The Curse of Google Maps

A globe has dimension. It puts places on Earth in context. It spins.

My Daddy was a mapmaker for Magnolia Petroleum Company in Texas back in the 1940s and 50s when cartographers plotted the locations of oil and gas wells on linen or paper maps by hand. He had wonderful penmanship and he taught his daughters to read and respect maps. He always insisted maps must be neatly folded in the exact way they had been unfolded, and I usually complied. He died in 1977 well before the GPS revolution and the digitizing and cloud storing of information.

I love maps, atlases, and globes of our world. Whenever friends return from a far-flung trip, we get out our old National Geographic Atlas and look to see where they have been. They do the same when we return from a journey. Most of our friends still have atlases. When we are planning an extended trip of our own, I first refer to the old atlas admittedly out of nostalgia and then I open Google Earth and plot our trip with digital pushpins. Google Earth is no replacement for an atlas but it is an example of a useful computer tool. It has lots of detail and contour and it lets me see the larger landscape of where I am planning to go and where I have been. Travel is a narrative. Travel has context. A trip, long or short, to Kathmandu or the grocery store, entails a great deal more than moving from point A to point B.

As a rule, we keep a Rand McNally Road Atlas tucked between the console and passenger seat in our car. When we were packing for our annual trip south to Mexico in September, I glanced in the slot and mistook our DeLorme Gazetteer of Minnesota (same size, shape) for the Rand McNally. I made a big mistake of which my husband bore the brunt. I complained daily, sometimes twice and thrice, for most of the 2,800 miles. The world-shrinking Garmin and Google Maps on the cellphone stuck on the dashboard sufficed for my driver-husband, but I could not track our passage on a map on my lap. I could not put us in our transitory context. Where were we exactly in relation to the other places and landmarks—cities, towns, counties, rivers, mountains, parks, historic sites—that define the landscapes, history, and cultures we were passing through? I was anxious and adrift and I wondered, “Am I the only person who feels this way in the Age of Google Maps?”

Manhattan, Kansas, on Google Maps. Small, flat, no context. Boring.

Manhattan, Kansas, on a Rand McNally map. You can see Topeka, the state capital and where the wonderful Brown v. The Board of Education National Historic Site is located. Just north of Manhattan is Pottawatomie # 2, a state fishing lake where David, the dogs, and I spent a loving evening on September 26, 2019, looking for dragonflies and having our end-of-the day beers. To the south is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flinthills, one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Details. Context. Narrative. Not boring.

It is difficult to find a Rand McNally anymore. I asked in numerous gas stations and truck stops. I got blank stares (“…a what?”) or eye rolling (“Where have you been, lady?”) Finally, somewhere toward the end of the trip, in West Texas or New Mexico, at a bustling truck stop, I found a 2020 Rand McNally. It was dirt-cheap, like $7.99. I would have paid $49.99. We had only about 24 hours remaining in the U.S., but I put the map on my lap and I calmed down.

I know it is a trait of elders to balk at change and innovation. My mother, bless her earnest heart, was troubled by evolving cultural values related to courtship, virginity, marriage, divorce, and gender. My father, heart-breaking for me, took his racial biases to his grave. They both were alarmed by rock and roll. The good thing is elders die—they are relieved of the burdens of change and we the living are relieved of their intransigence.

I am still shocked having advanced to elderhood. I think I am open-minded and I work to maintain flexibility in the headwinds of change. But certain things, particularly in the intersecting realms of media and technology, are not sitting so well with me.

One change I came to resist and abhor decades before I became an elder is television, which has made millions of people fat in body and lazy in mind. TV and social media are like boxing’s one-two punch. The former set up the first jab; the latter, the second blow. Even weather reporting, which has practical and at times life-saving value, has been ruined by the Weather Channel. I get my weather from Windy, a mobile-device application that maps high- and low-pressure systems around the world in real time and has other useful functions, such as radar, storm tracking, temperature, waves, air quality, and predictive forecasting for specific locations. It shows weather in all its swirling majesty. No hype needed from Jim Cantore and his Weather Channel cohorts. The fact that Windy is my preferred weather source also proves I am not a Luddite.

The hand-held device has brought about the most fundamental behavioral change among humans in my lifetime, and I think the case could be made that the gripping of these devices is the most radical development in tool use over the roughly 65 million years of primate evolution. It doesn’t matter whether I think this change is good or bad. I have a device and I grip it frequently.

I do take issue with the hypnotic power of certain device applications and how they reshape how we see and live in the world. I take note when an application is starting to hold me hostage. I make an escape. It is not always easy.

