At one time I could draw the world from memory. This knowledge was manifest in a hand-drawn map complete with 456 distinct geographical characteristics: rivers, lakes, oceans, islands, mountains, states, countries, continents, and capitals. These things were embedded in my brain as a result of an intensive geography assignment where we were charged with drawing the world from memory over the course of three days at the end of three weeks of preparation.
And so, I studied. I ate, spoke, thought, mused and dreamt geography. I drew a study guide from world maps, paying careful attention to the scale, proportion and relationships between things. I consulted atlas after atlas, out-dated detail maps on specific countries and rivers, encyclopedias outlining particular geographical points of note in various hemispheres around the world. Every time I saw a blank map, it exploded in my mind – borders and rivers lept out at me and the capital star inserted itself appropriately. I could think of nothing else.
When the exam came, I was confident. I knew the world. Every nook and cranny was lodged somewhere in my brain, and I was sure that as the continents took shape on my large 36″x24″ sheet of yellow paper, the map would fill itself.
First was Africa. With its plethora of jagged borders between countries, rivers and jungles, (not to mention its rather central fixture on the map and its generally accepted role as the birthplace of civilization), I thought it an appropriate place to begin. The pencil lines fretted this way and that and after a brief interlude to develop the Mediterranean, Africa was finished. Scale was decent. Proportion was acceptable. Following suit, Europe was created and finished in a day, Asia quite neatly in another. Australia, Antarctica and miscellaneous islands were added to fill the void of the now-labeled oceans.
I saved the Americas for last, and as North America took form I was disturbed to find that the mid-west did not exist in my world. Perhaps somewhere in the shuffle between Zambia and the Dutch East Indies, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and most of the neighboring states failed to lodge themselves firmly in my brain. I stared quite a long time at the gap between mountain ranges – trying desperately to remember this crux of my elementary education – only to fail and leave a blank yellow streak through the American heartland. To this day I have trouble remembering what lies east of Idaho and west of Indiana. Through no fault of my public education, I simply have trouble with the middle.
What remains is a general sense of juxtaposition, with very little knowledge of detail. I can no longer tell you the capital of North Dakota without looking it up, nor can I clearly delineate borders between or relative sizes of African or South American nations. Rivers flow and disappear unrealized, the locations of mountain ranges have faded back into the ignorance from which they were once mired within, borders have faded, and still other bits I’m convinced have disappeared altogether.