Common section

Chapter 21

Ten Things You Can Forget

In This Chapter

bulletBooting the Bermuda Triangle

bulletLeaving The Land of the Midnight Sun behind

bulletShuffling aside the Seven Seas

bulletCanceling membership to the Flat Earth Society

I f reading about all of this geography stuff has left your brain low on disk space, then you may wish to delete some files and free up some memory. Accordingly, here are ten geography-related items you can relegate to the recycle bin.

The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle is an imaginary area off the southeastern coast of the United States that has allegedly witnessed a disproportionately high number of strange and unexplained disappearances of boats, ships, and airplanes. Disagreement abounds as to its exact location. Most commonly, the Triangle is depicted as a hunk of Atlantic Ocean bounded by a line that extends from Bermuda to Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico and back to Bermuda. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names does not recognize “Bermuda Triangle” and has never indicated where it may be. This gives you complete license to place the Bermuda Triangle anywhere your little heart desires, and that is precisely what some people have done. Indeed, on some maps the Triangle isn’t even triangular.

The term first appeared in a February 1964 article (“The Deadly Bermuda Triangle”) in Argosy magazine. Several other articles on the subject subsequently appeared (along with books and TV documentaries), many suggesting the region is mysterious and dangerous. If you’ve seen some of this stuff and found the whole thing rather spooky, rest assured you are not alone. Given widespread public interest in paranormal activity, the Bermuda Triangle has become something of a geographical poster child for enthusiasts of the occult.

In reality, the Bermuda Triangle is much ado about nothing. The vast majority of the supposedly abnormal disappearances have very normal explanations, and some of the most famous incidents occurred well outside the Triangle. Several years ago, a researcher compiled an extensive list of sinkings and crashes, based on Lloyds of London accident reports and similar reliable sources, and plotted them on a map. If anything, the data show that the Triangle is remarkable for its lack of mishaps and is practically the safest part of the western Atlantic Ocean.

Cold Canadian Air

It happens several times each winter. I’m watching a weather report on TV and the map indicates frigid temperatures up in parts of Canada, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. With squinting eyes and stern gaze, the usually smiling weather-person glumly warns that “cold Canadian air” is on the way. Cold Canadian air — have you ever heard that term? If you live in the U.S., pay extra special attention to weather forecasts between November and March. Sooner or later you’re going to be told that cold Canadian air is on the way. I guarantee it.

Given the imminent arrival of cold “Canadian air,” it seems to me that you have every right to say “Darn those Canadians! Why don’t they keep their cold air to themselves?” Of course, “Canadian air” does not exist. Neither does German air, Pakistani air, Ethiopian air, etc. Air is air. It doesn’t belong to anybody. “Air space,” the atmospheric area that is vertically overhead a country, is another matter. That belongs to Canada, according to international law. Thus, aircraft of foreign countries are not supposed to fly over Canada without the Canadians’ permission. But Canada owns the physical space, not the air itself.

If the air over Canada is very, very cold, rest assured the Canadian people had nothing to do with it. And if that same cold air is coming your way, again rest assured that there is no nefarious neighbor to your north who is responsible. If you feel like blaming someone, or something, then consult Chapter 9, wherein you will come across a couple of environmental factors. Cold “Canadian Air?” Forget about it.

“The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” The plain (or meseta) that occupies central Spain is among the driest parts of the country. Madrid gets about 17 inches of rainfall on average per year. Valladolid, a city in another part of the plain, averages a little less than 15 inches. But it’s another story in Galicia, the mountainous area in extreme northwestern Spain. Santiago de Compostela, the world-famous Galician center of pilgrimage, averages about 56 inches of rain per year. As moisture-laden air enters Galicia from the Atlantic, it rises to cross the mountains, and in doing so cools, condenses, and forms rain. By the time this air reaches the central plain, it’s low on moisture, so rain is relatively scarce. I know it makes for poor poetry, but “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the mountains in Galicia.” You don’t have to memorize that if you do not want to. But as regards to “The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain”, unless you’re preparing for a role in your town’s production of My Fair Lady, forget about it.

