A Map of the World


By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


"On one occasion at a Cabinet meeting, he [FDR] quickly drew from memory a map of the China coast and asked the Secretary of the Navy to locate on it the incident he was reporting. The Secretary had to send for his own maps to refresh his recollection, and they showed the surprising accuracy of the details of the Roosevelt sketch." 

             -Robert H. Jackson, That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.


             When I was seven, my favorite possession was a jigsaw puzzle in which each piece had the shape of one of the (then) 48 states of the Union. From it, I developed a love for maps of all kinds. At the start of each new school year, I couldn't wait to read my new map-laden geography book cover to cover. Nowadays, perhaps because educators noticed that students were wrapping such books in plain brown paper and reading them surreptitiously, geography has been banished from the schoolroom. This is a horrible mistake; neither "social studies" nor anything else ending in "studies" is fit for anything so serious as actual study.

            One homework project we were often assigned was to draw, but not trace, a map of some kindóSouth America one day, perhaps Africa or China on anotherójust as President Roosevelt must have done in his schooldays. And we drew the United States too, of course. I love the trivia that such an exercise uncovers. For example, only Wyoming and Colorado are perfect rectangles, and the only four states that meet at a point are Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Alaska and Hawaii have no other states as neighbors, and Maine has only one. Tennessee has the most neighbors, eight, and Kentucky comes close with seven. But it is the latter that makes it necessary to use four distinct colors to color all of the states such that no two that share a common border (points don't count) are colored the same. A famous theorem in mathematics says that no map drawn on a plane or a sphere ever needs five.

            The largest scale map that I have occasion to consult is one of my street, a microcosm of fifteen homes. We had our choice of several vacant lots when we built 42 years ago and chose one that let us preserve a fair-size piece of woods. Its trees keep trying to advance toward us, but we repel them only to the distance that preserves the archeology of our children's long outgrown sand box. The map's scale of just 50 feet to the inch is not the largest that can be envisioned. In a famous (very) short story, "On Exactitude in Science," Jorge Luis Borges imagines a country whose leading cartographers make a map with a 1 to 1 scale, that is, every point on the map coincides exactly with the point on the ground that it represents. The populace found it rather useless.

            Relief maps show mountains, lakes, and rivers instead of political boundaries. The best ones are three-dimensional, where hills and mountains actually rise out of their surface. A famous floor-to-ceiling one that shows New York's Adirondack Park in all its glory is still in Paul Schaffer's former home on St. David's Lane and will deservedly become a tourist attraction when the museum on that site is completed.

            To get an accurate sense of proportion of anything bigger than the United States one needs a good-sized globe. Only this way can a schoolchild realize that, Mercator to the contrary, Greenland is not bigger than Australia, and that the shortest path from New York to Beijing is to fly due north over the north pole and then continue along a great circle route due south into eastern China.

            Political maps change quite often, at least as often as a new country is carved out of Africa or the Middle East. Only quite recently did Czechoslovakia split into Czechos, a.k.a. the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. But relief maps change too, as happened when Krakatoa vanished in 1883, and the sea broke through a barrier island on Cape Cod in 1988 and gave Chatham a beautiful new beach. I was devastated when I first read that all of the Cape will be gone in another 50,000 years, but relieved when I learned that all that sand would form yet another cape somewhere else off the Atlantic coast. Perhaps I won't have to drive as far.

Even whole continents are moving. I first discovered this in the fourth grade, but no one paid attention to my observation that the east coast of South America was so close to a perfect fit to the west coast of Africa that those continents must have once been adjacent. I later learned that the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener had scooped me by 30 years, but he was considered a crackpot. Not until English geologist Arthur Holmes made a stronger case for this in 1944 did other scientists take this seriously, and by the 1980s "plate tectonics" and "continental drift" were virtually household words. This fascinating story is related in Bill Bryson's entertaining new book A Short History of Nearly Everything. We now know that Europe and North America are separating at the rate of three yards per century, about the rate at which a fingernail grows. France and the United States really are drifting apart.

Real maps are a great help in forming our world view, but the best ones reside in our imagination. In A Mapmaker's Dream, a recent novel by James Cowan that I found by serendipity at the Whitney Book Corner, its protagonist, Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice, expresses what I adopted as the theme of this essay:


"Each of us has the right to speak of his coastline, his mountains, his deserts, none of which conforms to those of another. Individually, we are obligated to make a map of our own homeland, our own field or meadow. We carry engraved in our hearts the map of the world as we know it." 


Ed Reilly lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday opinion section.