Friday, December 13, 2013

Real Live Treasure Maps

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, the young Jim Hawkins finds a map in the sea chest of the erstwhile pirate Billy Bones. Jim learns that the map is, in fact, a treasure map and sets out with a colorful crew of adventurers to find the hidden wealth.

In Susan Cooper’s children’s classic Over Sea, Under Stone, the Drew children find themselves secretly going through the attic of an old coastal house in Cornwall while on vacation. The youngest child Barnabas happens upon an old manuscript containing a map and an ancient text that lead the children on an Arthurian adventure to find the Holy Grail.

Treasure maps and coded messages make for fun suspenseful stories. They show up regularly in books and magazines targeting all age groups. The film industry also capitalizes on their appeal on a regular basis. The Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies are just a few of the more popular examples but there are many others.

Another genre of treasure maps exist, however, that far fewer people are familiar with, even though they involve very real maps and just as much romance and adventure as their more popular counterparts. I’m referring to the hand-crafted maps tucked away in the notebooks and memories of naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts. And it is no exaggeration to say that these maps are sometimes guarded with the same level of secrecy as any map pointing to a stash of precious metal.

I’m not referring to the thousands of distribution maps of organisms that occur in the libraries and private collections around the world – the kinds of maps one finds in field guides and in the more scholarly journals describing animals and plants. These maps are very important in showing the geographic ranges of species. And as animals and plants change where they live over time, these maps can help us understand more about them. They are fascinating maps in their own right. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call them treasure maps. They are usually drawn to scale and are widely published – without the sensational aura that surrounds a secret.  

Treasure maps are different. They are not generally printed in color on glossy paper (at least not until the treasure has been discovered or until it has gained a general historic interest). They tend to be drawn in notebooks, on separate sheets of paper, or on whatever writing scraps happen to be available. They are frequently drawn in pencil with thin curvy lines showing streams, natural outcroppings, farms, buildings, meadows, prominent trees, etc., all of which are almost never drawn accurately to scale. And the location of the specific habitat is usually marked with an ex – which is often encircled.

Yet while it is true that these crude methods of crafting treasure maps can add to their mystique, I don’t mean to imply that other maps are not similarly appealing. Most maps are capable of sparking the imagination.

The first gifts that I remember receiving as a young boy were maps. One was a globe and another was a book of antique maps. Before I learned to enjoy reading, I loved to look at them and imagine what unknown places were like. Then as a young teenager I became fascinated with birds, mammals and insects, and I discovered – from distribution maps – that different kinds of creatures could be found in different places not far from my home.

This discovery led me on day hikes and short overnight adventures into the foothills and mountains above my home. I was thrilled to find an abundance of interesting mammals including squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. On occasion I also saw moose, badgers, and skunks. I loved watching the juncos and towhees that were common, and I was thrilled beyond belief the first time I saw an owl – at dusk, as it flew silently over my head. Maps, in a very real way, introduced me to a whole new world.

I began making my own journal entries that occasionally contained hand-written maps of the places I had been. As I go back and read these entries (at least the ones that aren’t lost) I find that the maps are more interesting to me than the texts. I think I understood this at a fairly basic level even as a teenager.

It was then that I began to look at maps a bit more closely. What could I find on another mountain or by a desert spring? What about the many streams and rivers with unusual names that curved in thin blue lines away from mountain peaks? Maybe I would discover a new species near one of them.

Jerry Brotton has recently pointed out that maps have given many imaginative souls the ability “to rise above the earth and look down on it from a divine perspective…”. This comes pretty close to describing the thrill I have often experienced looking at maps and planning expeditions to fascinating places both near and far. I have never really lost my romantic fascination with unknown wild places. Just opening a field guide and glancing through the pages of distribution maps inevitably sets my mind to work planning my next trip.

I have to admit, however, that this sort of thing often gets me into trouble – sort of like chasing a wild goose, as my Mother used to tell me. Just because a map shows the distribution of an animal or plant does not mean that you will automatically find the specific habitat or location of what you go looking for.

Take for example Lewis’s woodpecker. This is a fairly good-sized bird – about the size of a robin – with an attractive red face and pink and white breast. It was named after Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). A distribution map indicates that this interesting bird occurs throughout the western United States – especially throughout the Rocky Mountains. It occurs over a fairly large area. And yet I have only seen it on one occasion, even though I have been watching birds in the Rockies for decades.

I remember the occasion well. I was at home one weekend working in the yard when my friend Steve – obviously excited about something – found me and divulged his important news. He said that a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers had been sighted near the town of Mapleton, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in driving down to look for them with him.