Google Maps is an example of the fine line between an application’s practicality and its power to capture and mind-bend its users. Last November we met friends in Mexico City for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been there in years. On past trips, I made my way around the city just fine with travel guides and maps and the help of other human beings—taxi cab drivers, bellhops, storekeepers, waiters, and strangers on the street—encounters that enriched my experience. On this trip, we all had devices and, like device monkeys we have become, we immediately defaulted to Google Maps.

I can see us now. We looked ridiculous—a congregation of gray-hairs lurching down the streets of Mexico City gawking not at every wonderful thing around us but at the devices in our cupped palms. I recall a couple of preposterous occasions where we stood in a huddle disputing what our devices were telling us. My friends and I are pretty self-aware, not hopelessly device-addicted, and veterans of the old school of travel for whom a singular joy is watching people, spaces, places, landscape, nature. We got our bearings, put our devices in our pockets (mostly), and broke out of the tiny jail cell of Google Maps.

Google Maps takes the eye hostage and robs us of peripheral vision. Google Maps makes the world small and flat and simple. It puts up a wall, at once invisible and opaque, between the user and everyone else. People who use the application to the exclusion of traditional maps are denying themselves a richer life. I think my Daddy would agree with me. And someday I will be happy to join him wherever it is that intransigent elders go.

 

Posted in West Saari Road | 1 Comment

A pig is not a fence

A pig is not a fence.
The pig is in the fence.

This is one way to learn Spanish:
looking at a pig in a fence.

I say cerdo. I mean cerco.
This causes mirth
amongst the Spanish speakers
in my midst.

Un cerdo no es un cerco.
El cerdo está dentro del cerco.

A c for a d. A d for a c.
Two consonants recombined
outline the balance of power.
The fence defines the fate of the pig.

Christmas is near.
The pig is destined for a spit.
We behold its hefty, fleeting beauty
while two redstarts, ruby jewels, flit
around the beast like angels.

 

Posted in The Occasional Poem

On a Sunday

Westminster Abbey, London, UK

Apostolic Lutheran Church, Embarrass, Minnesota

On a Sunday in mid-May, I went to the weekly organ recital at Westminster Abbey in London. On a Sunday three weeks later, I went to hear a trio on fiddle, drums, and guitar play Nordic, Celtic, and Old-time music at the Apostolic Lutheran Church in Embarrass, Minnesota. I do not have a religious bone in my body. I enter houses of worship for weddings and funerals if I must and of my own free will for music.

Both Sundays I was lifted by the music and touched by the people who made it.

The churches could not be more different, one renowned by millions, the other beloved by a few hundred, one a majestic, massive 800-year-old Gothic cathedral in the throbbing heart of London, the other a simple century-old white frame church in the hushed woods of northern Minnesota. Each in its own way offers acoustical space where music soars.

The musicians were superficially different. They were playing different instruments: a soaring, immovable 94-stops-5-manual pipe organ built in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI versus portable troubadour instruments. And they were playing different genres: classical works by George Frideric Handel versus the music trove of country people and the working class, farmers, miners, merchants, teachers, traders, sailors, soldiers, fisher folk—one piece was the haunting Finnish waltz Metsakukkia.

They are, however, deeply alike in their tenacity and talent and willingness—call it a gift if you will—to make and share music. They are equals in another way that is significant to me. I am wary of fame as it manifests in the hothouse of 21st-century media and culture. They are not famous and their lack of fame bears no relationship to the degree of their talent. They do possess rich orbits of friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, students, fans, followers, and fortuitous listeners who, like me, are lifted by their music. I contend their achievement is better than fame.

Here are their names: Matthew Jorysz, assistant organist at Westminster Abbey, and the members of the trio Whirled Muse, violinist Eli Bissonett, percussionist Robin Anders, and guitarist Joey Kenig, who play as a group and solo mainly around northern Minnesota. I want to thank them for the music I chanced upon in two churches on two continents on two perfect summer Sundays.

 

Posted in West Saari Road

Flag Day, June 14, 2019

American flag mounted on a pickup truck, Ely, Minnesota, June 14, 2019, Flag Day. This flag is in violation of the Federal Flag Code, 36 U.S. Code 173.

Posted in West Saari Road

Gait

Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London, sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, unveiled 1973.

Bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves, heart, blood, the gauzy envelope of skin, cerebellum, signals firing along the rail line of the spine—just some of the exquisite processes working in harmony that allow me to get out of bed in the morning and go about my bipedal day. So easy to take for granted and I have.

