It has been a long time coming, but The North American Continent is at the finish line. I'm now deciding how to print it. So, where's it all at?
"...but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along. Every bump, rise, and stretch in it mystified my longing."
It started on a refrigerator in Montréal six years ago.
For two years prior I explored the US and Canada, and a childhood love of maps was ignited to a point of no return. Geography came alive. My world was expanded as I experienced the continent of North America, a 21 year-old from an island country. New Zealand is beautiful, majestic. It is diverse and it is not small.
But a continent is a continent.
Found myself living in Montreal, and it's late 2012. As the Fall progressed and the city went inside, I went inside too. My time was almost up after 2 years on this continent, and I couldn't stop thinking about the long skies. This great rolling land I'd gotten lost in, with all its mountains, deserts, plains and cities. A geographic theatre laid out like a masterpiece of heavenly proportions.
So I drew North America on a fridge. Well, most of it. And the western spine of South America. And an inset map of New Zealand, because... why not?
The fridge was not this map. But I never turned back.
It's 2013 and I've settled in Australia. Perth was home now, and I immediately started work on a new map. No more household appliances, this time it'd be on paper. I'd learn to use colour pencils. I'd put in some serious hours. I spent 6 months drawing South Asia & Australasia. Paying the bills as a cook in Fremantle, I set the map up in my bedroom and just... got after it. It took up most of my free time, but I loved the process. And once I finished I actually had some skills.
It's 2014. I've moved to Melbourne, and I'm ready to revisit the North American continent.
Finished all the land in May 2017, three years after starting. I felt sure the project was almost done. But the map got much more complex when I started fixing up the earliest-drawn content...
Putting thousands of hours into one hand-drawn map led to vast inconsistencies, due to technical improvement that is inevitable after all that practice. I had gotten so much better that a large swathe of the early map needed to be “touched up”... as I called it at the time. Some minor fixes, lift a few faded colours, add a bit more content.
But as I took my pencils and eraser down the west coast, this term "touch-up" became hilarious. The touch-ups were instantly a full-blown re-draw of a vast portion of the map. I had to work around so much old pen content (cities, rivers, borders, labels) that I developed a technique to scratch pen off with a scalpel. This allowed me to re-do any city that was not good enough.
I scratched off and re-drew almost 100 cities. (More on this process in my video presentation, Methods of a Hand-Drawn Map).
By the time I was done with the re-draw, I’d transformed the western half of the USA, and about a third of Canada. And… it was July 2018. 14 months after I began the “touch-ups”.
Meanwhile, I decided to include an inset map of Hawaii in the Pacific, to complete all 50 United States. While geographically it is not part of the North American continent, its role as a US state made it an easy choice to include.
I'm going to leave it there for now. There's no doubt the map tells a better story than me, so I'll finish this blog up with a selection of brand new images from the latest photography session. So, keep on scrolling down for those close-ups. (And I love to hear your feedback about the content, so feel free to email).
And one final important thing. I have been so moved by all of you following my progress during the four years of this maps creation. The support, the feedback, the passion, the enthusiasm for this style of geographic art... it is amazing. I feel so blessed to have people interested in this work. Thank-you to all of you who follow it, whether on social media, in person, email... all of it. I always love to hear your feedback and ideas - many of which have influenced the map over the years.
Okay, on with the map!
The full map, as of September 2018. All that remains is the Southeast corner (northern coast of South America, it will be without illustrated content, same as Iceland/UK and Siberia), the deepwater bathymetry and sea creatures of the Atlantic, and the title/key design which will sit in the mid-Atlantic.
Glacier National Park, Montana.
In September 2017, I took a trip to one of America's most beloved and beautiful national parks. As a Kiwi I am no stranger to spectacular scenery, but this pristine stretch of the Rockies was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Arriving in East Glacier with some good friends from Missoula, we enjoyed two unforgettable days in a land of moose and bear. With the largest population of grizzlies in the contiguous 48, Glacier is a realm in which us humans are not the apex predators.
Denied our usual command of nature, one must be as alert as deer in this house of bears.
There were many moments on the snowy hike up to Grinnell Glacier that I cherish, not least bumping into a solitary grizzly mere feet from the trail. It was one of the tensest moments of my life, but thankfully the bear kept its distance before lumbering across the trail into the woods. I felt supercharged for days after the encounter. Perhaps occasionally crossing out “don’t get eaten” from your to-do list is good for you. I highly recommend it, but only if the task can be completed.
We got within metres of a curious mountain goat, only to watch it disappear over a cliff like a superhero once it was tired of us. I ran to the edge and saw the goat bounding along the sheer rock face with ease.
The next day, driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, we spotted a mama grizzly with her cub not far up the hill. She raised her snout and sniffed the air in our direction, before breaking into a run and disappearing over the rise.
