Sunday, January 6, 2008

the greenland problem

A friend of mine, who is an actor, shared with me a monologue that he is working on. It hit me like a ton of bricks, brought tears to my eyes. I feel as if i should share it with you.

It is from a play about two gay men. One owns a map shop. Map shops have an emotional connection with me, the last one i went to was in Maui. For these men though, their shop is just as painful, because they are living around the reality that all their friends are dying from aids.
have a read. The owner hasn't left the shop in months, and the other keeps leaving chairs all over the shop. These are the chairs of their friends that have died. He wants the shop owner to stop pretending that nothing is happening, and to be a part of the solution.

This is a monologue that the shopowner gives about a particular map we are all familiar with, the mercantor map.

Any talk of maps ultimately comes around to one very specific, lingering issue: The Greenland Problem.
Now, you may know this, but Greenland is actually about the size of Mexico. However, on the well known Mercator projection map -- the one hanging in front of your classrooms in grade school -- Greenland appears to be roughly the size of South America and twice the size of China. Clearly a world power to be reckoned with, if it were, you know, habitable.
The Mercator map also shows most of the earth's land mass to be in what we consider the "north," when, in fact, the "south" is more than double the size of the north. Scandinavia seems to dwarf India, though India is three times as large. And the old Soviet states appear to be twice the size of the entire African continent. In reality they are smaller. Smaller by, oh, about four million square miles.
A map maker takes a messy round world and puts it neat and flat on the wall in front of you. And to do this, a map maker must decide which distortions, which faulty perceptions he can live with -- to achieve a map which suits his purposes. He must commit to viewing it from only one angle.
The Mercator map, developed in Germany in 1569, was a great aid to navigators since, for the first time, all lines of longitude ran perpendicular to the equator -- or straight up to the top of the map -- rather than converging toward the poles. This meant that all the lines of longitude and latitude intersected at right angles -- and this meant that, for the FIRST TIME, a sailor could draw a straight line between two fixed points on the map and steer a constant course between them. The map had accounted for the curve of the earth -- the sailor did not have to.
To accomplish this, Mercator had to accept a distortion: the parallel lines of latitude would have to be spaced progressively further apart as they moved away from the equator. This, in turn, would progressively distort the sizes and shapes of land masses -- from zero distortion at the wquator, to absolute distortion at the poles... the Greenland Problem.
Mercator was a brilliant man. He freed the art of cartography from superstition, from the weight of medieval misconceptions. And his map revolutionized global navigation. He never intended it as a tool to teach the sizes and shapes of countries. He never intended to make Greenland a global behemoth.
But, nearly four hundred and fifty years after Mercator, we still think the earth looks like this. It doesn't. It never has. But we've come to accept the distortion as fact. We've learned to see the world from this angle.
I like this map. I sell this map. I don't wan people when they buy it that, like any good newspaper, it contains a few lies. And I've grown accustomed, when i feel the tug of a perplexed child on my sleeve, to turn and patiently say: "No, it's not really that big."
Maybe it's comforting to us because we, too, have our blind spots. We, too, have things on the periphery of our lives that we distort -- in order to best focus on the things in front of us. In order to best navigate through our days.
Sometimes, though, these things on the periphery, these things that we do not understand, these far away things grow to massive proportions -- threatening to dwarf our tiny, ordered, known world. And when they get big enough, we are forced to see them for what they are.
People I know are dying.
This is my Greenland Problem.
----Jody, Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz.

1 comment:

Abhineet said...

Perception is shaped by what is presented to us. If you are passive, that is all you seek. A great man once said, you must strive to scratch below the surface of something to truly know its meaning rather than accept it as fact. If you accept ideas at face value, you will live a content life...but you will never really live.