• Spinning the globe
    June 10,2014

    Graduates heading out into the world this month ought to take a look at a story in Sunday’s Rutland Herald and Times Argus about James Wilson, of Bradford.

    Wilson was a humble man with a great notion: He would design and make the first globes manufactured in America.

    Globes depicting the continents and oceans and the place names of a largely unknown world had been made in Europe, and Wilson had seen one at Dartmouth College, which inspired him to learn to build one of his own. For today’s graduates to contemplate the importance and beauty of those early globes is to gain an appreciation for what it meant, and can still mean, to view the world with curiosity and wonder.

    It may be that the plethora of information sources available today and the omnipresence of diverse media, rather than exciting wonder, have caused it to leach away. At the touch of a button, or a touch screen, anyone can see the plains of Africa, the deserts of Mongolia, the peaks of Chile or the jungles of Borneo. Where’s Borneo? Oh, it’s out there across the ocean somewhere.

    Contrast the abundance of information available today with the level of knowledge that existed two centuries ago when James Wilson stood fascinated before that globe at Dartmouth. Europeans were still reaching out to discover the world beyond their shores. America had already drawn millions of them, and the geography of the eastern coast of the United States was well charted. But the rest of the American continent loomed as a great unknown, with only a few tantalizing details to arouse curiosity. Africa was yet to be explored (and abused and exploited), and the far reaches of Asia were a world away.

    To learn of the world back then was a physically demanding adventure, and the partly filled in land masses and coastlines depicted on Wilson’s globe served as an enticement and a challenge.

    Back then people headed off on sailing voyages that kept them away for two years. Immigrants launched themselves into new lives in alien and exotic places. Wilson’s globes were not merely a depiction of what was known; they were emblematic of an ethos of exploration.

    Today’s graduates ought to grab a globe and place a fingertip down at a random place. Kyrgyzstan? Botswana? Moldova? It is possible to go to these places, to experience the reality that exists beyond the confines of our small state and the world that is mediated for us by our devices. It is a world for which the first point of reference is not the United States, a world of languages that are worlds unto themselves. Or place your fingertip on more familiar places — France, Peru, Israel. Is it not possible still to contemplate these other worlds with the sense of wonder that enticed young men and women of Wilson’s era?

    Back when Wilson was making his globes, Lewis and Clark had only recently completed their long journey across North America and back. Their travels remain a landmark in our history, in part because of their willingness to confront the vast unknown with all its dangers and discoveries.

    It is a commonplace to say that the age of discovery is over, that there is no undiscovered territory remaining on the globe. But Montana was not undiscovered territory when Lewis and Clark arrived there. It was new to them, but not to the tribes who already lived there. Similarly, France, in all its beauty, can be new to each of us, as can Kyrgyzstan or Botswana. Today’s graduates will be doing themselves a favor if they try to kindle within themselves the spirit of adventure that has impelled millions of people outward into the world over the centuries.

    Thoreau wrote of exploring the Atlantic and Pacific of one’s own soul, and there is much to be said for inward intellectual, scholarly or artistic pursuits. But Wilson’s globes call us beyond ourselves to the great world in all its excitement, danger and beauty.

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