Ubique November 2001
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.
XXI, Number 3, November 2001
THE HISTORY OF CARTOGRAPHY AT THE AMERICAN GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY
by Miklos Pinther
(This is the first 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 all accounts, not only is the story of The American Geographical Society unique, but cartography at the Society, and its place in the overall history of American cartography, is singular as well. Indeed, it may be argued that the cartographic achievements of the Society are unparalleled for institutions of its kind. This narrative will trace the principal cartographic stages during a125-year period, which are somewhat arbitrarily selected as 1851 to 1899, essentially characterized by illustrative cartography, 900 to 1948, principally a period of experimental and exploratory mapping, and 1949 to 1976, the era of thematic and atlas cartography. I will briefly touch upon the main projects, and highlight the personal accomplishments of the key players.
The story begins on September 19, 1851, when John Disturnell placed a small ad in the just-launched New York Times calling attention to his Geographical Rooms and Statistical Library. The small notice read as follows, “Citizens and strangers are respectfully invited to visit the above rooms, where will be found a large collection of maps and statistical works,” and solicited “A gentleman to obtain subscribers to the above rooms.” Three weeks later, The Times reported on the establishment of a “Geographical and Statistical Society.” Disturnell was elected to serve as the Domestic Corresponding Secretary and Agent.
John Disturnell was an active marketer and publisher of cartographic material. For example, the year the Society was established he published a “New Map of the United States and Canada Showing all the Canals, Railroads, Telegraph Lines and Principal Stage Routes.” Disturnell’s Geographical Rooms were conveniently located near travel agencies at 179 Broadway, ready to supply appropriate information. One can easily understand how his place became the focal point of all those who were interested in geography.
For several years Disturnell was one of the more active members. He was a generous contributor of maps and atlases to the Society and eagerly helped to develop its map collection. He regularly presented the Society with new state and county maps, and occasionally, he distributed multiple copies at public meetings of the Society for the instruction and enjoyment of the attendees, and no doubt, for establishing a clientele.
An interesting contribution of John Disturnell was a motion put forth at a meeting on November 15, 1855, to memorialize the Legislature of New York on the subject of a topographical survey. For over thirty years, the Society took an active interest in the mapping of New York State through various committees. In 1876, a newly formed committee presented a report to the Governor that described the hundred-year old, wholly unreliable patchwork of local surveys and the necessity and objective of an accurate triangulation. Based upon this report an Act was passed and $20,000 was appropriated. Work finally began under the able direction of J. T. Gardner, General Secretary of the Society at the time. On the domestic front, this initiative was the first significant cartographic contribution of the Society.
A frequent visitor to the Geographical Rooms was George Schroeter. Before joining the Society as a fellow, he prepared a “skeleton map” of the Rio de la Plata region for the first public sitting of the Society on 13 January 1852. Later in October, when Disturnell presented to the Society a copy of Siebold’s map of Japan, Schroeter prepared a brief memoir on the works of Siebold. Schroeter was the former Secretary of H.R.H. Prince Albert of Prussia. How he came to America is not entirely clear. In fact, we know little of his background. It seems, however, that he was the first cartographer who regularly prepared maps for the Society for which he received remuneration. Schroeter leaves behind a clear trail with two maps, one of Paraguay and one of the Paraná River area accompanying an article on the same subject in Volume 1, No. 1 (1859) of the Journal of the Society. With this issue, the periodic publication of the Society took on a new form, and no doubt, the editors wanted to make a splash. The color-lithographed maps were very nicely executed indeed, attesting to formal cartographic schooling. These are the only published maps we have, which carry attribution to Schroeter.
During the so-called “war of the Rebellion,” publication of the Journal of the Society was suspended and its activities were curtailed. Sometime during this period, perhaps because the Society fell upon difficult financial times and was no longer able to support a cartographer, even on a part-time basis, Schroeter retired.
