wide retweeting, responds to the cognitive difficulty–if not impossibility–of coming to terms in a clear-headed manner with the dizzying multiplication of growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in our increasingly destabilized world. There is considerable clarity in how the orderly arcs mirror the readily recognizable form of a map of destinations of flights, if there is something truly odd in how they represent the terrifyingly troubled transit of peoples in times of war.  Perhaps the map aptly captures in symbolic fashion the desperate flight from regions in its numbers alone, acting like a sort of blood splatter map on the world–although one where the wounds seem to lie in those countries that receive refugees, rather than the sites of the violence that provoked their transit.

For the greatest difficulty with the data visualization remains the remove of its narrative content from the subjective experiences of the refugees than the absorption of refugees in their new countries, and the apparent equivalences that it draws between both the proportion of refugees or the experiences of refugees from different countries.  Hence, the conspicuous inclusion of numbers of departed whose final destinations were a specific country and the foregrounding of the names of those countries that were most likely destinations in the developed world–the United States, Canada, France, and Sweden among them–several countries were a sharply xenophobic ultra-right has been recently recognized as on the rise. Take, for instance, the dispersion or draining of Syrian populations, which despite its orderly symmetry offers only a stripping of data to approximate the ongoing struggles on its disintegrating borders.  During the recent Civil War, some 11.6 million people, almost half of its entire population, have been displaced, half arriving in Egypt, and only a relatively fortunate few arriving in European or industrialized/westernized nations.  Representing the length of time required for resettlement would at least be a surrogate and index for the nature of the experience of refugees that would be a possibly more ethical model for mapping displacement than the dispersion of the Syrian population on simple arcs–without notation of how many displaced Syrians remain, and omit the distortion suggested below of a smoothly engineered migration from refugee camps.

Syrian refugee displacement New York Times

5.  The infographic maps but one corner of the dilemma of global refugees.  One way that the infographic must be read is in dialogue of the as-yet limited reactions of advanced economies to the growing global refugee crisis, to be sure, at a time when it may make less sense to retain the attitudes of protectionism and fears of immigration, evident in the expansion of only 70,000 refugees to the United States during Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 on the basis of “humanitarian concerns” as “in the national interest,” and the retention of limits of admissions in accordance with clear ceilings for each region.  For does such an imposition of such ceilings come to terms with the global desperation felt by the displaced?

admissions of refugees--refugee resettlement assistance FY 2015

White House

There is an obligation to come to terms with the steep fears of immigration and better help readers better wrestle with the plight of the displaced.

An untold understory of the infographic that is less evident in the image used in this post’s header is the considerable concentration of a huge proportion of refugees–some 85% by the count of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees–in one specific geographic region, and the lack of resources that are effectively able to be devoted to these refugees’ fates.  (And this may well be an underestimation of population flows among the internally displaced.)  The majority congregate in regions running from Turkey to Southeast Asia, past Ethiopia to Kenya and the Central African Republic, although one imagines that the displaced in Ukraine are just absent from the dataset, and less able to be accurately measured by the UN numbers.  The region populated by millions of displaced is circled by dotted lines below.  In each of these regions, most relatively impoverished, refugees are often exchanged among countries with limited resources to process compelling human needs–for example, Ethiopia holds  665,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan–where they are bound to press further upon limited existing resources and fragile economies.

85% refugees

What will be the result of these interconnections–and whether they won’t demand far greater global interconnectedness–is not clear.

But the ongoing expansion of refugees in areas where there is no clear governmental or administrative organization will prove especially difficult to map adequately, despite the compelling nature of the “Recent Trends” visualization, such trends are poised to expand in future years, especially from Ukraine as well as Syria and Myanmar.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

It seems most likely that, at some level, the data visualization of the destinations of refugees as seeking asylum from their country of origin unconsciously records how far we have come from the optimism of picturing the possibility of global unity the United Nations auspiciously hoped to inaugurate in 1946–by the agency which compiled the UNHCR database.


6.  There is a significant difficulty, of course, in mapping refugees and the increased clustering of camps that they create in so-called demilitarized border zones.  For each image condenses multiple narratives that one wishes one could tease out, but confronts an image in which one sees limited apparent possibility of resolution save further instability. South Sudan possessed some of the greatest emergency of the refugees of modern times and the twenty-first century both both in the some 700,000+ asylum-seeking refugees in neighboring countries at most recent count and one and a half million plus internally displaced persons (IDP’s) within its fragile boundaries, many driven by intense food shortages as well as by an increasingly militarized and fearful situation:  almost a third of the country’s population lack food.  Emergency refugee activities have haven mapped in South Sudan from 2012.  Even as the subsequent refugee crisis generated in the Syrian Civil War has further pressed credulity, South Sudan exemplifies a refugee situation spun out of control with no clear resolution, before which one stares at at the map agape, conscious of the continuing inadequacy of ever resolving its narrative in the immediate future.  Back in 2012, UNHCR helpfully mapped refugee settlements (camps) and clusters of individual refugees–denoted in the second map of South Sudan below by inverted triangles; refugee settlements are shown by pink houses–spread both to camps in Ethiopia, and less organized communities on the borders of poor (and undeveloped) countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic, states with their resources already spread thin. images-16 Refugee Camps and Refuggees around South Sudan Aug 2012 2012 Sudan map legendUNHCR By 2013, the number of displaced was combined with arrivals of those displaced from nearby areas and states: 1930_1366189226_province-orientale-january-2013

By 2014, about three-quarters of a million displaced persons were displaced and 4.9 million were in need of assistance as the borders continued to be particularly permeable and fear drove displaced persons out of the country:

179514-ECDM_20140318_SouthSudan_Refugees The displacement of refugees has only grown considerably during 2015, with increased fighting in South Sudan and the Upper Nile states, at the same time as water and sanitation has continued to deteriorate across the region.  Spurring the possibility for increased refugees, food insecurity of food has grown–as food grows more scarce–in ways that the visualization leaves silent but might provide a telling under-map of the flow of refugees across increasingly fragile borders, in situation maps that foreground departure and the failure of containment within civil society.  Such maps obscure the systemic problems that are bound to make the tally of refugee counts only tick higher over time, perhaps, which might be revealed in deeper layers to suggest the levels of instability that afflict the region. One telling map to compare reveals the increasingly imperiled aquifers and drastically declining availability groundwater.  If we consider the drought to be located in California’s central Valley–a thin orange strip by the Pacific Ocean–the decrease in groundwater NASA satellites have mapped over the past decade quite dramatically extends across the Sudd Basin and Lower Chad Basin in Africa and the entire Nubian Aquifer System and the Congo Basin–as it groundwater shortages has drastically grown across the Arabian aquifer and Indus Basin over the same time.  Water is not the sole issue here, of course, but the unrest that scarcity provokes demands mapping, and GIS visualization, as a layer below the civil society, which in much of Africa and regions without and which never saw the need for infrastructures of water transport is no doubt particularly acute. Global Water Storage 2003-13 legend UC Irvine The consequences of depleted aquifers and groundwater across the Lake Chad Basin, Sudd Basin and the Nubian Aquifer System (NAS)–the greatest body of fresh water in the Nile basin,  and Congo Basin have provoked a catastrophe of global proportions, while we returned to the possibilities of the contagious spread of Ebola across the world as if it were the sole apocalypse on our mental radar for much of the past year. The rise of fatal–or near-fatal–the expansion of those attempting to flee food shortages and declining economies in Africa have appeared in or occasioned increasing news reports from the western media, as Italians have called in increasingly strident tones for all of Europe to turn its attention to focus on the flight of refugees in the Mediterranean ocean–which the Italian navy can barely respond to in adequate manner, and create a web across the Mediterranean simplified in the red routes below.  Already the most “deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants” in 2012, the refugee crisis intensified in 2014–often encouraged by human traffickers who deceptively promise perilous passage that is often not followed through, perhaps making this current year–2015–the most deadly in recent memory for those attempting the crossing in ships as they flee humanitarian disasters in Libya in ways that have only begun to be quantified and mapped. GUARDIAN MAPS MEDITERREANEAN MIGRATION ROUTES The Guardian 01_Mediterranean-Sea 85188.adapt.676.2 National Geographic

The complex story of tragedy and loss that the map conceals is difficult to communicate in conventional cartographic forms, as the each circle represents the suspected or confirmed loss of human passengers.

mediterranean-460-1 New York Times

One understory to this migration, without doubt, is the huge refugee crisis across the subsaharan continent, where 15 million have been displaced in the past year alone:

15 million displaced in sub-Saharan Africa

The “refuge flows” are oddly almost not with a human face, as if they seem a triangular exchange of goods.  As we map refugee traffic in a manner that suggests that the flows of people are removed from a dynamics of struggle on the ground, but guided by an invisible hand or able to be imagined as a coherent network of flow, as if they at times arrive and depart from the same place, we lose a sense of the human costs of the deep scars that they draw over the surface of the inhabited world.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations But these overlapping and criss-crossed waves of displacement, if terribly difficult to disentangle, are compressed into so many misleadingly orderly arcs:  their stark form and geometric curvature elide or erase the struggle, or indeed desperation, that we know companies the experiences of all refugees, and show an image of migration that may be as good as it gets. It surely sends an alarm about the status and state of the stateless refugees forced to flee their homes that forces us to negotiate our own relation to the changed face of the world.  But its curved red lines decisively and assertively arrogate the numbers of those who have sought asylum into smoothly completed arcs in an oddly unproblematic way, given the scarcity of solutions at hand.

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Filed under data visualizations, refugee crisis

Sites of Internment and Surveillance Hidden in the New American West

The mosaic of ethnicities in the United States both appears so inclusive and diverse that the state’s sanctioning of the forcible spatial segregation of one ethnic group –Japanese Americans–almost seems impossibly remote in time and culture.  But the tragic and yet state-sponsored episode of Japanese internment by the US military reveals the existence of historical rifts in the historical landscape of the American West, which not only resonate with a history of exclusionary practices, but suggest a striking geography along which practices of exclusion were cartographically effected and organized.  The partitioning of space in maps enabled the exclusionary strategies, moreover, which have a striking overlay with earlier landscapes of exclusion.  Despite a stated mission to keep the country “safe” in the face of the shock of war, detainment of Japanese Americans was not at all something of a historical unicum, but rather fit within landscape of ethnic opposition with possible roots in the nineteenth century, whose secret geography has in ways informed the use of sites of sequestering those stripped of citizenship at the start of the twenty-first in the American West.

The memory of the experience was moreover deeply inscribed in the national landscape at a single moment, but one not without historical precedents.  The permission Executive Order 9066 gave the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded” from 1942 that enabled an internal “enemy” population to be stripped of citizenship.  The establishment of an archipelago of confinement across Arizona, inland California, and Nevada echoed the confinement of native populations–and resonates with recent attempts to define areas of detainment as “off the map” and consequently removed from legal oversight in ways that we might be all too apt to associate with the Cold War–as much as it was improvised.  The geography of the confinement of Japanese Americans provides an instance of something not like race warfare, but the opposition of the state to its enemies perhaps as telling as the geography of ghostly munitions of the Cold War from missile siloes, remains of nuclear testing, facilities for storing and developing plutonium, and anti-missile radar that dot the landscapes of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

In mapping the inclusiveness of national diversity, we are increasingly reminded of the ethnic classification of the nation’s population by the carving out of predictions of the behavior of the electorate at the polls–partly because the distribution is so relatively easy to map, partly because how such divisions map onto political parties is a growing riddle, not only since it is less clear that their increasing political voice maps onto a single agenda, but also because of the scare of predictions of white-minority status by 2045.  For the apparent cultural remove of the arrogance of an administration that formally instituted the forced geographic relocation of Japanese Americans to camps away from the west coast seems an odd artifact stoked by the proto-fascist flames ignited by the fear of war.  Might it rather be comprehended as a part of California history?  If the episode of Japanese American relocation seems removed from the state’s current mosaic of diversity, it has eery ties to the hidden history of the West–and the political landscape of recent years.  Although when trains transported individuals to hidden locations inland,their forced displacement for the general safety of “all” was promoted as coalescing home front–based on their predesignation as “enemies of the state” in ways that have recurred in recent years.  It pays to return to them to excavate the map of displacement that defined the west coast, and situate its occurrence within a landscape of longue durée.

The interned painter Chiura Obata was a devoted student of the western landscape of the United States, particularly in Yosemite Park, and created an image that inescapably suggests the portents of a shifting political landscape while interned in Topaz, in his quite contemplative painting of the deeply and heavily smeared reddened sky over the stark landscape of the Relocation Camp where he was interned, after having taught art at the University of California, at a War Relocation Camp that opened its doors in September 11, 1942.

ObataChiura Obata, “Sunset, Water-Tower, Topaz, March 20 1943” painted in the Topaz Relocation Camp

The smears of rust-colored cirus clouds that Obata drew as reflected on Utah’s barren desert landscape at the Topaz War Relocation Center overwhelms the barbed wire fences barely discernible beneath telephone wires, lending the landscape a monumentality that dwarfs a makeshift guard tower, and creates red lines like scars across the land.  Rather than treat the landscape relocation and internment camps as a panicked response to fears of impending military attack, the rapidity of relocation along fault lines in a political landscape that we may have too readily repressed, when the landscape has been forcibly divided along ethnic or cultural lines in terms of belonging–a division that seems to have been rehabilitated in recent years.

1.  The recent mapping of the notion of “diversity” based on data culled into one of the appealing visualizations displayed on the website of Trulia–the realtor which seems primarily in the business of making us feel good about the prospective places where we might live, if we really and truly had our druthers–expanded the maps of demographic density designed by Randal Olson in more interactively searchable ways that offer an opportune starting point for this post.  The dynamic visualization is based on self-reported Census data promised to capture the current “racial/ethnic” composition of regions across the country where smallest difference existed between a dominant ethnic subset and secondary ethnic group, ranking the relative levels of “diversity” by that metric across the country’s largest metropolitan areas–from Oakland to San Francisco to New York to Houston to San Jose–so that we might better envision the ethnic compositions of the neighborhoods where we live in an era where ethnic diversity seems the closest metric we’ll ever get to what’s cosmopolitan.  It is, however, a map of strong ethnic integration that contrasts with the clearcut demarcation of otherness in the map of several generations past that is the header to this post..

Diversity in USA, 2010

The data visualization is impressive despite its clear limitations–especially evident in the broad equivalences that it draws implicitly between the uniformity of “diversity” as a transparent derivative of data of variety.  Building on data encoded in Dustin Cable’s “Racial Dot Map,” Trulia provides a metric for “diversity” that ignores exact ethnicities, providing a new way of reading a single argument in the 2012 data of ethnic differences that Cable encoded by five different colors–which can be read as a follow-up map of the image of ethnic segregation in the map with which the musing of this post began.

Racial Dot Map

The Trulia map of America’s Racial Kaleidoscope nonetheless offers an interesting and somewhat jarring image for all of its superficiality, even with apparent bearing on the sociology of the red state/blue state divide.  For all the very slipperiness of “ethnic/racial” categories as meaningful demographic tools of parsing populations–when were these two terms ever equivalent seen as surrogates for one another, and how do the categories of the 2010 Census, which use such undifferentiated envelopes as “Asian” or “Black” or “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” as authoritative diverse to parse populations?–to image diversity, there may be some meaning able to be extracted in the visualizations that show their difference and distance from a historical past, when ethnic differences seemed far more starkly inscribed in a pre-globalized world.

For the folks at Trulia created a visualization to map “diversity” that erases whatever degrees of actual racial or ethnic integration exist within counties.  While this may hardly offer a metric of actual “diversity,” the visualization reveals California as the largest continuous body of “diverse” ethnic groups in the country and of its sharpest non-“majority white” areas:

Diversity in USA, 2010

Even without introducing the potentially complexifying newly trending category of the “transracial,” or those individuals who, to use another term diffused in online media thanks to Rachel Dolezal, realized or felt that they were “miscarried”–a term that has touched a clear nerve, given the unclear meaning “race” retains in contemporary America, and the uncomfortable nature of the term.  Where Trulia finds diversity to be concentrated in coastal regions and objectively present in a range of areas that seems to correlate with sites where the home-buying market is tight, the visualization seems most useful to force us to ask what diversity means–as well as to mask the sort of rhetoric of ethnic opposition that so often scarred the landscape of the west.

