Ubique, the Society's
thrice-yearly letter, brings to its readers news from the field,
timely book reviews, and a wide array of material of geographical
interest. A lively, entertaining publication, Ubique also
serves as a vehicle for communication of Society news and events.
Ubique is sent to all Fellows, Associates, Medalists, Geography
Department Heads, and Galileo Circle Members.
XXII, Number 2, August 2002
THE HISTORY OF CARTOGRAPHY AT THE AMERICAN GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY
by Miklos Pinther
(This is the third of a three-part series. Pinther’s paper was delivered at the Sesquicentennial Symposium on the AGS, MAPS AND AMERICA The Arthur Holzheimer Lecture Series, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Friday, May 18, 2001)
By the time Hitchcock was appointed director of the Society in 1953, the financial situation was dismal. But Hitchcock had a way about him that generated warmth and respect and hope. The staff's morale was lifted as they saw the beginnings of new and exciting undertakings. Certainly the cartographers relaxed a bit. After all, Charlie was one of them.
But, there was a dramatic staffing change during this period. Remnants of the old guard, Schweizer, Philip, Weldon, Krijanowsky, all retired in 1956 and 1957. This was followed by a transition period when some cartographers came and stayed for a year or two, then moved on. For example, Jean Paul Tremblay prepared the Geographical Review maps for a while and
then was replace by a lawyer-turned-cartographer, Francis Barkóczy in 1958. The ones who stayed on longer were Norman Swanston, Douglas Waugh and José Uzcátegui. Swanston came over from General Drafting Co. in 1953, and Waugh and Uzcátegui switched from Rand McNally in 1958. Among the first new trainees were Miklos Pinther and Peter Fust, while they were both attending Columbia University, and Chih Chwen Huang from Taiwan who just completed her
graduate studies at Southern Illinois University. The next additions were Edward Schwartz, Luba Prokop, and Lidia Romash. Eddie was a recent graduate from Hunter College. Both Luba and Lidia were also previously employed by Rand McNally & Co. In 1969-1971 another group of trainees was hired, Cristy Brause, Nancy Kreitler, and Trina Mansfield. They were graduates from Briarcliff College where for a time an excellent two-year program in cartography was offered. Bernhard H. Wagner, a cartographer from Berlin, Attila Sioreti, a topographic engineer from Hungary, and Harris Graber and Susan Grande, also recent Hunter College graduates, were the final additions to the Cartographic Department.
The team was rounded out by Dr. Harry Steward, a research cartographer from England, who was hired in the wake of Miller's retirement in 1968. That year, the Society honored Mait by establishing the O. M. Miller Cartographic Medal. In accepting this tribute, Mait expressed feelings of "outraged humility."
In 1969, Pinther was selected to head the Cartographic Department. By 1971, the Department swelled to a twelve-member team.
One of the new projects, a harbinger of the type of mapmaking to come, was the preparation of an Atlas of Diseases. In 1944, Dr. Light, a neurosurgeon, proposed the ideas that a Department of Medical Geography be established at the Society and that the study of diseases be treated cartographically. At the end of 1948, Dr. Jacques M. May assumed the directorship of this new activity. Distribution of any phenomenon is usually best depicted on equal-area maps. Concerned with shape distortion on such world maps, Briesemeister began to experiment with projections for possible use in the Atlas. The result of his efforts was an elegant modification of the Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection via the Hammer-Aitoff construction method, which now bears his name. The new projection was adopted for the Atlas to high acclaim.
An older project, which had been previously connected with the War Department and now with the Army Map Service, was the 1:5,000,000 map series. As we saw before, this was first developed for the Americas on a unique bipolar conic conformal projection. Later, Miller devised an oblique stereographic projection for Europe and Africa and the Society published a set of maps at 1:5,000,000 for this region. Next the Government requested that this series be extended to cover Asia as well. With so-called "fill-in" projections, Miller continued the oblique stereographic projection all the way to cover the Philippines and other Pacific nations. Miller never cared much for this minestrone soup of projections, but the project reviewers were very much impressed with the mathematics of it all. In spite of this deficiency, the maps were the best published for a couple of decades and were adopted for depicting world geology, soil, and vegetation by UNESCO and FAO.
