Sean O’Connor- Getting Lost in Your Own Backyard

Sean is the project coordinator of educational maps for National Geographic Education. When he’s not creating maps or advising his colleagues on mapping issues, he enjoys researching history, canoeing and kayaking, and exploring the world around him. Besides his work at National Geographic, Sean helps run a non-profit focused on educational development in the West African nation of Liberia. Sean challenges blog readers to find Liberia on a map and take a moment to learn about its fascinating history.

When was the last time you went on a voyage of discovery? Not a voyage you set out on to discover yourself–although you never know what you’ll learn about yourself when you let yourself learn–but a voyage to discover some place new. I’m not talking about a voyage to Paris, France or to Papua New Guinea, but the type of trip you can take on a Saturday afternoon. The theme of this year’s Geography Awareness Week is Get Lost in Mapping: Find Your Place in the World. Why not try getting lost in your own city or town and see what kind of hidden gems might be waiting for you. Well, you don’t have to get completely lost–bring a map with you!


I grew up in southern Rhode Island in a swampy lowland close to the coast, not all that far from where the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in neighboring Massachusetts. The coast is a lovely place to grow up, and I appreciate and feel lucky to have grown up in and around boats, with my parents working in the maritime industry. But it wasn’t the coast that dominated my world as a young boy, it was the vast expanse of swampy woodlands behind my house that formed my world and filled my imagination. The woods were my domain, and I knew every landmark, every toppled over tree, and every bubbling brook that ran through those woods. What really fascinated me about the woods was the history that they played for the native peoples that once inhabited them, who used techniques like underbrush burning to clear the woods for agricultural growth and easy hunting of wild game. The woods–now thick with briers and dense shrubs–once were more open, and surely full of a more diverse array of woodland mammals and activity.

As this stretch of woods narrows and runs down towards the coast, there is a brook called Sin and Flesh Brook, named so after a murder that took place along the bank of the brook in the 1600s during a squabble between a group of Native Americans and a recently settled colonist. Although it is a small brook you can find it on a USGS topographic map of the area, now accessible online thanks to National Geographic and ESRI. After it cascades down a series of picturesque waterfalls, Sin and Flesh Brook empties into a brackish tidal pond–named Nanaquaket Pond, a name derived from the language of the Wampanoag people–that ebbs and flows with the tides out to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a beautiful brook where people go to feed ducks, and has an interesting history behind its name. I appreciate its history, and only became familiar with it after first discovering its name on a map, and conducting some research on my own.

Now I live in Washington, D.C., a city with a mix of drab federal buildings, gorgeous historic architecture, and–you might not realize it if you’ve visited here, or even if you live here–wonderful parks in every quadrant of the city. Marvin Gaye Park in the Anacostia neighborhood is a park with a history, and with soul. The park–named after world-class soul singer Marvin Gaye, who was born and raised in that very neighborhood–is truly a hidden gem. The park sits along the banks of the Watts Branch Creek, which drains into the Anacostia River. Watts Branch is a small creek in a densely populated neighborhood–the kind of creek that could easily be developed around (or over) and forgotten about. But Marvin Gaye Park was established a few years ago to better preserve this stretch of creek and the riparian buffer that that lines it for future generations of residents and visitors to enjoy.

See the park for yourself on a detailed map of Washington. Anyone can access USGS topographic maps online, or try using one of the popular web map applications like Google or Bing Maps. Or better yet, go explore this soulful site yourself if you’re ever in Washington, D.C.

During this Geography Awareness Week, open up a map–you really have no excuse not to, with maps available in schools, libraries, and online–and find someplace new in your city or town. Go on a voyage and explore. You never know what sort of history or adventure you might find. You might even discover a little something about yourself, too.

One response to “Sean O’Connor- Getting Lost in Your Own Backyard

  1. As this stretch of woods narrows and runs down towards the coast, there is a brook called Sin and Flesh Brook, named so after a murder that took place along the bank of the brook in the 1600s during a squabble between a group of Native Americans and a recently settled colonist. I discover a little something about myself.

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