In 1866, Peter Cooper came to the rescue; he provided new, excellent rooms in his Cooper Union Institute, free of charge. After all, by now the Society possessed the most valuable geographical library in the country and deserved better quarters. Its map holdings were large and rare with atlases and maps from Ortelius to the most recent. These were now systematically arranged in cases, and on shelves and racks. Many were framed and displayed around the rooms
About this time, the Society acquired the services of a new cartographer on regular, albeit piecemeal basis. Records for 1870 indicate that $62 was spent on map-making in that year. The new cartographer was another man of German origin by the name of Frederick Leuthner. It is, however, not until Volume 19 (1887) of the Journal that we come upon a map, which gives attribution to him. Like his predecessor, Leuthner also prepared many maps to be displayed at the Society’s public lectures, which were increasingly illuminated by stereopticon presentations. Leuthner’s career ended abruptly. The minutes of the Council for March 1st, 1890, contain the following stark entry, “Judge Daly reported to the Council the death of Frederick Leuthner, for twenty years the draftsman of the Society, and who had left a widow and nine children in destitute circumstances. Voted on motion of Mr. Stout that $100 be paid by the Society to the widow of Frederick Leuthner in compensation for cartographic work done by him, the same to be in full for all services to date.”
The Society did not acquire again the steady services of a cartographer until 1913.
Charles Patrick Daly was one of the most prominent men in New York City during the second half of the 19th century. The Society benefited greatly from his able leadership. Daly joined the Society in 1855, and held the presidency for 35 years, from 1864 until his death in 1899. He was born in New York, son of an Irish immigrant master carpenter. His mother died in childbirth and his father past away while he was in his early teens. He was determined to learn a trade following in his father’s footsteps, but, to educate himself better, he started attending cultural and literary meetings. It was during a debate contest at one of these gatherings that he attracted the attention of a lawyer who offered employment and further education. Daly was an extraordinarily bright person who by 1839, at the age of 24 and with limited formal education, was admitted to the practice of law. In 1871, he was elected Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. “During his thirty-five years as president,” wrote his biographer Professor Hammond, “his name was synonymous in the scientific world and in the public mind with that of the American Geographical Society… To the Society’s headquarters and to the Judge’s home came travelers, explorers, scientists, to give of their knowledge and experience and to receive advice and assistance.”
Judge Daly’s intimate understanding and passion for geography and cartography are marvelously revealed in his annual addresses, which inter alia include a long exposé “On the Early History of Cartography, Or What We Know of Maps And Map-making, Before the Time of Mercator.”
We see that during this period the Society nurtured and took justifiable pride in its map collection. It developed close relationships with many geographical institutes, which numbered close to one hundred by 1890, and participated in international map exhibits and meetings. The Society also supported several cartographic activities, including preliminary maps for the construction of the trans-continental railroad lines, the construction of a canal across the Central American isthmus, the exploration of the Arctic, several surveys in the west and mid-west, and various maps of Africa. But, other than illustrative cartography, no independent mapping projects were undertaken. Nevertheless, the maps included with the publications present us with an excellent mirror of evolving cartographic styles, of changing printing technologies, and their influence on map making.
(to be continued).
PUTTING RECENT EVENTS IN GEOPOLITICAL CONTEXT
By Alexander P. Murphy, University of Oregon, and AGS Vice President
Sitting in my office on Wednesday morning, September 12th, I received a phone call from an American reporter for the AP wire service, calling me from Beijing to discuss the geopolitical implications of recent events. We had a good talk about the complex international environment facing America today, but it was only after hanging up the telephone that I thought about what our conversation represented. An American reporter working in China called an American professor in Eugene, Oregon, to discuss developments in Southwest Asia and beyond. What better illustration could there be of the geopolitical complexity of the contemporary world?
Examples of such complexities permeate the current crisis, but it is hard to come to grips them when we have long viewed the world in much simpler geographical terms. For decades, the map we thought mattered the most was the one we usually hang on the walls of our homes, our classrooms, and even our foreign policy institutes: the map showing the 200-odd countries of the world. That is the map we have used to frame our thinking about the world for decades, and it is the map that has long framed foreign policy making. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, there was no question what that meant: war with Japan-and by extension Germany and its European allies.