In 1972, Pinther initiated the last map of this series, a map of the Arctic Region. This was also the last cartographic endeavor that Mait Miller was involved in as a consultant in retirement. A unique feature of this map was the first use of satellite imagery as an aid in medium-scale map compilation. In a collaborative arrangement, Susan Grande worked for several weeks at the U.S. Geological Survey under the direction of Dr. Calvocoresses. Other special contributions were the high-quality bathymetry by Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp of Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, at a time when much of that data for the Arctic was classified. And, there was also the careful interpretation of Russian cartographic sources by Ted Shabad of The New York Times, many of which contained deliberately falsified information.
As we saw throughout this narrative, the Society maintained an interest in the Polar Regions from the very beginning. Mapping of glaciers was a significant part of this. A number of different glacier maps were prepared, many under the direction of William O. Field, who was in charge of Glaciological Research and head of the World Data Center A for Glaciology at the Society.
Never to be left behind, in the late 60s the Society also produced a globe for the general public. We do not have sufficient time to discuss the merits of this globe, suffice it to say, however, that Mait Miller, always ready with novel ideas, had a hand in its rather different design. He reversed the usual coloring of bathymetry, showing shallower depths darker rather than lighter. He thought this would help to highlight the land areas.
In 1964, although not a cartographer, at least not via formal training, William Warntz created a cartographic model that received a lot of attention. As a Research Associate at the Society, he developed a methodology to calculate potential population and proceeded to demonstrate this with a physical model. After hammering a lot of nails into a map of the U.S., he built a plaster model that was quite effective. Now, you may be interested to know that a few years later he took a significant turn in his career when he left the Society to head up the Harvard Computer Graphics Lab!
As we saw, atlas cartography began during this period with the Atlas of Diseases. It continued with the Serial Atlas of the Marine Environment and the Antarctic Map Folio Series. These two folio series of loose maps were the ideas of Hitchcock and they were his final cartographic contributions.
Originally, Charlie thought of the Marine Folios as a cartographic medium that would bring together physical oceanographers and marine biologists. In 1961, one of New York's most respected geographical editors, Wilfrid Webster, was appointed as Project Director. In the ensuing ten years, a total of 23 Folios was published. Soon, Webster also assumed the editorship of all non-periodical publications. But, the title he cherished most was that of "map editor." Bill was of great influence on the cartographic staff. He was an honest, blunt Quaker, who would not overlook the slightest error. But, he was also a fountain of knowledge and a patient teacher for which he earned the respect of all.
The concept of the Antarctic Map Folio Series was similar to the Marine Folios, that is, cartographic analysis with ancillary text. Charlie thought of publishing such a series when the International Geophysical Year was launched in 1957. Five years later, Vivian C. Bushnell, a geophysicist with the Air Force Cambridge Research Labs, was hired to lead this project. Between 1964 and 1975, 19 folios were published which provide excellent summaries of our knowledge of the Antarctic.
In 1970, Pinther gave a helpful nudge to the launching of two other major atlas projects that largely preoccupied the last five years of the Society's cartographers: A Historical Atlas of South Asia and the Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao. Both atlases proved to be of monumental undertakings, representing the very best in scholarship in the specific disciplines.
Prof. Joseph E. Schwartzberg of the University of Minnesota directed the South Asia atlas. To be frank, this was one of those undertakings that benefited from the ignorance of its eventual enormity by its principal participants. Had they known (including this speaker), they would have been scared off. The Atlas consumed over 50 academic years of research by Joe's team, and 11 cartographic years by the Society. In 1980, Joe received the Watumull Foundation Bi-annual Book Prize for the Atlas. David Watumull said at the time, "Over the years, since 1946 when this Prize was instituted, I can personally say, without a doubt, that this is the finest and most worthwhile book to be selected."
The Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao was the last cartographic project undertaken by the Society. In fact, Pinther completed the final stages under a special arrangement, three years after the Cartographic Department was dissolved. The Atlas, a cartographic record of an upland agricultural system in North-central Luzon, is the singular contribution to scholarship by Professor Harold C. Conklin of Yale University. Early in his research work, Hal contacted Mait Miller for advice on mapping a portion of Northern Luzon. This lead first to a series of highly detailed land-use maps at the scale of 1:5,000, published by the Society in 1972, and subsequently to the preparation of the Atlas. Its level of textual analysis and meticulous cartographic detail has been widely recognized to be of the highest order. In recognition for his outstanding work, Hal was chosen by the Fyssen Foundation of Paris to be the recipient of its annual prize for 1983.
