On Salvation

Let me tell you about how I was saved by maps.

I used to be a chemist some years ago. I worked at a mom & pop pharmaceutical laboratory in my home town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. From the time I was ten or eleven, I had planned on this job. I blame Mr. Wizard — I loved watching all the seemingly magic things he could do with brightly-colored liquids in test tubes. Now that I had my childhood dream job, however, I was disillusioned. There was no magic, there was only routine humdrum. The work was hard, it was stressful, and it was frequently dull. I started the slide into depression. I came home every day feeling far too tired for the number of hours I was working. Time off seemed fleeting, and I spent the whole weekend worried about the fact that Monday was approaching, and wondering sometimes if I could face another week. I felt constantly pursued, and unable to relax even when given respite.

I decided to get out.

I had planned on going to graduate school right after college. I liked being in school and I succeeded there. It seemed natural to continue. But inertia kept me in the workforce for about three years before I finally managed to get enough forward momentum to return to school. My other love in school besides chemistry had been history. I can’t blame Mr. Wizard for this one, but I’ll blame my high school teacher, Mr. Cahow, instead. My bachelor’s degree at Kalamazoo College was in both subjects. At first I tried, and failed, to get in to graduate school to study classical history. The next year, though, I switched focus and applied to History of Science departments. Given my background, it seemed a pretty sensible fit, and the University of Wisconsin agreed. They let me in, and I was off to Madison in the summer of 2007.

Coming along with me was my girlfriend of three years, an amazing and brilliant woman whom I had met in college, and with whom I was very much in love. We got a small apartment together about a mile from campus, she found a job, and we settled in to an unfamiliar city. It was about here that my life started completely unravelling.

I did not fit in to my new graduate department at all. I was wholly out of my depth; my background was insufficient to match the demands of the program. I had gone to graduate school because I liked school, not because I was deeply passionate about the history of science in particular. It just seemed interesting. My peers, on the other hand, seemingly had been pursuing this track for far longer than I, and had put in enough extracurricular effort through their college years that by the time we all started at Madison they were talking over my head. I fell swiftly behind and lost heart. I realize now that while I might have had the relevant skills, I lacked the critical element of passion. I did not feel like spending all week trying to get through 400+ pages of reading, because the end goal was simply not enticing enough, nor was the journey greatly intriguing.

This had been my grand escape plan. My job had depressed me, and I was going to return to school, something I was good at, and I was going to enjoy getting an advanced degree and then spend the rest of my life in academia. My depression returned, much stronger, as this escape plan crumbled away.

My girlfriend, meanwhile, made a bunch of new friends in town, and started spending more and more time with them. Sometimes she wouldn’t come home, or even communicate with me, for days. Eventually, she told me that it was because she didn’t like being around me when I was depressed. She kept getting more distant, and moved into her own separate room. She would have parties at our apartment and introduce me as her “roommate,” and then close me off into one room so that I couldn’t hear what was going on, and so that no one could see me. Then she’d leave for a few days and I’d have to clean up the mess. I did not generally have the wherewithal to stand up for myself in the face of her steadily worsening treatment of me. Her behavior eventually reached the point where I started reading online to determine if I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. None of this helped my depression.

If you’ve never been depressed, I’ll just say that it’s much worse than it sounds, and I imagine everyone manifests it a bit differently. I would stay in bed for hours. I would avoid doing any of my school work. It took a significant effort to scrape together the energy needed to do any sort of housework or cooking. I was constantly bored, but could not muster myself to do anything to make me less bored, and I did not have the courage to face the growing pile of assignments that I was falling behind on. I felt trapped and powerless.

I made a lot of maps during that period; it was one of the only activities that gave me any sort of positive emotion. I had actually started a cartographic hobby a few months earlier, before I moved to Madison. As far back as I can recall, I liked reading maps. I used to be the navigator when my family would take trips. I like paging through atlases for fun. So it was natural enough that I eventually determined to learn a bit about how to make them. One of my first efforts was for Wikipedia, a map of the Kalamazoo River:
I was terribly proud of that map. I still am, despite the many, many flaws I can see in it today.

