My grasp of geography was purely visual

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Whenever the huge map of the world was unrolled in front of my high school class, it was not so much exotic names of distant lands that caught my fancy, but rather the shape of land masses: brown mountain ranges extending swaglike across continents, and rivers drawing jittery lines through green or sand-colored plains. I saw drama in the wondrous forms and patterns on our earth's surface.

Take Europe, for instance. You couldn't help noticing that big creature, made up of Sweden and Norway, about to pounce on the puny peninsula called Denmark. That small country didn't seem to have a chance against the massive assailant. Ah, but look at the sharp tip of Skagen pointed at its attacker, a scorpionlike sting holding the beast at bay in mid-jump.

The Baltic Sea is shaped like a maiden kneeling in prayer, her outline visible between Sweden, Finland, and what used to be the Soviet Union. Now it's the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

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Never mind political boundaries or names of mountains, rivers, and cities. Mine was a purely visual approach to geography. I looked at the features of the earth as if they were Rorschach inkblots, except that no teacher was going to quiz me in order to plumb my psyche.

Neither would my fantasizings have earned me a good grade in geography. My art teacher, though, might have understood.

As I roamed farther west in Europe, across the North Sea from Denmark, I saw another animal, this one sitting on its haunches - the United Kingdom. It had turned its back toward Europe, making no bones about its disdain for the Continent.

The Hebrides Islands and Scotland's Northwest Highlands were stuck to its forehead like a jagged crest - hurled there, no doubt, by the raging North Atlantic. Ireland resembled a roly-poly puppy suspended above its mother's lap in midair, hands and feet pointing west.

In the Mediterranean, Italy's high-heeled boot took the prize as most memorable shape. I also liked the way the Alps, in northern Italy, curved toward the southwest and then slimmed down to become the Apennines, as if to secure the boot to the Continent. To the east lay Greece with its two multifingered peninsulas - the Peloponnesus in the south and, almost a carbon copy of it, the smaller Khalkidhiki farther north.

Was there any other country in the world with such a close duplication of shapes?

The Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain made me think of a welding seam, keeping the Iberian Peninsula fused to the rest of Europe. Without this weld, Spain might have broken loose and landed on Morocco's northernmost tip, closing off the Strait of Gibraltar.

Looking at Germany, my homeland then, I was forever fascinated by those mountain ranges right in the middle of the map, south of Berlin. Those brown strips clearly looked like a chair teetering on its hind legs. It would have tipped over long ago, had not its front legs been tied to the Carpathian Mountains, which, in turn, could be taken for a crouching feline that reached all the way down into Romania.

Roaming south now, Africa impressed me as a primitive stone tool, or a giant club, and I always wondered what it would feel like to hold it by the narrower southern part. It certainly looked unwieldy, with a little too much heft to fit comfortably in my hand. I imagined you would have better purchase on South America. You could hold it by its tapering southern end, Chile and Argentina, but if it weren't for the southernmost tip with that characteristic hook, that continent might easily slip from your grasp.

Moving up to the slender band that connects the northern and southern American continents, you arrive at the odd place in Panama where you can see the sun rising in the Pacific and setting in the Caribbean Sea.

Now, if I were able to grab the Western Hemisphere by this narrow strip of land and pull it from its moorings, sort of slide North and South America off our earth's surface and have them dangle from my fingers, I figured that the weight of the continents would surely cause that land bridge to snap along the scored line of the Panama Canal.

The North American continent held other surprises. Look at Hudson Bay in Canada with James Bay at its southern tip, mimicking the way Florida jutted out into the Atlantic - one a watery shape, the other terra firma. And Florida, in turn, looked like a panhandle, not quite matched in landmass on Mexico's west coast by the much slimmer Baja California.

The northern part of Canada represented a jumble of ice floes broken off from the brittle, frigid mainland and floating away as if on a quest for the Northwest Passage. At the Bering Strait, Russia and the United States stood, or lay, unblinkingly eye to eye with their noses less than an inch apart. Meanwhile, the Aleutian Islands, in a graceful arc of stringed beads, gave the appearance of trying - in a furtive way - to establish some sort of contact farther south.

Way to the south, the Hawaiian Islands, lost in the expanse of the Pacific, made this ocean appear even more vast. Southwest of them lay strangely shaped islands, such as New Guinea, a legless dinosaur. It curiously eyed the nearby island of Celebes, or modern-day Sulawesi. I always felt that Celebes should be spelled Kelebes because it definitely had the shape of a K. Its northernmost extremity - a calligraphic flourish - could also be taken for a trunk swaying back and forth, ready to fend off any attack by that dinosaur.

There were other distinctive shapes - the axe head of Saudi Arabia, or the gargoyle of France's northwest corner. Still others did not show up until drastically enlarged by moving in closer - from an astronaut's vantage point in space to a bird's-eye view. Then what looked like straight coastlines gained character, such as Cape Cod, the giant wrench, and straight-flowing rivers became meandering bands, the word "meander" deriving from Maiandros, a river in Turkey famous for its looping course.

But what would it feel like, I wondered, if the earth were gently placed on my hand? How heavy might it feel? Or how cold, since I would be touching Antarctica? Would I feel the ice melting in my hand?

All of a sudden, the earth appeared vulnerable when I thought of it resting on a giant hand. Letting it hurtle through space along its orbit seemed like setting it free.

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