Just as Charlie Hitchcock ushered in new hope, his early retirement due to illness brought sadness. This was preceded by Briesemeister's retirement in 1964, and followed by Miller's departure in 1968. Coming so closely one after the other, the loss of these three giants of American Cartography was devastating. For a while it seemed that there were several exciting cartographic projects on the horizon, but there was neither the enthusiasm nor the will to seek full funding for them. Words of austerity and retrenchment crept into daily life. In 1974, the cartographic staff was reduced by half. And finally, in the summer of 1976, the cartographic activities of the Society came to an end after 125 years.
What all of this map-making activity represented was a special collaboration between the cartographers at AGS and the academicians, researchers, and scientists at other institutions. It is not easy to define precisely why this was so unique or what made it so special. Certainly the care and scholarly contributions by the cartographers and authors were there. As were the contributions of other Society staff, whose advice and input were constantly sought. Perhaps, it was the sum of all this plus the very fortunate assembly of unusual talents. AGS cartographers were never paid well. Yet, as you saw, many remained with the Society for very long periods of time. What the Society gave them was intellectual and artistic freedom, an atmosphere of creativity, a sense of pride and worth, and the recognition that they were often at the cutting edge of their field. At AGS, they felt at home.
Best Research Fellowships for 2002-2003
The American Geographical Society Collection, University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries welcomes applicants for Helen and John S.
Best Research Fellowships. Stipends of $375 per week, for periods up
to 4 weeks, will be awarded to support residencies for the purpose of
conducting research which makes direct use of the Collection. The
Fellowships will be tenable between December 2, 2002 and November 28,
The AGS Collection, the former research library and map collection of
the American Geographical Society of New York, has strengths in
geography, cartography and related historical topics. Applications must
be postmarked by September 16, 2002. For further information, write,
call or e-mail the AGS Collection, P.O. Box 399, Milwaukee, WI
53201-0399, Tel. (414) 229-6282, E-mail: email@example.com. Web
For information about the McColl Family Fellowship Fourth Annual Competition, click on: McColl Fellowship
Beginning with the 2003 volume, Douglas Johnson and Viola Haarmann will become co-editors of the Geographical Review.
Dr. Johnson is a professor in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, where he has been since 1972, except for brief periods as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco. He is a member of the desertification permanent monitoring panel of the World Federation of Scientists, serves on the editorial board of the Columbia Gazetteer of the World, and is a board member of the Middle East Specialty Group of the AAG. His current research interests are concentrated in four areas: (1) land degradation and desertification: (2) arid land management; (3) pastoral nomadism and the cultural ecology of animal keeping; and (4) the geography of North Africa and the Middle East.
From 1979-1987 Dr. Haarmann served as research project coordinator, researcher, and editor at the Geography Department of the University of Hamburg for the Sahelian zone component of a major research project on “Geomorphological Processes, Process Combinations, and Natural Catastrophes” funded by the Academy of Sciences, Gottingen. This project involved her in several periods of field work in the Republic of Sudan as well as the advising and supervision of graduate students engaged in project research activities. Since 1987, she has been a research associate with the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University and has been engaged in freelance editorial work and the undergraduate study abroad component of Clark University’s Leir Center in Luxembourg. Her current research interests are focused on the geography of food and agriculture.
When Johnson and Haarmann take over editorial duties at the Geographical Review, Editor Paul F. Starrs will have completed seven volumes of the journal, including such notable special issues as those on “fieldwork”, on “the geography of cyberspace”, on “oceans connect” (with guest editors Karen Wigen and Jessica Harland-Jacobs), on “Latin America”, on “environmental history”, and on “J. B. Jackson.” Circulation during the Starrs tenure has grown by more than 20% so far.
Gregory H. Chu has become the new editor of FOCUS on Geography.
The first two issues of FOCUS on Geography to come out under Dr. Chu’s hand are a special one devoted to geographical research in and from Mongolia and a “general interest” issue with articles on assorted topics.
Simultaneously, Dr. Hilary Lambert, who has been editing the magazine since 1987, will complete a special issue on Greece by Stewart McHenry, while she segues into other enterprises. Under Dr. Lambert’s hand, the magazine covered an impressive range of topics, regularly addressed developing issues ahead of the curve, introduced regular columns, and drew upon the talents of well over two hundred geographers as well as a few people who did not realize they were geographers!