It was another reminder that in western Montana, nature reigns supreme.
So much was memorable about my week in Montana, with moments like these only the tip of the iceberg. When I returned to Australia after this 2017 trip to the US, I resumed work on The North American Continent. It was lined up so the first place I’d draw upon returning home was none other than the Crown of the Continent: Glacier National Park.
There’s a fair bit drawn around Glacier. Chief Mountain, St Mary Lake, Wild Goose Island, Bird Woman Falls, a grizzly in Bob Marshall wilderness, an ascendant mountain goat, a marmot (aka “whistle pig”), the Prince of Wales Hotel just over in Waterton.
In particular I wished to include a crown, referencing the widely used “crown of the continent” phrase that describes this near-pristine ecosystem.
Question was, where in the park should the crown sit? Where is the head upon which a crown deserves to be placed? At first I thought Mt Cleveland made sense, being the highest peak in Glacier NP. Still, it seemed a shallow interpretation of the crown. It isn’t even the tallest peak in Montana, and a mere high point does not reflect the sort of mystic deference evoked with the phrase “crown of the continent”. Then, I remembered somewhere that does. A mountain that was pointed out to me while we were there: Triple Divide Peak.
Triple Divide is a totally unique phenomenon. On this one peak, water clearly flows to three different oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Arctic. This is the only such triple divide in the world, and is thus the hydrological apex of the North American continent.
This is where a crown should sit. A single peak where the oceans encircling a continent come together as one.
I wanted to ensure my map shows this triple divide clearly, so one can trace the water all the way to each ocean. I love the idea of people following rivers with their fingers like one follows a maze. On the west side, waters flow into the Flathead, the Pend-Oreille, the mighty Columbia, and finally the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, waters flow to the Marias, which flows into the Missouri, Mississippi, and finally the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, water flows into St Mary Lake, which feeds the St Mary River, the Saskatchewan watershed, Lake Winnipeg, the Nelson River, and finally the Arctic Ocean via Hudson Bay. All three can be traced from the Triple Divide crown.
Now, there’s a slight wrinkle here, demonstrated in the next image. Hudson Bay, source of Triple Divide's Arctic destination, can be easily argued as a marginal sea of the Atlantic. Its widest outlet, the Hudson Strait, feeds the Labrador Sea. When using this definition, Triple Divide does not technically feed three oceans.
I get it, but I feel Hudson Bay might as well be Arctic for the purpose of an epic divide. Along with its northern positioning and frozen waters, the Foxe Basin (the bay’s northern arm) flows into the Arctic Ocean proper via the Fury and Hecla Strait. These, among other reasons, are part of why Hudson Bay is so often classified as an Arctic body of water.
And even if you feel strongly that the bay is Atlantic and thus disqualifies Triple Divide - not to worry! North America has you covered. A few hundred miles up the Rockies is Snow Dome, on the BC/Alberta border. The glacier that caps Snow Dome sends water to the Pacific via the Columbia River, the Arctic Ocean proper via the Athabasca and Mackenzie basins, and Hudson Bay via the North Saskatchewan.
Upon learning about Snow Dome, I was suddenly very curious. I put conscious effort into ensuring that my drawing of Montana's Triple Divide shows three watersheds clearly meeting at the peak. Yet the area around Snow Dome was drawn months ago, before I knew Earth even had such a divide. If I cast my eyes up to where Snow Dome should sit, will I see the triple divide on my own map?
I located the peak, referenced it against my map, and to my astonishment the answer was yes. The Columbia Icefield, where Snow Dome is, quite clearly sends water in three different directions. I stood there in my studio fascinated. A mountain that sends water to three oceans is insane. There’s a reason there’s only one occurrence in the world (or to be more exact, there are two but they’re mutually exclusive); the chances of this happening are slim. The only other continent bordering three oceans is Asia, and it’s so vast that the Arctic watersheds get nowhere near those of the Indian Ocean. So I was excited to notice I had drawn a triple divide at Snow Dome, Canada.
A fascinating piece of content was unconsciously drawn just by following the rivers.
To puzzle over whether Hudson Bay is Arctic or Atlantic distracts from the clear fact that Montana’s Triple Divide Peak is the greatest of Earth’s hydrological divides.
After all, the naming and delineation of our oceans is hardly a science. And any divide that excludes the Mississippi basin (as Snow Dome does) is hardly the hydrological apex of North America. In Montana, and Montana alone, water that will flow through Arctic tundra meets those that feed the steaming swamps of Louisiana, and those that cut through the Cascades and into the mighty Pacific.
Triple Divide Peak is a crowning moment in the geography of not just North America, but the entire planet.
