Cod ethnography is a less popular subject in primary schools these days than it once was, but not so many years ago a surprising number of seven-year-olds seemed to 'know' that Red Indians would say 'How' when greeting each other, and that Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses. (In a recent poll of under-tens, three out of three had no idea about either of these things; one, when given a clue - a raised hand salute - ventured that Red Indians might greet each other with 'Heil Hitler.') An equivalent factoid I picked up in elementary geography lessons is that there are sheep farms in Australia the size of Wales. I wondered if Australian schoolchildren learned that there are countries in Europe the size of sheep farms. Knowing Wales is a valid unit of area (equivalent to 20,770 km2) is much more useful than being prepared to rub noses north of the Arctic Circle. Here are some uses: the Amazon rainforest is being cleared at the rate of a Wales a year; the largest crater on the Moon is three times the size of Wales. When that piece of Antarctica came adrift earlier this year, it was immediately, automatically even, said to be the size of Wales, and only later revealed to be closer to the size of Cambridgeshire (about a sixth the size of Wales). So it comes as no surprise to learn that a nature reserve for woolly mammoths, in order to sustain a viable population, would have to be the size of Wales (see Richard Fortey's article in this issue). A handy website, www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~kelky/sizeofwales.html, has a 'Walesometer' for converting hectares/acres/square miles/square kilometres into Waleses. It shouldn't be too long before EU harmonisation will necessitate replacing Wales with Belgium, which will give Europhobes something else to grumble about over their black pudding. Outside the UK, multiples of Wales aren't very meaningful; Americans, for example, are more likely to speak in terms of fractions of Texas, a place which has the very great advantage of being bigger than everywhere else.
LRB 23 May 2002 | PDF Download