Dr. Chu is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse where he specializes in cartography, GIS, and conservation of global environments. Dr. Chu’s research interests also include remote sensing, China, and environmental policy. He has published several articles in FOCUS himself and produced a number of maps for the magazine over the years since Dr. Lambert became editor.
At its Annual Meeting on June 8th, the AGS Council celebrated the successful tenures and notable accomplishments of Dr. Lambert and Dr. Starrs and wished both editors well in future ventures. The Council also extended an enthusiastic welcome to Drs. Johnson and Haarmann and to Dr. Chu. The Council expressed its approval of and support for the firm editorial leadership all three have already demonstrated.
---Mary Lynne Bird
NEW LEADERSHIP AT THE AMERICAN GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY
Dr. Jerome E. Dobson was elected president of the American Geographical Society at the meeting of the Society’s Council on February 23rd in New York. Dobson is a research professor at the University of Kansas in the Applied Remote Sensing Program of the Kansas Biological Survey and in the Department of Geography. He is also Contributing Editor of GeoWorld.
Dobson went to Kansas only recently, having served for many years as a member of the Distinguished Research & Development Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Among other things, he has served as President of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, U.S. Delegate and Expert to the International Standards Organization, member of the Editorial Advisory Board of GISWorld, Scientific Editor of the GIS World Sourcebook, Chair of the Geographic Information Systems Specialty Group of the AAG, member of the Steering Committee of the National Committee for Digital Cartographic Data Standards, Leader of the Resource Analysis Group in ORNL’s Energy Division, and co-founder and first Chair of the Energy Specialty Group of the AAG.
The new AGS president played an instrumental role in originating the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis and in establishing the Department of Defense’s LandScan Global Population Project and NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program. With colleagues at ORNL he produced the LandScan Global Population Database that has become the world standard for estimating populations at risk during natural disasters, wars, and terrorist acts.
The AGS Council acquired a new member on February 23rd, with the election of Chris Duncan. Duncan is Vice President for Finance and Chief Risk Officer of Delta Airlines. Previously, he has served as a risk management analyst for such companies as Ford Motor Company and Tillinghast. He is a contributing author to American Management Association’s Management Handbook on the role of risk management in organizations. The new AGS Councilor is also part owner and Chief Financial Officer of Navigational Sciences Inc, a privately held company dedicated to developing, innovating, and marketing data, products, and solutions in the marine transportation and marine geographic information systems marketplace. According to a report in the New York Times on March 3rd, Duncan is an architect of the plan to establish an insurance company for the airline industry that would “resist the sharp price increases and reductions in coverage imposed by traditional insurers since the September terrorist attacks…By having their own insurer, the airlines expect to save hundreds of dollars a year, which would help to keep airfares from rising.”
At its Annual Meeting on June 8th, the Council elected John A. Kelmelis to the Council. Dr. Kelmelis is Chief Scientist for Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey. Before going to U.S.G.S. in 1977, he was a cartographer for the Defense Mapping Agency, did environmental work for the state of Connecticut, worked as a land surveyor and engineering technician in the private sector, and served in the U.S. Air Force for five years in Korea and in Viet Nam. His responsibilities at U.S.G.S. have involved him with the National Research Council, the White House, the Peoples Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Antarctica, and island nations, among many others. He has led research on a long list of subjects, among them: infrastructure resources; drinking water; abandoned mine lands; urban hazards; ecosystems restoration and management; natural disaster relief and management; wildlife protection; environmental security, intelligence, and diplomacy. Currently he provides scientific direction and leadership and long range planning for U.S.G.S. programs budgeted at $135 million.
---Mary Lynne Bird
Felix Cardona Puig, Honorary Fellow
FROM THE ARCHIVES
The family of Captain Cardona, who died in 1982, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. Cardona was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society in 1958 for his landmark work in Venezuela. His ornithological and linguistic research was rivaled only by his important contributions to our knowledge of the region’s physical geography and in the cartography of unknown parts of the Venezuelan Guayana. The Galileo Circle.
20th INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON THE HISTORY OF CARTOGRAPHY
For more information, click on Conference News.
In memory of Alice Theodora Merten Rechlin Perkins.
The 2002 AGS Calendar.