Hi all. So, despite being terrible at maintaining a regular blog, please know that I'm working constantly on the map. I suspect the perfectionist in me has been prohibiting regular updates. Rather than trying to have a long, immaculate piece of writing each time, I should just tell you what I've been drawing - no frills! I'm giving that a shot today. Nevadans, wish me luck.
The re-drawing of western North America continues, and it is going unbelievably well. I hope to write a longer entry about this in a few weeks, before I embark on a little US/Canada travel this fall. Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and British Columbia are all mostly complete... and they have been completely transformed. Once the weakest part of the entire map (due to being drawn first back in 2014), they are now the strongest.
Today however, I'll just briefly unpack Nevada and eastern California. A very quick update. Specific points of interest are marked in red. Also, if you click on the larger images they'll take you to Flickr for better zoom.
Few people know much about Nevada beyond the Las Vegas Strip, and until recently neither did I. But in researching and drawing this state, I found an incredible wealth of content. It reminded me of drawing parts of the Arctic – what at first appeared to be empty hinterland was in fact loaded with captivating points of interest. Nevada is so singular, a state with an extremely unique identity. It has a sense of wide-open frontier and desolation… yet an ecological and cultural geography as varied as its basin-and-range relief.
We’ll start with Vegas. You’ll see (among other things) Mandalay Bay, the Luxor, NY NY, MGM Grand, Caesar’s Palace, Paris LV, the Bellagio, the Stratosphere Tower, the Wynn and the world’s tallest Ferris Wheel. Towering behind Vegas is the forested, snow-capped Charleston Peak, along with Red Rock Canyon and Elephant Rock (Valley of Fire). Below Vegas is, of course, the Hoover Dam - with the inelegantly named Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in the foreground. Just over the border in Cali is Death Valley – lowest point on the continent, with the thermometer spiking at Furnace Creek (candidate for highest-ever recorded temperature on Earth). Above that are the Mesquite Sand Dunes, and some sailing stones leaving trails. These are large rocks that move by themselves along the valley floor.
Back in Nevada, look out for the ruins of the Cook Bank building in the ghost town of Rhyolite. Beside that, a mushroom cloud looms above Yucca Flat – epicenter of the Nevada Test Site, a landscape pockmarked by the craters of 739 individual nuclear tests. No place on Earth has seen more nuclear explosions than Yucca Flat. I recommend looking at some 1950/60's pictures of mushroom clouds above Vegas, they're astonishing. Nearby, a flying saucer hovers above Area 51 (Google actually has many of Area 51's buildings in 3D, so I was able to draw a few structures). It doesn’t really matter how passionate a ufologist you are, the extraterrestrial theme in this region has made a huge cultural impact. Nevada State Route 375 is even dubbed the “Extraterrestrial Highway”. Important to note: something does not have to be real for it to matter to a region's cultural geography. What I'm interested in is capturing a sense of place.
Many state symbols are included, such as the mountain bluebird, a desert bighorn sheep, the prized Lahontan Cutthroat trout, a flowering sagebrush, and even the state fossil: an Ichthyosaur (placed at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park). A Pony Express rider is at Cold Springs, there is cattle ranching in Paradise Valley, the Ghost Train of Old Ely is in the east, and a cattle skull symbolises solitude next to a sign for the US Route 50 – the “Loneliest Highway in America”. Burning Man is in flames at the Black Rock Desert in the northeast, surrounded by the festival’s semicircular Black Rock City. Just behind that is the peculiar and colourful Fly Geyser. Ancient bristlecone pines are at Great Basin National Park (south of the train), along with the well-known Lexington Arch rock formation.
At Pyramid Lake, the famous tufa pyramid sits behind the Great Stone Mother, a tufa formation sacred to the Pyramid Lake Paiute. South of the capital Carson City is the iconic black hat of Wovoka, right where he is buried in the Walker River Reservation. He was a hugely influential Paiute spiritual leader who founded the Ghost Dance in the late 19th century, a religious movement that gained a following with many tribes across the western United States, from the Dakotas to the Pacific. Meanwhile, petroglyphs at Grimes Point are a reminder of the long presence of Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone in the mountains and valleys of this vast state.
There’s too much to talk about over the border in California, so I’ll just keep it to the Sierra Nevada. Mining tools and a gold nugget mark the center of Gold Country, location of the 1849 gold rush that saw California’s population explode overnight. I had the privilege of spending a summer here back in 2011, in Nevada County. In fact Grass Valley was the very first place I ever went on the continent. I've ensured the mining tools mark an 'X' right at the approximate location of Grass Valley.
A snowboarder makes a jump near beautiful Lake Tahoe, while further south a skier descends Mammoth Mountain. It’s hard to miss Yosemite Valley just southwest of the bighorn sheep. Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls and the Mariposa grove of Giant Sequoias are all present.
I hope you've enjoyed the update. All questions and feedback are most welcome!