2.  “Diversity” is a new world, but may once have led to the one of the clearest instances in US history of the forced marginalization of a population of citizens during the early years of American engagement in World War II.  Despite the frustrating failure of imposing categories to classify the composition of our national population at the start of the twenty-first century, the cultural remove at which Japanese ethnicity became a basis for the forced migration of citizens must be balanced with the proximity of the recent circumscription of individual rights.  If panic and fear unjustifiably provoked the systematically organized deportation of Americans of Japanese ancestry–in which a strong dose of economic resentment may have played a large role–the act of remapping civil rights in the United States, if seriously compromised, also sanctioned the remapping of rights in ways that both built on and provided some rather scary precedents.

Did the confinement of a considerable section of the population–and indeed the confinement of a somewhat arbitrarily reclassified class of citizens–created something of a crucial precedent to redefine the rights of citizens by unilateral executive fiat?  The decision to reclassify a segment of the American population recalls the legal justification for a “state of emergency” which the “crown jurist of the Third Reich” Carl Schmitt notoriously advanced as an adequate rationale to suspend rights in the hopes to re-establish order, responsibility for which, Schmitt argued, ultimately lay with the sovereign alone, but whose actions created shared bonds preceded the very notion of the state–and rested in a political nature of the opposition between friend and enemy.  In a cold-hearted logic ways recently revived in George W. Bush’s administration, such an occurrence “extreme emergency” could justify the suspension of the constitution and law, with striking similarity to the political state of emergency by which internment was justified and understood–and was associated with a state of war, both by Schmitt and in the War on Terror of the early twenty-first century.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the remapping of California during the Japanese Evacuation Program, where Japanese Americans were segregated from all “exclusion areas” in the name of a political imperative that transcended political practice.

The institutional order that was created between zones of confinement and zones of exclusion in the “Evacuation Map” created “in satisfaction of the impelling military necessity created by total war with Japan” defined some 108 individual “exclusion areas,” in each of which approximately 1,000 persons were evacuated–allegedly totaling the 100,000 persons evacuated during the two weeks between March 24 and June 6.  Many were concentrated in the Pacific Northwest.  But the repartitioning of the West in terms of Military Area 1 and Military Area 2–a sort of Newspeak of Orwellian resonance–was premised on the presiding rationality of political belonging against the otherness of Japanese Americans that is so foundational in Schmitt’s thought.  The exceptionality of “wartime” provided the basis for suspending their right, and insisting on the primacy of the political for redividing national space, and suspending legal or constitutional precedent by a political mandate that, for Schmitt, would indeed historically and existentially precede any legal or constitutional order.


What sort of networks would have allowed the forced migration of a large section of the Japanese American population to internment camps?  The imposition of such a nation-wide policy of legislated relocation remains conceptually remote, both as a practice and conceptual possibility, let alone as one accepted by the region’s residents.  Its logic lies in the legend to the map, which echoes a truly Schmittian rhetoric of a “state of emergency” in which constitutional rights are suspended; the necessity of “the political” reveals the deep opposition based on “otherness” whose rationality is revealed in its legend.  This state of “otherness” was clearly inscribed in the landscape of the two areas of Military Areas, rather than states and superimposed upon states, is linked to “wartime,” but which echoes of the earlier political orders of the American West:  its legend offers the underlying logic of the state of emergency during which local division was inscribed.

The partitioning of the same region that seems particularly noted for its diversity–the western region of California–as in the framing of an “Exclusion Zone” that was deemed so sensitive in its concentration of state secrets to be off-limits to members identified with Japanese immigrants that they could be stripped of constitutional rights–and forced to board trains from the cities to anodynely-named “Relocation Centers” that were located in the state’s interior–suggests a civilian partitioning of the country not only in the name of war-time exigency, but in fact a paranoia that was fueled not by actual military dangers or actual risks of espionage, in retrospect, but something that was more fed by a combination of opportunism and on-the-ground animosity and ethnic dislike.  If the notion of such dislike might have lain in economic competition, the ethnic opposition was reified in the boundaries of otherness exposed on the map.

The network of relocation camps are often seen as a unicum–and as something like a quite particular circumstantial combination of jealousy for a group of successful immigrants who had often lived in distinct settlements, and whose difference was now cast into political relief, both by the war, and the culture of imperial allegiance that Japanese were seen as increasingly ready to adopt.  But the very network of the camps of resettlement recapitulated narratives of the European occupation of Native America by completely effacing an imaginary frontier between Native Lands and European-American pioneers, placed in evidence by the confining of native peoples in discrete sites that were later known as “reservations,” the bounded areas of the absence of any existence of a Native/American divide across the very western states from which Japanese Americans were banned–and indeed denied narratives of racial or ethnic differentiation, where the destruction of the frontier was replaced by the contained presence of the Native populations in reservations, at the same time as many other reservations were reclaimed as military sites for engineers or the army, in the demand for a wartime effort, even as Native American languages were adopted, as they had been in World War One, to encode military communications and Native Americans participated in huge numbers in the US Army.

The rapid constitution of new networks to displace Japanese Americans from their former homes to the periphery of what became defined as Military Area One in the United States was enabled by the infrastructure of railroads that linked cities to removed “War Relocation Centers” in areas where their inhabitants would not be easily noticed or indeed seen.  The forcible relocation of Japanese Americans was largely enacted and by non-military authorities, but led to the removal of the large number of immigrants to the country to remote areas, cordoned off from sight, in the four months from March, 1942, by which time some ten centers of “war[-time] relocation” were established that removed Japanese Americans from the coast region that they had increasingly migrated in the past thirty years, to areas where they were less likely to be noticed, and the stripping of their civil rights–and allegedly inalienable liberties–were not even seen.


The deep suspicion of ethnic difference created a proclivity to separate Japanese American citizens as a military threat.  Yet as early as 1930, the Office of Naval Intelligence began surveillance on Japanese communities in Hawaii, wary of the military power of Japan.  And from 1936, the same Office in fact compiled lists of those Japanese to be “the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between the countries–long before the idea of confinement camps were broached as a possibility on American soil.

That list would become the Custodial Detention Index, compiled in 1939-41 with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a tabulation one of explicitly “Alien Enemy Control” as enumerating those ostensibly “engaged in subversive activities” or actions deemed “detrimental to the internal security of the United States.”  The list was drawn up a decade after further Japanese immigration to the United States had been banned in 1924, and significantly before Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, allowed regional military commanders to designate “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”  The establishment by the civilian-run War Relocation Agency of what were very euphemistically termed “relocation centers,” together with the six internment camps run by the US Department of Justice, were officially built to house all Japanese-Americans who had been removed from the “exclusion zone” that stretched across the entire western coast of the United States, after March, 1942.

Although the scope of detention was not widely known, or discussed in contemporary maps, a relatively recent map of the Assembly Centers and Internment camps emphasized their existence and geographic distribution in areas that were removed from population centers, lending greater prominence to their considerable geographical remove from areas  Japanese Americans had settled and the inhospitable places to which these forced relocations in internment camps occurred–in the desert, in relatively abandoned villages of the High Sierra, in areas often excluded from common maps.


Ben Pease

The reparative remapping of such sites as Poston and Gila River to our common memory offers a wonderful way to start to come to terms with the network of civilian-administered internment camps that place into relief a less well-documented or perhaps fully apprehended scale of the effective apparatus of state surveillance and that was in place of over 125,000 Japanese Americans into the desert-liike interior of the country for ostensible reasons of suspicions of a Fifth Column in the country of fully US naturalized citizens, who were stripped of all civil liberties.

The stark existence of such an “Exclusion Zone” or ten euphemistically named ‘relocation centers’ to which Japanese-Americans were without distinction detained from 1942 were inhumanely mapped in purely logistical terms to evacuate the western coast of ethnic Japanese with amazingly well-coordinated efficiency over six months with the sort of reflexive unreflectiveness so often characteristic during the unfolding of events occurring during a war:  but the sites were also intentionally created as sites absent from federal law–or international conventions–and in a sense existed as black spots on the national map.


Such practices of forced relocation to sites far removed from cities near the shoreline–and ostensibly near sensitive military sites–depended on a very systematic division and re-assignment of Japanese Americans suddenly dispossessed of their ownership of houses, land, and real estate, which was imagined in a quite detailed cartographic manner–as the movement of Japanese Americans from coastal cities and communities on trains removed them to remote places, as if to expunge their memories, and in locating Japanese Americans in remote areas allowed to be forgotten and go unseen.  The subsequent destruction of any buildings, gardens, or evidence of confinement after the war, when the spaces of confinement were promptly shuttered after January 2, 1945–again by executive order–erased any evidence of the space that were bulldozed and razed, effacing memories of the internment, no doubt more problematic after the discovery of Nazi Concentration Camps.  Despite the total lack of support for accusations of security threats, suspicion seems to have reigned. If the construction of Internment Camps were officially mandated to be situated in places deemed “climates suitable for people,” from the newly created Military Area #1–western Washington and Oregon; western California; Southern Nevada–to the Mississippi, in ways that created a new geography of the United States during wartime, ostensibly for reasons of state.  Yet living in quasi-military improvised unheated barracks ringed by barbed wire that enclosed the thirty to forty blocks of barracks separated by empty spaces, patrolled by soldiers from watchtowers, lacking any privacy or cooking equipment or kitchens, and without any medicine or medical institutions, with only improvised medical care and with nothing but cots in collective rooms, such containment centers were undeniably more than austere–they were dehumanizing by intent.   And while not dedicated to a project of ethnic cleansing, they were motivated by a sense of deep suspicion based on ethnicity alone, and reflect a similar fantasia of spatial containment and confinement that was enabled by a new attitude to space that the wartime maps of the Civil Control Administration reveal. The landscape coded in pale pastels masks and obscures the violence of collectively reclassifying Japanese-Americans as if “internal enemies”–and as threats to the national state–within national political discourse in truly Schmittian terms.


Within the intentionally dispersive extended archipelago of camps, removed from centers of habitation, inmates were largely supervised or overseen by the Wartime Civil Control Administration–a civilian unit–because of falsified reports of a proclivity to espionage.  Such reports were diffused largely through the military and future Department of Defense (then Department of War) and were also  fostered by intense lobbying efforts of white or Anglo farmers (who saw the Japanese American farmers as a threat) encouraged the perpetuation of a race-based paranoia. Even though J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI doubted that any real threat was posed by Japanese Americans, the decision to confine seems to have been preemptively made to quiet a home front:  President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066 led to over 112,000 Japanese Americans to be moved to effective prison camps located in nine states–California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, and the porto-state of Alaska. Although two-thirds had already gained citizenship, they were asked to submit to loyalty oaths and swear not to interfere with the ongoing war effort that had consumed the country.  And were excluded from much of the country. The internment sites were removed in the interior–and located in “Military Area 2”–whose definition somewhat bizzarely, and, quite Orwellianly, departed from the boundary lines of individual states, but created a new logic of displacement and of the suspension of individual rights. 3.  We associate the transport of prisoners as human chattel destined for ethnic cleansing on trains with Hitler’s Final Solution, perhaps the paradigmatic instance of the forced migration of populations becoming a national project and mission.  But the national network of trains similarly provided the basis for the relatively fast geographic removal of US citizens of Japanese descent across the state from Exclusion Areas, effecting the legal reclassification of citizenship in was that oddly reflected the claims of spatial purification that the abstract order of maps almost inspires. The spectrum of pastel colors of the map issued by the Western Defense Command of the Exclusion Areas where men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were forbidden to set foot conceals its violent measures.

detail evacaution program

The process of internal evacuation conducted “in satisfaction of the impelling military necessity created by total war with Japan” created an “evacuee population” in the United States whose movement was to be controlled and supervised by military forces, ostensibly to remove them from areas where there was any military presence that might be observed.  When immigrants from Japan had been banned from becoming naturalized citizens of the United States–from either owning any property of their own or the ability to vote–Japanese Americans formed independent communities of their own in the western United States, often with separate schools.  The forced transport of Japanese Americans to sites where they were stripped of citizenship and persuant rights created something of a new standard for the imposition of classification on naturalized citizens for unstated reasons of possible danger to “state secrets”–although the  actual likelihood of any attempted infiltration or espionage on existing military installations was not particularly credible. Forced transportation from communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle created an archipelago of the confined not only in California–and prevented from entering “exclusion zones” that came to include almost one-third of the country, eliminating the presence of Japanese Americans in anywhere save the less densely populated lands of the interior.  While ostensibly directed against possible espionage of those sensitive military areas “from which any or all persons may be [rightfully[ excluded,”  the expansion of exclusion zones to constitute a large share of the country became something of a pretense to redirect populations to areas where they were not seen.  Not only was a third of the Territory of Hawai’i Japanese–between 140,00 and 150,000–in ways that make it ethnically complex, almost 127,000 Japanese Americans were listed in the 1940 Census as living in the country, mostly in California, Oregon and Washington, of which 40,869 resident aliens, born in Japan. archipelago of Internment Camps in US The rapidly expanding rate at which camps opened across the country over five months testify to the paranoia and unjustified fears that fed the relatively quick establishment of similar internment camps where local rights were suspended or stripped, and the role of the rail in moving a sizable sector of the population nationwide:


This quite carefully planned and strikingly extensive network to move populations from Assembly Centers to Relocation Centers–all anodynely named–allowed the significant expansion of the areas of exclusion from which Japanese were not allowed to set foot.  They were codified quite rapidly in the months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor led to all of “Japanese ancestry” to be reclassified as potential security threats, despite little evidence of their disloyalty, as attempts to argue against imprisonment that fell on deaf ears:  six weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, after some ethnic Japanese living in Hawaii helped a downed airman, leading to a questioning of their ability to not be imperial subjects and “unassailable” as such, set the basis for a new geography of confinement and exclusion of Japanese from public areas that Earl Warren spearheaded, creating the basis to prevent ethnic Japanese from entering exclusion zones” of almost a third of the country–and encouraging by May 1942 all Japanese to be moved to network of assembly centers and readied for transport to permanent relocation centers across the country.

The declarative bluntness of the administrative languages in the authoritative public notices placed in the street corners of cities such as San Francisco that trumpeted the specter of foreign racial “ancestry” of Japanese Americans–


or the expanse of almost a third of the country from which Japanese Americans had been displaced–

extensive network

cannot speak to the surpised faces of the deported who arrived by train in Arcadia, California, fresh from San Pedro, and the machinery that brought them there, and the helmeted soldiers who are staring down those recently stripped of citizenship, who don’t seem to have fully fathomed the reasons for their fate, or what perhaps the suspension of all legal rights would mean.

The role of the trains in moving populations in California would have paralleled the travels that the young Steve Reich made with his governess across the country from Los Angeles to New York in 1939 and 1940, and the “music documentary” he composed that retrospectively juxtapose those trips with the contemporaneous forced transport of European Jewry for ethnic cleansing.  Reich’s travels occurred almost immediately before Japanese-Americans were moved en masse from Los Angeles to Relocation Centers as Poston or Gila River.  Rendered in the propulsive straining tempo of violins that alternately suggest accelerating pistons and air raid sirens, and accompanied by parallel intonations of porters calling railway stops and voices of survivors, Reich’s braiding of memories intentionally evoked parallel lived geographic relocations as fantasia of forced displacement that mechanized electric rail travel allowed.

relocation in Arcadia, CA at Santa Anita Assembly Center, brought from San Pedro

relocation in Arcadia, CA at Santa Anita Assembly Center, brought from San Pedro

4.  Was there a precedent for such forced movement under military oversight, in the confinement of native Americans in much of the American West to “reservations”, in a manner that Adolf Hitler himself has been noted to have particularly admired for the effective reorganization of the population of the West?  (Hitler was a large fan of Karl May as well as Fenimore Cooper; Navajo reservations provided not only an architectural model for early concentration camps, according to John Toland, which he took as a promise of the extermination of those unable to be “civilized,” in a bizarre bit of cross-cultural reading.)  The precedent of the forced 1864 “Long March” of over 300 miles–some fifty of which in fact occurred between designed to create forced migrations of American Indians from more potentially valuable mineralogical resources to reservations of contracting size between 1864-6 of up to eighteen days attempted an ethnic cleansing of Navajo, from the ancestral homelands of hunters and gatherers located in current northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo internment camp on the Pecos River nearby Fort Sumner–an internment camp that was itself an attempt at ethnic cleansing, where some 3,500 Navajo men, women, and children died and that stood as an inspiration of the possibilities of ethnic cleansing to the Nazi party, as did the camp for Boer prisoners in South Africa, and perhaps a model for the first plans to deport Jews to the area of Lubin to die of disease.  (The image of the confined Native American was potent:  Karl May remained among Hitler’s preferred authors, and Hilter continued to read May’s stories of the grizzled white cowboy Old Shatterhand as Führer and personally recommended to his officers, David Meier notes, during the Russian campaign–perhaps providing a model for the forced marches of prisoners of war to death camps.)

