Mapping the World

I was interested in geography from the time I was old enough to read, the lines on maps a bridge to understanding how people lived, and learned, and behaved.

In the third grade, after learning the 50 states, we began to expand our horizons to look outside our country, to understand the world as a whole by constructing a map.

Using a flat piece of cardboard as a base, we modeled the continents from homemade dough with a sticky consistency made with flour, salt, and water.

I started with Africa – for some reason the right and proper center for my own map-and followed up with the domineering masses of land that were China and Russia. I attached them to a tiny and fragile Europe, a shapely and significant left arm of a continent shooting off into the Atlantic Ocean.

I made the distinctive, lonely Australia in the approximate Rand McNally defined scale of order, floating alone in the Indian Ocean, easy to recognize.

I shaped out South America and attached it to the winding, twisted line of Central America, attaching that, in turn, to North America, which suddenly didn’t seem so large. The wonderfully recognizable outline of the United States appeared different when sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, no longer center of everything, but off to the side, disconnected to everything else.

The maps were placed on the radiators at the back of the classroom, left to harden and dry, the steam heat baking them to completion, like trays of cookies, no two alike.

The day the projects were to go home, a fast and heavy snow fell, piling up on the windowsills, throwing a clean sheet of white across the dingy autumn ground.

My classmates were too busy to remember their maps, too caught up in whooping and sliding and running out to the line of waiting busses. I was left behind, not a bus-rider, but a lone walker. I bundled into my winter coat.

The radiator hissed a warning from the back of the room as I walked out the door, holding my map tightly, dough-side in, so the large, wet snowflakes wouldn’t spoil it. I hugged it carefully to my chest as I walked the four blocks from school, the blowing snow now higher than ankle deep.

When I arrived home, I saw that the oceans and seas, all so painstakingly labeled with the aid of a ruler and black marker, had been smeared by the dampness of the snow. The entire southeast coast of Asia had partially crumbled and slid into pieces that looked like insignificant afterthoughts. Somewhere along the route home, too, Antarctica had dissolved, fallen off on the walk, unnoticed, lost, gone. (How could I not have noticed?)

I sat inside, the November afternoon growing dim, and as hard as I tried to put things back to where they once had been on the map, I understood that it couldn’t be entirely restored to its original state.

As an adult, I’m still a map geek. And as an adult, I can’t look at a flat representation of our earth without wondering about the world that we’ll leave to our children and grandchildren, outlines on a map shaped by rising water, overwhelmed islands, melting ice caps, the map of the planet constantly being redrawn.

But I also still see those lines as a bridge to action – to understanding how we need to live, and learn, and behave. Those lines a recognition that all of humanity is connected and responsible to one another and to the Earth. And that gives me hope.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.