Destructive forces lie at the very heart of this world. Drawing Haiti was a reminder of the many challenges associated with depicting trauma. This blog discusses the nature of these challenges, with focus on two forces familiar to Haiti - earthquakes and fire.
A few months ago, while preparing a commentary on drawing Haiti, a huge 7.8 earthquake rocked the centre of New Zealand. The most powerful quake to hit my home country in nearly a century, it was a reminder that geography is a story of upheaval and change. Mountains cracked and heaved, pulling hundreds of kilometres of coastline straight out of the ocean - along with vast stretches of submarine rock. This new shoreline, birthed in seconds, left immense reserves of shellfish to rot in the sun while landslides smashed a hole in our main national highway. All the lower North and upper South Islands were shaken, including both my hometowns, leaving rattled nerves and condemned buildings. Fortunately, the timing and location led to only two casualties, but the destructive power was breathtaking. I live in Australia now, a continent of seismic calm, but talking to friends and family while watching pictures and analysis come in – it left me considering something wider than the overview I was writing about Haiti. This world would be unrecognisable without destruction and trauma.
So, what of trauma in cartography?
Having just drawn earthquake-shattered Haiti around the time of the quake, I’d been considering this question a lot. Devoting a blog to it seemed appropriate, with particular focus on two traumatic forces that play a role in Haiti: fire and earthquakes. Today I will present several examples in my work where I’ve grappled with this problem, and offer thoughts on the traumatic nature of geography and how we might discuss it. So first, why does this present a challenge at all?
Trauma is not evenly spread around the world. Some countries suffer earthquakes, others don’t. Some burn, some flood, some freeze. These earthly forces are interwoven with the story of civilization, which too has a profound imbalance of pain: prosperity uplifts some, while poverty restrains others. This can present unique challenges for cartographers, not least those making pictorial maps. When we choose to display trauma while elsewhere beauty flourishes, might this harden existing notions of despair?
Focusing on the beauty of the world is compelling, not merely because we want maps and art to be beautiful, but because cartography is critical in how the world is viewed. Acknowledging trauma can deepen shadows that already depress places and people that deserve the dignity of beauty. But life is not utopia. Rather than decorate the world, I’d like to engage with it. First and foremost a cartographer relies on data, and data has a way of encouraging complexity.
In creating pictorial maps, the temptation to focus solely on idealistic content is strong. However, beauty is not a matter of good or bad. Truth has a beauty that tells a more interesting and relatable story than any utopia. Even in regions with far more wealth than Haiti I have irritated locals (who are justified in feeling this way) - by drawing smog-belching factories, open-pit mines and grim oil refineries. In parts of Mexico ravaged by cartels I’ve drawn assault rifles and opium poppies. Prince William Sound in Alaska has the sinking Exxon Valdez spilling oil through its waters. In Bhopal, India, I left the cityscape entirely without colour to emphasise the toxic legacy of the Union Carbide disaster. These are reminders of real pain, and I don’t blame residents of such areas if they dislike my depiction. No one wants their home defined by trauma.
After all, we connect with our land through much more than a lens of despair and disaster. Yet we’re also unlikely to view it as a sunny brochure of attractions and regional iconography. Some places are impossible to imagine without the changes brought on from recent trauma. Port-au-Prince, Haiti is one of those places.
To draw this shattered city, I settled on a method I used back in my South Asia/Australasia map. Christchurch, New Zealand, was devastated by a violent 6.3 in February 2011. 185 people died as many buildings in the city collapsed, huge boulders barrelled down the hills, and liquefaction turned concrete to slush. The most iconic landmark and symbol of the city, the ChristChurch Cathedral, was toppled. As is the case with symbols, its destruction was symbolic too - the crumbled church came to symbolise an earthquake that changed a city forever. I drew it lightly with a faint aura to make it somewhat ghostly, but ensured it was as prominent as if the building were still standing. A crane rising from the broken skyline symbolises the rebuild, while the deference paid to the cathedral is to respect both trauma and the spirit.
Hard copy maps will always be time stamps. Borders change, forests burn, new landmarks are built while old ones crumble. Port-au-Prince, like Christchurch, required addressing an earthquake that stripped it of landmarks and thus much of its identity. As the imbalance of trauma in the human story is pervasive in Haiti, their quake was much more deadly. On January 12, 2010, a shallow 7.0 struck Port-au-Prince. Centred only 25km west of the city, it turned dense hillside slums into landslides of rubble and bodies, as up to 70% of the buildings in the city collapsed. The final death toll will never be known, but estimates run as high as 200,000. Among the deadliest quakes in recorded history, it will take much more than seven years for its terrible legacy to abate.