The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in London is heroic not just because its subject was a hero but because it portrays the man as mortal. His colossal frame is tilting and he leans on his cane. It was a Sunday in May, the day I took the photo of Churchill, and Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square, and the maze of sidewalks in central London were packed with people in all stages of gait. It was my first day ever in London. I was in that special state of traveler’s euphoria—a condition of mind I love—seeing landmarks I’d read and heard about for years. It hardly mattered that my feet were killing me. There lurched Winston Churchill, and if I can imbue a bronze statue with feelings, he and I shared a moment of insight that comes only with age. The walking machine will fail with wear and tear and time. And we noted with a wink the foolish young people scurrying past their national hero and me, taking their gait for granted.

Posted in Five Hundred Words or Less

Birding the Apocalypse In and Around Villa Juárez, Sonora

IMG_0755

Industrial-scale agriculture on the coastal plain of Sonora.

Day One, March 5, 2019

We left Alamos at 9 a.m. on our adventure to the Sea of Cortez estuaries, isolated igneous hills, towns, villages, and the raped coastal plain of Sonora. We stopped in Navojoa to shop for a few groceries and get money. As is often the case when traveling anywhere, our errands became a time sink. We had to go, for example, to several banks before one would spit out our money.

We didn’t have far to go. Only an hour and a half—if one had planned wisely not to stop in Navojoa. Our idea was to spend two nights at the Hotel Perla (which, at my request, we had inspected on a previous trip) in the farm town of Villa Juárez. We’d be close to all our destinations and could get up-and-out early to bird.

Villa Juárez was founded in 1943 and was initially called Colonia Irrigación. It is an urban consequence of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution and its economy revolves around industrial-scale agriculture. The town reminds me of Topsy, the valiant slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew up fast and haphazardly with no guidelines or advocates, who said, “I s’pect I just grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”

The town sits amid a maze of canals churning at this season with water from the Río Mayo. Water everywhere for crops, not so reliably for people: While we were there, parts of town were without water and trucks were driving around filling rooftop tanks. A hardscrabble place—dusty streets, concrete-block houses, hard-packed dirt yards, ag-related businesses, big lots with farm implements and anhydrous ammonia tanks, and a surplus of grandiosely bland governmental buildings erected for who knows what purpose and a few appearing to be abandoned.

The town seems not rich, not alarmingly poor whose citizens work and work some more to make ends meet in a social and economic system that affords few escape routes. In this way Villa Juárez is like millions of other towns around the world. I think one of the most important things we as human beings can provide our offspring is the option of escape. Stay if you truly wish, fling out if you have the desire, initiative, curiosity, and the means. Often it is the means—education, financial resources—that is lacking.

IMG_0702

Ana Luisa (right) and her daughter Perla.

We had lunch at Ana Louisa’s where she and her daughter Perla (not named for the hotel or vice versa) lavished us with good cheer, good service, and good food. Perla about whom I wish I knew more would make a great study in options and opportunity. She is a U.S. citizen but like many Hispanic Americans has never learned English. She lives part of the year in Villa Juárez to be close to members of her family then spends June to October in Juneau, Alaska, working in a salmon processing facility. Assuming she makes about $12 an hour working 12-hour days, she earns much more than the average wage in Mexico, which ranges from about $13 to $19 a day. I am not sure a job in a fish-processing factory qualifies as an escape. But I can’t impose my definition of escape on Perla who does have options. These are the things that clatter around in my brain when we have wonderful but fleeting encounters with Mexicans we meet when we are out birding.

But before we got to town, we had the birders’ serendipitous delight. On the highway a few kilometers before the Villa Juárez turnoff, David saw a bird on a wire. He veered to the road shoulder, braked, backed up. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! Such a beautiful, winsome bird from my heartland of Texas. For several giddy moments we stood on the shoulder as cars and trucks whizzed by. This individual was off course on its northbound journey by at least fifteen hundred kilometers; I admit I fret that such vagabonds will never make it back to where they belong.

Scissortail

The vagabond Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Photo by David Smith.

After lunch we headed to some ponds near town David had seen on Google Earth. We thought they might be wastewater treatment ponds (magnets for birds). Instead they are aggregate pits filled with water—perhaps irrigation water is diverted into the lagoons for temporary storage, who knows. Many things in Mexico remain a mystery to me. There was nothing much beautiful about this landscape. Fields forever, dusty roads, scruffy shrubs, trash, and—another mystery about Mexico—piles of broken-up concrete from some failed or demolished structure, who knows. Escombros—rubble—is the word for these piles. I see these heaps all over Mexico except in the wildest, most remote places. Looking at this debris makes my head hurt. How can so many construction projects devolve into abandoned wreckage?