During the Cold War era, we didn’t just think in terms of the map of states, of course. There was a clear bi-polar geopolitical order that overlay the map of states, but it operated in and through the state system. From both a Soviet and an American perspective, the fundamental policy question was whether states were for or against “us,” and policy was shaped by its likely impacts on state allegiance to one side or the other.
Long before the disintegration of the Cold War order, however, there were signs that the map of states was not the only map of importance. Other maps clearly mattered-maps of ethnicity, maps of wealth and poverty, maps of the flow of goods and people. The importance of such alternative maps was made startlingly clear in the aftermath of the break-up of the communist bloc in Europe and then the Soviet Union. Many people-including self-proclaimed experts-seemed surprised by the ethnic diversity of the Soviet Union, the depth of ties between the Baltic States and parts of Scandinavia, interregional antagonisms in Eastern European states, and much more. All of this was easy to ignore when, even in our own educational system, we were more concerned with understanding political alignments than with the geographical complexity of the planet.
In the wake of the events of the last ten days, however, that complexity can no longer be ignored. Who is the responsible for what happened and how can they be brought to justice? It is impossible to answer such questions within the framework of the map of states. Are we, or should we be, at war with Afghanistan? The Taliban is in control of much (but not all) of Afghanistan, and it probably aided and abetted the operation of an organization that bears some responsibility for what happened, but it is hard to see Afghanistan in the same light as Germany or Japan in WWII.
The problem, of course, is that neither the Taliban nor Osama Bin Laden are in any meaningful sense “Afghanistan.” Many Afghans do not even regard the Taliban as a legitimate government. Instead, they see the Taliban for what it is: an offshoot of the resistance movement that grew in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of the 1970s that has taken power by force and that does not even control the entire country. As such, it is critical to understand that a vast majority of the Afghan people had nothing to do with what happened last week, for they too are victims. As one Afghani recently put it, “for the most part we are talking about a people who are starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering.”
The inevitable desire for justice in the wake of the attack on New York City and Washington, DC-together with the hold that the old geopolitical order still has on our imaginations-makes it tempting to cast Afghanistan as the enemy. Yet what is Afghanistan? A product of a nineteenth-century geopolitical compromise between Russia and Great Britain that is made up of many different peoples-Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Hazaras to name just a few. So our present world is not just one in which communication and trade networks are not reducible to the map of states; it is one in which the state itself can be a hollow concept.
What does this mean for the future? If one is to take the geopolitical complexity of the world seriously, at least two things seem to be critically important. One is the need to consider very carefully the long-term geopolitical implications of different policy responses. If history is any guide, there is a grave danger in a policy approach that could lead to the emergence of a new bi-polar geopolitical order pitting the Islamic world against the Judeo-Christian world. This is the scenario posited in a controversial book on the “Clash of Civilizations” by Harvard Political Scientist Samuel Huntington, and Huntington’s thesis has been strenuously challenged for its failure to recognize the extraordinary diversity within the Islamic and the Judeo-Christian “realms.” Yet it is precisely where the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world would like to take us.
Mr. Bin Laden and his sympathizers are the product of a revolutionary movement that sees America as the great enemy of the Islamic world. Moreover, they believe that the best hope for the future lies in a united, radicalized Islamic front, which Bin Laden believes could ultimately defeat the United States and its allies. Even if Bin Laden is wrong about the defeat scenario-and he almost certainly is from a military standpoint-his vision is not a pleasant one to contemplate for the years ahead. For it almost certainly carries with it more events of the type we witnessed on September 11. This is so because, comforting rhetoric notwithstanding, it is almost impossible in our porous, interlinked world to stop acts of terrorism if people are willing to die for the cause. The history of terrorism during the twentieth century unambiguously shows that as soon as one avenue for terrorist attack is shut down, another one is found.