It was the confluence of many other traumas that made the earthquake so especially deadly. The poorest country in all the Americas, it has suffered a long history of political instability and unrest. This turmoil at the top has played no small role in another example of physical trauma - and one equally unavoidable in cartographic depiction. In less than a century, the large majority of its forests have been burned and felled, wreaking havoc. Rivers are either dry or flooding, topsoil has made way for bedrock, and the northwest is now home to the largest desert in the Caribbean. Less than 2% of its original forests remain, with only a small pocket to be found at Pic Macaya in the far west. The Dominican Republic, Haiti’s wealthier, healthier neighbour to the east, has had a very different history with deforestation. The border they share is one of the most disparate in the world. Matching exactly what one can see from space, I’ve ensured the colours on each side make this clear.
60% of Haiti's energy comes from coal. This is central to the loss of forest, so I have drawn burning coal in the northwest at the site of this largest Caribbean desert. Fire in art evokes motion, and wherever phenomena are of a fiery nature their inclusion can be highly effective in a map. From erupting volcanoes to gas flares on oil refineries, fire always makes for visceral content. Even satellite pictures of the Earth at night tell us profound things about human geography via a network of blazing lights.
In a previous map, South Asia & Australasia, I drew two examples of burning forest. Throughout Indonesia, sections of tropical rainforest are up in walls of flames. Suffering the most rapid loss of tropical rainforest in the world, islands like Borneo and Sumatra endure a contemporary trauma central to its geography. This is catastrophic not just for Indonesia. Its haze-cloaked neighbours suffer, while the wider world, with its eroding biodiversity, cannot afford such losses. A postcard-perfect pictorial map of these regions is tempting, as orang-utans and rhinoceros thriving in the jungle make for superb content. But perhaps we’ll care more for these precious fauna when the precariousness of their situation is highlighted.
The other example on this map was also burning forest, but with a completely different context - bushfires in Australia. While flames are for the first time searing the inner reaches of Borneo’s rainforests, fire has long been essential to the lifecycle of the Australian bush. Indeed, many species of Eucalypts require burning to reproduce. The event is no less traumatic for those at its mercy, as Melbourne’s 2009 Black Saturday fires sadly remind us, but it is in harmony with the Australian biome. So, even within the same phenomena, the opacity of trauma and the diversity of geography present very different tales.
As the eucalypt tells us, fire is rebirth. As the tropical hardwood tells us, fire is destruction. Avoiding trauma in geography is to avoid the very forces that shape our world. Acknowledging this is critical in my view; even if it may remind some of very real hardship and danger.
Part Two on Cuba, The North American Continent
After spending the winter drawing polar wilderness in Nunavut, a switch to a warmer latitude was welcomed. Trading the Arctic Circle for the Tropic of Cancer, I shifted my gaze to the Greater Antilles. Thus Cuba, the greatest of the Antilles, the 17th largest island in the world and a country of almost 12 million people, became the object of my focus for much of the last month. As in Part One, the sites I discuss will each be emboldened and annotated with a red number. This number will correspond with the numbers on the map below so you can use this text as a guide. Click on the map to open it in a new tab for proper viewing.
Before any drawing, I got in touch with the music of the island. I try and do this as much as possible throughout my work, to access even a fraction of the mood of the focus region. I'd seen Buena Vista Social Club several times and was fond of the solo career of Ibrahim Ferrer, but my experience with Cuban music was limited to these low-hanging fruit. Musical immersion in where I draw is very important, but the results wildly differ. I do my best to patiently explore unfamiliar styles, but my enthusiasm is still at the mercy of my own tastes. For example, Inuit throat-singing was otherworldly at first, but after three hours of it I had transcended the boundaries of my sanity. Similar experiences have been had in this project with Mariachi, traditional Ojibwe, Bahamian rake-and-scrape and more. Not to say these sounds are incompatible with my tastes, merely that from the confines of my Melbourne studio, I’m stretched to put them in a meaningful context.
Fortunately, the Cuban musical effort was very different to the throat-singing. Starting with a Buena Vista revisit, I made my way through each member – Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén Gonzáles, Compay Segundo and beyond. I was quickly overwhelmed by the beauty of Son Cubano. It wasn’t long before I was driving to and from work listening to nothing but Benny Moré. The rich melodies, technical pedigree and crushing melancholy shattered me, making my focus on the country much sharper. So, in this second discussion on drawing Cuba, let’s begin with the music.
Compay Segundo, the tres master also of Buena Vista fame, is laid to rest in Santiago de Cuba in the same cemetery as Cuban national hero José Martí. The tres , iconic to Cuba’s musical landscape, is at the far eastern tip of Guantánamo province. Just as the conga and claves  play rumba clave to indicate Matanzas’s role as the birthplace of rumba, the tres at Baracoa is playing the first bar of Guantanamera. A hugely popular song about a woman from Guantánamo, written in part by José Martí himself, it has been performed and recorded by countless musicians the world over. I’ve scattered dozens of instruments across this North America project, but the two Cuban additions are the first to have specifically crafted notation alongside. It seems appropriate to have the musical notation mean something, no matter how sparsely executed the concept may be. Without a stave the melody is cryptic, but the rhythm can be deciphered just fine.
