For someone always bewildered and exasperated by road maps that purport to lead me successfully from point A to point B, I am, conversely, enthralled by geographic maps.
When I was young and the National Geographic magazine arrived at my house, my first action was to detach the map always tucked in the back, unfold it on the floor, smooth it out, and embark upon virtual travel tracing the borders, rivers, mountains, oceans, and deserts of places that only moments before had been unfamiliar and disconnected to my small world.
In my home office, there’s an impressive, bound copy of the Oxford New Concise World Atlas, a gift from my husband after I spilled a mug of coffee on my previous atlas, miring much of the world under a depressing, dull brown stain.
But the subsequent one proved much more interesting, with in-depth attention to world statistics, physical dimensions of countries and continents, charts showing earth in relationship to the rest of the universe, and much more.
Included also are magnificent photographs of some of Earth’s most extraordinary physical formations: the Himalayas above Nepal, the curious vertical Jurassic strata of Ludworth Cove in Southern England, San Andreas Fault, Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano, Alaska’s Juneau Glacier, icebergs floating past the Antarctic Peninsula.
At work, I keep a battered, old paperback atlas, its corners curled from frequent consultation. And there’s a map taped to the back of a closet door; it’s of a vertical slice of the world where my father never tired of tracing for me with his finger the route he flew in World War II, transporting bombs from North Africa up past the coasts of Spain and Portugal, thanking God for the rest of his life that he never had to drop one himself.
I love the several globes situated around our house, and rarely pass them by without a quick spin. I never tire of noting the proximity of this place to that, and my proximity to every place in my world. When we travel, we always pick up maps at the hotel desk, and I save them – a more detailed reference to save than a postcard.
I read an excellent essay in the New York Times last month, “A Crack in the Darkness,” by Fiona Maazel. It put a new spin on navigating our way through today’s world – not, of course, replacing maps and globes, but certainly taking them to a more precise level.
Having completed her second novel, “Woke Up Lonely” (due for publication this month), Maazel’s essay deals first with her frustration in trying to use the new tool she had discovered a few years earlier in her writing world: Google Earth.
Wanting to place her fictional characters “on the ground” of a world she could only imagine – North Korea — Maazel had difficulty in finding access to such a completely isolated society and its environs. Wishing to learn the lay of the land and get some feel of the place, she was instead stone-walled by a government that sanctioned only pictures of the monuments and boulevards of its capital, Pyongyang.
Then (after the writing of her book), Maazel writes that when she later heard Google had projected a new map of North Korea, she re-visited her site, and found shocking new information.
There were blatantly detailed aerial photographs, exposing the paths railway lines, labor camps, subway stops, street names, the infamous gulag Yodok (its existence denied by the government). She could even see “an arrangement of stars pretzeled above the southern horizon… and crossed the river untested.” She recognized that “it gave the option to adopt the perspective of someone on the ground, even see how light falls across the landscape.”
We “Google Earthed” our own neighborhood (and several other places familiar to our lives). It was, all at once, captivating, interesting, and disturbing.
If we can flush out the bad guys, and they can flush out the good guys, where will the safety zone be?
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.