Illustration by David Plunkert
Steven Boyd Saum
Nov. 2, 2018
The first question I like to ask in conversation with someone I’ve just met: Where are you from? It’s a question about roots—where you’re grounded, and in what. So the story begins of your personal geography: How you got here from there. It’s also implicitly a question about trajectory: I see where you are now—where are you going? And what map do you have to guide you?
Four thousand years ago we humans first began to map. This summer I took our son to see what is perhaps the oldest survivor, in the British Museum: Imago Mundi, a stone tablet from around 700 BCE, found in Iraq, with the city of
Babylon at the center, and at the edge lies the Salt Sea. The legend is in cuneiform.
What we choose to map—and how—can change the way we see the world: the borders of neighborhoods and nations, where property lines might be drawn, how planets wheel about the center of the solar system, how humans spread across the world. Or map sounds and smells, atmospheric rivers and aquifers, ocean currents and curries, wildfires and debris flows, cabbages and kings, tortoises and time zones, influenza and desertification, hospitality and happiness, languages and life expectancy, subways and sports fans, property values and maternity leave, ice caps and common colds, temperature and hunger, crop yields and drug cartels, black holes of internet freedom and rates of incarceration, indoor plumbing and income inequality, barbarian invasions and languages of tweets, migrations by land and sea and air.
Fact: The first president of these United States was a surveyor. Another: In 2018, we mark the centennial of the end of the Great War, in which some 40 million perished—including Santa Clara soldiers who went off to fight and never returned. They are memorialized in the Mission Church. At the end of that war to end all wars, empires were divided up—some with a straight line with no regard to history, and we live with the consequences. But also a century ago this October, the new nation of Czechoslovakia came into being in the heart of Europe. I have a special fondness for the Czechs; I made my home in South Moravia for two years. The nation broke up in 1993, but the Czechs kept this motto: Truth prevails.
In the pages ahead, we unfurl a few maps to explore the road ahead or the past buried beneath our feet. We hope you enjoy the journey. And tell us: What maps would you like to see? And, with Leslie Griffy now on board as managing editor, journey with us into a new digital frontier: The mag on the web has been reimagined as something marvelous and new.
STEVEN BOYD SAUM is the editor of this magazine.