Can you conceive of the entire Earth? If so, can you combine that with an awareness of your own place on it? It's a spiritual task, a self-stretcher, much like meditation. The poet Dale Favier writes:
If you want to find me an incipient scientist, find me a child of ten who, with all the force of her imagination, tries to conceive of the Earth, to really conceive of it, to feel it in her bones, as a ball flying through space. She fails, of course, but she tries again, and there's a prickle of euphoria and panic as she gets near it. And then she tries more, conceiving of it as both tiny – as we know it to be, an insignificant planet of an insignificant star – and as vast, as we know it to be, huger than anything our mammalian imaginations were ever designed to hold. Nothing, I would say, is more attractive to the mind that takes up science than this moth-like flutter at the burning light bulb of the inconceivable.
In my forties, I am still at work on this girl's task. I want to look out the window and see the whole earth.
The overture of Google Earth, which shows you the Earth-as-ball before it will zoom to "you," dramatizes the goal but can't do the work for me. To even begin, I must be in the landscape, seeing the cues that my mind can extend to form the larger picture.
Perhaps I stand on a beach in eastern Australia, and try to perceive the curvature of the earth, sense the locations of the other continents, and thus form an image in which I'm like St Exupéry's Little Prince, standing upright on top of a large ball. In fact, I can't even sense New Zealand, let alone distant North America. All I can do is know, from studying the geometry, where these continents are, how many degrees below the horizon and in what direction. With enough analysis I can point toward the ground and name a place on the far side of the planet that I am literally pointing to. This dialectic between spherical and Cartesian geometry is as close as a I get to grasping the entire earth together with a sense of "here." But sometimes it works.
The same obsession causes me to notice features of my location that nobody else finds interesting. Vancouver, for example, sits on dramatic natural boundaries in both directions. Obviously there's water to the west and land to the east, but the landscapes north and south are different in a way that helps me see large distances by looking out the window. South of Vancouver the West Coast is about mountains and large valleys, the latter defined by vast interior rivers like the Fraser, Columbia, and Sacramento. Look north from Vancouver, though, and everything changes. A bank of steep mountains comes right out to the coast, and marches along it from here to Alaska. This is a glacer-and-fjord landscape -- like you'll find in Chile, New Zealand, or Norway -- with virtually no flat land and few opportunites for settlement. The seam between these great landscapes is right at the city itself. Vancouver's southern boundary is the northernmost interior river, the Fraser. It's northern boundary is the southernmost fjord, Burrard Inlet.
This feature makes Vancouver a great vantage point. I can look either north or south and seem to perceive the full range of that landscape. I look at the great wall of mountains north of Vancouver and know what's behind them: 1000 miles of similar mountains walling off sea from land, pierced with fjords much like this one, all the way to Glacier Bay in Alaska. If I do this often enough, I can start to feel this reality, despite the limitations of what I can see.
So with this bit of knowledge it's as though I can actually perceive 1000 miles of coast. It doesn't get me a felt image of the earth; I still get only a corner of North America. And it's not a direct sensation, of course, like the Little Prince's view of the ball beneath him. It's knowledge hooked up to sensation, like a trailer to a truck, but in the right light it almost works. That, after all, is what Favier's little girl is doing: taking something she knows and trying to perceive it.
This, too, is why California will always be a nation to me, unitary and indivisible, regardless of the cultural waves that flow across it. For years I drove all over California as a consultant, and found myself rejoicing in the simplicity of the Central Valley, the long flat expanses that stretches north-south through the center of the state. Because the Valley is so easy to grasp as a single place, it gives California the structure of a cathedral: a great central hall with numerous lesser rooms around the edges. The coastal valleys and mountain passes are so many cloisters, easily sited in the mind with respect to this central immensity. To a sensual geographer, it's the Valley that makes California perceivable in its vastness from almost anywhere within it, so that the little girl's task, applied just to the state, is almost possible.