With this in mind, it would seem paramount that one of our principal goals in the days ahead should be ensure that Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”-which is Bin Laden’s goal-does not come about. In working toward that goal, we start from one significant advantage. The outpouring of sympathy and understanding for the United States from around the globe has been truly exceptional over the past week and a half, and there are many-both outside the Islamic world and within-who are willing to join in the effort to combat terrorism. Among America’s greatest challenges at the moment, however, is to built constructively on that good will, for if the emotional desire for revenge wins out over the quest for geopolitical stability, humanitarianism, and social justice, we not only risk abandoning the ideals for which we should stand, but we risk playing directly into the hands of those who seek to undermine us.
To put it bluntly, if the US response to the terrible events of September 11 results in significant loss of life of innocent Muslims, we would take a very large step toward a bi-polar geopolitical world that could be much more volatile than the Cold War order. Such an action might easily fuel the kind of widespread anti-Americanism in the Islamic world that could spiral into an unending succession of violence. As William Pfaff has pointed out, it could precipitate a reaction that would lead to an Iran-style revolution in Saudi Arabia and could prompt other conservative Islamic regimes into alliance with the radical movements that are powerful or influential in states across the Middle East and North Africa, and extending into southeastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
There is a second, related point to make. Even though this situation highlights the extent to which we live in a world of territorially diffuse networks, it is wrong to conclude that territory no longer matters. In recent days there have been many expressions of amazement about the rarity of direct attacks on US territory during the twentieth century. Yet there is one feature that differentiates the US from so many other places that have experienced such attacks: there is no well-organized, militant group contesting the legitimacy of US control over its territory. The attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, were likely not driven by those who believe the US government is illegitimately occupying their land; instead they were driven by those who contest the nature and direction of American influence in the world.
In one sense this could be a source of comfort for the United States, for most of the intractable conflicts of the twentieth century have been driven by conflicts between two or more groups fighting for control over the same territory. Yet it is also clear that, as the world’s preeminent power, the United States’ influence will inevitably be viewed in relation to territorial conflicts taking place elsewhere in the world. We now know that the timing of the attacks on New York City and Washington was not a coincidence; they corresponded to the anniversary of the signing of the Camp David accords. And of course what that symbolizes to some extremists is a disastrous territorial compromise in the Middle East.
What all of this demonstrates is that the positions taken by the United States on territorial conflicts around the world have an unavoidable influence on how our country is viewed. We can no longer afford to assume that areas with mixed populations can simply be segregated into neatly demarcated spaces as we did in the early days of the Bosnian civil war. We can no longer, in the name of support for Israel, turn a blind eye to a settlement policy aimed at marginalizing people in their own lands. And we can no longer look the other way when genocide unfolds in places like Rwanda.
None of this is meant to suggest that the United States can or should become militarily involved in such disputes. But the United States must inevitably take a position-for even the lack of position will be seen as a position. Such is the inevitable fate of a country with the economic, political, and ideological reach of the United States. Yet if those positions are based in democratic values, respect for human rights, and the sanctity of life, the United States has the capacity to undermine those who would attack its foundations. Therein lies both the hope for a more stable world and the true defeat of those who perpetrated the attacks of last week.
EXCERPTS OF A LETTER FROM AGS VICE PRESIDENT RICHARD W. JANSON
America is swept up in a gathering storm cloud of vengeance, a natural human response to a perceived wrong. And America has been wronged in fact and to incalculable degree. From the playground to the battlefield getting even is a secret desire of almost all human beings, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, or race, or religion. The danger to world stability is a military response that escalates the number of innocent injured to a widening circle of vengeful people.
...Combined with ethical restraints are pragmatic reasons for careful, measured responses to the September 11th attacks. There are many people in the world who want to get even with the United States. For example, the operation to arrest Noriega was accomplished partly by bombing his base. More than 500 civilians were killed in the operation, most of them totally innocent of Noriega’s crimes. In Chile, a U.S.-sponsored assassination of the democratically elected president lead to a dictatorship lasting almost two decades that used kidnapping and murder to maintain the regime. In Nicaragua, the Contras were illegally financed by surrogates of the United States. Tens of thousands died, many killed by thugs partially financed by the United States...In Serbia, a war restricted to the air had errant bombs. The most celebrated misfire was the bombing of the Chinese embassy. Millions of people in China felt wronged. No doubt some Serbs and some Chinese would like to get even.