As discussed in part one, history has a big role in this portrait. I’ve already covered the revolution, so today we’ll rewind much further back. There are very few pre-Columbian sites left in Cuba, but the millennia-old Taíno pictographs  on the Isla de la Juventud are a notable exception. Moving forward to that most momentous year, 1492, is the site of Columbus’s first landing on Cuba. I have his ship the Santa María drawn up in the Bahamas, approaching San Salvador Island ; his first encounter with the New World on 12 October 1492. The encounter with Cuba just weeks later is represented by the Parque Monumento Nacional Bariay . The enormous significance of the site is honoured beautifully with its monument to the meeting of two worlds. Crumbling Roman pillars are interspersed with Taíno totems right at the shores he landed on.
He sailed south-east down the coast to what is today Baracoa, and underneath the table mountain El Yunque I’ve drawn the Cruz de la Parra . This cross, an astonishing historical artefact dating from 1 December 1492, is the only surviving one of the 29 Columbus personally planted in the New World. I chose to draw this because, aside from its profound significance, it has the effect of seeming to memorialise something. Just as crosses mark graves, sites of accidents and tragedies, the cross Columbus raised 524 years ago marks the onset of a rapid decline in fortunes for the indigenous of the Antilles – the Taíno – and ultimately the original inhabitants across the Americas. There is also a cross marking Columbus’s landing on the Bahamian San Salvador Island , and I ensured this too was drawn. The whole world began a new course after Columbus’s first voyage, but for the inhabitants of the New World – not least the Taíno of the Antilles, hit with the tip of the spear – this new world would involve unbridled destruction. As a cross marks the site of tragedy, perhaps these symbols of Columbus suggest a similar calculus for a great many lives.
Nonetheless, the legacy of 1492 entirely shapes the world as we know it today. I suggest this framing of the Cruz de la Parra as but one angle of many that can be explored when thinking about this relic. So history will always go. There is no neat framework to overlay on events passed, other than counting the years. One can only examine the story themselves and draw their own conclusions.
To the left of the cross is the Moa nickel mine . Cuba, astonishingly, has the second-largest nickel reserves in the world after Russia. Along the mountainous coast of Holguín and Guantánamo lies the richest known deposit on the surface of the planet. And indeed, you can’t miss the dirty reddish-brown of Moa staining this otherwise lush green region from space. Just take a look at the satellite view. Moa, by all accounts I’ve read, is an ecological disaster. It is suggested that the government significantly relaxed environmental regulation after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union knocked the bottom out of the economy. Reading through travel blogs, the most common utterance from the few that go is that Moa is the worst place in Cuba.
Despite Moa, Cuba does have impressive stretches of wilderness and a 24% forest cover. I’ve drawn the white mariposa , Cuba’s national flower and a common sight in the countryside, just east of Santa Clara. The Cuban trogon, or Tocororo , is a beautiful bird whose blue, white and red plumage match that of the Cuban flag. It is the country’s national bird. Then there’s the painted snail . Ahhh, the painted snail. The dazzling Polymita picta have brightly coloured shells that come in all shades but blue - never blue for some reason. They’re very rare due to heavy poaching for their shells and are found mostly in the mountainous southern provinces. The Cuban crocodile  is found only in the massive Zapata swamp – the largest in the Caribbean. The causeway to Cayo Coco , straight north of Ciego de Ávila, is well known for viewing immense flocks of American flamingos.
Bayamo, known as the city of horsecarts, has a tiny horse-drawn cart  to signify this feature. At Camagüey, the hat marks its well-known cowboy culture, and the clay pots  found throughout the city collecting rainwater earn it the title of city of tinajones. Ciego de Ávila province grows most of Cuba's pineapples  and Matanzas is home to the Palmar de Junco, the site of Cuba’s first official baseball  game – by far the most popular sport in the country.
Economically, there is a long history with sugarcane . From the earliest colonisation by the Spanish it has been grown on the island, and during the 18th and 19th centuries it was the world’s foremost producer. This led to incredible wealth for the sugar barons of Cuba, and the beautifully preserved historic town of Trinidad is testament to this empire. Along with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios  (valley of the sugar mills) this region, tucked into the spectacular Escambray Mountains, is the most visited in Cuba outside of Havana. Many of the mills are in ruin, but there are amazing sites that remain such as the Manaca Iznaga tower. This has earned the area its UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Cuba is of course well-known for cigars, as evidenced by the second-largest swathes of tobacco cultivation on Earth. Pinar del Río province grows the world’s best cigar tobacco  amongst its breathtaking sugarloaf mountains, and for those not familiar with what a beautiful Cuban landscape looks like – be sure to Google Viñales  right now. In the early days of researching Cuba, completely under the spell of the music, I promptly spent $100 on two cigars to get further into the mood of the island. As much as I enjoyed the first Montecristo, it made for a pretty unproductive day of drawing as I sat outside puffing away in earnest at this huge roll of strong tobacco. The second, the Cohiba, still sits untouched; better saved for a special occasion.
