Alternate Earths

The world map is an especially tenured genre of map, one that makes an exciting promise: entirety. Not just a country or a continent, but the entire world. And while telescopy and space travel have expanded our sense of this entirety, our grander view of the cosmos also puts our smallness into sharper relief. Humanity is still essentially earthbound, and so our planet persists as a mythic icon of an intimate largeness we wish to understand. Remember the first time you encountered the uncanniness of Google Earth, its simultaneous endlessness and finitude, accuracy and imprecision. How easy and enjoyable it was to get lost in it, to spend hours exploring only to come out of your trance no closer to beholding all there is to behold.

This is not a new sensation. On Abraham Ortelius’ well-known 1570 world map, on a banner below Antarctica, there is a quotation attributed to Cicero: Quid ei potest videri magnum in rebus humanis, cui aeternitas omnis, totius que mundi nota sit magnitudo. “What can seem great in human affairs to he, for whom all eternity, and the vastness of the entire world, is known?” Representations of the earth are simultaneously flattering and humbling. If you can see the entire world, what does that make you? Birds cannot fly high enough to see the entire earth, so the perspective must be a god’s eye. That is, until you put down the atlas or your phone and come back to earth, so to speak.

This same language is often used to describe the experience of a good book—that divine absorption when we suspend our disbelief, the bittersweet enlargement we feel when the experience is over. And then there’s the way we recognize reality in fiction and fiction in reality. We read to broaden our world but also to reinforce it, sometimes to the destruction of others. The earth is round, surely, but has been argued—often elaborately and compellingly—to be flat, hollow, expanding, eternal, illusory, embedded in platonic solids, resting on the back of a turtle that’s resting on the back of a larger turtle, and so on. The earth has seven continents and five oceans, but these are constantly shifting. The earth’s seven continents were once one, but this too is an argument, a narrative constructed from fossil records and glacial deposits. Many argue the earth is headed for destruction while others deny this claim. Many argue the earth is 4.5 billion years while others, less than 10,000.

Earth as planet, resource, globe, home, miracle, stage, habitat, mother, matter, worry, birthplace, and resting place. The earth is the ground beneath our feet, but it is anything but sure. There is always the possibility of an alternate earth, one that inverts, flattens, or otherwise undoes this sense of groundedness and centrality. The question is not whether alternate earths exist, but which you choose to inhabit.

We posed this question to the contributors of our seventh issue, and they have written into this multiplicity, this largeness. In their work, the earth is a familiar blue-green water-land, but it’s also a boulder hurling through a cluttered universe that may or may not form a boundary with nothingness. It is the seventh sensual realm, just above hells, animals, hungry ghosts and demons. This planet is constantly shifting, sometimes violently. California slides partially into the ocean. Lemuria is swallowed by flame. Florida happens everywhere. And we watch, from satellites, high atop the tree of life, history, a Motel 6, on the edge of the city as it is about to sink, or, all of the above.

-Nick Greer & Thomas Mira y Lopez


We ask our contributors to construct or respond to a map, but what defines a map and how a contributor chooses to interpret its territory will vary radically with each piece. Here is how things played out for each:

Mario Alejandro Ariza’s “Twice I’ve Been Told Not the Take the Sea Level Rise Personally” maps Ariza’s hometown of Miami in relation to its tides, which, as climate change leads to rising sea levels, threaten to radically alter the landscape and its inhabitants. On Martin Vargic’s map of the world if the polar ice caps were to melt, the city is completely underwater, as is all of Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast, which stabs its way into the United States along the Mississippi River-turned-Gulf, all the way to Kentucky. Vargic, a “child prodigy” of cartography, specializes in alternate world maps, especially ones related to the imperial past and its unstable future. On his website, Halcyon Maps, he sells maps on the “Future Geopolitical Evolution of Europe”, the theoretical “Effects of Nuclear War on the United States”, and the “History of School Shootings in the USA” alongside much more light-hearted maps like “Where Are Animated Movies Set?” though the answer to that question implicates plenty of locales that are destroyed in his other maps

Dan Beachy-Quick’s “Totality of Spheres” is a version of the geocentric model of the universe outlined in Ptolemy’s Almagest (c. 150 CE). This treatise formalized the idea that a planet’s motion is defined by its deferent, its orbit around the centermost earth, and its epicycle, a smaller circular rotation used to explain retrograde motion. This concept of circles within circles within circles became so ingrained throughout European and Arab astronomy that it survived well after Copernicus published his retort, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in 1543. One of those slow on the uptake was Bartolomeu Velho, whose 1568 Cosmographia features a Ptolemaic solar system lovingly shaded with gold-fleck paint, including the stars that signify the Firmamento between Saturno and Celum Empireum (“the empire of heaven”).

Jess Bier’s “Aerial Photography Without the Airplane” is paired with a photograph of three pigeons with miniature cameras attached to their breasts. The essay traces a history of mapping from above, from the cameras Dr. Julius Neubronner patented and attached to pigeons to hot-air balloons to Google Maps. Given that the essay maps these various technologies, the image that introduces it is not of a map but the mapmaker.

