Mapping the Lakes: Wordsworth's Guide and the Geospatial Web

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Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes

Mapping the Lakes: Wordsworth's Guide and the Geospatial Web
An Introduction to the Map of the Lake District

1.        "I know not how to give the reader a distinct image of [the main outlines of the country] more readily, than by requesting him to place himself with me, in imagination, upon some given point; let it be the top of either of the mountains, Great Gavel, or Scawfell; or, rather, let us suppose our station to be a cloud hanging midway between those two mountains" (2). It is with this little mind exercise that Wordsworth begins his Guide to the Lakes, inviting readers to contemplate his textual descriptions of the Lake District from an elevated viewpoint. We could always speculate that Wordsworth's desire for his readers to have this sort of aerial view might have been underscored by at least a glimmer of hope that such an activity might someday be realized (hot air balloons had been a reality for nearly 30 years, for example, and other forms of flight were fast becoming a significant object of scientific interest). And while this may not be the most informative reading of this small, prefatory line, it's worth considering. True, Wordsworth's imaginings here might be most significantly read as a demonstration of his aesthetic aspirations (offering a controlling metaphor for understanding how the geography we encounter through the Guide is inextricably bound up in the synthetic value of his observations). But there's at least some sense that, through all of his scenic descriptions, his detailed itineraries, his "exact and considerate observation" (2), we might be able to read the Guide as if it were approximating an ability to actually sit above the landscape and view the Lake District from this imagined cloud.

2.        It's from this perspective that a new sort of cloud--that of web-based, geospatial technologies--can help Wordsworth's readers in the twenty-first century to come closer to doing what he invites. Today's cloud-based mapping tools provide a significant framework for informing our readings of Wordsworth's textual, geographical mappings. The disciplinary term here is "geospatial Humanities"; it's a phrase often applied to approaches or methodologies of scholarly reading that seek to make central the concepts of space and time by utilizing contemporary mapping tools, applications, and data. To be fair, maps have always been a valuable tool for conceptualizing, analyzing, or visualizing places as they relate to literature; in fact, beginning with the 3rd edition, Wordsworth himself included various "maps" (both graphical images and tabular, geographic data) in the Guide. But while Wordsworth was limited to that which could be printed and bound alongside his prose, contemporary practices in the Digital Humanities work within a different paradigm; technology such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and its collection of satellites, the Geographic Information System (GIS) and its standards for recording and analyzing geographic data, and cloud-based mapping apps (such as those provided by Google or Open Streetmap) offer unparalleled amounts of information about space, topography, climate, and other features that provide a rich and intriguing context for how we might read the Guide. Given that Wordsworth strives to distinguish his guidebook from earlier offerings by refusing to reduce the Lake District to a series of discrete viewing stations, a twenty-first-century geospatial "mash-up" seems most appropriate for approaching Wordsworth's narrative imaginings of the reader as traveler, moving through the landscape at will.

3.        Our goal in this appendix is to offer a digital space for exploring mappings of the Lake District, providing visualizations that can serve as additional "annotations" for the scholarly edition of Wordsorth's Guide. This map, with multiple layers of information (historical and contemporary), are interactive networked tools that can richen the experience of reading Wordsworth's text. Currently, readers can explore the map's interface with some additional tools:

  • Placemarks--a spatial catalog that lays out the various place names of significance to Wordsworth's Guide. These datapoints encode geographic coordinates in the Keyhole Markup Language (KML), an XML framework that allows for annotating placenames with geospatial locations, textual descriptions, iconography, and links to other texts or multimedia. As a kml file, this map is rendered with Open Layers, where users can choose which base layer they wish to view (Google Maps's standard or relief maps, MapQuest aerial maps, etc.), complete with common interface tools such as the ability to scale to different levels of granularity, select individual placemarks, etc. Above the placemarks is a filterable list of placenames; selecting one (or many) can re-render the placemark map with just the filtered selections visible. The entire dataset is also exportable (as a KML or CSV file) so that users can manipulate the map in Google Earth, ArcGIS, or other software product, or use the data in other interesting ways.
  • Historical overlays--we've included two different high-fidelity, digital reproductions of maps that date back to the publication of the Guide. "Smith's New and Accurate Map of the Lakes in the Counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancaster" (published in 1800) is a map that provides the frame of reference for the type of geographic mapping that Wordsworth would be familiar with (and that his contemporary readers could have imagined while pretending to be a cloud). Wordsworth also included a fold-out map with his text; here we have a reproduction of the map from the third edition. Both of these digital images can be selected as overlays to the base maps (with the placemarks thus indicating locations on the historical reproductions).

4.        Leveraging the dynamic nature of the web can allow, over time, more digital objects to be added to this appendix (either by us or by others wishing to develop their own tools). Imagine, for example, an itinerary map--another KML file that includes the motion and direction from point to point that Wordsworth finds significant, thus allowing readers to visually comprehend not only individual excursions but how they might all fit together temporally and spatially. Or perhaps an image database, when connected to the geographic data, could help future readers better understand how this landscape has evolved since Wordsworth wandered its hills.

5.        One of the fundamental voices encouraging the interplay between reading and mapping has been Franco Moretti; beginning with the second in a series of three essays written for The New Left Review (all later collected in Graphs, Maps, Trees), Moretti emphasizes how, even in texts that are focused on space and place, when you sit down and actually "make a map … everything changes" (79). The key, for Moretti, lies in the recognition of new patterns that can't be seen with just words:

you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them, and construct a new, artificial object. A model. And at this point you start working at a ‘secondary' level, removed from the text: a map, after all, is always a look from afar . . . Distant reading, I have called this work elsewhere; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns. (94)

6.        Because of the deep semantic relationships between Wordsworth's prose and the paradigms of geospatial mapping, "distant reading" methodologies implemented with cloud-based mapping tools can help readers of a critical edition like this one discover new and potentially meaningful patterns. Early on in the editing process, we realized that Wordsworth's text takes on a different sort of life for a reader who has some sensory familiarity with the places described. While we first explored this notion by taking a group of students on a trip to retrace Wordsworth's steps, such travel isn't a possibility for most readers of the Guide. We ultimately hope, then, that by offering a richer visual and spatial understanding through this appendix (along with the topographical illustrations incorporated in the main text), we will enable users to travel virtually, formulate new concepts and new ideas, and perhaps generate insights about the Guide's Lakeland geography that neither we nor Wordsworth might have imagined.

Published @ RC

April 2015