OUT OF NATURE: Geography Wonks

By Jean Farrington

I’ve often wondered about the effect of GPS systems on lowering the divorce rate.  My husband and I came close traversing the roundabouts of New Jersey on our way to friends in Haddonfield.  Not once, but several times.  In recent years, Nellie, our Garmin unit, (named in a nod to Hertz’s Never Lost), has proven to be extremely reliable and always unflappable, even when she goes into “recalculating” mode.

Ken Jennings is a self-proclaimed map geek and his book, Maphead:  Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, is an informative and, often humorous, romp through the ages exploring everything from early maps to Google Earth and the National Geographic Bee to the lives of the members of the Travelers Club and Travelers Century Club.  To qualify for membership in the British Travelers Club, founded in London in 1819, gentlemen had to have attained the lofty status of having traveled 500 miles from London.

The American version, the Travelers Century Club was born in 1954.   To apply for membership, you had to have visited at least one hundred countries; the definition of country was a loose one since land separated from its parent nation counted in its own right, resulting in more than 300 countries.  Folks who keep track of their travels in this way are often called, “country baggers.” Given the age of the current 2000+ members, the Club’s annual lavish dinner is now a lunch–most of them prefer not to drive at night!

Maps predate human writing and some of the earliest maps were of holy places for an audience, monks, who would study them, but never consider leaving the monastery for a journey.  And maps routinely contained false information.  “Five or six hundred years ago, there was no clear distinction between fantasy maps and ‘real’ ones.  …the land of Gog and Magog, from the Book of Revelation, was over by the Caspian Sea somewhere, often surrounded by the wall that, according to legend, Alexander the Great had built to imprison them.  The Golden Fleece was drawn near the Black Sea, Noah’s ark was in Turkey,”  and so it went.

Beginning in the 1980’s, concern and speculation about Americans’ geographic illiteracy took the stage, initially because of a quiz David Helgren gave to his college geography class in Miami.  The scores were abysmal; this made the local news and was picked up nationwide.  Jennings offers some explanations for why we Americans are so challenged (we live isolated on a large continent with few bordering countries unlike our friends in Europe, the threats of the Cold War era are gone, and terrorists are not defined by country boundaries).

He further comments about today’s kids:  “[they] live increasingly in a world without place—without personal exploration through real-life geographies of any kind.  In one of the great ironies of the last century, many Americans moved from overcrowded cities out to the suburbs in order to ‘reconnect with nature,’ but those dreams of carefree country life didn’t materialize; …We’ve chosen insulated lifestyles—insulated by car, by TV, by iPod or Internet or cell phone—that distances us from our surroundings, that treat any kind of navigation through or interaction with our environment as a necessary evil.”

This is a strong statement, but perhaps it is counterbalanced by the keen interest in geocaching games, which combine the online environment with locating small boxes secreted in out-of-the-way places, or the Degree Confluence Project, a race to visit and document the spots where the exact degrees latitude and longitude cross (as in 48 degrees north and 122 degrees east).  These activities reflect an interest in the spatial aspects of our world and give Jennings hope that maps (even paper ones) might survive in this wireless age.

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