I quickly rearranged my schedule and off we went. I remember well the lonely road where we found them. There were a few scattered farm houses about with meadows and fields extending into the foothills of the Wasatch Front. We were driving slowly with heads peering up into trees and into bushes looking for any sign of the birds. Finally Steve spotted them in a distant tree.

They weren’t behaving like typical woodpeckers. They would often be perching on branches instead of hanging to the trunk of the tree. And at times they would fly into the air after insects instead of pecking at the bole for subcortical creatures – like most woodpeckers do.

Both Steve and I were thrilled. The place is marked in my memory like a real treasure map. Sadly I have lost the one I think I drew. Even the two tall cottonwoods and the barbed-wire fence – where the two birds where foraging – remain clear to me after all these years. I remember thinking as we left the site that I had just experienced something unusual, something unexpected. In a way I felt privy to a secret.

Through the years I have marked many of these experiences in my journal – often with lined maps and descriptions on how to find the place again. Many biologists do the same thing, especially if they keep a field notebook, like most field biologists do.

I was surprised many years ago to find that these same landmarks and general features found in field notes are also part of real treasure maps. My brother-in-law, who is fascinated with the history of Spanish mines and miners, introduced me to some of the maps of the lost Rhoades gold mines in the Uintah Mountains of Utah. The kinds of maps that have been found (and, in some cases, recreated) are just what one finds in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of field notebooks around the world. Of course this makes perfect sense. A landmark is a landmark regardless of the treasure.

And make no mistake about it, this information is guarded. Biologists know that many species – especially the less common and unusual ones – can be easily exploited by unethical collectors. And so they withhold information about specific localities where some of them live.

I recall some years ago hoping to find a few specimens of the beautiful tiger beetle (Cicindela pulchra). I knew a place above Fort Collins, Colorado where several had been collected in previous years and went looking for them. In fact I ended up returning to the same place several times over several years (always at the right time of the year when they would be out and active) yet I never found a single individual. It turns out that they had been driven to extinction in that place by over-collecting. It’s no wonder that serious biologists are suspicious about anybody they don’t know seeking locality information. And while the removal of a few individuals from a healthy population may be fully justifiable – even helping to promote understanding about a species – removing too many can destroy the population.

Some time ago I was involved with a discussion group considering this very issue. The group was comprised of editors of the international journal Zootaxa. One editor, that was responsible for an interesting but less popular animal group, wanted to get feedback on why specific localities were not listed with the original description of a species. The dilemma became apparent immediately. Locality information should be available, especially in a professional publication; and yet it also needed to be protected, especially when vulnerable species were involved.

This may seem like an unsolvable problem, and yet it has been handled quite nicely now for hundreds of years. Since specific locality data are almost always kept on museum labels near the individual specimen or in the field notebooks of researchers, museum curators get to monitor who has access to this information and who does not. Field notebooks and their accompanying “treasure maps” aren’t available to just anybody.

I don’t mean to imply that only museums keep these valuable maps. This would be impossible given the fact that professional biologists are not the only people interested in finding interesting species, or who draw maps of interesting places. And this brings me to a very important part of the issue: we need more people keeping field notes. We need you to start taking field notes.

Maybe your notebook will be nothing more than a list. Birders are famous list keepers and many of their lists also include valuable locality information. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in keeping butterfly and dragonfly lists too. Wildflower enthusiasts are frequently good note and list makers – as well as good photographers (and artists). When one considers just how intimately connected many animals are to the plants that sustain them, it becomes obvious how valuable good geographic information can be.

If you happen to stop by the side of a country road to take a picture of a pretty wildflower, why not take an extra minute or two to draw a little map of where you spotted it – and perhaps a note of the date and circumstances. Try and capture any insects that might be feeding on the flowers, or what other kinds of plants are doing. The more you do this, the more you will become drawn to the area and its inhabitants even as you begin making a record that could become quite valuable. And you will have started creating your own real live treasure maps.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit too fanciful. But that is precisely the point. Remember that the word “fancy” has several meanings.  Yes, it can refer to an impulse or a delusion. But it can also refer to a skill, to an inclination, or to a dream. It most certainly refers to the imagination. And it is in this context that the difference between joy and sadness are most apparent. And why shouldn’t we be part of a very long and honorable tradition of adventurers, dreamers and romantics? Being able to appreciate a beautiful sunset or the song of phoebe depends entirely upon your fancy – upon your imagination – just like it was for the artists and adventurers of generations past. And besides, human nature is quite clear on this point: there is no better way to capture this very real and very local fancy than with a picture, a poem, or a map.  


The statement from Jerry Brotton comes from the introduction of his book, A History of the World in 12 Maps, published in 2012 by Viking. My distribution map of Lewis’s woodpecker is from National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (fifth edition). For several images of the Rhoades treasure maps visit

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