“Coming Out of Nowhere”

Watch a football game on TV and sooner or later somebody will “come out of nowhere.” Typically, a quarterback drops back to pass, spots a wide receiver in the open far downfield, and heaves the ball. It looks like a sure completion. But at the last millisecond, the cornerback or safety lunges to deflect the pass and save the day. The crowd screams and so does the play-by-play announcer: “Wow! He came out of nowhere to make that play!” It seems athletes have this knack for “coming out of nowhere” to do something spectacular. And it’s not just football. Hockey, baseball, and basketball players do it, too. Usually, it involves a great play on defense, but not always.

In the years before instant replay, I wondered how somebody could be nowhere, yet come out of that non-location to perform a feat of great athleticism. It was one of the great mysteries of geography. I figured, maybe the person coming out of nowhere was in one of those parallel universes they keep talking about on Star Trek reruns. But then along came instant replay and guess what? That defensive back was there all along. So there was no great mystery of geography after all. But that did create a new mystery — why do TV networks give fat contracts to blind play-by-play announcers? I’m still searching for an answer to that question.

Land of the Midnight Sun

Alaska is called the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” The future forty-ninth state became a U.S. territory in 1867 when, in the greatest real estate deal since Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated its purchase from the Russian government for $7.2 million. People thought Alaska was worthless and Seward was nuts, so they called Alaska “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Ice Box.” Either might have become the moniker, so you got to admit “Land of the Midnight Sun” sounds pretty good. But as far as truth-in-geography is considered, that’s another story.

For part of the year the sun does indeed shine at midnight north of the Arctic Circle. But only about 25 percent of Alaska is within that realm, and likewise only about 1 percent of Alaskans. Thus, if you want to get picky about it (and of course I do), the State’s nickname does not apply to 75 percent of its land and 99 percent of its people. Certainly, nights are very short over most of Alaska during the summer. Indeed, nighttime may be more like a prolonged twilight. But midnight sun? Sorry. That only works north of the Arctic Circle. And there’s one more detail that has been conveniently overlooked. Any locale that experiences midnight sun at one time of the year will also experience noon-time darkness at another time of year (see Chapter 7). “Land of the Noon-time Darkness?” Put that on your license plate! Actually, yes, I do get the point of it all. “Land of the Midnight Sun” is about image and tourism and putting your best foot forward. But as far as truth-in-geography is concerned, forget about it.

Tropical Paradise

Tropical + paradise. They go together like rocket + science, or banana + split. The genesis of this verbal union is, of course, The Book of Genesis from the Bible. Adam and Eve wore no clothes, so the Garden of Eden must have been warm. And since the Garden was a garden, it must have had a fair amount of rain. Warm + rain = tropical. Therefore, Paradise (capital P) was tropical.

Until fairly recent times, lots of people believed the biblical Paradise was real. That meant not only that the Bible was literally true concerning the Garden of Eden, but that it actually existed and was awaiting rediscovery. Some medieval world maps even showed an island off East Asia named Paradise. So when the early Spanish voyagers, thinking they had reached East Asia, encountered lush Caribbean islands, they truly believed they had found the tropical Paradise. Today, of course, “tropical paradise” has much more to do with tourism than theology. Typically, it appears in ads that encourage you to dispose of your disposable income by vacationing in some tropical destination.

It turns out, however, that just about every tropical paradise is a developing country with all of the social and economic problems that come with that title. Accordingly, many tropical resorts are a kind of compound that purposefully insulates affluent visitors from local realities. Please understand that this is not a put-down of those locales and certainly not of the people who live there. The residents tend to be honest, decent, hard-working, peace-loving people who are proud of where they come from. And as well they should. But with all due respect, just delete “tropical paradise” from your memory.

The Democratic Republic of . . .