Reservation map MS 3039 map 11 (1886)

The forced migration of a hunting and gathering migratory tribe to an arid 40-square-mile reservation with contaminated water, to face failing crops, disease and raids from neighbouring tribes is a not-so-hidden part of the landscape of the “wild” west that must have been present in the minds of those who administered the transportation of Japanese Americans to sequestered sites of minimal economic or strategic value.

March map (Wiki commons) While such equivalences in atrocity can hardly be drawn, and should not be encouraged, it remains striking on a conceptual and genealogical level that so many of the camps of internment for Japanese Americans were geographically located not only on state land, but at times on the very reservations on which Native Americans were actually confined–and restricted–in ways that provided a powerful precedent for such practices of territorial confinement and surveillance.

The Poston Relocation Center, for example, built on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in Arizona, working to provide the Reservation with electricity; the Leupp Isolation Center on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, northwest of Winslow; the Gila River Camp, approved in March 18, 1942, for 10,00, over pointed objections of the Gila River Indian Tribe; Tule Lake in an area that was the ancestral home of the Modoc, surviving members of whom were exiled to Oklahoma in 1873; Manzanar, located in the Owens Valley, in an area whose farmlands were worked by Shoshone and Paiutes for some time.  In these circumscribed and well-defined areas, the Constitution was deemed not to apply.  Despite no clear reaction between the Relocation Authorities and future Bureau of Indian Affairs, the director of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon S. Meyer, from 1950 to 1953 worked as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

5.  Few of these sites of isolation were known to the public, moreover, or showcased in the media, with the exception the “show-camp” of Gila River, Arizona.  But the existence of a “hidden geography” necessitated the show-camp among the numerous centers of sequestration Japanese-Americans might have faced.  Lying quite literally “off the map,”and not appearing on maps of the west save in those redacted by the government, the internment camps provide more than a solely symbolic predecessors of what Trevor Paglen has so accurately characterized as the “blank spots on the map Trevor Paglen described, run by the National Security Administration, in the wake of the newfound popularity of the juridical writings of  Carl Schmitt.

For the that became centers for the rendition of foreign nationals deemed security threats, like dry lakebed of Groom Lake, the area of the testing of the U2 missiles and other military aircraft in Area 51, run by the Air Force, or the National Data Center, sites run by the government but which lie outside the legal administration of the state, perversely, and in which the suspension of constitutional rights that Schmitt had claimed was argued to similarly apply.


The suspension of constitutional rights for the American-Japanese who were sequestered has an analogously long set of precedents of its own:  the forced displacement of Native Americans had been an established government policy and project for over sixty years in the nineteenth century, based on denying precedence to claims of residence in lands they had traditionally occupied.

The result created some unique patterns and combinations of interior settlement.  The Japanese Americans in one region came to outnumber the Mohave and Chemahuevi in the area of the desert where they had confined:  the Office of Indian Affairs, indeed, ran many camps together with the War Relocation Authority, based on the hope was to use Japanese labor to construct larger spaces of confinement for Native tribes–either using the confined to confine tribes already stripped of land, or using the dispossessed to create spaces of confinement for the nation-state that had stripped them of their own property–by the canalization of the desert or the construction of newly electrified living quarters.  Native Americans as the Cherokee had earlier been confined to “internment camps” before these were termed “reservations–internment camps whose plans may have served as models for the confinement of Jews in what became Death Camps–in World War II, the US also displaced Aleut people from the Pribilof Islands to internment camps located in Southeast Alaska.

Manznar War Relocation Camp

Do such sites of isolation provide an alternate genealogy for the foundation of rendition sites–“blank spots on the map“–that the NSA much more recently operated at a similar remove from the coasts, public memory, or legal oversight? Do they provide one genealogy of the “black areas” of the law that allow the invocation of state secrets by the government and especially by the Air Force and CIA, but also the Department of Justice of Alberto Gonzalez, where the torturous logic of Schmitt’s emphasis on the state’s right to name its enemies regained respect, partly through the validity that the conservative icon Leo Strauss had given his “political theology” as one way for a strong state to unite men against “evil”:  it is tempting to see what role Schmitt had in providing a precedent to invoke state secrets privilege to shore up the “black worlds” of the NSA, where extraordinary rendition of foreigners like Khaled El-Masri or the Canadian Maher Arar occur, and Groom Lake stays black–and effectively off the map–removing the construction of Air Force bases in Area 51 from criminal persecution, and effectively sanction violations of both federal law and the international Convention Against Torture in some locations. Indeed, the establishment of Relocation Camps mirror and echo the temporal creation of military sites in Southern Nevada that sprung up in the 1950s, nearby Area 51, which has been imagined both as a site of alien abductions and an alleged site for the US military to dedicated efforts to converting alien aircraft, have long remained hidden, and most probably not only to conceal contact with extra-terrestrial life for reasons of state.  The recently expanding government centers tied to extradition offer an an odd gloss on the myths of alien crafts’ conversion to the US military.  In a perverse fantasy of military omnipotence and natural providence, where for some the US Government is believed by many to have inherited the manifest destiny of the nation into the otherworldly relations to alien life.  Just past Death Valley National Park, the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain almost constitute the areas that the nation has removed from most maps– Military Lands in S. Nevada ]even if the secretive area around Region 51 and Groom Lake, just above the Nellis Air Force Range near Las Vegas, became best-known as sites of an secretive space of rendition and imagined extraterritoriality.  Is the ideal mapping of these areas as removed from oversight, and not subject to prosecution, not only a relic of the Cold War, but a region rich with precedents as offering a theater of opposing the enemy, to maintain enmity, in Schmitt’s curious words, and to maintain such enmities to cultivate the primacy of action, and sustain a not-so-hidden sort of political theology?  If nothing else, it is an odd through-the-looking-glass sort of authenticity that seems located in these areas hidden from oversight. The imagined extraterritoriality which the government entertains is after all a sort of fictive escape from recognizing rights agreed to be accorded individuals, by the escapist alternative of removing them from the actual map:  it is as if, by leaving the map blank where they lie, the conventional rights accorded to all who inhabit the actual world are somehow exempted by their placement off of the recognized map, and outside the nominally universal rights that are accorded citizens by US law and by international legal conventions.  The map, in this sense, seems to have more power for removing people from international treaties and standards that the law could otherwise allow. Croom Lake Is this a landscape of paranoia, whose contours were poisonously sculpted by a nuclear arms race of the Cold War–or a map of a secret history of sequestration, whereby an expanding nation state subtracted places from judicial review and removed them from public scrutiny? nellis_road_map_1950

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Palmyra in the World and on the World Wide Web

The long-fears impending destruction of Palmyra, not “just another town on the map,” says the NBC Nightly News, but a site for “erasing history” has been identified as an epicenter of the feared project of cultural genocide of opulent archeological remains–as well as of actual human deaths.  The longstanding difficulties of securing artifacts from smugglers from ceramics to bronze lamps to mosaics illustrating Homer’s Odyssey to medieval illuminations of the Quran, to the destruction of actual minarets, souks, and entire sites of archeological excavation.  David Brook’s claim that ISIS has created a wormhole of history that has transported us to a “different moral epoch” as much as a different political landscape, utterly removed from the moral codes he has recently celebrated, affords a prime spot to the destruction of archeological treasures.  As much as introduce a “wormhole”–a space-time passageway, theorized by Einstein and Rosen as a theoretical “bridge” that jumped huge distances that connect distances of billions of light years, the topography of Palmyra’s ruins offer something of a historical echo chamber as the fears of the disturbance of its awesome ruins were relayed across the world wide web, as well as an act of unpardonable criminal destruction.


AFP/Getty Images

The fears of losing such cultural monuments may reflect deep uncertainties in the possibilities of devoting military forces to protect physical objects from looting and destruction–and to continue to guard them in the face of military–but also reflect the scorched earth policy that the Assad regime has adopted in relation to its own lands.  And months after Syrian forces assured the world of the security of Palmyra’s ruins and of the city’s surrounding hills in mid-May 2015, the late-August announcement that explosives have demolished the Baalshamin Temple, a site to worship the Phoenician god of fertilizing rains which once stood some five hundred meters from the city’s amphitheater, has realized deep fears of cultural destruction and become emblematic of the extreme fragility of one’s relation to a historical past.  The site, long emblematic of a material presence of the ancient world in the wilds of the Syrian sands, became a theater for the destruction of antiquities, and even of the beheading of an eighty-two year old scholar of antiquities, Khaled al-Assad, whose executed body was strung up and suspended as an object-lesson.  The report that the Islamic State purposefully planted explosives in the city’s monumental ruins–“western” ruins in addition to the Assyrian monuments in Nimrud–and the recent images of explosives at the Temple of Baalshamin–offers grounds for the realization of fears to the pledge of an unidentified militant that “whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.”


Khaled al-Assad

Although the capture of the city may have been more closely tied in the mental geography of ISIL figures to Tadmur prison‘s destruction, a site of arbitrary and inhumane detention from the 1970s–“High walls of cold cement/ Control towers/ Mine fields/ Check points/ Barricades and special military forces/Finally… A space of pure patriotic fear,” wrote the poet Faraj Bayrakdar, who had been imprisoned there for some six years, “If the whole of Syria falls/ This prison will never ever fall.”  But the French-buiilt prison, fashioned as a panopticon in true Benthamite style, was the in the 1930s in the desert, site of a massive slaughter of members of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hafaz al-Assad’s henchmen and of sanctioned beatings and whippings, whose interiors were first broadcast by the ISIL as they recaptured the site and before they had destroyed it, were almost emblematic of the crimes against humanity of the current regime’s predecessor.


The attention to this site of fear and horror were quickly shifted, however, to the fears of the destruction of the city’s ancient amphitheater, which quickly became an arena of institutionalized violence for ISIL occupiers.

Such growing fears of expectations of destroying a Unesco World Heritage Site that would surely lead to a swift world-wide condemnation–as well as an offense against Syrian culture–were stoked by worldwide media, and must have partly led ISIS to release multimedia images that affirmed the preservation of cultural heritage that lies on the site of the Syrian-Iraq border to calm such accusations.  Even as the Director of Antiquities in Damascus has asserted that many treasures have been preemptively removed from the city, a counter-offensive by ISIS was adroitly waged on the world-wide web, as they posted images of intact ruins in the Syrian city–even as the humanitarian crisis in the area grew with air-strikes from the forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.


 Palmyra !

But the very images themselves conceal a bit of a debate about what a cultural heritage actually is:  as much as ISIS commander Abu Laith al-Saoudi somewhat convincingly assured Syrian audiences that his forces could commit to no violence against a cultural patrimony.  “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged,” al-Saoudi clarified that his targets were idols, rather than architecture, as if to lend the veneer of a theological disputatio to their actions:  “what we will do is to pulverize statues that the miscreants used to pray for,” he clarified, but “as for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.”

Whether the Palmyran monuments would be considered part of Syria’s cultural patrimony or antique architecture is not clear, although the manner that the winged Assyrian bulls or horses constituted part of an Iraqi cultural patrimony–much as the ruins of Palmyra for Syrian–may be very tragically overlooked.

Winged Bulls

In asking what constitutes a historical monument and what a religious icon, al-Saoudi raises a cultural quagmire and a debate on iconoclasm all too familiar from the sixteenth-century Reformation if itself also inherited from the ancient world–even as he seeks to invest the destruction of a classical heritage with an aura of doctrinal debate.

But the possible preservation of many statues, if indeed taken to safekeeping before the invasion, has not led to any hesitation of using the backdrop of its second-century ancient Roman amphitheater to round up and execute at least twenty supporters of the Syrian state, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and kill two hundred more.  What constitute the Palmyrene divinities–reliefs on funerary monuments? lions and eagles with open widespread wings? images on tombs?–is open to interpretation and will probably not be that closely overseen.  The monuments that have remained less vulnerable to air bombardment, weather damage, acid rains, suggest a vulnerability to the widespread but only recently recognized looting of antiquities that have slowly resurfaced on the black market, providing a source of income that has recently rivaled Syrian oil fields as a needed source of cash as other sources are drying up for ISIS–if we trust the record of financial transactions recently found on one of the flash drives of an ISIS commander, which detailed the sales of some $36 million of stolen ancient artifacts that were sold on the black market.

The recent specter of the destruction of tombs outside the city of Palmyra by explosives offered a taste, however, of the destruction that might be waiting to be unleashed.

81160.adapt.676.2Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Is it really true that, as the New York Times reports, the cultural vandalism of tombs and statutes–a destruction whose propagandistic value Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University compares to the choreographed beheadings of captives as designed to appeal to some ISIL supporters–occurred as a cautionary warning to nearby Syrian troops?  or a sign of their withdrawal from a region, and the acceleration of demolition in the face of military defeats?  The value of the Palmyran antiquities to ISIL, whose sales of antiquities from an Abyssinian monastery in Syria’s Nabek district totalled $36 million, must reveal canny knowledge of the calculus of their value as intact objects.  So many antiquities now stand guarded by Syria’s government that a list of Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk has been distributed to border guards, as many looters in ISIS have become amateur archeologists, and, until ISIS troops took the city, a guard was stationed at the amphitheater itself, as if to declare its worth to the state.

The release of some ten photos by the Islamic State showing the preservation of architectural ruins contrast to the familiar photos posted online in February of the destruction of antiquities in Mosul, but seems to be an attempt to repristine their image, despite the brutality of the executions, as Syria’s official news agency, SANA, released file photos of the city’s antiquities that were threatened with destruction, no doubt in an attempt to gain world attention as well as stoke nationalist sentiment as well as horror.  The place of antiquities is a delicate one within the propaganda forces that have mobilized behind the war, with ISIS using the destruction of antiquities as a bit of a rallying cry to supplement Jihad, long after it had actually destroyed substantial numbers of churches.

But if the value perceived in the destruction of antiquities may have been feared to make Palmyra something of a poster-child, the videos that successfully cast the ISIS trips as philistines for folks like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who confessed to be moved to future mobilization by the hopes to defend Assyrian Gods who sport “those curious ringleted beards in the shape of typewriters” and profiled horses, as if they were ready to suddenly sign up for fighting on the frront lines to defend the heritage, or at least give thanks for the oft-criticized custodial role London’s British Museum–which seems to have been Johnson’s real (and openly knee-jerk nationalist) point.



Although Barack Obama and the United States has not openly entered the conflict, the ongoing promises of continued military, economic, and diplomatic assistance has been poised behind the notion of joint Sunni-Shi’ite counteroffensives yet to materialize, but seemed to place us on the brink of war.  But Palmyra stands at more than the symbolic epicenter of the war, or as a strategic gain of the extent of “territory” that ISIS (or ISIL) can be said to “hold” as a cohort of alliances:  it is a benchwater of how rapidly the Islamic State has spread, and the rapidity with which the Syrian Free Army, without any credible external assistance, has been able to hold agains the two-fronted assault it faces from government and foreign troops, and its effective marginalization to the West.

May 2014-May 2015 Syria

The expansion of the congeries of ISIS/ISIL-held lands have effectively isolated a front in the northeast from the western fronts against which limited resistance remains, and Assad’s forces have proved to be little effective military resistance.