...The “war on terrorism” should be a war of overt and covert action against the terrorists, not the ordinary people of a nation state. The actions should not have collateral damage of appreciable scale. The effort should be global and long term.
...World population, an estimated 10 billion by 2050, portends an even larger scale of destruction unless the scourge of terrorism is eliminated or diminished. Yet, if wrongs are perpetrated in the name of the war on terrorism, convulsion will transmute into conventional war. There will be millions of people in the streets shouting for vengeance, to get even with nations perpetrating crimes in the name of eliminating terrorism.
War seldom solves anything; only new problems are created.
OUR NEWEST INTERN, NICOLE RAPP, FROM BERLIN
This is my last week of a 10-week internship at the American Geographical Society in New York City. I was asked to write about my experiences as an intern at The American Geographical Society and mainly about the reasons I came here.
Currently I’m a graduate student of Geography and North American Studies in Berlin, Germany, and this 10-week internship in the field of Geography is part of my studies. I was free to decide whether I wanted to do this internship in Germany or abroad, and I can say that the decision was very easy! As a student of Geography I’m not only interested in traveling but also in getting to know different cultures and I believe that the only way to really get to know and understand foreign cultures is to be in that country for longer than just a 2-week vacation.
The reason I chose New York City is definitely my love of this city. Being an Au-pair in Morristown, New Jersey and coming back to New York City several times as a “tourist” was a good way to get to know the area and the people that live here, but I realized that if I actually want to understand the American culture, maybe I should say the New York culture, I have to be part of the working world. Another reason I chose New York City is my master’s thesis which is about “the Disneyfication of Times Square”. Even though I’ve been to New York several times before I thought being on the spot while doing research and writing my thesis would give me the possibility to keep track of what’s going on in the Times Square area.
Early this year I started looking for internships in the US. I surfed all kinds of websites that offered information about internships abroad and I was forced to realize that working as an European intern in the US would mean a lot of sacrifices: not many companies want to assist in the process of getting a working visa, the internships are usually unpaid, and it is very hard to find an affordable and decent place to stay in New York City. But when I found the notice from the American Geographical Society, I was interested right away, and I knew all these sacrifices would be worth the outcome!
I started this internship on August 7, 2001, and while being at The American Geographical Society I tackled a wide variety of assignments: web research on different topics, updating the mailing and press lists, updating the travel database, researching and preparing hundreds of letters, invitations and special mailings to all new PH. D’s, and New York area applied geographers, and writing several press releases on articles in the Geographical Review .
I will graduate from the Humboldt and Free Universities of Berlin, Germany in Spring 2002, with a M.A. in Geography and North American Studies. And I can honestly say that being an intern at The American Geographical Society in New York City was a very good experience and reinforced my decision to become a geographer. To be working downtown on September 11, 2001, when the suicidal attack on the World Trade Center took place was a horrible and scary experience but also a very helpful one, because I was once again “on the spot” to keep track of what was going on. It made me understand the American culture even better.--- Nicole Rapp
A NOTE OF APPRECIATION
So many of you have called, written, or emailed to ask how the American Geographical Society fared on September 11th and since, that an answer in these pages seems in order.
When the planes struck the Twin Towers, it happened that only three of us were here in the AGS offices, a few blocks away. We walked outside and silently watched with horror and disbelief what looked like two enormous flaming torches. Standing there, we were showered by the “confetti” of papers blown out of the first building when it was hit. It seemed, bizarrely, like the ticker tape for a parade, but it was marking a tragedy, not a celebration.