IMG_0721

Escombros.

We had a great time in this wasteland. David, who has a vastly superior eye than I for vines and shrubs whose flowers and fruits attract insects and birds, spotted a rambling mass of climbing milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides, growing by the first lagoon on our excursion. Its clusters of white flowers look nondescript from a distance but are beautiful up close. Butterflies are attracted to the nectar.

We were enjoying this and other nuances of the landscape when a pack of dogs from a nearby dwelling or industrial equipment compound—it was hard to tell which and perhaps it was both—came bounding and barking toward us. Their ranks grew, as more dogs kept streaming out onto the road, at least a dozen, pups of various ages, females, males. Some of the males were even neutered, a rare practice in most of Mexico. They were handsome, reminiscent of Rhodesian ridgebacks, and well cared for and bluffing. They were in fact hilarious, wanting almost to be petted but shy and skittish.

IMG_0715

Bluff.

The road to the next lagoon passed through this compound, where a woman blank of expression was standing by the fence watching us. We smiled. She smiled back. We explained we were birdwatchers and that we got a big kick out of the dogs. Well, actually I don’t know the equivalent in Spanish for getting a big kick out of something. So I probably said something like “¡Disfrutamos los perros!” or “¡Qué padre los perros—son muy divertidos!”—Spanish that probably sounded stiff as a board to her. Her smile got bigger and the dogs leapt and whirled and barked around our car. Just around the bend by the lagoon was a cattle pen containing half a dozen cows. This enclosure was constructed of scavenged lumber, posts, cardboard, barbed wire, and hardware. It looked like it would fall over with a shove.

IMG_0706

Cows in a rickety pen.

Least Grebe

One of the Least Grebes in the lagoon. Photo by David Smith.

We spent about an hour birding around this lagoon. The stars of the show were three Least Grebes who I coaxed into a frenzy by playing their rapid stuttering chatter. Tiny wind-up-toy birds, shiny black with piercing yellow eyes, they became whirling aquatic dervishes.

Earlier we had stopped at the Hotel Perla to secure a room for two nights, a superfluous exercise. We were the only guests the first night, and one of three the next. In the evening, back at the hotel, we sat outside under a semi-dilapidated palapa drinking some beers and making a bird list, while a friendly woman married to some member of the establishment pushed her little daughter on a tricycle up and down the concrete parking lot.

57352256724__EAC4DC84-7728-4448-B9F2-940135055FFA

Our room at the Hotel Perla.

My description of the Hotel Perla is by no means a reproach. We have stayed in and will encounter in the future similar places throughout Mexico and we will go back to the Perla. The décor was simultaneously garish and Spartan. The bedding consisted of a brilliant purple polyester bedspread with a neon-green fitted sheet of some indescribable filmy fabric, no top sheet, and two flattened pillows. There was one bath towel, no bath soap, no toilet paper. After we asked the man on duty—a friendly, ecstatic, and strangely challenged individual—if he could round up a missing showerhead for the pipe sticking out of the shower wall and he returned with one that did not fit, we decided it would be simpler to go out and buy the bath soap and toilet paper. The water was hot—the most important factor in any hotel all over the world—even if it poured out of a pipe. The owners were cordial. The surfaces were clean. It was quiet. It cost $18 a night. Our man on duty had the most endearing manner of leaping and twirling before performing his next task. And the Virgin of the Guadalupe in her grotto twinkled each night with a halo of lights.

IMG_0727

Virgin of the Guadalupe, guardian of the Hotel Perla.

Day Two, March 6, 2019

We left the Hotel Perla at dawn and drove back to the highway to see if perhaps the wayward Scissortail was still around. Negative. In order to head back toward the coast, David turned into the municipal garbage dump to turn around. Birds like dumps, so we lingered for David to take some photographs. A man on a motorbike drove into the dump—either an employee or a person looking for useful items. A garbage truck pulled out to go pick up a load. Cattle egrets, like white-robed angels, pirouetted on mounds of trash. Even a garbage dump is beautiful in the gilded light of sunrise.

IMG_0729

Sunrise at the municipal garbage dump.

