Cropped section of original image of three ancient maps, public domain Scanned by WMF intern Mike Hoffman, uploaded by Bastique, and cropped by Editor at Large (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”
—Alexander McCall Smith, Love Over Scotland
Recently the son of some friends did very well in his school’s Geography Bee. It made me think about the whole subject of geography—not really something I’ve thought much about. I’ve only had one formal geography course in my life, and it wasn’t even a full year’s course. This world geography class was part of the 7th grade curriculum at Haverford Junior High School, but I didn’t enter that classroom until March, after we had moved from Dallas to Pennsylvania. As I recall, the teacher was a no-nonsense man with a crew cut and glasses. On one of my first days there he announced that the homework assignment was to read a new chapter in the textbook. I went home and read the chapter—because I always did my homework. But, as we all know there’s reading, and then there’s careful, in-depth reading. I was surprised by the “pop quiz” the next day, but my classmates had already learned to expect one with each new reading assignment. “Oh yeah,” they told me, “He always gives a pop quiz after he gives a reading assignment.” From then on, I was prepared, but I don’t think any of the facts and figures I learned during that course remains in my brain. I wonder how much of what I learned then even applies to world now?
I seem to remember lectures about the Danube and Elbe Rivers in one of those first lectures. I assume the course of the rivers has not changed significantly—although I don’t really know. But when I was in that 7th grade classroom, East and West Germany were separate countries, and Berlin was still divided by a wall. Much of Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union, which was still the Soviet Union. The Cold War was in progress, and US troops were fighting in Viet Nam. The names of African nations I learned as a child have changed. The world has changed—as it always has.
Over millennia, the Earth has been transformed many times. Both physical and cultural geography have undergone changes as civilizations have appeared and disappeared. When Europeans first came to my section of New Jersey, there were vast forests on both sides of the Delaware River. There were islands in the river that no longer exist. English settlers lived in caves built into the banks of the river, and over time built roads and buildings that covered swamps. Since my husband and I have lived in our current house, new houses have been built on our block and trees have vanished.
Learning facts about geography is important and valuable, but it strikes me that it is like taking a snapshot of a particular time and place. The borders and names of countries and cities can change overnight during wars or political upheavals. Physical changes can take place, too, as a result of natural disasters such earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanoes, or human acts, such as bombings.
Even with satellites, photographs, and computers, maps identify terrains that are in reality fleeting and mutable. “Those maps of our private world,” as Alexander McCall Smith refers to them, are also fleeting and mutable, at least in the physical sense. The first house you lived in might no longer exist, but in the memory of your childhood, it remains constant and unchanged by time.
When I think of myself as that 7th grade girl, I realize I had to learn and create many new maps. My own personal geography had changed. My family had moved to a new town, a new house, and I was in a new school. Despite my terrible sense of direction (I’ve been known to get lost getting out of an elevator), I don’t remember having any problems navigating the physical geography. I felt a sense of excitement, along with the apprehension. I didn’t know what path my life would take, but I fashioned some new maps as I walked it.
As we go through life, we create many new maps and learn to live in different settings, both physical and emotional. We graduate, we marry, we find a new job, we become parents—all of these life moments change our own personal geography. Sometimes it’s scary; sometimes it’s exciting. According to legend, ancient mapmakers labeled unknown areas with the inscription, “Here Be Dragons.” In truth, we all face dragons and uncharted territory as we go through life. Our futures are Terra Incognita to be explored and mapped. But really, would we want it any other way?