TEN YEARS AFTER THAT WEEK on St. Lawrence Island, and after thousands of miles of sojourning in places all over the planet, most of them unknown to me until I arrived, I was working on a story in the eastern Mojave Desert, in Southern California. Hiking across a narrow valley in that basin and range country, I spotted a man in the distance. He was carrying a bright green satchel over his shoulder. Its wide strap cut diagonally across his chest; through my binoculars I could see that he was gripping some loose pages in his left hand.
The air was clear that particular winter morning. Warm and dry. No wind stirred. The man was the sole bit of color and animation in an otherwise desolate valley. Suddenly he stopped walking and bent over to study something on the ground near him. I recognized a shoulder patch on his tan shirt—Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency in the US Department of the Interior.
I was hundreds of yards from him, standing partly hidden behind a slight rise in the desert floor. I couldn’t see his vehicle but assumed it was parked, like mine, somewhere in the folds of the terrain. He was squatting down on his haunches, scrutinizing something, picking away at it with light blows from a rock hammer.
I stepped up onto the crest of the rise where I would be clearly visible to him and raised my hand. He spotted me right away. Slowly he rose up. I waved again and started walking toward him. As I approached, he took several considered steps in my direction, his way, it seemed, of politely agreeing to my intrusion. We were still some yards apart when we began conversing. I could see plainly that the pages he was holding were satellite images. I expressed surprise at our meeting—we were likely the only two people for miles around—and identified myself as a writer, researching a story for National Geographic about the eastern Mojave. In answer to a question of mine he described what he was doing as “ground-truthing,” and offered me one of the satellite images. It depicted a section of the extensive sagebrush basin that surrounded the two of us. He said a few of the images he was gripping showed “terrestrial anomalies”—puzzling geographic features—or were otherwise unclear. Some of the lack of clarity in them, he announced, was due to obscuring shadows that had been present at the moment when the satellite was making its pass overhead.
It wasn’t until the man told me he was a geologist that I saw that I’d initially made a mistake in imagining the scale of his work. It wasn’t square feet he was ground-truthing but square miles. I’d pictured him making refinements to the satellite images at a microscopic level, but this was only part of what he was doing. His larger purpose, he told me, was to survey more closely the surface geology of this particular stretch of land. He was mostly searching for any significant indication of mineral deposits.
Although I’d never heard of ground-truthing, I was immediately attracted to the idea of contrasting the rendering of an object with the object itself. The hurtling satellite above, indiscriminately recording whatever presented itself to the lens, did not make apparent all that it observed. On scales large and small, dozens of issues were left open to interpretation. The surveyor told me that his primary responsibility in this desert basin was to “amplify” the satellite images by comparing them with what he was actually seeing in front of him; he was then to append any notes he thought relevant to the images.
I asked if I could follow along while he continued his work.
The image on each piece of paper he showed me was an overview, a large-scale impression of a particular section of terrain; what I was seeing at my feet, by comparison, was a limited view, a small-scale impression. Where was the most dependable truth about exactly where I was in this place? Most of us believe a satellite camera offers a true image of a specific location, in this instance a small, elongated basin in the eastern Mojave Desert. We also understand, however, that any such image is actually missing certain crucial information. It is two, not three, dimensional. It presents no infrared, ultraviolet, sonic, or olfactory data, and it registers scant information about biological activity. It captures a single, arbitrary moment during Earth’s daylit hours. To produce a richer, more complete, more reliable picture, given the limitations of the technology involved, would require far more ground-truthing than this surveyor seemed prepared for. Where was the record of Spanish exploration here, in the sixteenth century, or of Amerind immigration fifteen thousand or more years before that? How can one really say where one is, given such a dearth of information?
The man and I parted company that morning in the Mojave with an unusually firm handshake, looking directly into each other’s eyes. It was my guess that he and I did not share the same political views. Also, I believed his training might incline him to be more comfortable with the logic of empirical science, while I was steeped in the metaphors and allusions of the arts and humanities. His employers, I knew, hoped his work would identify areas of interest to mining companies, to which the BLM might lease some of the lands over which it had jurisdiction. As for me, I was thinking more about the rapidly changing desert climate here, from one year to the next; about mountain lions hunting feral donkeys in this basin, which I had seen evidence of; about ephemeral creeks that occasionally flooded the playa with rainwater; about centuries-old potsherds I’d picked up to inspect, and then put back; and about other components of this still undeveloped area that might be of more interest to readers of National Geographic than any prospects for profiting financially from the leasing of mineral rights to this basin.
THE MAN I MET THAT day was no more a resident of this place than I had been a resident of St. Lawrence Island. You can never say precisely where you are, of course, state your position definitively, even if you’ve been resident in the same place all your life and have, moreover, been paying attention, stabilizing as that information might be to any person’s sense of identity. In the decades to come I think it will be less important, however, to know exactly where you are than it will be to know, wherever you are, that you are safe.
I was young the morning I sailed off with a band of Yupik hunters to look for walrus in the northern Bering Sea. In the coming years, I would understand better how dangerous it could be to rely on my own way of knowing the world, especially when far from home. And whenever I found myself in those situations, I came to understand that it was always good to hold in suspension my own ideas about what the practical, wise, or ethical decision might be in any given set of circumstances. The reservoir of knowledge some, but not all, Indigenous residents possess reminds me of the phenomenon of the king post on a nineteenth-century whaling boat. It ensures structural integrity during times of heavy seas or when the boat is being strained to its utmost by a harpooned whale desperate to escape.
It provides safety in a world of looming threats.
AS A FORMER WORLD TRAVELER, situated comfortably now within a so-called developed-world culture, I think often on those who’ve been driven out of their homes, or otherwise marginalized or destroyed, by poverty, famine, thirst, sectarian war, the twentieth-century wave of corporate colonization, marauding bandits, and the indifference of the ruling classes; or they've been driven out because too many others simply hated the way they spoke, or looked, or worshiped. Tens of millions of people alive today are refugees or otherwise displaced, according to Amnesty International. For some, memory still provides a strong sense of home. Others feel more profoundly lost with each week that passes. In every direction you see families holed up in temporary quarters, eager to descry any avenue of escape.
The overriding goal in a gathering storm, many are convinced, is to commit to being firmly anchored in a known geography, within a familiar cultural space. Such an approach, they believe, will provide each person with a protective network of friendships and a deeper sense of personal identity, and it will strengthen in each individual the sense that they are living lives of significant purpose. In times of upheaval and social chaos, knowing exactly where one is standing seems imperative.
Change is coming fast, though, on multiple fronts. Most of us begin the day now uncertain of exactly where we are. Once, we banked on knowing how to respond to all the important questions. Once, we assumed we’d be able to pass on to the next generation the skill of staying poised in worrying times. To survive what’s headed our way—global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments—and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it’s as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.