Georg Steller’s Arctic

When I tell people that I “make maps,” folks enthusiastically dust off the word ‘cartographer’ for me, delighted that the word still takes up space in their vocabulary for a reason. I then disappoint them by declining the honor. Most of my work in GIS has been done on a spreadsheet and could never, in my eyes at least, be considered the kind of design work that cartography implies. Cartography is very much still a thing it’s just something I suck at.

My new job at Parus Consulting requires that I make maps that are not merely accurate but pretty and my position actually affords me the creative input to achieve both. I was elated at first until I found out that making things look good is hard and I’ve been experimenting with QGIS, color, symbology and funky projections ever since. The subject of my most recent practice map came to me quickly. As soon as I moved to the West Coast I noticed a local quirk worth investigating geographically. American street signs are predictably named for the pantheon of presidents and elder statesmen, trees and Indian tribes but California boasts a number of recurring names of its own like Powell, Muir, Folsom, Fremont, Chavez, Hearst, Humboldt and DeAnza. Some names I knew. Most I didn’t.

I also discovered a certain geography in the names of our wildlife. Having never before encountered a Stellers Jay or a Stellers Sea Lion before going West, I thought it curious to find such a windfall of Stellers here and nowhere else. Who was this Steller and how did he get his own sea lion? My research helped me make this map:

It’s a draft. Your comments are appreciated.
A map from the David Rumsey map collection at Stanford University that I referenced often.

There is something of a curse that naturalists have wryly observed hovering over the species named for Steller- of the dozen or so species most are endangered or extinct. This is probably because the Second Kamchatka Expedition was explicitly designed to map a region to support exploitation and it was extremely successful to that end. The Stellers Sea Cow would be gone within mere decades. The sea otter nearly followed. I wish I had the data to compare the modern range of these species with the ranges they enjoyed in Steller’s time and I likewise wish I had a better sense of the extent of summer ice he encountered compared to the ice we see today. We’ll probably never have that data with any serious precision.

This simple project has made me think more about who gets to name things. I’ve been pondering who it is that people in power think are important and how regional or local that can end up being. I think I’d like to make more of these maps with naturalists and their namesakes- Douglas, Muir, Lewis, Clark and Humboldt would be ideal sequels. Maybe I’ll branch out and include names of local figures such as Wentworth or Stark in New Hampshire or Powell across the American West. Hopefully the maps will get prettier.