Liz Breazeale’s “The Lemurians” responds to an unknown artist’s map of the lost continent of Lemuria. The map places Lemuria in the Pacific Ocean, directly to the south of another lost continent, Mu. Lemuria is roughly the size of Australia and approximates the shape of the United States, if one could only draw that country with one’s thumb. In place of Hawai’i, there is an island dubbed Merman Island; in place of Japan, Monster Island. The word Deviant runs along the southern border of the continent, although it’s unclear whether that refers to a tectonic plate or a region of the continent. Although Lemuria’s existence is mythical, long debunked, the idea of deviance—of what is subsumed and what is exposed—tremors throughout Breazeale’s story.

Julie Carr’s “The Width of the Line at the Border”is an attempt, or the beginnings of an attempt, to map the writer’s family history through the geographies where its whiteness, “that core of badness,” has left its mark. This journey takes her along the northern counties of Indiana, whose wetlands are obfuscated by a friendly, pastel checkerboard of counties in the New Topographical Atlas and Gazetteer of Indiana, 1870. When the territory became a state in 1816, these counties were still under Kickapoo Indian control, as seen in Fielding Lucas Jr.’s 1817 map of the state, but this only lasted until 1819 when Benjamin Parke commissioned a cessation treaty, the lands exchanged for $20,000 paid annually over ten years.

S. Brook Corfman’s “Nine Meteorites” are exactly what their title says: nine pieces of rare, obtuse mass that managed to survive the passage to the surface, not just intact but complete and iridescent.

Brenda Iijima’s “from Provisional Autonomies & Oceans” is paired with a 1980 Soviet map of Treasure Island, an artificial island in the San Francisco Bay. As revealed in The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, Soviet cartographers created thousands of intricately detailed maps in what John Davies, the book’s author, calls “the biggest cartographic enterprise of the 20th century.” The maps served as a “framework for organizing much of what the Soviets knew about the world” in preparation for communism’s spread across the world. An alternative earth, indeed. Or, as Iijima’s narrator puts it, “I register the alienation of the world, our western paradigms dissolve.” For more on Treasure Island, please see Adam Tipps Weinstein’s “The Strange Ratio of Treasure Island” from our fifth issue, Treasure.

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s “Becoming” is an exploration of the cyclic cosmology depicted in the Buddhist bhavacakra, which translates, among many variations, to “the wheel of life.” The four concentric circles that comprise the wheel represent, from innermost out, 1) the three poisons, 2) karma, 3) the six domains of the realm of kāma (“desire”), and 4) the twelve nidānas (“link” or “cause”). Clutching the rim of the wheel is a deity variously interpreted as Yama, god of death, or Māra, a sensuous demon who tries to tempt Buddha away from the path to Enlightenment. Accounts of Māra shift from text to text, the most dramatic of which depict the demon attacking Buddha riding an elephant and commanding a “tenfold” army of grotesque creatures, accompanied by three daughters Taṇhā (“thirst”), Ārati (“discontent”), and Raga (“attachment”).

Sara Nović’s “Empyrean” responds to a work known as the Flammarion engraving, made by an unknown artist and appearing in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire. In the engraving, a man pokes his head and arm through what appears to be the semi-permeable membrane of earth’s atmosphere. A caption tells us that the scene details a medieval missionary coming upon the point where the earth and sky meet, a point that has ramifications in Nović’s story. In 1877, eleven years before Flammarion’s book, the German botanist Wilhelm Pfeffer proposed the semi-porousness of cell membranes. NASA has suggested that membranes might help exploration of Mars as the structures could extract carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to help propel rockets or rovers.

Philip Schaefer’s “Three Eventualities” are poems borne of the Continental Divide, its potential geologic violence and the constant political violence of the country that makes the greatest claim to it. The northernmost segment in the United States goes through Glacier National Park, which in 1917, at the time of the USGS Topographical Survey, had just been upgraded from a forest preserve to a national park after persistent lobbying from the Great Northern Railway Company. This was actually the second such recategorization pushed by the company, the first coming in 1897, just two years after Blackfoot sold the land to the US government on the stipulation that the land remain public. Shortly thereafter, the Great Northern (under a subsidiary company) built a network of alpine hotels and chalets on the land in an attempt to brand the park as “America’s Switzerland,” sending Blackfeet on a tour of the East Coast as “the Indians of Glacier National Park.” As part of the publicity stunt, the Blackfeet slept in teepees on the roof of New York City’s McAlpin Hotel and performed war dances at the Travel and Vacation Show.

Natalie Vestin’s “Blót” responds to a map of the Norse mythological world. The map posits Yggdrasil, a monumental ash tree, at its heart, a structure that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. In terms of axis mundi, the sites that connect heaven and earth, a tree is a common symbol. Think the Bodhi tree or Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Other symbols that serve as axes mundi include: a ladder, a staircase, a pagoda, a skyscraper. According to a cursory Google search, another type of axis mundi, the center of the earth can be found at: Tenochtitlan, Mexico; Ankara, Turkey; Ciudad Mitad del Mundo in Spain; Center of the World Drive in Felicity, California. The results also state that there is no center of the earth, but only an expanding universe. That the center of the earth is indeed the Sun. Or that the center of the earth is, well, the earth, though that one figures depends upon which earth you live.


In addition to the standard bio, we ask that our contributors share a location that represents them in some way. Collected together they comprise the genius loci of this issue.

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