It’s our planet. It’s where we live. It should be a fascinating subject, but as a child, I hated it.
For one thing, I lived in New Jersey, and the Earth, to me, consisted of my little suburb and maybe also New York City and Trenton.
When we studied geography in elementary school, I can remember having to memorize the crops that were grown in different parts of the country. I had no idea what cornstalks looked like, or soybeans, or whether tomatoes grew in the ground or on a tree. (Neither, I later learned).
The worst part, for me, was the maps. I remember having to color in elevation maps, with different colors for the different elevations of the land. I remember having to draw upside down “v”s for mountain ranges and color in blue rivers and label oceans and lakes. I was no good at drawing or coloring, and I could never get my maps to look right.
Pennsylvania was as far west as I’d ever been, but not very far into it. My first trip to Ohio was when I visited my best friend from high school, who was a freshman at Oberlin College. I was amazed that civilization existed west of Pennsylvania. And when, during my sophomore year of college, I met my now-husband, who was from Nebraska, I thought I had met someone quite exotic — someone who came from a place far away from the world I’d grown up in.
There are jokes about us Easterners drawing a map of the U.S.A. with nothing but New York on one side and California on the other side, and the whole middle of the country just labeled “fly-over.”
I know better. We have driven by car and traveled by train the whole east coast to west coast. We have driven south as well — from Ohio to Texas. It’s a big, wonderful country.
However, I am ignorant about the world outside North America. Give me a map of Africa or Asia, and I would not be able to correctly label the countries. Not even close.
My husband, on the other hand, reads the atlas for enjoyment. So I sat down with him recently to try to figure out a few things.
Our daughter is living in Chile for a year, so it was time to look at South America. Wow! Chile is a narrow, long country. When we visit her, we will be flying to Santiago with a brief layover at JFK in New York City. The flight from JFK to Santiago will take nine and a half hours. And once in Santiago, we will still not be there — she lives near Concepcion in a small town called Talcahuano (sounds even more exotic than when I found out my then-boyfriend was from Omaha and I had no idea where that was). Getting to Talcahuano will entail another train, bus, car or perhaps airplane ride.
The next thing I wanted to know involved Europe. Although I know a bit more about that continent, it is still pitifully little. I am teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which takes place in Denmark. An army from Norway wants permission to pass through Demark to get to Poland. I didn’t really know how far that would be, so I wanted to see it on the map. Would they really need to pass through Denmark? And Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University in Germany, and another character, Laertes, wants to go back to Paris, so I wanted to see the distance from Denmark to those places as well.
My same daughter who lives in Chile may be collaborating on a scientific project with a professor in Oman. That, if you didn’t know, is a country in the Middle East. So I took a look at the pages in the atlas with the Middle Eastern countries. That is a very complex area.
Sometimes it feels safer not to know how far away those countries are. It is deceptive when I can hear my daughter’s voice on the phone, from Chile, as if she is next door. I prefer to think of it that way.
I know it is important to know world geography, not just where our little town of Norwalk is located. (Twenty miles away from Cedar Point, I tell people who are curious — most have heard of Cedar Point).
Still, I’m glad I never have to color in maps anymore.
Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]