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Love of Place, Sense of Planet

September 18, 2020 | |

Imagine sitting on a pebbly pocket beach. The sound of the stones being pushed and pulled by crashing waves is the sound of each particular stone in that one small cove, but also the sound of the moon pulling on the ocean, the sound of gravity operating in the universe.

On the Maine coast, there are so many places where the intimate meets the mythic that can help us expand our understanding of scale. For me, many of these places are out on Monhegan Island, where my great-grandparents built a summer cottage down on the rocky ledges of Dead Man’s Cove.

More so than in my daily life, the hours I spend on Monhegan swing between experiencing the tiny and the vast. Nearly every day I spend out there, I spend time in the intertidal world.

I flip rockweed in search of green crabs or dive a few feet down to grab larger Jonah crabs clinging to their bright fields of Irish moss. I watch barnacles rhythmically sweep for food, the sugar kelp arch and wave, and the moon jellies drift. I squat beside a high tide pool, mesmerized by the clusters of tiny, blue seashore springtails wriggling into endless formations on the surface.

“Always the Ocean”

And then, just by lifting my eyes to the horizon, a whole vast surface of ocean lies before me. And then, with a little rowing, I can be atop nearby Manana Island, with nothing in the foreground waters but a last boat or two trying for tuna, watching the blinding sun go down over the mainland, over the rest of the country, continent, planet.

We are constantly in a precise place and in the vast, shifting universe. To me, our ability to imagine these scales nesting within each other, as part of each other, is one of our biggest creative responsibilities at this time. I know it’s my job as an artist.

Twenty years ago, I was drawn to create different kinds of maps than the ones I typically encountered as a student of geography and cartography. I wanted to create visual geographic expressions that melded sense of place with sense of planet—since they are, of course, inseparable.

While conventional cartography has the tendency to subdue the dynamism of places—using muted tones, discrete categorization, and one precise scale—I seek to imbue my work with the shifting, colorful, indiscrete forces in the world around us. I want to make maps that say: Look at this remarkable situation, look at how it is continually changing, a constant and frenzied and miraculous interplay of water and mineral, life and death, light and air.

I offer my artwork of the Maine coast as an honoring of those intimate places that connect us to the larger, sacred whole.


Molly Holmberg Brown is a visual artist and map-maker. At her business MollyMaps, she runs map-making programs and creates custom maps for individuals and organizations. She discovered geography at Middlebury College, received a Watson Fellowship, and earned a Ph.D. in geography.


This piece is part of Voices from the Coast, a collection of writing, art, stories, and images offered in celebration of the Maine coast and launched in 2020, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year.

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