Drawing Cuba was a truly enriching experience. This North America project frequently leaves me longing to visit where I research, from the mystical landscapes of the Arctic to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán. However, nowhere has charmed me from afar quite as much as Cuba. It was the most success I’ve had getting into the mood of a focus region, principally because of the music. Although barely scratching the surface, I’m grateful to be in tune with it at all. As I write this I listen to the dreamlike voice of Ibrahim Ferrer singing Herido de Sombras. The strings gently float across sultry chromatic shifts, complimenting evocative melodies and delivered with flawless technical pedigree. If there’s one thing I might suggest - other than a visit to Cuba - it’s a listen to the astonishing music of this island. It might just become number one on your international destinations, as it now is for me.
I’ll finish by recommending three Cuban songs that made a big impact on me. They are linked below. If you made it this far, then thank-you very much for reading Part 2 on Cuba. I welcome any feedback to ensure I'm writing about what interests you. The next blog is likely to be on either Jamaica or Haiti, so with that in mind, I bid you farewell until next time.
Bruca Manigua – Ibrahim Ferrer
Que Te Hace Pensar – Benny Moré
Varaciones Sobre Un Tema Desconocido – Afro-Cuban Allstars
Part One on Cuba, The North American Continent
To finally embark on the blogging process, I figured I’d write on the recently completed island of Cuba. Drawing this country was an extremely captivating project, and I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d more like to blog about. However after knocking out a first draft, I found myself editing well over 3000 words. As much as I'd like to unpack Cuba all at once, I suspect such a lengthy blog is not a good choice for my first ever post. So, it will be in two parts. Today we will tour the map to discuss the basic history and legacy of the Cuban Revolution, featured heavily in this portrait. As no discussion of Fidel’s Cuba is complete without the fiery relations with the United States, we'll also cover Guantánamo Bay and the future in light of the fledgling American-Cuban thaw.
As I discuss the various sites drawn, each point of focus will be emboldened and annotated with a red number. This number will correspond with the annotations on the main map below. Click on it to open a full version in a new tab. I hope this is a useful tool to share what I’ve discovered, but it is by all means in its testing phase. All suggestions are most welcome to refine this method. I wish to tell a story that paints a picture of the regions I draw; seems an appropriate way to discuss an actual picture.
Cuba has a rich and storied history, from the original Taíno inhabitants, through the landing of Columbus, to spectacularly wealthy sugar barons and the Spanish-American War. In the Cuba of 2016 however, no period still resonates more than the overthrow of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro in 1959. Indeed, critical revolutionary moments are in all corners of this depiction of Cuba.
The Revolution began in earnest on July 26, 1953, with Castro’s failed raid on army barracks in Santiago de Cuba . Fidel and his brother Raoul were captured and imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo  prison on the Isla de Pinos (now the Isla de la Juventud). They were held here for several years until Batista caved to political pressure and in 1955, remarkably, he released the Castro’s. It did not take long for them to flee the country. They spent the next year touring the US and Mexico gaining support for their movement. Upon raising enough enthusiasm and capital, the Castro’s – now joined by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos – covertly returned to Cuba on a leaking overcrowded yacht dubbed the Granma . The yacht plays a big role in this region, and indeed when Cuba’s administrative divisions were re-drawn in 1976, a new province was carved out of the Oriente and christened Granma. I have drawn the yacht approaching the very beach in Granma they landed on 60 years ago.
Just as before, it was a disaster for the revolutionaries. Completely overwhelmed by the Cuban air force, those who escaped alive managed to flee, wounded, into the most rugged mountains on the island: the formidable Sierra Maestra. Under the shadow of Cuba’s highest mountain – Pico Turquino (1974m) , Fidel set up his secret revolutionary headquarters. The unassuming hut I have drawn in these mountains is the Comandancia de la Plata , the base of operations for the ultimately successful overthrow of Batista. The Comandancia is now an attraction for the more intrepid travellers that make it to the Sierra Maestra. This part of Cuba is especially important in regards to both the revolution and Fidel himself. Indeed, just southeast of Holguín you’ll see Castro’s iconic cap . This is at Birán, his hometown.
