Holding the World In Your Hands

IN the window of an upscale craft shop in Boston, a holiday tree glows with the most unconventional lights: a string of miniature globes encircling the branches. Lighted from within to show off their blue oceans and green continents, these tiny worlds celebrate the universality of Christmas. They also serve as fitting symbols for the new maps of the new year.This is a season when cartographers are working overtime to keep up with changing boundaries and place names. Already a store a few doors from the craft shop displays a proud sign: "Current globe has latest Baltic states." But even the newest versions don't always register that Leningrad has reverted back to St. Petersburg. Nor can they possibly reflect the changes that will take place on New Year's Eve, when the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union will be lowered from the Kremlin, signaling the official end of the USSR and the birth of a new commonwealth. What a mapmaker's dream, the task of coloring in 12 separate nations! In the same store, another sign advertizes globes as a way "to get a better look at your world." It is a tantalizing idea, especially at a time when looking at the world becomes a more demanding task every day. Who but the most devoted news junkies, for instance, can keep up with all the names and faces and events surrounding a coup in Togo or a civil war in Yugoslavia? And who but confirmed Sovietologists can distinguish between such tongue-twisting states as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan? Even a conscientious reader and TV viewer can feel a sense of news overload. When that happens, I find comfort in a globe, which offers a perspective of the world unblemished by headlines, TV cameras, and news analysis. To study a globe is to revert, however briefly, to a childlike innocence about the earth. Here is a world without tumult - a study in serene pinks and blues and greens. Here no rain forests have been destroyed in the name of "progress." No smog hangs over cities, and no environmental perils threaten water or air. Neither war nor famine mars the peaceful surface. There is only this perfect circle on a pedestal. A globe also serves as an exercise in poetry. Wonderfully rhythmic names such as Addis Ababa and Ouagadougou in Africa or Tocopilla in Chile transport a word-lover to mystical far-off lands. If these lyrical cities are real, a globe-watcher reasons, perhaps somewhere even Coleridge's mythical Xanadu actually exists. Tracing a finger around the equator - the waistline of the earth - an armchair traveler brings the world down to a friendly domestic scale. A universe-watcher is thrown into cosmic space beyond all limits of the imagination. A globe-watcher can embrace the world with two hands. Yet for all the comforting continuity a globe suggests, it also serves as a reminder that even deeply rooted political systems and long-held names do not always exist forever. My own 11-year-old globe still identifies Beijing as Peking. West Germany is rendered in orange and East Germany in tan, indicating a divided nation. And Upper Volta gives no hint that the country will someday be renamed Burkina Faso. Stay flexible, a globe silently implores anyone who studies it. Change is a constant. Each square inch of the globe becomes its own Globe Theater. The grief of a Croatian refugee pictured on Page 1 also connects to a tiny colored dot on the sphere. No one can predict the political and social upheavals in 1992 that will require cartographers to draw new boundaries and record new place names on next year's globes. Will a mappable territory of land be given to the Inuits in Canada? Will Yugoslavia be one color or two? As the year comes full circle, the globe will do what globes always do - spin. But in the very spinning of this gyroscope called Earth lies its stability. History changes. The cycle of life goes on. Globe-watchers can choose which of these two messages to think about as the old year ends.

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