Every country has an official name, and it usually differs from the name by which it is commonly called. Thus, Ireland is really The Republic of Ireland, and Thailand is really the Kingdom of Thailand, and so forth. Some of the “real” names are wonderfully evocative. Examples include The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Great names! But then there are other official names that I look at and think, “You gotta be kidding me.” Examples include The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (commonly called North Korea), The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Each of these countries is currently under a virtual dictatorship. In fact, what “democratic republics” seem to have in common is a lack of characteristics that most people associate with democracy,like periodic honest elections, secret ballots, and two or more honest-to-goodness political parties. Are we talking bona fide countries? Yep. But should they be called “Democratic Republics”? Let’s take a vote.

The Seven Seas

“The Seven Seas” is a colloquialism that roughly means “all of the world’s oceans.” You would figure that whomever coined the phrase must have counted something, but what? There are literally dozens of “Seas” around the world. Maybe it’s simply a matter of “The Eighty-four Seas” (or whatever) just not having the same poetic impact of “Seven Seas.” Someone suggested the term refers to the constituent seas of the Mediterranean Sea — like the Aegean Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and so forth. Trouble is, my atlas shows the Mediterranean contains at least eight lesser seas, so forget that.

Then there are the oceans. My atlas shows the Arctic Ocean, The North and South Pacific Oceans, The North and South Atlantic Oceans, The Indian Ocean, and . . . that’s it. Six. Some people speak of the “Antarctic Ocean” or the “Southern Ocean” (same water body), which would make seven. Indeed, there is a lot of water surrounding Antarctica. Its degree of coldness makes it ecologically distinct from adjacent oceans and is the prime rationale for separate status. But neither “Antarctic Ocean” nor “Southern Ocean” has ever achieved formal status, and therefore does not appear on world maps — at least not ones that take their reputations seriously. So what about “The Seven Seas?” My advice is that you simply say “the oceans.”

The Flat Earth Society

Some people just don’t get it. Which is to say yes, there really is a Flat Earth Society. See for yourself. Get on the Internet and do a key word search. All sorts of things will pop up under “Flat Earth Society” including an honest-to-goodness organization by that name. Many (most?) members are motivated by literal interpretation of Scripture. In the Gospels (Matthew 4:8; Luke 4:5), for example, Satan tempts Jesus by taking Him to the top of a very high mountain to see “all the kingdoms of the earth.” That would be theoretically possible on a flat Earth, but not on a sphere-like one.

There’s a certain logic to the flat Earth idea. Basic personal experience argues for it. And despite everything you know and trust about gravity, there’s still something odd about being upside down at the South Pole, isn’t there? Bona fide flat-Earthers feel the same way. They also believe all that photography from space showing a sphere-like Earth is a hoax — ditto for the space shuttle, at least with respect to orbiting the earth.

In any academic discipline, dissent and contrary thinking have a funny way of proving healthy. Goodness knows how many incredible discoveries have been made because somebody had the wisdom and the courage to go against the flow. But The Flat Earth Society? With all due respect to the faithful, it’s time to find another conspiracy theory.

“The Continent”

Europe is sometimes called The Continent. It’s one thing that Europe is even referred to as a continent, but The Continent? Puh-leaze! Europe is nothing more than a peninsula of Asia.

“Europe” comes from Europa, who, in Greek mythology, was a Phoenician princess who got carried off by Zeus in the form of a white bull, and by him became the mother of Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. No wonder people are mixed up about this “Europe” business. Actually, it was the ancient Greeks who coined the name and first placed it on their maps. And indeed in those days travel between, say, Southern Europe and Central Asia took so long and involved such perils that, for all intents and purposes, they might as well have been separate land masses. Culturally, Europe and Asia were separate worlds, too. But physically separate? Not on my map, nor even on that of the ancient Greeks. So is Europe a continent? As a matter of standard usage, yes. As a matter of geographic reality, no. And The Continent? Sounds to me like a matter of self-esteem — or lack thereof. As for you, forget about it.

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