Natural Modernism

Since at least the time I started my river maps project, I’ve been interested in presenting the natural world in a more stylized visual language. It started with just rivers, but I’ve also been working on-and-off for the last couple of years on a map that also tackled terrain and vegetation. So, here it is. My beloved homeland of Michigan, in a highly generalized and stylized form.

Natural Modernism Main View
Click to view a PDF

Natural Modernism Detail View

I’ve straightened everything out into 45º angles, and used Tanaka lines to show the elevation. The green dots are actually based on land cover data. I’ve made them kind of sparse so that the rivers can be seen.

File this one under, “stuff I spent a lot of time making, and now don’t know what to do with.” The best I could think of doing was blatantly commercializing it by sticking that “buy” button up there. But, you can also just download the PDF above for free, which I hereby release under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. Note that in-browser PDF viewers may make the colors look pretty washed out.

I think of this project, along with my river maps, as fitting under an idea I call “natural modernism,” in which the natural world is presented in the same sort of highly-abstracted, geometrically-precise visual language that we often apply to the constructed world on maps. Think of metro systems, rectangular street grids, perfectly circular dots representing locations of cities, etc. When it comes to nature, though, we usually embrace the organic and chaotic shapes that it holds. This is probably a good idea, and I don’t propose that natural modernism become some sort of standard practice. It’s a fun way to look at things, though, and I find, increasingly, that a lot of my work boils down to presenting things in new and unusual ways.

6 thoughts on “Natural Modernism

  1. I really like this. I wish the contours were a little more obvious: I like that they’re more subtle than the coloring on a relief map, but they’re too subtle.

    Here’s some free advice. When I was a kid back in the 1970’s I used to play board wargames. You can look at some of the mapboards here ( They remind me of your maps because they are based on hexagonal grids. Anyway, they emphasized to me that the problem is not necessarily elevation, but the time it takes to make progress in a forward direction (which they’d often show with jagged lines, as in the image on this page Relief maps make you think that everything that has high altitude is difficult to move through, and that’s not always the case. The subtleness of your contours gets at this nicely.

    But I’ve also been reading up a bit lately about the significance of the Cumberland Gap in the 18th century. And it never really dawned on me that if you’re on foot, horse, or wagon … that a gap is a really important thing. The altitude in a relief map doesn’t show the Cumberland Gap as a big thing, because it’s the slope of the mountains (and their repetition in ridges) that creates a problem. So, while I like that your contours are subtle and downplay the effects of altitude, they may miss out on this aspect. You can see a wargame counterexample here

    Over the last few years, I’ve gotten a greater appreciation of the significance of roads on maps too. Not because I care about roads per se, but because the roads delineate the routes that are just not that passable. Our abundance of nighttime satellite photos emphasize this too. And I just don’t see that in this map.

    I guess what I’m looking for a is a little bit of a “Here be monsters” aspect to some of the rougher terrain. I’d like to get a better sense when I look at this that there’s a reason the northern half of the map is both lightly populated, and more heavily populated along the coasts.

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