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The Beauty of a Map

Art stick chart color

In Micronesia, 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, the Marshall Islands lie scattered like grains of sand. In fact, they lie closer to Japan and Australia than to the U.S. mainland. This Marshallese stick chart, above, called rebbilib in Marshallese, marks the islands and major wave patterns of the Marshalls.

Long ago, I lived on one of the largest Marshall Islands, Kwajalein, which is only half a mile wide by two and a half miles long. At the time, Kwajalein seemed as large as any home town but, on a world map, it's almost invisible. Here is a rebbilib chart laid on paper with the location of Kwajalein written in:

Art stick chart drawing copy

Marshallese navigators made these charts using cowries (the tiny brown shells you see in the color photo) and palm fronds right up until World War II. The rebbilib is most like our modern maps, with shells showing specific islands and their relation to one another, like cities in a state. Yet Marshallese navigational charts are not like our western-style maps; fishermen didn't use them to measure distance or count miles. Instead, they used them as memory aids, reviewing them before a journey but not bringing them along. It is said that a fishermen would study his charts, leave them behind, and then lie on his back in the canoe, the better to feel the rise and fall of the ocean swells. He interpreted the map with his body memory, not with his eyes.

The mattang stick chart, below, is a more typical fisherman's chart, used to teach navigation around a specific island. The palm fronds mark the swell pattern of the waves around the island in the center, with major swells marked by heavier fronds:

Art stckchrt2

Why do we make maps?  Why is the spare geometry of ocean swells so beautiful?  

German artist Adrian Lohmuller created a series of collages last year based on these patterns, inspired by their irregular, evocative shapes. Find out more about the geometry of stick chart navigation at the Ethnomathematics Digital Library.

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at 

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