Coincidentally: Latitudes and Attitudes

The Reverend Samuel Wesley (1662-1735) lived in an age that is commonly caricatured as one of beef and ale and good cheer. But after his rectory burned to the ground, he wrote a lengthy Dissertation on the Book of Job and a collection of poetry entitled Maggots. No one would have mistaken him for Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

Fifteenth among his eighteen children, whom he fathered in hopes of domestic bliss, was John. Now John picked up his father’s insect motif when his fellow precursors of Methodism were called “Bible Moths.” On the whole, he was cheerful in spite of his marriage to the beclouded Maria Vazeille. No one would have mistaken her for Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale.

One sober biographer attributes John’s cheerfulness to emotional imbalance. But this is no explanation for the unrelieved cheerfulness of the youngest Wesley, Charles, who wrote slightly more than sixty-one hundred hymns and finally quit when his mind was exhausted, unlike some of our more persistent modern hymn writers. My only reason for mentioning all this: if each of Charles Wesley’s hymns counted as a square mile, the sum would equal precisely the surface area of the Chesapeake Bay. In the many happy, and emotionally balanced, hours I have spent in Maryland, no one has made this association.

An alert eye will spot many such correspondences in geography. I found the subject a dismal science in school, when it was just a matter of memorizing state capitals (often the most inappropriate cities) and boundaries (which are only sensible in square states). It became more complicated when a lot of places on various continents yielded to the meddlers and changed their names altogether. Fortunately, I have retained a small globe of our planet with the real names intact. At most, there should be a dozen nations, with appendages all around. Were this column not limited, I could make a strong case for the happier condition of such a world. But to the point: Geography would not be the horror it is to the psychologically healthy child, if it were shown to be a science that vaults over bland latitudes and longitudes to the romance of the people who explored them.

For example, I have vivid recollections of the night of June 26, 1959, when Ingemar Johanson defeated Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship by a knockout in the third round. A golden opportunity was lost when geography teachers throughout the United States, including mine, failed to point out that it was the two hundredth anniversary of the death of astronomer Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, whom King Louis XV had sent to measure longitude in Lapland. I was the sort of student who discovered the connection on my own. From the perspective of New Jersey, where I was located at the time, Lapland was easily confused with Johanson’s Sweden. But the coincidence satisfied me and, more importantly, was the type of thing that annoyed my teacher when I brought it to her attention.

Ironically, Greenland was named by Eric the Red. Even more effervescent is the saga of the Congo River. While the most lethargic student knows that it was named for the Balacongo tribe (whose rituals would have darkened the gloom of the Rev. Mr. Samuel Wesley), most would be surprised to learn that the name of Diogo Cao, who discovered the river’s mouth, was pronounced “Congo.” Then there is the strangest fact about Honeyville, Utah, a euphonious contraction of Hunsakerville, the original name honoring its first settler: It was also the name of the Annapolis graduate and chief of aero-nautical design for the Navy Department, Jerome Clarke Hunsaker, who designed the first airship to cross the Atlantic, the NC4.

I have never been invited to teach a class in geography. If I did, I would not begin with the dull formalities that are the affliction of such instruction. Were I called upon to open the lay of the land to young minds, I would begin with a description of the Meander River in Turkey. It has more than a thousand bends. Then I would explain that its twisting shape has endowed the English vocabulary with the neo-Turkish verb “to meander.” If you add one “n,” you have Menander. And Menander, who flourished two centuries before Christ, was that amazing man of the Greco-Bactrian dynasty who meandered for years until he invaded India; conquered the valley of the Indus, the Punjab, and Gujarat; and became a Buddhist. After just one such class, I am sure that I would have turned many a child into a geographer for life.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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