I kept up my new mapmaking hobby when I moved to Madison. It gave me something creative to do, and I have since learned that, for me, being creative is critical to keeping a positive emotional state. Making maps was the light of my day, in a time when my days were very, very dark. I probably talked more to my colleagues in History of Science about the maps I made than anything actually having to do with my graduate work. I did not construct anything particularly interesting or attractive. Mostly I just put together choropleths of census data to answer idle curiosities. But I was making something, and it felt good. And it involved learning geography, which was fun and new. It was avoidance behavior, to be sure — there were important things I really needed to be doing, and spending eight hours on a map was just a way of procrastinating, but I needed the escape. I could not always face my life outside of my cartographic refuge.

I was still trapped in my ill-fitting graduate program. I was adrift, and didn’t know what to do. I did not thrive as a chemist; I did not thrive as a historian of science. What now? I had no other obvious options, and I considered dropping out of school. But one day a friend of mine in the History of Science department pointed out that, being as I liked maps so much, perhaps I could go to school to learn about them. And, it so happened that there was a first-rate cartography program at Wisconsin. I spent my second semester in graduate school taking a cartography and a GIS class while applying for a transfer to the cartography program. I found that I liked these new classes, and that it was no longer a massive chore to get up every day and try and get to campus and accomplish something. I had more energy. I felt like I had a future. Somehow, despite no background or training, despite a weak performance in History of Science, and despite an application letter that didn’t say much more than “I really like maps,” the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Geography accepted me, and I began a Master’s program in Cartography & GIS. They took a chance on me, and I cannot hope to repay them for that.

I threw away everything I had ever thought I wanted to do with my life and leapt blindly into the unknown. I abandoned the safe, clear path I had been plotting since I was a child. As simple as it sounds, that was probably the most courageous thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I thrived immediately in my new program. I found that I was part of something I had lacked before: a community. I was surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues from whom I learned much, and whose input can be seen in everything that I design. I had a place to belong, and a future that I was passionate about. I came out of my depression. I worked up the fortitude to bring about an end to my relationship with my girlfriend, who by now was living on her own yet was unwilling to formally let go. I began to move on from my old life, to the new one I have now. I am a cartographer, and a teacher (another chance that the Geography department took on me). I love what I do. I draw strength from it. It feels like I should have been doing this all along, like I was made for it.

I write this story because I want people to understand what maps mean to me. Cartography is not just a hobby, or a job. It has taken me through the darkest times of my life. It has helped me overcome depression. It has given me a renaissance and a calling. It has given me a community which has enriched me personally and professionally. It has saved me from a life I would prefer not to contemplate, one which I cannot believe would be as fulfilling.

I am very glad that I made that terrible map for Wikipedia, one winter in 2007.

32 thoughts on “On Salvation

  1. There seem to be a lot of chemist, who became cartographers later, eg. the late famous John P. Snyder

  2. Ah, the power of maps. When cartography has improved your life so much, it must be that you’ve found your true calling. From our little circle of UW friends to map enthusiasts all across the land, we’re all better off for you having found your way to the UW Geography department. Everybody wins!

    I know the feeling a little bit, although half the time maps are killing me instead. There’s nothing like a map for escaping the real world, and even if it’s done just for the escape, at least there’s usually something to learn in the process.

  3. You’re very brave to post that to a now somewhat-famous blog (thanks to your rivers-as-transit-systems diagrams!). Congrats for working up the nerve to do so.

    From a fellow map-lover …

  4. Daniel, thank you for creating the Kalamazoo River map. I would like to include it, with proper credit, in the paper that I’m writing about the building of the Trowbridge, Plainwell and Pine Creek (Otsego) dams on the Kalamazoo River. Of particular interest is the disappearance of the pioneer Village of Pine Creek, that was flooded by the flowage created when the Pine Creek Dam was built in 1903.

    1. You are free to use it, especially being that it’s on Wikipedia, but if you’d like I can give you something higher quality if you email me.

  5. That’s a great story, well-written, and thanks for writing this.

    James from selloutyoursoul.com, a site about my own attempt to find meaning after grad school.