On the highway we passed an abandoned cotton gin we’ve seen on numerous other occasions that always makes me think we have been hurled across space to the Delta of Mississippi and men walking on the road shoulder wearing white boots and carrying a shovel over their shoulders going to manage irrigation water in the fields.

We were headed for estuaries and mudflats on the Sea of Cortez where shorebirds, herons, egrets, pelicans, gulls, and other costal birds congregate as the tides recede. Our destinations are poised between two ragged fishing towns—Paredón Colorado and Paredoncito. I love coastal birding but I find coastal Sonora and marine fishing as a way of life to be so stark and inscrutable that I don’t have the language to describe it, and if I made a flailing attempt it would be unfair to the people who live and work there. I do like to eat seafood and we had a fabulous lunch of fresh crab and shrimp tostadas at El Mirador in Paredón Colorado. We were the only clients sitting in the sprawling palapa—this is an establishment that caters to weekend visitors from nearby cities like Ciudad Obregón. The young woman who waited on us was disinclined to make eye contact or smile. Perhaps she was afraid her shellacked purple-red lipstick would crack.

IMG_0763

American Oystercatchers (the clown-like birds) and more subtle dowitchers.

The attractions of coastal birding are many. The pastime requires a telescope to see faraway birds and to focus closely on plumage and other anatomical details for tricky identifications. Looking through a telescope blocks peripheral vision. The distractions of the world fade away. It becomes a quiet Zen experience, like snorkeling amid a coral reef.

The species of birds that occur in estuarine zones are beautiful, some spectacularly so (Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer), others subtly so (sandpipers, gulls, terns, dowitchers, curlews). The subtle ones can be a challenge to identify. A clutch of Red Knots in winter plumage, a skittering group of Dunlins, also winter-clad, with their droopy bills, a lone Sanderling dashing like a mad Sherlock at the edge of the foamy surf. I feel a small triumph when I can pick these birds out of a crowd and put a name on them.

Before returning for the evening to the Perla, we went back out on the highway for another Scissortail check when we encountered a spectacular mob of blackbirds swirling, perching, swirling again, clashing and bickering for priority perches on the wires and armature of large electrical poles. Of this assembly the most stunning and entertaining were the Yellow-headed Blackbirds—jet black bodies with brilliant yellow heads and breasts and flashing white wing patches—making their medley of hoarse, rasping calls. They are described on the Audubon website as perhaps “the worst song of any North American bird”—an assessment with which I do not agree.

We went again to turn around in the municipal dump. This time a young couple came vrooming in on their motorbike. They stopped a moment to chat. Where were they from? I asked. Bayajorit, they said, a village a few kilometers away at the base of an isolated igneous hill on the coastal plain where we planned to go birding on our way home. What brings you to the dump? I asked. They come regularly, they explained, to scavenge for discarded food to feed their chickens. What an excellent idea, I said.

IMG_0823

Sunset from the rooftop of the Hotel Perla.

The light was getting golden. We returned to watch a fiery sunset from the roof of the Perla with our evening beers. A Merlin on a mission blasted by in the twilight, a fine bird to end the day.

The bonus before we adjourned for bed was meeting Victor, a long-haul trucker whom we met in the parking lot. His big, new, shiny white tractor was parked next to our car. We struck up a conversation. He is from the state of Morelos and has traveled all over Mexico for his job. He loves Mexico and its varied and stunning landscapes. We concurred and told him that we also travel far and wide in his wonderful country. He takes a lot of photos on his smart phone. He has a superb eye. His photos of landscapes and cloudscapes were beautiful.

IMG_0831

Victor, the bonus, and David, and Victor’s rig.

IMG_0816

Harvesting Brussels spouts.

Earlier in the day on one of the maze of canal roads crisscrossing fields we had stopped to watch a crew of workers who were standing on platforms on a hulking harvester. They were processing by hand Brussels sprouts as the machine slowly lumbered through the field plucking the stalks and feeding them up on conveyors to the hands of the workers. In the morning, Victor told us he would pick up his refrigerated trailer full of Brussels sprouts and haul them to the border for export to the U.S. market.

 

 

Posted in Mexico

Fotos ocasionales de México

IMG_0645

A public health announcement on the wall of a clinic in the village of Copala, Sinaloa, February 26,2019.

The messages: “Social network – Prevent maternal death.” “The uterus gives life and is fragile like a rose. Get your PAP smear!”

The red dirt trench and pile of rocks are characteristic of unpaved roads in villages and rural areas around Mexico, which seem to be in a perpetual state of repair or disrepair—it is often hard to know which.

 

Posted in Mexico