TRAVEL PROGRAM: ON THE MOVE!
Why travel with the American Geographical Society?
AGS scholars are excellent lecturers and hosts for educational travel programs, having spent a lifetime studying and lecturing on the geographical, biological, and cultural development of a region. An AGS scholar provides you with an expansive and comprehensive understanding of a region. Our AGS lecturers-all outstanding professors of geography-have been carefully selected for their ability to lecture and present fascinating insights into each region’s specific natural and cultural development, and who also love answering questions informally as though they were each traveler’s private tutor. In short, AGS lecturers make congenial travel companions and hosts for our small groups of AGS travelers.
Most AGS trips are conducted aboard small, luxurious ships that follow age-old maritime routes along beautiful coastlines and rivers. The intimate size of these vessels provides a unique shipboard experience, as well as opportunities to dock and anchor at historic ports and towns that larger ships simply cannot visit. Enjoy exploring archaeological sites, architectural wonders, old town centers, and museums. Relax in luxurious accommodations, savor fine food (including regional specialties), and enjoy the first-class service.
Professional trip directors and guides handle all the details. The AGS travel office selects the finest tour operators, coordinates each program, protects your tour payments in an escrow account, and does myriad other tasks to ensure that your AGS trip is perfect.
For more delicious details about the 2003 Tours Schedule, see the Travel Program section of the AGS web site, or contact the AGS Travel Program Office at (888)805-0884 or (603)756-2553.
Address: The AGS Travel Program, P.O. Box 938, Walpole, NH 03608-0938
The AGS WEBWORLD
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Please forward news and information about your activities, plus announcements of events or conferences of interest to AGS members, to
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AGS COUNCIL VISITS WOODS HOLE
Each year the AGS Council selects an institution to visit in conjunction with our annual meeting. We look for places where geography is practiced as an integral part of organizational missions directly affecting science and society. More and more, that means places with advanced geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing technology employed in the best traditions of good old-fashioned geographic analysis. This year we chose two renowned institutions at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a town known for it’s dedication to oceanography. The visits took place on June 7, 2002.
Why oceanography? First, we feel a kinship because, in a very real sense, oceanography, done on land, is called geography. Indeed, in its formative years oceanography often was treated as a sub-field of physical geography, much as climatology is today. The oceans have been a major interest of the AGS since our inception. From 1852 onward, ocean exploration was featured in our premier scholarly journal. As early as 1854, an oceanographer, the Director of the National Observatory, was invited to deliver the society’s annual address. He explained a new bathymetric chart and cross section of the Atlantic Ocean, an ingenious device for procuring specimens from the ocean bottom, and a topographic chart of ocean hazards. In 1924, we published a special report on acoustic sounding for submarine surveying. From 1926 through 1938, we supported Louise Boyd’s hydrographic surveys of the Greenland Sea. From 1962 through 1972, we published the Serial Atlas of the Marine Environment, consisting of 23 volumes covering physical characteristics, biota (including fisheries), and meteorology of the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans and the Arctic and North Seas. In 1999, we published Oceans Connect, a special issue of the Geographical Review that explored the political, economic, and social significance of oceans.
Second, we believe the oceans truly are the next “final” frontier. The surfaces of Mars and Venus have been explored, imaged, and mapped a hundred times more precisely than Earth’s ocean floors. Bathymetric data are so coarse that features up to 10 kilometers across can be missed entirely. Recently, the society’s Exploration Committee has advocated greater public participation in ocean exploration, including intensive exploration of Aquaterra, the land inundated and exposed repeatedly during the Pleistocene ice ages, as well as the deep oceans.
At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) we were welcomed by Robert B Gagosian, Director and President. He provided an overview of WHOI’s programs, but, more than that, he described with pride and passion how the organization functions and what it’s trying to accomplish. In these days of lean government funding, WHOI has maintained its commitment to scientific research. For that, Gagosian and all WHOI scientists deserve the admiration and appreciation of the American public. Having spent 26 years at a national laboratory, I know how difficult their task must have been.