In a sense, the ruins of Palmyra are enshrined as sources of material contact with the past in the landscape in the engravings from Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the Desart [sic] (London, 1753), based on the surveys taken by the architect and artist Giovanni Battista Borra, informed by Borra’s own close study of Vignola, which are again echoed in the visual composition of many of the images of the local ruins now feared to be facing destruction or destroyed in the global media.  Borra’s expertise in such neoclassical views had been honed, interestingly, in his own set of views of Turin, Vedute principali di Torino disegnate in prospettiva, as well as his views of Rome and Tivoli, which his dramatic elevated views of awesome intact colonnade and surrounding ruins echoed.

But Borra’s Palmyran views of Wood’s archeological sites gained an international appeal that provided immediately accessible memories of the elegance of the city’s ancient past and a repertory for neoclassicism.  And rather than a prison, their grandeur suggest the odd emptiness of Ozymandian ruins of past grandeur that his own architectural expertise allowed him to recognize.

PalmyraGiovanni Battista Borra, with Dawkins and WOod

Giovanni Battista Borra, Palmyra

Palmyran Colonnade

Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

Borra’s majestic engravings are romantic, if oddly analytic in their silent statuesque melancholy.  They also evoke the tragic prospect of the loss of such sites, whether due to ISIS militia or possible future aerial bombardment of the region from Assad’s Syrian air force if not American troops.  While standing at quite considerable chronological remove, their silent beauty serves to underscore an enormous potential tragedy of looting a desert landscape of ancient architecture.

Palmyra ISIS #2

Jonathan Klein/AFP/Getty Images

All too often, however, we are apt to focus on the awe of monuments that have so long occupied the Western imagination–with a legacy this post has rather cursorily tried to map–rather than the humanitarian injustices of the continued displacement of human refugees in the ongoing Civil War, according to images released by Human Rights Watch this April, for which there seems no clear end in sight–especially along the so-called “demilitarized” border between Syria and Jordan.

April 20 Encampments and tent shelters on Jordanian border

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Will #droughtshaming change the public consumption of water in California, or is it only a manifestation of an all too long-submerged consciousness of evident property differences across most of Southern California–a space where ever-conspicuous consumption has long been made manifest in keeping yard lawns perpetually green?  Almost as powerful a portmanteau as “Mansplaining,” the compound currently trending on Twitter presents both a righteous form of indignation, improvising map via social media that suggests our changing sense of our environment may open new arenas of public speech. The creation of a set of zoomable interactive maps from the New York Times of projected water-cuts and current water-usage across the state’s water districts have been recently mapped an uneven balance between water districts statewide, in ways that not only call clear attention to sharp discrepancies of water-usage across the state, not only between how urban and agricultural regions might be affected by mandated reductions in public water usage–

central valley water cuts

but what might be called the selective yard-drenching in specific regions of the south-lands, according to the same interactive data visualization– drenching years in 2014-15 in LA and the notable persistent over-use of water in wealthier areas of LA’s per diem consumption of water this past winter– LA Consumption habits per diem Winter 2015 The map above offers an approximate reflection of a topography of disposable income, described b UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities.  The Center quite recently found not only that “wealthy used more than three times the rate of non-wealthy people,” but wealth was the most conspicuous correlation and predictor of water use–and watering lawns, as we have long known, an increasing sign of conspicuous consumption even in an age of drought.

Is this a decision to spend more on water, or is it, as seems more likely, the conspicuous expenditure of water on yards, perhaps fueled by the cost of letting all that greenspace go dry, or the actual dangers of fire hazards that letting lawns go dry might create?  The oft-cited datum that Beverly Hills residents daily “used” some 286 gallons of water during September 2014, at the same time northern and coastal San Diego County consumed some 584 gallons in the Santa Fe Irrigation District, contrast sharply to Compton residents served by the LA Department of Water and Power who restricted themselves to 93 gallons a day and Angelinos in East LA some 48 gallons.

But it bears repeating at a time when Governor Brown wants to mandate across the board 20% reductions in water use as a means of increasing efficiency, if only to ask what some of the best manners of mandating reductions are.  By dividing water-usage by census tract, clear patterns in LA County emerge, that make it something of an epicenter, to mix geographic metaphors, with the recent rash of tweets about excessively selfish individual water use at Beverly Hills mansions that include, in some cases, spas and vineyards as well as expansive still-green lawns:

Water:Income LABut rather than only call attention to the sociological correlation between water-waste and wealth, this post wants to ask questions about the ethics of the spontaneous sorts of mapping of water-waste that have proliferated in Angelino social media, as if to sharpen critiques of the lack of social responsibility of the wealthy in a city of sharp social divides.  The spontaneous mapping of such inequalities on social-media is a sort of crowd-sourced shaming, with offending addresses lain out on twitterfeeds for the public to see, lest anyone be confused about who has the public interest at heart, and who is most concerned with keeping the brown grass at bay, even without looking at the bigger picture, in something approximating collective rage against the overwatered large yard as an exercise of collective shaming, which has gained a real edge given that the state is poised to levy hefty fines on identified water wasters since mid-2014.  It’s triggered a geographical awareness of the steep inequities of water use and comes close to socially sanctioned class-consciousness– droughtshaming –and its effects on the lived landscape ofBeverly Hills lawns:

Streisanf Such selective outing of levels of outrageously cartoonish disproportionate use of water utilities may run the ethical risk of crowd-sourced surveillance, where aerial photography approaches NSA-style snooping via overhead drones–the regional sustainability manager for Sacramento’s Utilities Department was said to be “pleasantly surprised” at such snitching last summer, when #drougthshaming took off on the Twittersphere.  But the current spate of tweeted outrage expressed on social media has also become a venue for expressing suppressed sentiments of a class struggle, very slightly veiling disgust at profligate over-watering lawns indulged by those running automatic sprinklers as if they were draining regional aquifers single-handedly, with little heed for state-wide water shortages, brought to the front in signs posted in public parks that remind users that “Brown is the New Green.”

Brown New Green

Aaron Mendelson/KQED

Tweets are most famous for unleashing wrath against the privileged who are out of touch with the reality of water-needs–

green lawns



–at the fact that rhythms of daily consumption patterns are so drastically different across a single city by degrees of multipliers.  And is it even a surprise that the mansions of three and a half acres we’ve become used to viewing and vicariously living on Reality TV have been most notoriously cautioned by local Municipal Water Districts to cut the their water use drastically?  (Both Barbara Streisand and Kim Kardashian have publicly agreed to curtail their water use–“Kim takes this drought seriously;” said a representative; “she has no problem letting her grass go brown.”)

The targeted social criticism is by no means limited to the super-wealthy:

Sprinklers Running since <7AM

The social discrepancies in water-use have thrown into relief the divided economic structures of the city that we’ve long known about from the American Community Survey–Orange County and Palos Verde residents use respectively thee and two times the state-wide per capita daily consumption rates in February 2015–but now suggest that water wastage among the wealthy is actually undermining the public good in a clearly mappable manner.  We have long seen larger yards in specific neighborhoods, but watering practices seem to have grown out-of-hand in expropriating the public resource with obliviousness, even while we blame “nature” for a drought that is increasingly evident is indeed largely man-made.

LA in detail During the summer, such deep discrepancies of daily water consumption are of course placed into even further relief in  data visualizations of local levels of consumption, reflecting an apparent rationalization of increased water usage as well as the readiness of covering rising water costs, as lower income families responded more rationally to higher water costs.

LA summer of 2014 Northern California has done fairly well to reduce consumption from the Spring 2013–

usage change nocal

But it is also true that the aerial photographs of the ambient effects of income inequality that sent Google Earth images viral after being posted on persquaremile reveal the grey v. green dichotomy to be by no means limited to the southland–


Such a democratic appropriation of Google Earth may have paved the way for the tweeting of extravagant consumption of water that has become all too evident in some of the larger Beverly Hill yards, that can be linked to specific addresses.

The calls for greater restraint in water usage since March 2013 is far from clear in much of the greater Los Angeles area, as posters on social media have not only realized, but realized that they were able to publicly point out.

SoCal 2013-15

Both a more equitable distribution of water access and a rethinking of such deeply-lying assumptions of personal prerogative to wasting water deserve increased attention as Californians try to curb continued water use in a responsible manner.  We will have to tilt swords with some of the deeper espousers of a free market of deregulated water consumption, but at this point, for better or worse, deregulation has its back snugly against the wall.

The odd triangles and spots of green that remain in a drying out landscape (spot the non-arboreal light green track in the tan landscape shown below?) reveal the levels of water waste which demand to be curtailed, and are emblematic of the golf courses and overwatered farms that we’ve just begun to take stock.


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Filed under data visualizations, mapping drought

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #3: Patterns of Drug Addiction and Hidden Pain

In place of topographic local detail, a pastel-tiled pavement of psychopharmaceutical pills marks how anti-depressants have both swamped the inhabitants of the United States and provided a new figure of reliance:  Stanford Kay registered a flattening of the psychic territory, rendering a land whose bounds and contours have become increasingly difficult to navigate, awash with psychic stimulants designed to depress the Central Nervous System.  For more than anything else, the massive deregulation of drugs and psychopharmaceuticals from the 1990s has led market forces to shape the availability and dosages of medical regimens to regulate nervous chemistry.  Indeed, the shift to market-based models of caring for oneself reflect a triumph of free market forces not only over individual well-being, but the medical pharmakon.

The expansive prescription of psychopharmaceutical drugs maps onto shifting notions of leisure time.  Before his death, the Australian sinologist Simon Leys found it an “ironical paradox of our age” that most classes devote little time to leisure who, as most economic elites, have willingly accepted the “slavery of endless working hours,” and the category has been consigned to the “enforced leisure of demoralizing and permanent unemployment.”  With the conversion of the professional classes into “senseless” money-making machines, Leys worried, leisure has become the destiny of a lumpenproletariat; if he bemoaned the tragic loss of a historically cultivated ideal without reference to America, he described decisevely shifted in attitudes to work and time he described parallel the deregulation of markets that go under the expansion of free markets in globalization, and the increasingly forced ties between choice and consumption:  we do not choose leisure activities, but consume them; leisure, separated from work, is primarily oriented toward consumption.

Pierre Ryckmans, who wrote under the name Simon Leys, might well have linked globalization to how leisure had become increasingly relegated to the out of work–an unstructured “leisure” time haunted by being unemployed against one’s will, rather than linked to questions of individual choice.  The expansion of time without work has lead leisure to fill time in new ways.  Although Ryckmans made no specific reference to America, but offered an abbreviated genealogy lamented the decline in the reconsideration of ‘leisure’ as removed from either gainful activity or worthy pursuit.  To recover a nobler lineage of leisure, Leys rehearsed the long survival of the concept from Chinese literati he studied–“The leisure from learning should be devoted to politics and the leisure from politics should be devoted to learning,” Confucius counseled–through ancient Greeks’ value of scholê as time dedicated to thought, to Neitzsche’s dismay at the “erosion of leisure” he feared an American cultural infection which had communicated the same relentless compulsion to work to Europe.

Much as Nietzsche worried about the infection of a compulsion to work from America that threatened to stigmatize the vita contemplativa, that bedrock refuge of philosophy, by casting it as an altogether shameful fact, Simon Leys sensed the enforced leisure of the underemployed as a deep change, melancholically regarding Don Quixote as the embodiment of leisure past, albeit beset by the combination of too much leisure and few funds that lead him to squander all economic possessions.  The taxing and rather toxic task of filling time removed from reading or reflection seems to define the enforced leisure of underemployment as a terminal condition rather than a choice, in ways that signal either a deep failure of the collective imagination in the valuing of work as a productive activity or conflating choice and consumption–for leisure is essentially defined as a choice in habits of consumption, rather than dedicated to as a pursuit or lifestyle.

This emphasis on work as the sole activity of productivity places such undue stress this places on the individual who, out of work, faces the existential quagmire of the value of leisure time.  The flattening of the topography of America, pictured in the header of this post, as flooded by a free market of prescribed drugs reveals not only a change in the sense of the individual, but the emphasis on the consumption of prescriptions as a form of life.  The recent medicalization of individual psychic and physical experience of pain, itself a correlative of the free-market of pharmaceutical cures, has increased the power of prescription drugs far beyond their earlier clientele.  Embodied in the promise of big pharma to reduce “moderate” pains by prescription opioids, the expansion of prescription drugs has more than anything else encourage the four-fold expansion of opioid drug overdoses across the United States in the past two decades.

Suffering from pain was long tied to work, and accidents of work–for which opioids as Oxycontin were first prescribed, as well as being designed for cancer relief.  The redefinition of “pain” less as an experience but as a topic and subject for medical attention introduced opioids from Percocet to Oxycontin to roadside retail pharmacies  as a condition that is able to be treated in the growth of overdoses of prescribed opioids since 1999, and the tragically decisive distribution of drug poisonings by opioid analgesics in 2006.

Poisonings involving opioid analgesics 2006


In an odd corollary of the transformation of work, the medicalization of the depression and desperation of the out of work, as a members of a market for the latest innovations of big pharma creates a new topography of drug dependence that unsurprisingly partly mirrors that of the out of work.  For as unemployment intersects with the pain of depression to be best alleviated by a pharmakon of prescription drugs, one can see an an uptick in the dependency on opioids.  Such a spread does not only follow a tendency of addiction, but the new availability of potent prescriptions of opioid analgesics from the mid-1990s responded to changes in the labor market across the United States–and if the steady in opioid overdoses is statistically but a subset of drug overdoses, it demands greater examination as a geographic distribution than has been the case.

drug overdose deaths


For even though we have amazingly accurate data on addiction and opioid overdoses for the last twenty years, the actual distribution of both the availability and consumption of prescription drugs reveals deep geographical specificities in relation to concepts of work has not been fully appreciated or examined.

The topography of prescription drug overdoses using painkillers is far more uneven than it is uniform, and the four-fold increase in the distribution of deaths from opioid overdose reveals quite deeply weighted spatial concentrations.  Even after the relatively recent celebrated crackdown on pill mills and pain clinics in America, the culture of pain treatment based on the dissemination of opioid drugs to retail pharmacies across the nation has left an aftertaste of medicalizing the condition of continued underemployment.  The basis for the marketing of painkillers is deeply tied to the growth of dependence on the illegal trade of analgesic opiates, as desensitization masks as a vaguely medical response.  The deepest failure seems to have been the foregoing of pain as an individual project, perhaps, and the topographies of an easy cure that intersected in tragic ways with the decline of the economy after the Great Recession.  For the intensive promotion and marketing of opioids as a highly prescribed drug with little need of oversight or monitoring from 1996, the year OxyContin premiered on the landscape of public health, in a roll-out that led to almost $1.1 billion in sales by 2000, proved so intensely popular that by the year 2004, or from the Recession of 2001 to the Great Recession, despite a wide array of illicit recreational drugs, it became the number one form of drug abuse across the United States, reaching new markets for drug abuse that had rarely existed, and in so doing utterly changed the national landscape of public health.

1.  It is tempting to try to map what the range of habits of work and nature of leisure time across urban and rural America.  Although the construction of such a relational database of leisure–and ideas of it–are compelling to map, the category of enforced leisure resists clear metrics, and is not clearly present in any single relational database.  Yet what Simon Leys described as something akin to a collective devaluation of leisure as a pursuit has its underside in the expansion of pain–and the difficulty to manage the pain that comes from work, or from lack thereof.  The drive to reduce “pain” precipitated by anxiety, stress, and depression–and the uneasy relation of pain as a category of attention bridging psychic and bodily pain–has helped promote the popularity of prescription painkillers as a tool to change pain perception and relieve both moderate and severe pain alike.

The demand to do so, and to remedy the spectrum of sense-based pain and anguish, or sensory and affective pain, provided a basis for pharmaceutical companies to promote OxyContin and other opioids to all willing to listen to the possibilities for easing suffering from the mid-1990s.  The recent maps of a hidden topography of pain that the geographic distribution of the prescriptions of painkillers and the addiction to such synthesized opioids that has come to plague much of the country–manifested in the deadly affects of addiction to painkillers across much of rural America–maps onto a massive shift not only in ways of spending time but of the expansion of those out-of-work and indeed the pain of those underemployed, whose result may be linked to the terribly shocking visualization prepared by the CDC of the topography of drug-poisoning across much of rural America.

drug poisoning rates

What sort of topography both of pain and of drug abuse does this data visualization reveal?

