World of the Map
A nauseating mass of green, yellow, and orange swirls slowly on the weather map, just south of Japan. The city of Sendai is labeled: it’s a coastal city on the North Pacific, somewhere between Tokyo and Sapporo. I recognize the name now after waking one Friday to images of its destruction by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Flaming houses, walls of water, ships wrecked aground. The Japanese government spun like tires in mud, unbelieving and frightened and worried for their own. Everyone had this fear ripping down from their gut, halting breath for long black seconds. The city had been wiped off the map. On the map, it is raining in Sendai.
As a young child I learned the shape of our world from a map pulled down out of its cocoon above the chalkboard. It was a rainbow burst of color, each country with its own. This map also outlined each US state. As a six year old, this did not strike me as unbalanced, as if worldwide my little state of Ohio was viewed on par with China. They were both purple. I did not wonder why our states were delineated and China’s provinces were not. Should I have? I didn’t know China had provinces until college. Do Hunanese children learn about Ohio?
For years I trusted this map as though early in our stint on Earth the universe handed it down to all humans. Just, you know, so we wouldn’t get too lost. At some point – a point in which I felt it fit to question everything – I questioned this map and others like it. Why is Australia always at the bottom? Why is the Atlantic Ocean always in the middle? Is Greenland really that big? Earlier, if shopping for a map, I might have reached for what I knew: the “right” map – with the US in the West, Antarctica stretched lean across the bottom, and the corners neat and square.
There were more “wrong” maps than I would have believed. Many have tried to give the Earth – and its people – due representation on paper. The Peters Projection, with its slender, area-accurate continents. The Buckminster Fuller, with its angular oceans and reunited lands. The Pacific-centered map, with the intimidating ocean dominating the page, reminding us of our size and weakness. The minute islands and atolls, sprayed across the Pacific as if in some great tectonic sneeze, pop with new importance to the eye. There are people out there.
Everybody needs a map. Each map is drawn with a specific audience in mind, be it the entire Western Hemisphere or the hikers of Wayne National Forest. Each map then has its own priorities; all legends are unique. As mapmakers, we determine how a place will be read. We write the bike lanes or the lines of elevation. We decide if the map will show the public restrooms, or if it will keep that a secret.
But what if you’re not on anybody’s map? Where are you? To be awarded “city-status” in Ohio, a town must have 5,000 people or more. Most everything else is a village. But no one is guaranteed a dot on the map. If you’re really small, you may just get shaken off to clean up the clutter. Drive down an old state route at 55+ mph and you’ll find yourself speeding through a collection of buildings – one with holiday decorations in the windows, one with a shed in need of a paint job, one with a daisy sign advertising the price of cigarettes. Your passenger says, “Blink and you’d miss that one.” But it’s not even there.
If you drew a map that includes you, right now, what would be on it? Roads and rivers, forests and mountains, your church and Dairy Queen? Do you label intersections or landmarks? Think bigger. Do you live in Israel or Palestine? India or Pakistan? Tomorrow you will be in Kosovo; yesterday you were in Zaire. Nobody’s map is everybody’s map.
The ever-tired and never-funny line goes, “That far? But they’re so close together on the map!” Every map lies just a little bit…and they’re all great liars. They are particularly slippery when it comes to time and distance. My tiny heart-shaped Ohio is puny on a map of the entire United States. Friends from Texas and Florida laugh at its size and estimate that they could drive up through it in an hour. Then I laugh and tell them that from the Ohio River to Lake Erie is four hours at least. You’re on a lake? they answer.