Communications Director Vicky Cullen arranged an excellent overview of WHOI research initiatives. William B. Curry, Director of the Ocean and Climate Change Institute led off with a discussion of WHOI’s four new "Ocean Institutes" that encourage interdisciplinary research and communication, especially to policy makers. In addition to his own institute, three others focus on the Coastal Ocean, Deep Ocean Exploration, and Ocean Life. Robert S. Detrick, Chair of the Geology & Geophysics Department, described a variety of “Ocean Observatories" that can provide unmanned observations of the ocean floor and water column. David Gallo, Director of Special Projects described robotic vehicles and their likely destinations, including the Mid-Ocean Ridge and its hydrothermal vents.. Assistant Scientist Jeffrey Donnelly discussed a highly geographic study of the evolution of the Continental Shelf off Eastern North America since the last Ice Age. We learned about paleoclimatology recorded in deep-sea sediments, nearshore records of major storm events, and possible outwash of major glacial lakes through the Hudson and other rivers.
In the afternoon we visited the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), a separate, private research institution located in Woods Hole. John E. Hobbie, Co-Director of MBL’s Ecosystems Center gave an overview of the Center and its approach to marine science. He arranged three presentations, all of which used GIS to address important scientific issues. Co-Director Jerry M. Melillo contributed to the discussions. The topics presented by MBL scientists included:
Spatial variability in global plant production in response to climate change presented by Edward B. Rastetter.
Estimating carbon dioxide exchange for an entire watershed by David W. Kicklighter
Freshwater flow to the Arctic Ocean from the Arctic watershed and how it may affect North Atlantic deep water formation presented by Bruce J. Peterson.
Both visits provided tremendously valuable insights to the Council and will undoubtedly prove their worth as we promote ocean exploration over the next decade and beyond. In particular, the discussions helped prepare me for a major ocean exploration forum at which I represented AGS later that month. The symposium addressed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new Ocean Exploration Program, which ultimately includes roles for other federal agencies, private companies, and the AGS.
The act of pilgrimage, of a springtime passage to a sacred site, is as old as the hills. That suits John Hanson Mitchell just fine: Give him the pagan any day, ageless rituals, primal gods and goddesses. In Following the Sun (Counterpoint), he recounts a bicycle journey he took in the early 1960s, searching for the spirit of the sun as he pedaled from the vernal equinox in Cadiz to the summer solstice in western Scotland.
Noodling northward with the lengthening days, Mitchell encounters---and describes with natty charm---all manner of solar tribute and reckoning, from stone circles to rose windows. These kindle reflections on sun worship farther afield: Aztec sacrifices, nudism, Vedic charioteers, the whole company of mythological beings associated with our local star.
Mitchell himself possesses a quality of near mythic proportions---his jones for dawdling. If there is anything he enjoys more than the heathen moment, it is attending the song of a stonechat, the chance to take a snooze in a field of wildflowers, an idle glass of wine. He's happy to get off his bike and use his own wheels for a hike into the greenwood. He likes cafes and museums. Plenty of flex has been built into his schedule for time to smell the roses and the coffee.
It's good to be reminded that the sun is the source of all life, not simply skin cancer. It is a particularly apt subject for Mitchell, with his love of the elemental and powerful as it plays across the human imagination. And he has done well by the ultimate creator.
A skillful geoarchaeological study of New England's stone walls---artifacts viewed from the larger geological perspective---by University of Connecticut geologist Robert Thorson is found in Stone by Stone (Walker).
Relics of a vanished agricultural civilization, New England's stone walls, in Thorson's estimation, have transcended artifact to become landforms---high praise from a geologist. Here he wishes to bring readers up to speed on the physical properties that gave rise to the walls, especially the primitive, tossed, rather than laid, ones. Which means that he starts at the beginning: how the rocks came to be where they lay. He sketches the geological background of rock formation and transportation and changes in the lay of the land, then shifts to sociological factors that accounted for starting farms in upland regions---away from the coast, tidewater estuaries, and river valleys where the soil was mostly free of stones---where the combined forces of deforestation and frost heaving allowed farmers to harvest bountiful crops of fieldstones, and a burgeoning sense of private property gave the walls a purpose other than enclosure.
Thorson keeps the writing lively as he discusses the evolution of fences from the purely expedient to wood to stone; wall types, their function, structure, and the degree of care that went into the construction (most were shabby affairs, farmers more interested in clearing than fencing); and the economic and geological forces of entropy that resulted in the walls' collapse. Many walls are being rebuilt into more formal, well-ordered items, though they will never have the aura of the abandoned wall running through the woods for Thorson. He gives a nod to the mythos of walls, calling in support from a cast including Robert Frost, Henry Thoreau, J.B. Jackson, and Noel Perrin, but he gets enthusiastic when talking about the ergonomics of wall building ("In carrying a stone, the ideal position with respect to the vertebrae…") or computer models determining optimum field size when fieldstones are an issue. A fascinating adjunct to the art and poetry of the New England stone wall.