If the rise of drug poisoning in much of America seems clearly tied to the flooding of much of America with easily procurable and widely prescribed painkillers, promoted across America since the mid-1990s, the morass of the effects of the wide availability of analgesic opiates has created a crisis of public health we are only beginning to confront, as well as an economic crisis of how those afflicted with addiction to painkillers have lost control over how to manage their own time.  The plague of analgesic opiates in American that Big Pharma, eager to expand the market for painkillers, has broadly disseminated to patients, downplayed the risks of their addictiveness, and drastically underplayed its risks–or the inevitable possibilities for its abuse–in ways that constituted a true public health tragedy by promoting a regimen for diminishing pain as without risk.  The promise of reducing–or absenting oneself from pain–has created the promise of a life free from pain, removed from the subject, unlike the sort of indices that Dr. Ronald Melzack used to allow patients to map pain in the body by the pathways along with pain travelled in the Central Nervous System and “body-self neuromatrix” as measured in the McGill Pain Questionnaire, parsing sense-based (one through ten) to affective (eleven to twenty) pain.

McGill Questionnaire

Melzack’s McGill Pain Questionnaire

Unlike the “Gate Control Theory of Pain,” opioids provided the promise to pre-empt pain’s sensation that blurred the distinction between sense-based pain afflicted in work and the psychic affective pain that was newly burdened on the out-of-work, as the increased prescription of painkillers designed and first prescribed for chronic pain was addressed through the percaptual blurring and alleviation of individual suffering.  Did this quite different remapping of pain shift coincide with a shift in the landscape of public health costs?

Based on a range of new data–from rates of addiction, prescriptions of painkillers, prescription drug poisoning, overdoses of first-time users of opioids, and methadone treatment centers across the country–a topography of addiction and overdose emerges that seems to have paralleled the increased availability of “pain relief” in retail pharmacies across America.  The arrival of cheap and widely prescribed opioid drugs–opioids easily available with largely unmonitored prescriptions–have created deep social and medical costs we have yet fully to ken.  The mapping of increased drug-poisoning from overdoses matches the increased circulation and abuse of cheaper opiates in rural areas rarely affected by illicit drugs in previous years, and a rash of first-time users have all been tied to painkillers, whose specific causal relations to one another demand further analysis.  For the flooding of the market with low-cost opioid analgesics effectively promoted a self-induced regimen of desensitization that has huge costs on peoples’ lives and well-being, and of which many are still seeking to gain control.

Rather than pursue a model of pain management, the offering of an option of prescription-strength analgesics as a cure for pain provoked a rash of addiction that suggests a huge tragedy of public health–and reveal a geography of painkillers that cannot purely map suffering or pain.  From an apparent high in which some one in twenty adults regularly used prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons, in 2010, the epidemic of painkillers is only beginning to be controlled–although the networks or drug addiction it created have grown entrenched, as they have provided both a gateway drug to tar heroin, and increased the geography of a demand for drugs of mental desensitization that seems closely tied to the spread of the terminal out of work:  for the “pain portrait” that such a pharmakon of drugs provide is not a detailed or sharply chiseled portrait of palliative care, but marketing a promise of wiping pain out–rather than addressing suffering.

So much is evident in the new topography of drug abuse and addiction across America.  While opiates were synthesized for cancer-induced pain and acute injuries, the dramatically sudden dispensation of new levels of analgesics lacked clear overview, but were aggressively marketed for “non-malignant pain” that bridged psychic and physical pain, and its risks for addiction downplayed.  Yet an increasing range of areas of the country are currently struggling with the range of narcotics abuse, seeking to contain the costs of over-prescribed opiates from OxyContin to Vicodin, advocated as non-addictive cures for pain, Narcotics Anonymous has grown across the country that reflect an expanded topography of suffering, rivaling twelve-step self-help programs as Alcoholic Anonymous, as if to testify to a need to remedy addictions.


The growth of the program intersect in interesting ways with states with the greatest prescriptions for painkillers, reflecting not only the skewed demands for prescription painkillers in America, but the topographies of addiction.  High rates of prescription opioids and self-help groups for narcotics appear particularly pronounced where poverty, unemployment and job losses are particularly acute at the start of the new millennium, which is the subject of this post.

Pinkiller prescriptions

2.  Can one use data visualizations of opioid abuse to read the costs of an absence of dedicated leisure time?  The growing demand to assuage the psychic pains effected by a lack of work almost reflect a declining ability to order time.

Simon Leys clearly voiced concerns that the “enforced leisure” of the early twenty-first century was the other side of the slavery of work–so unlike the concealment of work by leisured early modern nobility or aristocracy–and a decline of the liberal arts.  To be sure, the drastically diminished attention to the pursuit of idleness as is linked to the rise of new networks of opioid addiction that painkillers across America, so unlike the pursuit of recreational drugs among the upper or middle classes in earlier eras.  The paradoxical expansion of the use of opioid analgesics designed to reduce suffering have created new networks of addiction as pain-relievers and dependence across rural areas, tied to the past dependence on painkillers, that has necessitated new methadone treatment centers as the number of deaths from opioid abuse has decisively risen in the twenty-first century:  despite actual suffering from chronic pain, over-prescription of such easily addictive and abusable drugs have diminished well-being with rapidly expanding social costs that are difficult to  foresee, as the daily toll of death from from overdoses of prescription painkillers has grown to almost forty-five in recent years.   Total fatal overdoses in such addictive prescription opioids tripled from 2000 to 2010, as drugs of such elegantly different neologistic marketing trademarks–Opana, OxyContin, Vicodin or methadone–have come to claim lives in ways never foreseen.

For medical interpretations of the range of mental trauma that afflict the underemployed and out-of-work are deeply tied, in the United States, to how diagnoses that cast depression or anxiety as a form of pain to be alleviated by prescribed pills of pain relief–opioid analgesics that are increasingly recognized as having a darkly addictive side, whose costs are difficult to map in objective fashion.  While consumed to induce desensitization or produce periods of euphoria, the rash and resale of prescription painkillers that are inhaled, injected, or smoked in different forms has created a public health epidemic of growing proportions of addiction and drug overdose that has spread to many of the nation’s rural areas–even as law enforcement has persistently focussed policing efforts on poorer urban slums.  Even if the DEA found in 2010 that ninety of the top one hundred doctors prescribing oxycodone were located in Florida, the far broader geography of overdose and death is increasingly distributed nationwide, if with a clear clustering in areas of deepest addiction in the oldest manufacturing states.  Is this a coincidence?

culture of pain?

Although the CDC and other government agencies can measure the increase in prescriptions of powerful pain-killers, the drug-induced deaths caused by such addictive narcotics, and the increase of deaths from first-time use of heroin, the dangers of opioids both to individual health and as gateway drugs create complex networks of dependence whose social costs are difficult to measure or objectively view.   The spread of such addictive opiates is fueled by increased tolerance of opiates, but also by the effective social acceptance of such self-induced desensitization by the massive marketing of painkillers as forms of relief, despite their evident costs and consequences, costs bound to increase in future years in ways difficult if not impossible to map in their complete range of consequences–and the cascading spiral of addiction and dependence on painkillers, heroin, and other high-grade opiates, which are simultaneously entering the country in increasingly cheap form.  Increasing social and health costs are in part reflected in growing archipelagos of addiction clinics promising rehab across the country, but also in the deep difficulties of addicts to regain control over their lives and their health, given the steep costs of addiction and the inroads of illicit drug markets that the ready availability of OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and other opioids create–and the spread of methadone clinics across the country.

The rapid retail marketing of painkillers across America from the 1990s first fostered a dangerous of network of addiction across rural America has much to do with the absence of employment.  Recourse to painkillers and anti-anxiety medication have brought a course of self-induced desensitization to the doldrums of demoralization for those enforced to spend life in the leisure of unstructured time.  For painkillers come to constitute a poisoned remedy for the depressed, injured, and out-of-work, which encouraged or contributed to a recent epidemic of heroin in much of rural America, where painkillers were neither tightly controlled, closely supervised, or adequately overseen.  While the Belgian-Australian translator of Confucius bemoaned the metamorphosis of “leisure” to a condition of the out-of-work, growing costs of depression and anxiety reveals a spread of addiction quite unlike the market for recreational drugs, particularly prominent in those areas of the country marked by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and repeated waves of recession, and the clearer topography created by expansion of those out-of-work in specific areas of the country, among whom the resale of relatively cheap opiates is particularly pernicious, and deeply tied to the increased dependence on what Olga Khazan has called “a cheaper, more accessible high” that sadly reflects the promotion and provision of painkillers to the same demographic in often unsupervised and unmonitored fashion.

It is tempting to look for echoes of the new economics of addiction by their eery intersection with the spread of the out-of-work during the same decade as the Great Recession:



The growing costs of the increasingly pharmacological response to anxiety, depression and physical pain is evident in the current epidemic of the devastatingly widespread abuse of over-prescribed analgesic opiates in specific, because these drugs have been unleashed in unmonitored and uncontrolled ways as a cheap high whose addictive nature encourages both tolerance and abuse.  Many abuse painkillers to seek temporary euphoria, but with the often unintended consequences creating a chemical tolerance of opioids and dependence on them that has meant that networks of addiction and illicit sales, once a phenomenon purely urban in scope, have expanded to rural areas, as have unintended overdoses.

While we cannot clearly map such networks with the requisite objectivity of a map, an archeology of the growing consequences of the dissemination of opioids across America in retail stores provides perspectives on the pathways of addiction and networks of dependence in which we are submerged–networks which data visualizations may claim they objectively represent, but which Americans are increasingly immersed in so many ways, and that a single point of view or gaze isn’t able to dominate or comprehend:  from the rise of geographic spread of drug-induced death and overdose to the dramatic geographic expansion of first-time heroin users, and the rise of rehab clinics, the social costs of such addiction can barely be measured.

3.  Or do painkillers’ wide over-prescription suggest a deadly pharmakon of cures promoted as bridging both psychic and bodily pain, but whose squelching of pain provides an entrance into quagmires far greater than we are able to map?

Whereas Plato contrasted philosophy to other occupations as providing a pharmakon of greater riches to its practitioners, the absence of work has been tied to a deadly pharmakon of painkillers in the United States.  The often largely unreflective promotion of such poisonous remedies as an alternative to the despair of those with few hopes for stable work, promoting a palliative transportation to an alternate state of mind, particularly disquieting given the deep economic disequilibria in our society.  Despite the false dichotomies drug companies persist in duplicitously drawing between legal painkillers/illicit drugs, non-addictive/addictive drugs, prescription sales/narcotics, Oxycontin/heroin, or big pharma/cartels, the ballooning of prescription sales has caused each of these binaries to very quickly collapse.  Rather than map onto urban centers of reflection, or onto points of drugs’ arrival in the United States, as, say, the opium dens of leisure that quickly emerged from San Francisco to Victoria to Vancouver after the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, in ways that created sudden panics mapped as threats to civil society, the epidemic of opiates in America is less widely mapped, or even seen as the threat to civil society that it increasingly constitutes, perhaps because it constitutes such a mirror of the steep inequalities of economic life and work in many regions of the United States.  The strong ties between addictive painkillers and new networks of purchasing and selling heroin indicated in a recent New York Times editorial, that noted the otherwise inexplicable tripling of heroin overdoses over the past three years. Opioid overdoses have claimed over 8,000 in the US in ways hard to process apart from the rise of a market for opioids larger than in either Canada or Mexico.

The chilling statistics of such offers a sort of mirror of the spread of addictive opiates that entered much of the United States as prescription drugs in retail pharmacies, and that must be clearly separated from the traffic in recreational drugs in the pathways of their diffusion and toxic combinations found in the bloodstreams of those who have died from overdoses.   The new geography of addiction is, in fact, a particularly scary mirror to hold up to ourselves or our economy.  The geographic distribution of the plague of overdoses and addiction to opiates mirrors a demoralizing and incapacitating “enforced leisure” seems bolstered by the inability of adequate resources to respond to an endemic unease and anxiety among the out-of-work.  The spread of opiates to rural areas where they are often dispensed or prescribed as a pain relief is far from akin to a leisure activity or pattern of recreation drug use, but suggests a trap of addiction that sneaks up on its users, and arrives as easily from ready-to-fill prescriptions obtained from “pain clinics” or from referrals, and the ubiquity of brand-name drugs that are heavily marketed to all Americans.  The striking demographic roots of the rise of prescription opiates across the country demand to be mapping in ways quite distinct from the pathways for the arrival and transmission of drugs into the country when we chart the increasing illegal transport of heroin to rural and non-urban areas along a network of transportation routes that run along the infrastructure of highways–


Strategic Forecasting Inc.

–the routes of heroin transportation mapped above reflect the increased demand for the narcotic opioid across non-urban America.

We have often examined such a map’s primary routes of transportation by the overland transport routes of criminal cartels across the border, and overseas shipping routes from Colombia, Venezuela, or Brazil.  But the rise in demand for drugs of deeper degrees of densitization must be more carefully compared to the rapid rise of opiates across America–as much as the permeability of our borders.


Strategic Forecasting Inc.

The sources for the relatively recent growing demand for narcotic opioids might be better grasped by the new geography of addiction and overdose that the pathways of cartels, urban gangs, or airports associated with urban clearing houses.  It is striking that unlike recreational drug use patterns of past years, addiction to medical opiates that were so widely prescribed across the United States have grown in many regions of America not previously marked by drug use–and not as leisure drugs, but as drugs foster by opiates’ deep addictiveness.  But if we all continue to focus on cartels as the source of the heroin that enters America, and especially of the stronger strains that of tar heroin particularly plaguing rural areas because of their relative cheapness and availability, we inadequately measure the demand for the greater degrees of densitization it provides, or to adequately forecast the new patterns for its future growth.  The past decade alone has seen a 60% growth in first-time heroin users in America, that cannot be blamed only on its ease of entrance into America.  The unassuming Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin to call attention to the 770% rise of heroin use in his state since 2000 as an “epidemic” in the entire State-of-the-State address entirely dedicated to heroin addiction–and speculating on the weekly expenditure of some $2 million in his state alone on heroin, at huge local cost to state residents.  It is profoundly striking that unlike recreational drug use patterns of past years, addiction to medical opiates that were so widely prescribed across the United States have grown in many regions of America not previously marked by drug use–and not as leisure drugs, but as drugs foster by opiates’ deep addictiveness.

prescrip painkillerssols

It is striking that the addictive dependency on opioid painkillers indeed expanded in the recessions of the early 2000s in unforeseen ways, coinciding with the large number of jobs shed among less-educated workers in the 1990s, before the Recession of 2001, or the job-losses suffered since–estimated from 2.4 to 2.6 million–in the very areas of the country where workers entered waves of unemployment that sent shocks through the country’s core. The pronounced patterns of job loss seem starkly evident as a new topography of the economy in the grim grey maps that offer data visualizations of job loss from the Economic Populist to the Economic Policy Institute

waves of unemployment

Jobs Displaced 2010

–where declines in the daily wages seem especially evident in those counties associated with manufacturing–deriving a quarter of employee earnings from manufacturing as of 2000, according to the 2004 ERS County Typology–based  overwhelmingly in Southeastern and Midwestern states, which have suffered marked losses of earnings:


The very areas of sudden shedding of jobs during the economic downturn provide a screen on which the subaltern routes of the transportation of heroin and addiction can be projected.  The turn to opioid-based drugs might be grasped in part in the shifting economic structures of much of middle America, that seem to respond the new networks that rise of the use of prescribed opioids created–from oxycodones from OxyContin to Percocet, and Percodan, or of hydrocodone, and hyper-analgesics as Vicodin, Lorco and Nortab.  Data on the recent spread of opioid prescriptions and sales, and of the addiction to increasingly available opioids clearly coincides with the new geography of the out-of-work across America, and seems closely tied to a widespread trend to the medicalization of alleviating psychic pain.  The mapping of such prescriptions and overdoses from their abuse suggest a topography of social costs that demand to be better mapped.

