02 December 2014: Go west, young man!

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This is about latitude and longitude and the different way humans think about geography.

In making Wanderers, Erik Wernquist used the voice of Carl Sagan from an audio recording of his book Pale Blue Dot. At one point in the voice-over Sagan says Herman Melville “spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians”.

The phrase stuck in my head as an example of wonderful writing. I could live to be a hundred and never come up with words that so aptly and concisely express a single thought. And then I realised that even if I was as smart and knowledgeable as Sagan, and could turn a phrase as adroitly, I would still never use the world “meridian”.

Australians – I suspect – tend to think of their country from north to south. We all know there is a Western Australia and an east coast, but when most of us think of the Australian continent what we conceptualise is a tropical north, an arid centre and a temperate south. Australia lays south of the equator, and most of our cultural cousins lay north of it. Europeans did not occupy one coast and work their way across to the other side. They first occupied the margins of the continent, circling the landmass like a halo, and then sent expeditions into the centre.

Compare this with the way Europeans and North Americans seem to think of their respective geographies. There’s the Russian Bear in the east, the Middle East, the Far East, the Western Hemisphere. There’s Western Europe and Eastern Europe. There’s Western Civilisation. There’s the orient and the occident. To the best of my knowledge, no Englishman referred to France as the Near South and no Italian thought of Scotland as the Far North. The greatest navigational difficulty for early trans-Atlantic explorers was determining meridians of longitude, not parallels of latitude.

In the US, New York editor Horace Greeley exhorted young Americans to “Go west!”. Of course, if you live in America there is the South and the Bible Belt (with its hint of latitude), but American mythology expresses the urge to go west, to explore and settle new lands, to link the US not from Grand Forks to Corpus Christi but from New York to Los Angeles. Lewis and Clark didn’t make their way along the continental divide, they crossed it, east to west, and the great example of 19th century American industry and technology was the transcontinental railroad finished in 1869.

I’m not sure this says anything about our respective psychologies, but I think it says something about our history and geography.

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