Thomas Bender’s The Unfinished City (New Press) is a collection of distinct but companionable articles much like the competition of voices that Thomas Bender understands to be New York City: a multiplicity of public places and institutions, more or less inclusive or exclusive, in flux, incommensurate---"New York's character is to be incomplete," very sui generis.
New York City, Bender finds, sits outside the metropolitan idea. It has not assumed a centrality and leadership in political and cultural matters---the best hopes for the polity realized and standardized within its borders---as, for instance, Vienna and Paris have. This, he figures, is because NYC as a place is continually in the making, unresolved, or when resolved, temporarily so. In its physical development and social organization it refuses a single logic, preferring a pragmatic pluralism, self-fashioned and unpredictable, nonhierarchical.
"The center has never held firmly in New York; it has been continually undermined by fragmentation of the elite and by manifold rebellions." For better and worse, that is: aspiringly democratic, polyvalent, and vibrant in architecture, politics, and art, or, as Virgil Thompson said, in which one group could argue "esthetics with intelligence and politics with a passion," while the other could discuss "esthetics with passion and politics with intelligence."
But also, the city lacks an image of itself: as a collectivity, "there are no representative institutions, and the spatial unity of these issues has not found sufficient visual representation," wherein "the public space is the terrain of the public as visual representation, while institutions provide a place for representative political deliberation."
Bender brings a ranging curiosity, literacy, and experience in urban matters to the question of New York, from the iconography of the Brooklyn Bridge and its role in urban reconfiguration, to the dialectical relationship between the city's horizontal, civic impulses and those of the corporate and vertical, to moments of persistent rigidity, which include the city's racial lines. A meaty and satisfying reading of NYC, its multiple environments, and their unending transformations.
Sahara (Walker), by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, is a fully versed and admiring portrait. They explain that the Great Emptiness really isn't so; not only is it full of sand and wind and stone, its is also "full of creatures frequently deadly, full of refuges in secretive mountain fastnesses, full of traders and traffickers and travelers and trickery."
Their exploration of the region is broken into two parts: place and people. As a place, they write in a evocative geography, it is 3 million square miles of ergs, regs, and inselbergs; dunes that hop, that are blood red, that can run for 40 miles and climb 1000 feet; home to blind fish and crocodiles, vipers, kraits, and adders, lizards and gazelles, and perhaps djinns; mountains both sanctuaries and weather-makers; and water, lots of ancient water buried deep.
There are also a fair share of humans and their histories, starting with the Neolithic rock painters and running through the Garamanites, the Berbers and Beni Hilal, the Fulani theocracies, Moor, Chaamba, Tuareg, and Tubu, that de Villiers and Hirtle throw into perspective, at least what is known of it. So too their towns, cities, and empires, old and new---Agadez, Timbuktu, Kano, the kingdoms of Old Ghana, Mali, and Kanem-Bornu---and the caravan routes that linked them to the interior, where salt, gold, and slaves were plucked and transported, are described with the most possible clarity.
De Villiers and Hirtle are careful to preserve the poetry of the desert---both indigenous representations and the narratives provided by early Arab and European travelers---while at the same time making it real for those to whom it is mostly a land of pure image: a sandy waste, a sea without water, barren.
Kevin Hayes’ An American Cycling Odyssey (Nebraska) is an enjoyable retelling of George Nellis's transcontinental bicycle journey in the late-19th century, smartly plaited with frequent excerpts from his letters home and articles written for a cycling magazine.
In 1887, a Herkimer, New York newspaperman, Nellis, made a record-breaking bicycle trip from Herkimer to San Francisco. It took him 72 days and he financed his adventure with dispatches sent to his hometown papers and a national cycling magazine, The Wheel and Recreation. And while all credit is due the man for his achievement, even more is owed him---certainly in Hayes' reckoning---for stopping to smell the coffee in the small towns, ranches, and railroad bunkhouses along the route, for making the time to attend a sunset over the Mississippi River, an opera, and a nighttime lantern parade, dawdle at picnics and ball games ("The way Clarkson twirled the sphere for the next hour was a caution to stolid Detroiters"), inspect the catacombs of a state prison.