The enforced leisure of long-term underemployment and ensuing anxiety dovetail eerily with the diagnoses of “moderate to severe pain” as suitable for painkillers and the marketing of opioids at most retail pharmacies–drugs of considerable potency, often earlier associated only with acute pain, and the growth of prescription and non-prescription opioid abuse, are marketed as able to remedy an expanding varieties of ‘pain’ at most retail pharmacies.  Mostly marketed under familiar brand-names, and widely available at retail pharmacies, such narcotics often distributed through prescriptions increasingly long-term, in ways that further invite abuse, as is reflected in the expansion of painkiller addiction during the last fifteen years in the United States.  The availability of opioids suggest not only an easy fix across the United States, but the increasing tolerance of opioids, and pathways of mental addiction they create, suggest a gateway drug has introduced and created a new topography of addiction that poses substantial health costs, even as the prescription of such psychopharmaceuticals was developed as a way to alleviate psychic pain.  That the Great Recession facilitated the expanded illegal and legal circulation of powerful painkillers in an unsupervised fashion cannot be denied.  The plague of unnecessary prescriptions issued with increasing abandon since the late 1990s, in ways that have created one of the worst and most serious drug epidemic in US history because of their intensely addictive character, whose topography is particularly striking, as are the rash of fatal overdoses opioid addiction has apparently caused in much of middle America.

Simon Leys’ observation may strike one as overly strident in its elitist tone, and is almost openly dismissive of the lumpenproletariat of the long-term unemployed and the mass-marketed “leisure” to which they seem consigned.  But it reflects on the debasement of leisure, rather than the class-system that it describes.  The grimness of this “enforced leisure” is reflected in the range of psychic pain being out-of-work has provoked among the long-term unemployed, lying far beyond either a Kierkegaardian angst–an inability to enjoy nature and life–or even a Knausgaardian time-stopping despair, perhaps tied to the inherited tendency to alcohol abuse.  If Karl Ove Knausgaard is known for tracing a trajectory from possible promise to an intense experience of the ineluctable passing of time in ways that the author’s mind is almost unable to process fully, lengthy meditation is less the scope of such addiction to opioids than the starving for a stronger sort of fix, sadly tied to a desperation of often undetected repercussions and consequences.

prescrip painkillerssols

The costs of such desperation and the failure to address the psychic pain it creates are increasingly tragically evident in the spread of painkillers across America.  The epidemic of addiction across much of the middle of the country–the southeast and midwest–undeniably dovetail with the effects of the Great Recession, during which access to opioids has become something of a terminal activity across areas of America that one would not characterize as likely sites of an epidemic of drug overdoses, where the promises of relieving pain have created black markets that have fueled new markets for illicit drugs able to provide a stronger high.  The dangers of painkillers are particularly pronounced not only in their sheer addictiveness, but the rising rise of overdose that they provoke in combination, known or unknown, with the anti-anxiety medications now so widely prescribed that similarly depress the Central Nervous System (CNS) of individuals and which are further depressed to dangerous levels by opioids:  of the 6.8 million Americans who filled prescriptions for opioid painkillers in America between 2009 and 2013, some 60% took them in possibly fatal combination with counter-indicated drugs that further depressed the Central Nervous System to fatal levels, inviting a new geography of drug overdose.

The geography of overdosing in America, once confined to urban areas, has so grown during the first decade of the twenty-first century to numb the mind, as many areas of middle America where such fatal overdoses were almost absent have become part of a new national landscape, in which, according to the authors of a CDC study of age-adjusted death rates related from prescription drug poisoning across America, some 90 percent of which were tied to prescription drugs, of which opioids were tied to 21% of drug poisoning deaths in 1999, but 42% by 2009–or over 15,000 individual deaths:

CIty lab Drug Deaths 1999-2000

2004-5, 8-9

The crippling county-by-county spread of deaths by overdose that was mapped by Lauren M. Rossen, Diba Khan and Margaret Warner for the CDC in a small-area distribution featured some time ago on City Lab showcase a dangerous national trend.  For the deeply addictive nature of painkillers is a potentially crippling in public health costs.  If this created a shift in policy of the Office of National Drug Council’s policy on anti-overdose drugs, New Mexico–which led in the number of overdose opioid-caused deaths–was quickest to act on revisiting its own policies.  Will the nation need to revisit its policies as a whole?

Although it is rarely linked to the economic downturn, it suggests the new pharmacopoeia of the long-term out-of-work or underemployed.   Addiction creates an alteration in brain chemistry, and the addictive nature of opioid painkillers themselves rises both on account of the notorious rise in tolerance of painkillers, and the intensity of the addictive demand for opioids.  The spread of this  poisonous pharmakon has created, moreover, an increasing demand for heroin across America among those in search for a greater fix, forging both networks of sales and pathways of popularity in regions of the country where drug abuse was rarely known in ways only beginning to be mapped, or examined as new networks of pharmaceutical dependence.

Mapping the meanings of the availability and outcomes of opioids across America is particularly important in tracking the costs of the broad dissemination of easily-obtained and over-prescribed palliatives at a time when anti-anxiety drugs (designed to reduce depression) are already widely prescribed to the out-of-work, and the adoption of a regimen of pain relief increasingly undertaken, quite misguidedly, as a viable long-term treatment.  The popularity of prescription painkillers during the last two decades arrived in retail pharmacies just before recurrent threats of recession in the early 2000s and in late 2007, coincided with an expanded pharmacopeia that came to reflect our uneasy economic divides with particularly dangerous consequences:  for not only are these heavily addictive opioids often characterized as gateway drugs for further forms of depressing the Central Nervous System, but their combination with anti-anxiety meds creates a potent cocktail of psychopharmaceuticals more apt to lead to fatal drug overdoses than most illicit drugs–and open opportunities for fatal drug overdoses across much of rural America.  The combination created a startling postcard in 2010 of drug overdoses in America that maps terrifyingly onto the greatest sites of opioid sales, which made deep inroads into the central midwestern and southeastern states that don’t seem only associated with recreational drug use.

Drug Poisonings involving Opioid Analgesics in America, 2006 Poisonings involving opioid analgesics 2006
2010 Age-Adjusted Death Rates for Drug Poisonings

drug poisoning postcard CDC
4.  In ways that oddly parallel the shifting topography of the recent recession, the rising use of opioid analgesics, based on promises of pharmaceutical industries to reduce pain, has created an expectation of its alleviation and network of the reliance on opiate analgesics which poses huge economic and social costs, as the Venn diagram indicating the intersection between those taking prescription painkillers as well as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications has rapidly and perilously grown with ten-fold increase of pain medications since 1990, when big pharma marketed a medical culture able to control pain, and to contain “moderate pain” as if it were a form of anxiety–a promise that seems more linked to marketing than diagnostic skill.  Indeed, their combination–as the combination of opiates and alcohol–has lead to expanded numbers of fatal overdoses.

The rapidly altered landscape of prescribed anti-anxiety medications from 2009 is famous, if not notorious, as shifting the lay of the medical land.  And the intersection between opioids and anti-anxiety CNS depressants a train wreck waiting to occur of tremendous health care and social costs, whose costs rarely mapped.  Stanford Kay‘s map of the regional patterns of the dominant psychiatric drugs in the country in 2009 indicate the birth of a nation increasingly dependent on the over-prescription of anti-depressants, ready to prescribe pills for anxiety disorders, bipolar conditions, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic or post-traumatic stress, with one pill indicating a million prescriptions, from the figurative west coast of Xanax to the east coast of Valium encompasses the zones of Prozac, Zoloft, and the plains of Ativan, it only remains to determine at what point the number of psychiatric prescriptions surpassed the number of people in America.

antidepressants in USA 2009

Most-Prescribed Psychiatric Drugs by Generic and Brand Name in America (2009); Stanford Kay/GOOD


OxyContin–a painkiller claiming more lives in the United States than heroin and cocaine combined by 2012/Getty Images

Despite the diffusion of pain diagnoses and prescriptions, the costs of such opiates are not that widely appreciated.  Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse has begun to draw public attention to these social and psychic costs; she has estimated some 2.1 million in the United States suffering from substance abuse disorders in 2012, and many die from the abuse of prescribed opioid analgesics, in ways that demand to be mapped, remapped, analyzed and unpacked.  Although but a fraction of the circa 30 million abusing opioids worldwide are in America, there are huge social costs of such poor medical oversight, as opioid analgesics flood a free market in what seems a market-driven flood.

The expansion of opioid prescriptions form the late 1990s may have helped to create the quadrupling of overdose rates seen in the US since 1999, greater health care costs in rehab and recovery clinics, and costs in crimes, and in lives, and created a new culture of the provision of medical care for pain in readily available form that was widely unmonitored and easily abused–many of which were overprescribed and widely diverted for “non-medical” uses as extended-release tablets are ground up, snorted, smoked or injected for recreational use.  The public health impact of opioids and heroin are seen as joined by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and not because of differences in data, even as the number of overdose deaths from opioids has jumped over 20% during 2006-2010, when death from opioid overdoses jumped to 16,661 and overdoses from heroin declined to close to 4,000.

The inappropriate use and abuse of prescription drugs has grown dramatically, despite a recent 2012 citizens’ petition urging stricter labelling of opiates, and their designation for “severe pain,” the costs of opioid addiction and overdose have not been as closely tied–and mapped–to the despair and anxiety of rural underemployment as one might expect.  Although Physicians for a Responsible Opioid Prescribing has called attention to the failure of the FDA and US Government to monitor their use, and act to curb the epidemic of OxyContin, the economic origins for the recourse to a poisonous pharmakon of addictive painkillers have been glossed over and not been addressed.  Opioid painkillers have become the most prescribed drugs, leading to public editorials to beyond recommendations for their curbing; but the elations between high rates of prescription to the increased economic disparities of job loss are less often unexamined, however striking the distribution of prescription drugs in areas of greatest job-losses.

paink scrip rates 2012

Rates of Painkiller Prescriptions in America, 2012 (USAToday)

The relatively rapid rise of opioid addiction conceals the fact that most rural counties in middle America, so affected by addictive analgesics, still lack treatment centers for their abuse.  Their addictive properties, apparent in Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, similar in its chemical structure to heroine, create similar depression of the central nervous system particularly perilous to patients.  Such addictive analgesics can commonly potentially create quite fatal cocktails paired with widely prescribed anti-anxiety medications that also act to depress the Central Nervous System, inviting unmonitored psychopharmaceutical experiments self-administered by unknowing patients–whose growing tolerance may leas them to search for potent ways to diminish their pain.  (Abuses of Oxy have also been convincingly argued to create a gateway to the consumption of increasingly cheaper heroin often of far greater strength, after it was found in 2012 that abuse of heroin tar among first-time users had grown nation-wide by60%, as users searched for a similar overwhelming of neural pathways.)

The danger of the distribution of an addiction to opioids mirrors the rise of psychopharmaceuticals for anxiety and anti depression across much of America.  Can the anxiety of economic downturn of 2006 have spurred the spread of prescription abuse, or did the consumption of opiates that are branded for regular sale–Vicodin; Percocet; etc.–and created an environment of availability of prescription medicine in the US to alleviate and reveal suffering at such significant costs?

rise in opioid prescriptions

The deep social costs of such desensitization to pain were felt not only by insurance companies–although pain relievers costs insurers companies some $72.5 billion annually in health-care costs[1], but contribute to deep health costs of the growing illegal trade in addictive opioids–whose tolerance, as their effect on the brain’s own natural opioid system grows less responsive to them over time, increases their abuse and possibilities of their overdose.[2]   The flooding of markets with such CNS depressants that flood the system with dopamine has fostered their abuse, and revealed a failure to resolve deeper problems–and has created a culture of abuse, encouraged by the increased tolerance of opioids among patients, necessitating higher dosages, often without clear monitoring or supervision to deal with chronic pain–placing them at risk of addiction and transitioning to heroin or other drugs:  the death-certificates issued for the overdose of opiate analgesics have been more common than for either heroin or cocaine.

The broad dissemination of painkillers means that members of any demographic might become an addict, and most anyone might die of a drug overdose–and indeed anyone can be subject to disrupting their own neural networks–especially when combined with anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Ativan that are so widely prescribed and which slow down the Central Nervous System (CNS)–and for which most who held prescriptions for opioids also had a prescription, greatly increasing their risk of death–during 2013, some 60% of those taking opioids legally were hazardously combining them with other medications, and one third taking anti-anxiety medications, creating a climate of neuropsychopharmaceutical experimentation on patients done without their knowledge, putting them at risk of an unintentional deadly overdose.  (Just below a third raised similar risks by combining different opioids in an unsupervised manner.)

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who also wrote under a pseudonym, famously saw the torments of anxiety and depression as a potential stage of transition in life.  He described angst not as a medicalized condition–and rather as a possibility for learning to be anxious “in the right way” to gain individual freedom–but his discussion of “anxiety” as an existential condition may have contributed to its adoption as a term of medical diagnosis and identification as a condition medicine could relieve:  the expectation for such a cure may have contributed to the currency of anxiety as a state of mind that could be cured.  But sales of addictive painkillers at retail pharmacies across America, if by no means confined to being a palliative for anxiety, foreclose much opportunity for individual reflection–and indeed interact with anxiety and depression medications in ways that seem to run experiments with brain chemistry, to create some of the most toxic combinations of greatest risk.  The unsupervised spread of opioid prescriptions suggests more of an abandonment to the world. Kierkegaard saw deep danger in the very ease of an ability for “losing one’s self” in the turmoil of the world, even as he prized the potential benefits of such a withdrawal from the world as offering an opportunity to learn true humility.

Rather than offering a cure, all too often the quenching of suffering by painkillers in concert with alcohol or anti-anxiety medications that have also become so widely prescribed suggests far less positive outcomes, and openly courts both accidental overdose and death.  Far more bitter than a perception of life’s nauseating air, the growing addiction to painkillers is unlike and lies far beyond the Knaussgardian abandon of confronting and monumentalizing seemingly squalid personal details and emotional impoverishment:  if Karl Ove Knaussgard excavated the seeds of deep discomfort approaching alienation to his father’s alcoholism or alcoholic abandon, the addictiveness of opioids presents an invitation to deeper discomfort as well as a possibly fatal gateway drug.   The topography of reliance on painkillers paints a picture of a country of sufferers without time for expansive introspection, but paints a picture in which, if Knaussgard described the quotidian detail of a struggle anyone could face, most anyone could die by overdose.


5.  We’ve much more concentrated on policing the entry of drugs across national borders–much as the panic that surrounded the historical arrival of opium from China–by mapping the routes of the illegal transport of alien substances as if they run into our lands along smuggling routes and hidden corridors rooted in urban markets and clearing houses.  Preoccupied by the sites of entrance of drug traffickers linked to sites lying exclusively outside of our borders, we’ve projected risks  outside our borders and less closely scrutinized the mechanics and networks of the illicit dissemination of prescriptions drugs, and the accidental and unmonitored combination of psychotropic substances–and the network of providing opiates not only at pharmacies but pain clinics across America.  But the extent of demand for painkillers and opiates is home-grown–as much as they depend on cross-border smuggling, or cartels whose routes permeate borders’ safeguards, the networks that provide a spur to drug consumption are all too often dictated not by leisure drug-use, but by new patterns of job loss.

It is, after all, a bit of a truism that the United States is the largest market for illegal drugs, as one of the most profitable in the world, with heroin and marijuana entering the country since the 1970s across its Southwest border, as heroin spreads from distribution hub in New York City, rerouting heroin from from Southeast and Southwest Asia, while Ecstasy (MDMA) entered from European and Israeli drug-trafficking syndicates, border-crossing corridors of trade are only a partial  map of the expanding network of market for illicit drugs within our borders.  For the rising availability of pharmaceutical opioids in much of middle America has not only grown such border crossing, but fed a growing demand for painkillers in areas where no or few earlier networks for drug sales earlier existed, and created an almost reflexive recourse to pill-popping or tar heroine as overpowering palliatives.