    1. Thanks, James. I’m glad there is such a site. I remember at one point trying, and failing, to get a site off the ground called Grad School Dropout, which would have featured advice for people in my situation at the time. I remember wondering if I should drop out of school — but I didn’t know anyone who had or how it had worked out. I talked to my professors, but of course they all said, “Yes it was hard and I thought about leaving, but I stuck with it and now I’m here.” I wish I had had some of the opposite perspective at the time.


  6. This is a great post. I became a map hobbyist when very young, after my parents gave me What We Find When We Look at Maps. Of course I didn’t think of it at the time, but it was a refuge for me, wasn’t it?

    I never studied it formally — in fact, I was intimidated by the classes on offer at the University of Washington — but I still love maps of all sorts, and they’ve become very useful to me in my writing on local-historical issues.

    Again, great post.

  7. I was also a Chemist working in the biochemistry field that saw no future… Did I really want to be dissecting rat parts for experiments until I was 65? So I waddled over to the local medical college entrance department and asked what forms I needed to fill out to get into medical school.
    That was 25 years ago…and now I’m a very happy eye surgeon, who still gets to use his chemistry occasionally, and am still in awe and wonder of the creation of the human body and universe (and the mapping and illustration of both).

    Love your blog!

  8. What a wonderful path your hobby as family navigator took you. I too got my interest in GIS probably as the kid directing the family through Chicago in the 70’s.
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. What a great post–thank you for sharing a bit of your personal history.

    I also started my academic career in chemistry, but then I switched to biology. In ecology class, I was much more interested in making data charts than anything else. It wasn’t until I discovered the fields of environmental modeling, and GIS, that I found my passion for map making.

    It is really great when your interests and career mesh in such a strong way–for everyone.

  10. Thank you for posting this story, it was exactly what I needed to read today. I am going through a very similar thing right now, as I am in the final year of a PhD in Archaeology (my childhood dream job) that feels more like a long, bitter defeat than the blissful culmination of my lifelong ambitions. Your story gives me hope that, whether I finish this course or not, there may still be a happy future to look forwards to, as long as I am willing to make the effort to find it. Again, thank you.

  11. Thanks for sharing that post. It was very open and honest of you to explain why maps mean so much to you. A very inspiring story.

  12. Wow, your story is very encouraging and I feel that I’m on a similar journey. Thanks for being so honest about all of your feelings and struggles with depression. I think that’s part of what makes things feel difficult…the isolation of feeling that others haven’t faced the same odd mix of struggles to find the right path. I’m 50 yrs old, I was a ‘stay-at-home’ mom while my kids were young. I returned to school in my early 40’s to get an MS in Computer Science. After graduating, I worked as a software developer for 3 years and it was extremely depressing for the same type of reasons you described. I gathered the courage to quit my job, I’m in the process of starting my PhD studies, but I am now having doubts whether this is the right path. I am a creative soul, interested in doing info vis research and teaching programming to visual artists…however my University doesn’t have faculty interested in my area of research…so the lack of peers and mentors makes it difficult. I feel extremely fortunate that I’m finding blogs such as yours for encouragement…The important thing I take from your story is to keep listening to my heart…to keep searching for the right ‘fit’…..I feel that is the most important thing I can do, and I’m working to move beyond the fears that sometimes overwhelm me.

    Your maps are beautiful.

  13. Daniel, You know who else is a K grad and cartophile? Larry Bell, the head of Bell’s Beer/Kalamazoo Brewery fame. I think you should talk.

  14. Daniel, thanks for your honest and beautiful description of your path. I suspect anybody with the maker fire can relate to your sentiments and I appreciate your sharing with us. You’re an wonderful cartographer, for sure, but your ability to inspire makes you more than that.

  15. Omg! Yer my religion right now. I get a sense of humility that is comforting and inspiring. Thank you for that. Thanks Twitter!

  16. I’m really happy that you found your passion! Love your typewriter-created map of Lake Michigan! Be well bro.

  17. Great story, Daniel! You are a great cartographer, lecturer, advisor and a storyteller. Your story will serve as a good lesson learned for many others on this planet, thanks for sharing.

  18. Encouraging story, just like you, I first came into contact with maps when I was young, 7 years.
    My dad had just come back from Europe with 2 giant Collins Atlas of Europe and USA.
    I have never looked back since then.

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