Things improved a lot for the movement as their mountain base proved an outstanding site from which to foment revolution. Following a series of losses, Batista was finally overthrown in the Battle of Santa Clara in December 1958, when Che Guevara derailed an armoured train packed with soldiers and munitions on its way to Santiago to crush the revolution. In the city most associated with Che, you can find his mausoleum , along with Tren Blindado , a monument to this most consequential derailment. A mural of Che in the world-famous Guerillero Heroico  pose adorns a hill in Santa Clara, watching over a city heavy with his presence. Only 3mm wide and long, it was an exceptionally difficult thing to draw. I nearly gave up at first, but the prospect of this iconic image was just too much to pass on. It is remarkable the extent to which Guerillero Heroico has permeated popular culture around the world. The commercialisation of the image seems so completely at odds with the hard-line Marxism of Guevara.
The brief period between Fidel’s rise to power and the total souring of relations with the US is fascinating. Before diplomatic relations were severed in January 1961, Castro toured the US as Prime Minister of Cuba and charmed the country. The photos of a young Fidel with Malcolm X in Harlem, and shaking hands with Vice President Richard Nixon, are from this period.
The mass nationalisation of American assets enraged the US, leading to the failed Bay of Pigs  invasion - represented here by a tank. This very tank is an antique from the actual invasion, still on display today at Playa Girón. When 1500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried to invade the country in April 1961, it was a disaster for newly-minted President Kennedy. An Eisenhower project he reluctantly signed off on, it was crushed in three days by Castro. 118 of the CIA-backed militia were killed, the rest captured, publicly interrogated, and thrown into the Presidio Modelo . The failed invasion greatly strengthened Castro’s nascent regime and pushed him to develop closer ties with the Soviet Union.
A year and a half later, the world balanced on a knife-edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anticipating more American attempts to overthrow his government, Fidel welcomed the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba – a counter for the US missiles stationed in Turkey at the time. A Soviet SS-4 nuclear missile  stands to attention in Pinar del Río province in the west, the location of many of the missile sites that initiated the crisis. In those harrowing days, the world came closer to nuclear war than it ever has, and this beautiful Caribbean island was the theatre in which it played out.
Since the sobering crisis of 1962, there have been countless attempts to undermine and even neutralise Castro. The most impactful move against Cuba has been the US embargo, now in its 56th year. As evidenced by the iconic old American cars, or "yank tanks” , that still dominate diesel-choked Cuban roads today, the embargo has ensured only that the Cuban economy remains substantially stunted. As a method to weaken the Communist Party’s grip on power, it has clearly failed. Fidel stepped down in 2008 due to his health, and his younger brother Raoul continues as president to this day. The Communist Party, whose headquarters  can be seen flying the Cuban flag in Havana, is still very much in control.
Finally, the last place I drew on the island - a brief return to the United States. The infamous Guantánamo Bay . I thought long and hard about how to draw Gitmo. The necessary policy I have across this map is to maintain political neutrality as much as I can. Without a doubt, the mere choice between addition and omission is enough to forgo this vision, but there’s far too wild a range of data to attempt a deft navigation of political terrain. So, rather than focusing on the detention centre with an orange jumpsuit or something to that effect, I tried to simply address the oddity of the long American presence on the shores of a foe. Indeed, behind the Cactus Curtain, Gitmo has the only McDonalds on the island. What better way to highlight the absurdity of this arrangement than a symbol so emblematic of the unchecked capitalism that Castro’s Cuba rejects. On the eastern side of the bay, a simple American flag flies above a wall. And, finally, a US battleship. Despite Gitmo’s well-known detention centre, its primary function is and has always been as a naval base.
Cuba is certainly going to change in the coming years. Fidel Castro turned 90 the same day I drew the tank at Bay of Pigs. His younger brother, President Raoul Castro, is 85. In 2014 the Obama Administration set in motion a perhaps irreversible thaw in relations, despite GOP bluster in an election year. While any thaw or normalisation is surely a step in the right direction, it’s worth speculating on the potential impact of the colossus to the north. Will the McDonalds at Gitmo no longer be the only one in Cuba, merely the first? Will, as I recall Anthony Bourdain once suggest, Havana’s Malecón one day have a Four Seasons and a Best Western? Cuba’s people have paid a high price for the political circumstances they are in, but the country has been free to develop its identity isolated from the gravity of the world's most powerful nation next door. Whatever the future holds for Cuba, I hope it strikes a balance between political and cultural sovereignty and the benefits of economic development.
There are many more things to discuss about this portrait of Cuba – from the music to the geography, fauna, to more history; in particular the legacy of Christopher Columbus’s landing here in 1492. I will post the other half of my discussion on this island in the next week, but first – please let me know what you thought. What worked? What could be better? What would you like to know more about? Was the numbering process effective?
Many thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Part Two on Cuba: Son Cubano, Columbus and the painted snail.