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  • Writer's picturesusan petrie

Story Maps

In the late 17th century, the well-known and beloved Japanese poet, Basho, took to the road once more, this time as an elderly man, and penned a poetic travelogue of his final wanderings, titled Narrow Road to the Deep North. Although published posthumously in 1702, Narrow Road was considered a commercial success. In it, he travels a path through the countryside and wild terrain near present day Tokyo, observing the considerable and delicate beauty of the natural world, and noting his interactions with townspeople, the rising moon, and various temples and historical ruins that have mossed with age. He occasionally laments their former significance, and by describing these places of former importance, brings a certain vitality before letting time cover them completely.

For some reason, story maps have never really gained much traction in the U.S. as a literary genre. Luckily, though, Narrow Road showed up in my life at the right time, when I found myself mulling over years and years of regional discoveries. In wandering, I'd found all sorts of places and objects and stories - low-tide ferry piers, dirt roads and paths to the Hudson River that had become obscured by time, and various fading footprints of the region's Native, Dutch, English, and industrial heritage. I had my own photos, news articles, dozens and dozens of books, drawings and sketches, as well as observations from driving into and encountering places people didn't seem to go to anymore.

Now, my 8-year labor of love will be published by SUNY Press in April. Hundred-Mile Home was completed as my creative thesis at Bennington, where I received my MFA in 2018. And while the book had a curious and difficult birth (What's a story map anyway? How do you make one? What's it supposed to say? Will anyone even understand it?), story maps are now, in fact a thing in this country. This is partly due to the rise in popularity of GPS and the clever geospatial software now being used by governments and municipalities called arcGIS to map and understand the terrain they are responsible for managing. (GIS stands for geospatial information software.)

The irony is that one can go out, snap some local photos, load them into GIS, write some commentary, and in a few weeks put together a lovely digital story map presentation of any region they choose! It's a fantastic tool. Interestingly, the New Netherland Institute in Albany has recently received a $5,000 grant to complete their own story map of Dutch-American Heritage sites.

For me, however, there will never be a substitute for the joy of self discovery, the fun of doing things manually without GPS, just turning down roads on instinct when no one is about, seeing a huge oil tanker drifting quietly past on the Hudson. Maybe watching a flock of turkeys make their way through the golden rustling grasses of autumn. Or being there as the sun bursts through the fog and spreads across a freshly hayed field. To me, those things represent the region, and the feelings of delight and surprise they inspire will continue to draw me out, and keep me waiting for any number of special views that reveal themselves to me.

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