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What is a Deep Map?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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A deep map is an engaged representation of place, representing a literary and documentary approach to mapping a place. A deep map combines history, topography, politics, photographs, and folklore, among others, to map a limited space. It is not strictly geographical topographical or objective. It combines opinion with politicization and poetry and partisanship. It is a multi-dimensional approach to conveying a feeling of a place. It is a kind of vertical travel writing and topographical exploration.

The deep map became popular and most well known with PrairyErth: A Deep Map (1991). This deep map, written by William Least Heat-Moon, was an exploration of Chase County, Kansas. Chase County is the last remaining expanse of tall-grass prairie in the country. Heat-Moon composed his book through illustrations and hand-drawn maps of the area, telling the anecdotes of the people of the towns, giving the politics of the area, and by relating his impressions. This book would eventually be the second part of a deep-mapping, topographical trilogy by Heat-Moon. The others included a deep map retracing of Lewis and Clark’s exploration path.

A deep map differs from most geographic and historical documentary in its strong literary style and its opinionated prose. Because of this, deep mapping can also be done in long form for radio broadcasts. Some have called this deep mapping art form “vertical travel writing,” and have compared it to the topographical exploration books written by 17th and 18th century pioneers like Alexis de Tocqueville.

A deep map, in the tradition of de Tocqueville’s description of American life in the 19th century, has much more than documentary to it. It includes natural history and juxtapositions of the land and people. A deep map includes a biography of the people and autobiography of the writer and traveler. Deep mapping can take days, months, or years, as the mapper gains an understanding of the people and the place. The mapper must collect sights, sounds, feelings, and histories. A deep map embraces different media. They are, at their heart, multilayered and topographical.

Deep maps may include graphic works, along with time-based media, and archives. They can be done by the amateur or the artist, and because of this they are often passionate reflections. Deep maps, because of their nature, are not permanent. They transcend time and reflect a place throughout time and peoples and feelings. Because of these involvements in the mapping, deep maps have been called “participatory history.”

This art, which has been compared to geography and history, holds a spot apart from either and very much involved with both. Deep maps combine the human connections of fiction and literature with the non-fictional and topographical feel of a travelogue.

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