Yet despite the fact that the traffic in drugs does cross borders, smuggled on boats, airlines, cruise ships, and package carriers, a growing demand for opioids fed by the rise of a regimen painkillers, that did much more to attract other opioids into United States markets that never–or rarely–existed before, effectively manufacturing a deep demand for pills and narcotics where none existed before.  To map the growing networks of addiction and the dangers of personal and public health that they reveal, we might move beyond the cartels, gangs, or foreign dealers that are often portrayed as purveyors of narcotics to the unloosing of an unhealthy regimen in much of the country.  The acceptance of an addictive regimen of opiates that have become dispensed in drastically different proportions across America, suggest a division of the country only recently examined, but suggests a difficulty of coping with pain of suffering, and something like a readiness of newly emboldened pharmaceutical companies to minister to a broadly diffused geography of suffering, and the desperation that such readiness creates. Although pain-related health issues don’t themselves vary much by region, reliance on and over-prescription of such addictive painkillers creates a geography of social detachment not elected by its victims–but whose increasingly reflexive recourse to prescription drugs creates a growing health risk.  Indeed, the networks of providing painkillers to much of rural America–and especially throughout the Deep South–has fueled a shifting topography of addiction that would not be recognizable in earlier decades.

The rash of overdosing from painkillers and illicit drugs that seem provoked by such a now-diffuse diagnosis seem a sign, as Knausgaard may have meant to imply in the title to his book, that anyone can become an addict that has rapidly altered the geography of drug overdoses in the United States–and has the corollary that increasing numbers are dying from drug overdoses or with opiates in the blood.   The all-too-nauseating air of such enforced leisure reveals its darkest side in the tragic expanding geography of a newly toxic pharmakon of drugs across the United States, evident in the pronounced pockets of mortality in the new age-adjusted rate of death by drug-poisoning by opioids or heroin across the lower forty-eight, released by the CDC for 2006-10, revealing unexpectedly concentrations of high mortality rates from drug overdoses in states such as Washington, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maine–as well as northern California, across demographic groups and rural and urban areas:

Drug Poisoining by Heroin or Opioids, 2006-2010 Drug Poisoning by Heroin or Opioids in US counties, 2006-2010:  #DrugPolicyReform/data from CDC

The broad dissemination of narcotics into discreet pockets in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Utah is by no means limited to the urban slums where folks might imagine themselves mad and wandering for a midnight fix.  Rather than lying in the urban streets where one might be starving for a cheap fix, the dissemination of opiates is fostered by an expanding network from CVS to Walgreens, which facilitate the surprisingly varied topography of their consumption and sale in select areas at ten per 100,000.

6.  The growing network providing opiates nourishes an annual market now valued at $60 billion that is rapidly growing each year.  For each of the past fifteen years, and pretty much since the last recession of the late 1990s, a startlingly increasing incidence of death from pharmaceutical overdose have mushroomed across the US; at the same time as addictive narcotics are marketed as remedies to depression or psychological isolation–but whose interaction with antidepressants is extremely dangerous, and tantamount to running an uncontrolled experiment on the brain chemistry of many Americans. The all too dramatic diffusion of prescription painkillers in America provoked a parallel increase in recent years in deaths due to overdoses from opioid analgesics, whose numbers had rose 16,000 by 2012, between 1999 and 2010, increased at astronomical rates of 265% among men and 400% among women that demand to be explained.  (At their greatest growth, or between 1999 and 2006, perhaps in parallel to a pronounced economic downturn, they expanded expanded by 16% every year.)  The landscape of painkillers and pill mills created along highways, in non-urban areas, and even mini-malls–often using regional dealers, more than wholesalers–has not only expanded access to opioids, but a network for encouraging and proselytizing painkillers as a cure-all drug for all with minimal supervision of their addictiveness.  The spread of age-adjusted death rates for drug poisoning, including opioids as Oxycontin and heroin, dramatically grew between 1999 to 2009 in ways that reveal a strikingly changing complexion of the country as a whole over only a decade.

The total sales of prescription opioids, if $3 billion was spent on Oxycodone in 2009, grew to $9 billion in 2012.  With growing sales of  such synthesized drugs including Oxycodone, the highly addictive main active ingredient in Percocet, OxyContin, and Percodan, or hydrocodone in Vicodin, Lorco and Nortab, across America, they have brought increased numbers and waves of overdose deaths.  Indeed, the most pronounced rates of growth nation-wide in sales and addiction have brought a huge rise in health-risk, as well in addiction-associated crime in the first decade of the new century, changing the topography of opioid consumption in ways difficult to imagine or comprehend; one can also unpack its consequences one can examine in detail by scrolling across its interactive map:

AP opioidAssociated Press

The starkly shifting geography created by growth in sales of painkillers marketed as legitimate relief suggest the networks of dependence that have grown up around their use.  For the wide marketing of such painkillers has concealed their addictive dangers, and the relatively small timeframe in which such different rates of painkillers’ consumption were established–and the patterns of dependence that they have come to create.

Perhaps the acceptance of such enforced leisure is not far removed from the dependence on the desensitization painkillers promise–encouraged by medical advocacy of treating chronic pain by opioid painkiller prescriptions advocated during the mid-1990s.  After the return of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan in the new century, the diagnosis was prevalent for veterans, as well as the unemployed, or out-of-work, creating a problematic topography for painkiller prescriptions throughout the United States.  Strikingly uneven practices of painkiller prescriptions have been made with an abandon some reckon sufficient to provide every inhabitant of the country with a bottle of pills in the first decade of the new millennia, and by 2012, the contrasting topography of dispensing painkillers created a clearly defined zone in the United States that eerily mirrors what one might call a “rust” belt of a decline of manufacturing, but spread to much of the southern and midwestern states, as well as the western states–and come to outnumber the population.

Pinkiller prescriptions

Some rural areas where painkiller prescriptions are so popular outnumber the state’s population.  Indeed, the numbers of prescriptions suggest that addicts may hold several.  And these are also often some of the same states without easy access to opioid abuse therapy–which some 53% of the counties in the nation lacked in 2012, despite their overwhelmingly disproportionate affliction by painkiller addiction.  Access to needed Opioid Relief Therapies (ORT) are, for example, conspicuously absent for prisoners in many of southern states where they are most sorely needed, from Kentucky and North Carolina to Georgia to Nebraska and to New Jersey:


When Bloomberg News prepared a brittle visualization of a similar time period for sales of opioids, they not inadvertently highlighted the predominanty rural zones of the most intense painkiller sales across the country’s least urban areas.  In such regions, easily accessible opioids provided the cheapest pain relief:  blue marks the index not of pain, but of the circulation of prescribed painkillers to paying customers–a record not only of “where it hurts,” but of where we are most hurt by the networks of opioid sales across America, where addiction is apt to feed a further demand for harder drugs, particularly as the snorting, injecting, and inhaling of pulverized pills creates a level of tolerance creates a mental demand for greater highs, creating a deeper hurt than the providing of such opioid analgesics may have been intended to respond!


Such data visualizations inescapably map a topographies of deep despair–of desperate searches for painkillers that doctors will not supply, of the resale of prescribed drugs, and of the deception of over-the-counter sales–despite their clear absence of qualitative information.

Multiple stories ran that year, based on similar data, announcing with amazement the emergence of rural West Virginia, Broward-County, Tennessee or Missouri, as alternate epicenters of pill-popping, beside Orange County or Staten Island–where oxycodone sales sales surged 1200% from 2000-2010–to frustrate law enforcement oversight.  Ten of the most opiate-prescribing states were located in the South by 2014.  The potential  possibilities of empathy are not often evident in data visualizations or maps, whose format often obscures individual cases:  the data visualization is difficult to process for its opacity and absence of qualitative details.  The distribution of the demand for painkillers as palliatives seems a tragic mirror of the growth of underemployment and unemployment across rural and exurban counties for a random month in 2009–

2009 unemployment in rural counties nonurbs

and broadly echo the decline of manufacturing across the old industrial belt:

Industrial Belt Deeply analogous disparities emerged in the disproportionate distribution of prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, a decade after the rise of pill hills, which uncannily reflect drastic losses losses of jobs exurban areas during the previous five years:

job loss 2007-11 legend job losses and gains

Such data maps of economic divides in America should be compared directly to the mapping of increasingly evident coincidence of opioid sales in 2010 and fatal drug overdoses released by Dr. Ileana Arias, of the CDC:

opioid sales:drug overdose 2008-10

The juxtaposition of the layers of these datasets again dramatically illuminates a deeply poignant distribution of despair. If it cannot in any way definitively suggest the geographical basis for networks of demand for painkillers across the country, it raises questions about the abuse of painkillers, and the culture of pain relief that grows with increased recourse to retail pharmaceutical stores as outlets for relief.  Whereas maps once offered ways to imagine lands on which viewers had never set foot, but the data visualizations of addiction to painkillers offer someone of a truly terrifying mirror in which to contemplate the state of the country.  Increased pharmaceutical dependence make the US the largest consumer by far of opiate pain killers in the world, and the painkiller industry particularly conspicuous as a network of health.  CDC Director Tom Frieden acknowledges that “opioid overdoses tend to be highest where opioids get the highest use,” lamenting the potential abuse of medications “can be an important tool for doctors to use … but … not the answer every time someone has pain.” The tacit acceptance of opioids across America–concretized in the spread of almost unregulated “pill mills”–has created a virtual free market for narcotics that all but invited abuse.



7.  What and where are these new networks of addiction?  Whereas cities have been long seen as the hubs for foreign drug cartels, the new networks of prescription drugs from pharmacies or pain centers created a network of drug consumption and a demand for opioids located far outside of urban areas often lying in rural and exurban areas across new networks of consumption.   Indeed, the recent migration of outlets for the dissemination of prescription painkillers to such online sales outlets as Pharmacy4Pills, based in the Bahamas, and rogue pharmacies for OxyContin, methadone, and Vicodin have in a sense confirmed the ubiquitous availability cultivated over the past ten years for painkillers that expanded a growing market for deeply addictive substances across the country. Indeed, one such network lies in the increased availability of painkillers at Veteran Affairs hospitals across America.

The curious coincidence reveals a temporary tolerance of opiate-based pain-medication–and encouragement of a network of painkiller provisions–able to be mapped in somewhat terrifying manner by the widespread provision of painkillers by VA hospitals in the US that have wrought increased addiction among returning vets in an all too bitter resolution for their calls of duty in roughly.  The expansion of prescriptions of painkillers across roughly the same timeframe follows an almost identical topography, as if a culture of pain medication–or a culture of mistreatment–existed in regions of the country.  The disproportionate demand for pain medications may suggest a distinct market for prescription drugs–rather than disproportionate bodily suffering–as was recently mapped as a prescription epidemic by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

culture of pain?Center for Investigative Reporting

There should be no surprise that this network of painkiller providers feeding Veterans’ addictions maps so clearly onto a network of addiction–and indeed a network of illicit opiate drugs.  The network has created ties among painkillers’ illegal resale and the resale of prescriptions that raise complicated questions about the intersections between a poor economy and painkillers’ prescription.  For the consumption of painkillers has so grown across the country in the past fifteen to twenty years that areas which saw  low rates of drug overdose facilities in the midwest and southwest transform into regions faced with widespread death by overdose–as prescription painkillers from Vicodin, OxyContin, or methadone are prescribed in the millions, often taken in dangerous doses, frequently illegally sold–to meet diagnoses of PTSD, depression, anxiety, brain injuries, or guilt–with the result of often overloading opiates on PTSD victims with a particular intensity. Such an overloading oddly persists despite the  actual possibility of increasing their chances of suicide:   VA hospitals over-prescribed painkillers to those suffering from PTSD, despite the possibility that their depression and devastation can lead far more easily to overdoses:  indeed, twice as many veterans were found dead from prescription drug overdoses in 2010 as the national average.  Such conspicuous variations in the rates of prescription for opiates present a painfully grim picture that fails explanation through any variations in health, health care, or the diagnosis of acute pain.

8.   Despite fairly uniform levels of pain in individual states, inadequate assessment of dangers of addiction has created a startlingly differentiated topography in the market for painkillers in relief:  the spatial differences in the dispensation of opiates reflects an increased reliance on pain medicine that ranges from prescribed to un-prescribed and illicit drugs that derive from opium that are equally addictive, if more powerful, from heroin to codeine.


The recent legalization of medical marijuana–now expanded to twenty-three states–may provide some relief, as medical marijuana sales of $1.7 billion in 2011 are poised to rise above over $8.9 billion by 2016.  Despite clear dangers of long-term use that legalization of medical marijuana may provoke, the turn to medical marijuana is, in many ways, a search for the legalization of potential palliatives–an expansion of the pharmakon of remedies for ongoing pain–to ones that may offer less of a poisoned remedy, but a remedy nonetheless with its own distinct set of risks–if ones we hope more diminished from the opioids so widely available during earlier decades.

Marijuana Legalization map

Yet are the dark spots in the below map, where painkiller prescriptions are so widely sold to be able to provide the nation’s  population, symptomatic of the increased introduction of opioids for a range of symptoms, or the over-prescription of drugs whose true danger was not readily ascertained?  Even though many of such pain clinics or fairly satanic “pill mills“–which require no medical records, and exchange cash for pain medication–have been shuttered in severe cases of this national drug abuse epidemic, leading deaths from oxycodone to plummet, there is strong resistance to creating a database to monitor drug prescriptions–or to insist that the problem does not exist.


The varying density across the nation reveals a stark topography of addiction that reflects the increased circulation not only of illegal drugs, but the availability of prescription opiaites across the country.  The density of addiction levels maps precisely onto those areas where there is documented use of illicit drugs other than marijuana among those over age twelve–and reveals a strikingly surprising network of addiction across much of the south, southwest and northwest.

Other Than MJ

Such admittedly schematic and somewhat superficial visualizations force us to ask what sort of pharmakon exists in America. Did the availability of painkillers come to constitute a poisoned remedy for the depressed, injured, and out-of-work, which encouraged or contributed to a recent epidemic of heroin in many rural states, as painkillers were more tightly controlled?  Whereas the ancient philosopher Plato contrasted philosophy to other occupations as providing a pharmakon of greater riches to its practitioners, have patterns of unemployment unreflectively promoted poisonous remedies as an alternative to the despair of those with few hopes for stable work, and promoted self-administered substances and self-induced withdrawal to promote a palliative transportation to an alternate state of mind?

Despite the false dichotomies drug companies continue to duplicitously draw between legal painkillers/illicit drugs, non-addictive/addictive drugs, prescription sales/narcotics, Oxycontin/heroin, or big pharma/cartels, the ballooning of prescription sales has largely itself caused each of these binaries to collapse. The increased slippage and play between such binaries is indeed hard to deny in the booming of Oxycontin sales. The increased degree of play between these binaries seems most pronounced in areas nicely mapped in the indelibly dark data visualization below of the boom in prescription sales 2000-2010–despite the data visualization’s lack of qualitative detail, and focus on sheer growth of oxycodone sales per capita alone.

painkiller nation Statistics:  DEA; AP analysis–Phil Holm and Michelle Markoff

The visualization mirrors a geography of death by overdose from prescription drugs–a stubbornly grizzly distribution indeed.  The data visualization begs not only for correlation with the economics of the out of work, as the increasing money spent on drugs begs for correlation with the contracting availability of jobs.  A visualization of such sky-high rates of the prescription of painkillers in the decade from 2000-2010 is an indictment of a medical culture of diagnosis and the provision of drugs, the widespread acceptance of painkillers as a strategy of coping suggests a drastically diminished creativity and resourcefulness in public health options that is almost bound to have high future costs. The overly blind promotion of desensitization to pain through often unsupervised self-administered pharmaceutical dosing undeniably encourages recourse to painkilling drugs.

Is it a coincidence that the increased promotion of opiates for pain reduction dovetailed both with the renewed recession of the early 2000s, and the pain-killers prescriptions provided to veterans returning from war and tours of duty.  It bears investigation whether combat fatigue led Americans to consume a whopping 80% of opiate painkillers produced globally by 2012, or what was the role of the economy.  But the combination no doubt set the stage for the telling expansion of an economy of pain medicine that dispensed some 110 tons of addictive substances from Oxycontin to harsher drugs as codeine, long a preferred drug across the US.  With some 92 oxycodone-based medications on the market and another 218 containing hydrocodone, the possibilities of addiction are not only endless, but generated by an expanding market for opioids of different brands.

