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How did we get places before GPS? This poem imagines an experience with 16th century cartographer Gerard Mercator on that very subject.


Andrew_sunset_imageby Andrew McDiarmid01 May 2014

Before leaving the driveway
I type in our destination,
beach-side resort and a far cry
from these walls and freeways.
High above the earth
satellites confirm our plans
and we begin our guided journey.

Long ago, parchment and brushes
were all you needed, along with some
artistic flare and a desire to travel.
Then came the compass, the telescope,
the sextant, the printing press,
and art became science.

I imagine a look of consternation
on Gerard Mercator’s bearded face,
listening intently to the lady’s voice
telling us where to go.
How does she know, he’d think,
Where are your maps?

I would start to explain
how contour lines and Italic script
have given way to software
and global positioning systems
but my message, I’m sure,
would get lost in translation.
I do not speak 16th century Dutch
and he’d be too engrossed
in the freeway signs and the instrument
panel of my vehicle to understand.

With all this at our fingertips,
it is hard to appreciate them,
the mapmakers, the explorers,
the missionaries, the captains,
the traders, the mathematicians,
the engravers, all of them working
to harness the globe, pave the path,
and illustrate the wonder.
Standing on their shoulders,
I can see our destination.