Since childhood I have been fascinated by maps. I have designed imaginary worlds, reflecting on the ways in which terrain shapes culture. I have examined maps to look at mountains, valleys, deserts, swamps, rivers, plains, hills, and plateaus, matching them with language distributions, population densiteis, and political maps to see their connections. In my studies I have found that terrain is an important but often neglected aspect of life. It is important because the terrain on which we live our lives (and not just physical terrain) vitally affects us, and it is often ignored because terrain is simply “there” and people do not notice it until or unless somethings goes wrong.
Let us begin with physical terrain. Two of the types of soil that are the most productive for crops are volcanic soils and floodplains. The biggest problem with both types of soil, though, is that they are in great risk of natural disasters. Floodplains, well, flood when the river gets too high. Volcanic soils are peroidically covered in lava or volcanic ash. That is what makes the soils rich in nutrients, but also what makes life in such areas a risk. Because human beings are human beings (and not terribly wise about working with the terrain) we try to dam up rivers, or canalize them, straightening them out (and causing a host of natural problems as a result (see the Kissimmee River in Florida or the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles), or forcing them to keep their current channel rather than letting them shift and move (as in the Mississippi), or in putting levees to protect the floodplains we so foolishly build on. And that’s just floodplains. I have not even touched upon the foolish ways in which we try to irrigate deserts and end up with massive salinity problems as a result.
Why is that we think we are God, able to terraform our earth according to our will, rather than seeking to shape our life to live in some kind of harmony with the world around us, to understand its rhythms and its ways and to change accordingly? We did not create this earth. We did not lay down its rules or set its foundations. This world, and the universe it rests in, is like a laboratory for morality for beings with cosmic ambitions and puny powers (fortunately for us, and everything else). We were commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but to do so means that our children and their children and so on will eventually fill the earth to match what “carrying capacity” exists on the planet. The command to fill the earth with children, repeated numerous times in scripture (see Genesis 1:28, 9:7, 22:17, for example) itself implies the reality of judgment. The fact that we were told to multiply and fill up a physical world with limited space and limited resources meant that this physical world was always intended to be temporary, along with our time on it. And yet we try to use population control and other means to deny this judgment, or to put it off far past our own days on this earth, so that we do not have to face the reality of accountability.
And physical terrain is rich with mysteries. I myself have lived my life for the most part in reclaimed swamps, flat lands that become easily inundated with rain and that drain poorly. Such swamps are often home to animals like mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators in their natural habitat, and the manmade subdivisions are continually seeking to return to their natural state of lazy rivers and swamps, no matter how mankind tries to turn such territory into the waiting room of the grave and a tourist’s paradise. As much as we would like to have our physical works endure, they are temporary marks on a temporary planet, and our monuments and cenotaphs get swallowed up by the rivers and the seas, the deserts and the jungles, and generations are left to write epic poems about our hubris by thinking that our names could last forever on this earth, all the while committing the same sins of pride and arrogance that they mock in the generations that came before them.
But it is not only physical terrain that we neglect. Perhaps it is most unforgiveable that we neglect physical terrain, seeing as we look at it, and walk or drive on it, and live on it, every second of our lives. But terrain is much more than on the surface. I once was an undergraduate researcher in the Tsunami Research Group at the University of Southern California, a time made somewhat frustrating by my difficulties in wrapping my head around wave data. But it was useful for my studies on terrain by introducing me to the powerful effects of bathymetry, the terrain of the seafloor, which shapes the development and manifestation of tsunamis. There are many harbors whose shape amplifies and focuses the energy of tsunamis, making them very dangerous in the areas where (because of ships and buildings) most humans congregate. One would think, in light of the past decade’s massive tsunami problems, that this would be an area people would seek to understand well and counteract, but that does not appear to be the case. Every disaster we seem to be caught unaware, despite the many warnings.
Another sort of terrain that I am very interested in is mental terrain. It is my belief (informed by a fair amount of reading on the suject) that our brains are powerfully affected by our activities, so that they shape themselves according to our behaviors. We begin life with some ruts and tendencies, but our own habits turn our brains into a massively complicated network of connections, based upon those activities and subjects of knowledge we consider worthwhile or important. Likewise, problems like chronic depression permanently (or so it would seem) shape the terrain of the mind, giving it deep basins and canyons that are hard (if not impossible) to get ouf of except in fits of hypomania. Just like our physical landscape, our mental landscape itself has terrain. And since it does, we ought to examine it more closely, both to seek to ameliorate its burdens as well as to learn how we must go about living within it.
Perhaps someday we will be able to map the terrain of our minds, and know its dangers, just as we map the ground among us. Perhaps someday there will be a wise strategist like Sun Tzu who could analyze the mental tactics that one should take in various types of terrain. To some extent, our own rudimentary studies in the fields of communications and conflict resolution seek to make scouting missions ovr such mental and emotional terrain, but often not in a systematic way. We ignore the terrains we live in at our peril—how long until we become wise about the ground on which we live and in which we move, and its dangers as well as its opportunities?