Blessed are the Mapmakers

If anyone had watched me in elementary school they may have predicted I’d grow up to become a social studies teacher. As far back as I can remember I loved maps and geography. I loved looking at maps and wondering what life in various parts of the world would be like. All these years later I recall reading stories about a Navajo child in the desert Southwest making ice cream from ice that fell from the sky as hail. Or, a child living in the jungles of the Malaysian Peninsula and tended to his family’s elephants.

For years during my teaching career I kept an old road atlas in my school desk and sometimes during free time I’d break it out, along with a yellow highlighter,  and retrace trips I had made over the years. I’ve always had a great memory of travel and the things and places I’ve visited. I especially recall the food I enjoyed along the way and still associated certain cities with restaurants I experienced. Goldsboro, NC will always be Wilber’s BBQ and Corbin, KY where I had my first bowl of Cracker Barrel ham and beans.

In this era of the GPS paper maps are disappearing. Long ago gasoline stations stopped giving out free roadmaps and I’ve got to believe Rand-McNally is finding it difficult to sell its atlases.

While I love the achievements of the cartographers I really don’t know how they do their job. I can more easily comprehend it in today’s world of aviation. Map makers in airplanes can look down upon the outline of the land and modern satellites can see and accurately map huge sections of the earth’s most remote areas. Only the deepest ocean bottoms remain uncharted and that too is rapidly changing.

But what about the early cartographers? The guys that tried to figure out where sailors might fall over the edges of a flat world if they dared too close. How did those people, using very limited and crude instruments, do such a remarkable job of showing us what our world looked like?

It was a 1689 world map that prompted this piece.  While not the detailed atlas of today it is amazing in its accuracy considering that it was only a couple of centuries earlier that Columbus, da Gama, and Magellan first opened the doors to European exploration. In the three centuries since, cartographers have filled in the missing lines and identified most of the topographical detail within those lines. It is amazing just how much the ancients knew. Blessed are these map makers for they gave us our sense of place.

1682 world map

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