Nellis combined the grace of a belletrist with the nut-and-bolts of his craft that many of his readership hungered for. He injected humor into his reports---when an Iowa farmer asked if his home state was good for farming, he replied, "yes, we raise immense quantities of cheese, politicians and gum chewers out our way"---as well as road conditions, from macadamized to ugly (the clay sticking to his huge front wheel "like bloodsuckers to a dead mule"). There is some excitement, as when he has to shoot a coyote with his trusty derringer late one night, but mostly it is a spry ground-level travelogue passing from metropolis to metropolis through what was still the American frontier, and experiencing frontier hospitality most each ad every night. Hayes adds invaluable historical footnotes to the places through which Nellis cycles.
A sidelong, inferential portrait of David Mamet's Vermont hometown---South of the Northeast Kingdom (national Geographic)---cast against a spirited indictment of American political perfidy and cultural poverty.
"I see the romantic residue of Vermont humor, self-regard, circumspection, and patience; call it culture or philosophy, it is quite the most attractive thing," writes Mamet. These are the qualities by which he measures Vermont against the greater American polity, where a "bloated plutocracy" runs a wicked show of deceit, theft, whining, and international bullying. In the resulting showdown, Vermont looks pretty good by comparison, though Mamet never makes it so obvious, but rather works at it askance.
The state's values of common sense and intuition, thrift, directness, and self-sufficiency---no one cuts their food for them---are iconic and appealing, especially when delivered in Mamet's clipped, no-flimflam voice. Of the human landscape: "Much of the charm of these houses lies in their rational situation, their active relationship with geography. They have the human beauty of an act of understanding, the beauty of a tool." Of doing business: "There is, as part of the Mountain ethos, a clear line between sharp practice and fraud. One may embellish and distract, but one may not lie."
Mamet's Vermont still values craft and skill, enjoys easy socializing, will only be dazzled by the new when it shows its stuff. He worries these bedrock attributes are being corrupted by an influx of year-round weekenders, who don't know any better than to track in the mud, of whom he counts himself in an act of excessive modesty---an act that Vermonters would find disingenuous. Mamet hits so many targets so surely, for better or worse, from politicians to bread bakers, that his screed against computers feels out of place: "The computer is a solution to no know problem." How about not having to retype the whole damn page? Certainly a Vermonter would appreciate that.
The National Geographic "Directions" series is proving to be a winner, not quaint but quirky. Here, Mamet comes out swinging and singing and the sense of place falls neatly in between.
The Perfect House (Scribner) is an impressionistic and personal walking tour of a handful of Andrea Palladio's villas during which Witold Rybczynski keeps a rein on his obvious excitement and delight in the work, creating an irresistible tension.
"The most influential architect in history," Rybczynski calls Palladio, and it is hard to quarrel. From country seats in Kent to Tidewater plantation houses in Virginia to small town banks and courthouses, his mark is everywhere. He might be considered the father of domestic architecture, bringing the language of temples and palaces to the home front.
Seventeen of Palladio’s villas survive, dotting the Veneto plain behind Venice. Rybczynski takes us along as he visits a number of them, pointing out their nobility and orderliness, the harmonious dimensions, as if we were standing by his side. The writing is enticing: What Rybczynski is telling us feels like real news, knowledge that will make a difference. Yet the air is casual, belying his sharp eye---he's not above suggesting elements that don't work for him---as he notes the softening aspects of a recessed loggia and the warmth of plaster on the severe geometry of a villa front, or the startlingly novel effect of parallax achieved by curving the loggia, how Palladio's work is "both sophisticated and rustic, genteel and rude, cosmopolitan and vernacular."
As Rybczynski walks about Villa Rotunda's circle in a square or through the wonderful freestanding portico with Ionic columns of Villa Chiericati, better still the double-decker portico of Villa Cornaro, he traces the evolution of Palladio's style, his influences, how he took advantage of Venetian glassmaking to fill his villas with light, as well as stories of the original owners of the villas, information all carefully marshaled and orchestrated to convey a sense of drama.
"His influence on the language of building is comparable to the lasting impact that William Shakespeare has had on the English language." No small tribute, nor overstatement.
by Peter Lewis