The complex chorographic map of the increasing consumption of painkillers in America is rapidly expanding, even as billions are spent on the fight against drugs in foreign countries, and some fifty billion has been spent on patrolling the nation’s borders, or police patrols’ almost exclusive focus on poorer urban slums–as if addiction were still an urban phenomenon alone, without clear understanding of the new topography of addictive prescription drugs.  The health care costs and social consequences of addiction to opioids are bound to increase in future years, with sharply escalating mortality rates by opiate overdose in many parts of the country that are rarely on the map–the growing rates of deaths from overdoses of opioid pain relievers has grown sharply among women since 1999 and 2010 at a five-fold rate of increase, versus by a factor of 3.6 among men, in large part because of unmonitored dosages, but also because of the rapid rise in illicit drug sales.

While for many years, the majority of OxyContin consumption was located in Florida, For the expansion of cheap tar heroin sales in the US that have exploded over the past ten years with a rapidity that has created a public health epidemic of increasing proportions–generated in large part by the pharmaceutical industries. Such advocacy of self-induced desensitization, rather than offering an illuminating perspective on life, has created a cheaper fix than anti-anxiety meds, often themselves offered across the midwest and much of America to ease the depression of unemployed–creating a rush on heroin, it has been argued, as access to Oxycontin was restricted.  One saw between 2004-8 a  66% increase in heroin-related treatments in Ohio among suburban caucasians, as demand for black tar heroin first led Ohio to become an entrepôt in its illicit trade.  The effects are cast into relief in a map comparing overdose fatalities to traffic deaths from 2008–a year when the majority of such drug-induced deaths in the state of Ohio were in fact due not to heroin but to Oxycontin.  Although the DEA found that in 2010, ninety of the top one hundred doctors disseminating oxycodone were based in Florida, a shifting geography of overdose and death was in fact widely distributed nationwide:


It is instructive to compare the distribution of painkiller sales in the United States, shown here in 2010, by which time admission to treatment clinics had quadrupled nationwide, and review it in comparison to the geography of jobs in America pictured above–both to the loss of jobs after the 2007 Recession in rural and exurban areas, and to a reverse map of those cities where the most jobs were advertised in the last quarter of 2014, if only to suggest in broad strokes that the prescription of painkillers is increasingly tied to questions of our economy.  The focus on a loss of jobs in rural or non-urban areas, rather than urban or ex-urban areas, reflects both the greater loss of jobs in those areas, and the unique topography of opiate addiction and use that has emerged across much of the country.


Jobs after Recession 2007-10Bureau of Labor Statistics/Daily Yonder

The dramatic growth in Age-Adjusted Drug-Related Deaths across the country has created a landscape few would imagine in 2000, even though the increase of drug addiction has grown since the 1970s. For the deaths related to overdoses of such pain relievers as Oxycontin and its pharmaceutical cousins rose fourfold between 1999 and 2010, when they accounted for 16,650 deaths, and deaths from heroin overdoses rose by almost half from 2006 to 2010, as the number of heroin users rapidly rose from 239,000  to 335,000 between 2010-2012 (3)(4)(5).

While the abuse of painkillers were previously contained to areas of rural Appalachia, the spread of Age-Adjusted Death Rates from drug poisoning throughout the United States has, to put not too fine point on it, developed a distinct complexion that parallel an ineluctable economic downturn, as a level of incidence confined to rural Appalachia has become the new national normal–this is not an expansion of “leisure” in the ways Leys described, entirely, but an acceptance of an entrance into self-imposed lethargy of desensitization, brokered by blocking  the transmission of pain to the brain by the spinal cord, often both by blocking the sensation of pleasure and often prompting threats to depression of breathing and oxygen inhalation that leads to death by overdose.  If Leys contrasts the imposed leisure of unemployment to the leisure of Chinese literati’s time of learning, this is closer to acceptance of haze-inducing opiates that has so expanded that over 5,500 Americans are beginning to mis-use painkillers every day.


AADR chrono At the midst of this shifting geography of painkillers emerged a striking map of heroin use across the country, tied less to the growth of cartels than to the growth of a quite steady demand that seems localized in depressed economies, even if incomplete data is available in several states, but seemed shockingly diffuse throughout the country. Heroin admission 2005 The topography of admission rates for heroin is strikingly similar to that of the prescription of Methadone as a painkiller:     General rates of death by drug-poisoning in 2010 had grown along a slightly different distribution, with some similarities, clustered in the Northwest, the poorer southern states, and the midwest.  The telling topography of painkillers has received increasing attention, but is difficult to resolve, so closely is it tied to the increasing economic chasms between parts of American society, and the numbness with which those out of work seem to look at them with mute despair. 2010 drug poisoning:10,000

9.  Even if one is not a huge fan of the qualitatively thin nature of most data visualizations, the stark changes in the country’s complexion over a decade suggest both massive misguided management of pain and a desperate search for quick alleviation of depression tied to expanding economic gaps–whose contours are less likely to be legible in the above maps, so widespread is the reliance on drugs to repair the psychic wounds of an extreme distribution of wealth. The distribution reflects a tolerance and expansion of pain medications has forced Dr. Margaret Hamburg of the FDA to defend their continued sale as serving the needs of an important “niche.”  Yet is a profitable “niche” market able to justify the growing levels of drug-poisoning so prevalent in the past five years as a national divide,–increasingly linked to a national economy’s lethargy?   Can the rise of dependence on opiates be ignored, given the striking rapidity of the nation-wide trends of numbers of admission to treatment clinics for non-heroin opiates since 1995, when they first emerged in select areas –Michigan, Montana, and Utah, and Mississippi, all afflicted by deep unemployment?



The newly prominent role of painkillers in the levels of drug-related deaths by 2010 presents a staggering picture of a nation increasingly abusing–consciously or unconsciously–prescription drugs:

2010 drug poisoning:10,000

The above distribution clearly reflects the increasing number of kilos of painkillers legally sold in the same year, a statistic that has undeniable tie to economic depression:

prescrip painkillerssols

The almost endemic spread of an epidemic of painkillers has occurred at considerable social costs, but stands to create far greater costs in health care.  If Oxycontin is not always a stepping stone to heroin, the widespread reliance on pain medication–and widespread marketing of the notion that chronic pain as able to pharmacologically alleviated, that allows “pain medicine” to exist as a separate field–has generated growing abuse over a ten-year period.

10.  Police data from Washington state provides a picture of growing drug abuse across that state that suggests a pattern to image addiction to painkillers across the rest of the nation.  We have all too readily identified Florida as a prime case study of the capital of pain-killers, moving from Palm Beach and to gain an audience on account of their relatively unregulated spread in pain clinics.  But another geographically quite removed micro-history of the expansion of painkillers might be effectively illustrated at closer grain in a choropleth generated at the University of Washington.  The study raises pressing questions about the transition from opiates to heroin, as a growing market for the lethargy of leisure led to rising mortality rates due to the abuse of drugs with little quality control–or indication of their potency and strength. The rapid spread throughout Washington of opiates over ten years maps in some cases onto clear communities–as the finer grain of the distribution of a period over which deaths due to opiates more than doubled over the decade, 2000-2010, when pain clinics and treatment centers emerged across this state.

police_evidence_rxop_2000 police_evidence_rxop_2009 police_evidence_heroin_2009 treatment_rx_10 deaths_county_aggregated_2001


The data visualization raises questions about the transition between drugs, and the growing markets for heroin, as much as its abuse–revealed best in the shocking growth of drug overdose deaths to a point at which over two people died with opiates in their blood each day in the state, raising questions about the safety of prescriptions and the possibilities of abuse.  Researchers at Brandeis found a similar link between addiction to pain-killers and subsequent treatment for heroin, and the rise of individual admissions into drug treatment centers nationwide has rapidly ballooned in somewhat surprising regions by 2011:

IN Treatmnet Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services

Although misleading in ways, given the spread of marijuana abuse as something of a constant in many regions, the map is most striking for the prevalence of opiates and heroin as dominant addictions.  This chart of what drugs primarily lead to admission in addiction treatment centers reveals a disturbing topography of its own, linked not only to pathways of supply, but suggests the relation between the high number of clients in treatment for heroin and opiates to large numbers of folks in treatment in the Northeast–although the surface of this rather opaque data visualization has yet to be fully scratched, and its content less suggestive of trends than of the damage that opiates and heroin have already wreaked. diction by state

Suspending judgment on the reporting of marijuana use in addiction centers in just one month in, one can identify a topography of drug use that is particularly striking– the black spots of the nation are revealed.

Other Than MJ

The tripling of drug overdoses from painkillers over ten years has created a terrifying topography of addiction, mappable by the growing number of drug overdoses from 2008.


National Vital Statistics System, 2008/“Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the US”

The topography reflects the range of kilograms of prescription painkillers per 10,000 people across the United States.

state-info-mapa_626px SOURCE: Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS) of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2010

In focussing on overdose deaths among the demographic of women alone, the Center for Disease Control found a startling geographic concentration between 2009-10 in middle America which we will never know if it could probably have been prevented or forestalled.  The strikingly suggestive spatial clustering in states that one would not associate with urban areas–and might even label rural–demands investigation.  The below map of deaths per 100,000 across the union–the vast plurality of which, somewhat shockingly, are opioids and prescription drugs–reveals a landscape of addiction and dependence that is non-urban in nature, and relies on networks of the transportation and marketing of drugs among a large suburban or rural populace, whose centers of consumption may be more easily mapped than the pathways by which it arrives to prescription customers and illicit clients–which would of course require far less readily available data about its transportation.


11.  The existence of such open data is most widely available from causes of mortality, as well as numbers on those who seek help with addiction from clinics.  Morgues and hospitals are the sources of data that are most striking by far, if the self-selected numbers of those addicts who seek treatment also illuminate a less well-known landscape of desperation preferred not to be discussed, if only because it indicates an epidemic for which no easy answer or solution can be found.  In 2010, painkillers alone killed more individuals than overdoses from heroin and cocaine combined; as of 2012, some 12.5 million people admitted to regular use of painkillers without a prescription.  Indeed, as expenditures on cocaine decreased substantially 2000-2010, the weighted average of monthly expenditures on heroin regularly grew by half.  The numbers on age-adjusted drug-related deaths per 100,000 people mirrors a somewhat similar distribution for that year:


Prescription painkillers provided a tragically similar topography of death by overdose:


12.  We are however all too apt to direct attention to drug smuggling and the currents of illicit narcotics trade that enter the nation’s borders, and the global market for leisure drugs.  The demand for painkillers and narcotics has grown in a distinct topography that demands clearer mapping, given the inescapable rises that it will be soon provoking in health costs, as well as the absence of a large share of the nation’s citizens. Global data is hardly encouraging–it reveals the increasing saliency of the US and other wealthy countries with a considerable number of unemployed creating a large market for opiates:  the rise of opiates in 2010 suggested the rise of a market considerably larger than in Canada or Mexico, or in much of Europe–save England and the Ukraine, although Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq are off the charts.


UNODC/2012 World Drug Report

The unsurprisingly parallel rise of the consumption of Ecstasy (MDMA) as a preferred drug in the US makes it difficult to ignore as an epicenter of consumption in the western hemisphere.

the-us-narcotics-market-is-worth-about-60-billion-annually-according-to-united-nations-estimates UNODC/2012 World Drug Report

Even as the consumption of cocaine seems to have stabilized or decreased in the US in recent years, compared to its rise in Europe, and growth in Australia, its use is shockingly widespread.

in-the-past-four-years-cocaine-use-has-decreased-in-the-us-while-increasing-in-australia-and-stabilizing-in-europeUNODC/2012 World Drug Report

The number of seizures of stimulants like methamphetamines quite dramatically grew in the previous decades’ final years, skyrocketing from less than 500 to 6,000 and then 12,000 kg.  If one is all too apt, at times, to blame the arrival of synthetic methamphetamines on Mexican cartels, the geography of their transport is determined by a basic principle of supply and demand, a principle that expands the roles of suppliers, and is fed by the attraction of demand.


DOJ National Drug Threat Assessment 2011

The skewed topography of the preference for methamphetamines in much of the Midwest, designated below by red dots, seems almost stanched less by border guards than the clearcut preference across the east coast for crack cocaine.


NPR recently charted a “drug super-highway” that paralleled the economic decline of our own national infrastructure, as well as globalization.  It reflects the rise of seizures of cocaine in what seem its two largest markets by far–Europe and the United States by 2010, rather than numbers of deaths or self-reported statistics.



2012 World Drug Report

The growing national epidemic concentrating in particularly increased regions of addiction–no doubt prompted by “forced leisure” and long term low employment–if often described as being fueled by both the drug’s growing potency and its cheaper costs.  It is concentrated in the midwest, rural states, rather than urban areas, and reflects both an easier access and increased dependency of relatively well-off groups–who consume heroine that is often derived from poppies growing in Mexico, but are nurtured by a reliance on the prescription (or non-prescription) pain-relief pills, and according to Sam Quinones, the growth of pain clinics, rather than a topography of crime.



The global market of illegal opioids, however, is immense.  Of the approximately 820 tons of heroin and 994 tons of cocaine the circulate annually in the world, one might detail a global weather pattern of intoxication fed by individual desperation, and a sort of mania for the consumption of painkillers–followed by, if not creating–as has been sustained–a network of narcotic opioids such as heroin in later years.


In ways that feed these circuits, the growing global demand for desensitization seems driven by the United States and Russia, two of the greatest engines for opoid demand.  The startling escalation of the consumption of opioids in specific–drugs increasingly prescribed and relied upon for extra pain relief, or numbing bliss, is dangerously high in much of the world–although not in Europe, so far–in ways that constitute a global health risk and a national health risk as well to which we’ve turn a cold shoulder.  And the United States seems to currently consume some 80% of painkillers worldwide, largely legal, according to the American Society of Pain Intervention, using drugs like Percocet which are funneled to clients by prescription (or not) by drug companies who make a huge profit on them–without any sense of their future costs.


UNODC/2012 World Drug Report

13.  The easy entrance of heroin as it has been tracked so far suggests an established set of channels of transportation.  But the growth of these channels are also of course fed by deeply seated demand, crossing a permeable border in ways that border control seem unable to stop–even while consuming an increasing amount of resources, public funds, and dehumanizing many.


Business Insider/Strategic Forecasting Inc.

In ways that might help to visualize how the arrival of the demand for opiates as distinct from home-grown demand, STRATFOR has mapped the varied routes by which cartels have helped move heroin into the United States, at considerable profit and indicated the global nexus of a narcotics trade that Mexico has effectively become.  But the deeply set currents of demand seem something we are more likely to continue to turn a blind eye–as well as to the health risks we are increasingly facing, and even not so unconsciously encouraging by the growth of painkillers and painkilling drugs.  Indeed, in looking at the spread of cartels and drug routes in Mexico, are we doing our best to ignore how big pharma and a free market for drugs–and drug sales without consultation of medical records–has created a large social science experiment without our borders that have prepared the ground and the network for the diffusion of opioid drugs to exurban areas?

The pathways of the consumption and arrival of drugs–leisure or addictive–are perhaps best understood as relative.A sobering realization is that, from the Canadian point of view, the source of all those drugs is, rather, the routes that they travel across the US and North America, and the cartels that stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Arizona, or from Sinoloa to Arizona, and across across that all so porous Canadian border:

NA Smuggling Routes

Would that it were so easy to locate and situate the single source of the problem as lying across a border.  Opiates in the form of heroin continues to arrive at consumers five years ago from a variety of routes in a globalized economy, moving from Afghanistan and Myanmar; UNODC charted the global trafficking of heroin from Asia in 2008, revealing a shadow economy still insufficiently measured, to its largest markets in Europe, before reaching global customers.

Global Heroin0UODC


But the driving demand for opiates that structured much of the market is something very much within our own country and control.  The public health risk that have been created by the frequent prescription and provision of painkiller pills has created a network of demand–and a network of addiction–into which truly anyone may be vulnerable.

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