No More Frontiers

This will be part one of an ongoing series I want to write so I can flush out a more complete idea I’ve been kicking around lately. Hopefully, if all the parts congeal, I’ll have enough for a whole essay. Do people still write those for fun, or did that go out with the 19th century?

One of my favorite things on the internet is google maps. It’s a bit conflicting, because I don’t like google, but I love maps. I’ve always loved maps. I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old, I got this simple atlas in the mail for some reason. I would bring it to school and just sit there during our reading period just looking at it. I don’t know what the appeal was. The maps were very simple (nothing like the modern day google equivalents); they had major cities marked with relative population sizes, major mountains, and most water ways and bodies of water were marked. I always had a good imagination, so maybe it was just about imagining all these places, as though somehow the act of seeing their positions among everything else made them more real than just colored polygons on a page.

Now, with google maps, I tend to do the same thing, only on a scale my 12 year old self could never have imagined. Instead of 2D polygons, I can see an actual satellite photo of just about any square mile I want. A road in North America? I can probably view street level photos of it. Terrain? I know exactly how that river basin ties in with the surrounding land. But it’s not the technology, or what I can see that strikes me. It’s the places on the map to which I tend to (almost subconsciously) find myself panning and zooming. Every time I go on one of my map adventures, it’s the same places, or at least the same types of places. It wasn’t until recently that I even really thought about the bigger picture, or what might be the draw of those particular places on the map. Even now, I have a hard time putting it into words despite having the deep internal sense of what it is.

In college, I created a project for a class on neoplatonism (esoteric name, interesting class). I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I do remember it was pretty open, and projects from other people were all over the map (no pun intended). My project consisted of photos I had dug up from a very specific set of places on my map adventures. One I remember was of a small old church, built on the rocky wasteland of South Georgia Island. It’s a small island in the far south Atlantic, ESE of Argentina and the Falklands. When I found it, I thought it was so odd (and kind of amazing) that anyone would build anything there. No one lives there any more, but at some time, someone must have lived there. Someone found this island, nearly in Antarctic waters, presumably while on some oceanic journey and thought to set up a settlement there.

So a one-off island in the middle of the ocean doesn’t really make a trend, but I’ve found dozens of places like this, and I’m sure I could (or maybe I will) find many more. Not all are abandoned like South Georgia, but they all illicit that, “who found this? Why did they build something there? What was that like?” type of wonderment in me. I’ve come to realize that it is that vague attribute, subjective as it may be, that ties all these places together. Another of my favorite geographical areas is the Hudson Bay, northern Quebec and Labrador. I find the same things there: An ostensibly inhospitable environment dotted with settlements, many of which (still settled or not) are relatively old. They were frontiers of exploration for someone at one time. Be it the native peoples who first spread out there, or the European explorers who followed centuries later. Neither group had any idea what was there. They had to risk everything to find it and experience it.

Are there any more of those frontiers today?