Home From Space: Maps Bring the World Closer

This piece was printed in the April 18 edition of the Roanoke Star-Sentinel. 

My wife says you could sit me down anywhere any time with a map of any place in the world and I’ll be happy as a pig in mud. Yep.

Maps suggest human stories against the backdrop of landscapes most of which I’ll never put my feet on but can experience vicariously as a map traveler–with new bearings and sense of proportion, man to map to territory. In their odd place names, features and boundaries, maps suggest the passage of geological and culture time.

Of course, the larger and more detailed the map, the wider and deeper the imagination soars.  And so you can imagine my absolute Walter-Mitty awe when Google Earth arrived on the scene.

As an arm-chair explorer, this free digital globe program is the most wonderful adventure tool to come along in my not-particularly-well traveled life!  I’ve followed the waters of the Nile and the New from their sources to their respective oceans and found the highest peaks of all the great mountain ranges.  I’ve soared over Pakistan, Madagascar, Chile, New Zealand and Afghanistan and about each place learned  facts that would never have become as “realized” from a textbook description or a flat map of these places.

While blemishes like rain forest destruction and Appalachian mountaintop removal are clearly visible from a hundred miles up, there are still remote and beautiful places left on the planet to map-browse–including the mountains and forests of southwest Virginia. Many regions of the world still have sizable if shrinking patches of healthy forest, prairie or jungle wilderness intact.

We’ve learned much in the last fifty years about how Earth’s ecosystems and creatures get along, and at times, we have created ways to conserve and protect them. But our numbers on Earth continue to grow and humanity’s material and energy wants and needs seem inexhaustible, while the little blue ball on my screen and under our feet is finite.

Both the planet’s immensity and variety and its susceptibility to the uses and misuses of civilization become more real when you see them with your own eyes from above. “Oh, I’ve been there!” I say when I read about the melting glaciers of Nepal or the disappearing Colorado River.

Maps line us up with the world as it is. Google Earth does this especially well for me. In its three-dimensionality and interactivity it makes me a participant in place. The global browser as a mapping tool gives the vicarious vagabond a literal grounding to the environmental and human dramas that unfold in natural terrains around the world. We are affected more than ever by events that happen on the dark side of our daytime world. They are closer to us than we imagine.

Soon, the World Wide Telescope (now in limited beta) will do for space what Google Earth has done for the planet. What power this gives us to know our place in the universe as no other generation has ever been capable of. Can we use these views of our common world and cosmological position in the order of things in such a way that we grow closer to this shrinking planet and each other and work together for the common good?

I encourage you to go see for yourself.

UPDATE: WWT is destined for public release very soon and Google Earth’s latest version lets you see the same landscape as the sun rises and sets–a very impressive and interactive way to experience the planet! Of course there are also improved “street views” in GE, but I’m waiting for “trail views”. Even so, let’s get out in the real world and know it better!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I saw my first sunrise over Goose Creek just last week on Google Earth. It was just a couple of minutes later that I watched the shadows cross nameless creek as the sun sank in the west.

    I think I understand and share your fascination. Paper or pixel, I’ve loved maps my entire life. I’ve collected them, studied them, planned vacations and dream retirements with them…

  2. Fred, lately I have been experiencing space much in the same way you’ve been experiencing Earth. I’ve become fascinated by the incredible images produced by the Hubble telescope and other high-powered technology we now have pointed out at the universe around us. Sometimes it fills me with a kind of sadness, knowing that there are wonders out there that neither I nor any of our race could ever hope to be able to see in person. We’ll only ever get glimpses from a distance. But I’m thankful that we get to see them at all.