Small world

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Google Earth has been a godsend for Alene. Unlike me, she doesn’t travel well — and even if she did — when she has the time, she doesn’t have the money — and when she doesn’t have the time, she still doesn’t have the money. But she does have a PhD in geography — and Google Earth is the ultimate time waster for a geographer.

In Our Time History Archive listening today took us through the Byzantine Empire to the Silk Road. Ah, the very mention of the Silk Road makes us misty-eyed — even though neither of us has traveled in central Asia. The Google Earth screenshot captures the heart of the region crossed by the Silk Road and its branches — and also several little pieces of Alene’s life.

The mountains to the south of the Caspian Sea are home to Zanda, Alene’s most beloved fictional character of her own creation. To the northeast, lies the remnants of the Aral Sea. In the 1990s, as a graduate student and then a professor Alene learned and taught of the ecological disaster in the making — the disaster that has now been realized. Farther east, the Tian Shan Mountains were her favorite Google Earth destination about five years ago — and we were very disappointed that Almaty lost its bid (to Beijing!) to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. At the heart of it all is Samarkand — the very name of which suggests adventure.

“The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time” — so said James Hutton, as he contemplated the geologic formation at Siccar Point in Scotland. Alene felt it as she looked into the Grand Canyon. And we feel it as we look at maps.

Seattle was founded in 1851, when the first permanent white settlers landed at Alki. That was just yesterday. Yes, a lot as happened since then. But right now it feels like yesterday. Alene and I have spent the last few days absorbed in pre-Roman and Roman British history. And now the Silk Road beckons — and the world feels smaller in both time and space.

Yesterday evening, we each took a walk in the gale that blew into Seattle from the north. It was just after sunset. And perhaps we could have just turned in for the evening, but we were restless — and Alene had been sitting at a desk all day. And we thought of Patagonia — and all the windy walks I took with Allen. It’s spring there now. Meanwhile, Henry Worsley is crossing Antarctica alone. You can follow his progress at

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