Back inside, through our first-floor windows, we watched throngs of people in dust masks running through the smoke and a “snowstorm” of ashes, creating a near “whiteout”. The air in our building did not seem affected at that point; so, we thought we would be clever and stay here in the office, sleeping on the floor overnight if need be. We joked that it would be the first “AGS sleepover”. The police came along, however, and put an end to that potential adventure. They said quite firmly that we had to leave the building and get out of the neighborhood quickly, any way we could. Gas lines were ruptured. Explosions were a threat.
Obediently, we left, clutching wet paper towels--to breathe through supposedly. (Great in theory, but it doesn’t work!) Two of us trekked a couple of miles to and across the Brooklyn Bridge to the closest still-functioning public transportation, in Brooklyn, and thence home. Our resourceful bookkeeper, disdaining such an unimaginative solution to the problem, took a more elegant approach. He strolled over to the pier just East of the office and hitched a ride with one of the good Samaritans ferrying Manhattan refugees over to Brooklyn. Shades of Dunkirk!
We were locked out of our building and our office for a week (no electricity and no admittance for civilians to this area). It took another week for mail service to resume and a week beyond that for telecommunications to be more than a sometime thing.
The police and military presence in our area continues. We have become accustomed to the building’s new security measures. The poor sidewalk vendors have been allowed to return, after a month’s suspension of their livelihood. Finally, people have stopped walking around with breathing devices that made them look like giant insects. When the wind shifts a certain way, however, odors remind us of the scene just over the hill. The strong smell of burning still pervades local subway stations, where the breeze can not clear it out.
The word is: AGS, its offices, and its staff survive are up and running again. With the unimaginable devastation so near by, we know we were extremely fortunate. We are profoundly thankful for that, but we are haunted by the thousands who were not so fortunate.
The question is: What does the future hold? It is going to be difficult for all of us, and that includes the American Geographical Society, just at a time when a knowledge and understanding of geography is more vital than ever.
The economic impact of the attacks has pretty much dried up all of our normal sources of income. To get through the next few months we are going to need all the help our friends can give.
We are hanging in. We hope you will, too.
With thanks for your concern,
Mary Lynne Bird, Executive Director
The AGS WEBWORLD
The AGS website (http://www.amergeog.org) continues to grow daily, with new material,
links to interesting and informative sites, and information about myriad AGS programs. Detailed information about past issues of the Geographical Review is now available, including article titles, abstracts, relevant pictures, and other useful material. The site also details the many exciting AGS-sponsored educational tours available for the 2002 season. Visit the travel program page and be tantalized by the exciting itineraries and wonderful locations featured in the AGS tours. The webmaster would like to hear from Ubique readers and AGS Fellows about the website, their geographical activities, or member news. Just use the links on the website to send information to the AGS.
The AGS Webmaster (aka Professor David J. Keeling, Western Kentucky University and AGS Councilor).
TRAVEL PROGRAM: ON THE MOVE!
After a one-year hiatus, the AGS Travel Program is underway again.
A modest schedule of five trips in 2001 is being followed by a season of fifteen (or more) trips in 2002. In addition to familiar and popular itineraries in Europe, the Mediterranean,
and the Middle East, some different places are included in the new trips being offered now: Vietnam, South Georgia, Jordan, Canada, Burma, the Falkland Islands, Iran, Cambodia, Morocco,
Indonesia, Bhutan, India, Oman, Muscat, the Dahlak Islands, Laos, Syria, Mongolia, Tunisia, Africa Circumnavigated, and even the United States. Most trips continue to be by ship.
There are a number of trips by train, however, including two trans-continental trips in North America: one from Montreal to Vancouver and the other from Washington to Los Angeles.
As usual, a number of trips combine ship with short flights and legs by train. The ships continue to range from 85 to 170 passengers in capacity. In a new departure, there will be
two trips in 2002 by private, first-class jet that leap from one out-of-the-way place to another, tracing some aspect of human experience.
For more of the delicious details, 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, RR 1, Box 12, Walpole, NH 03608-9703
Comfort him with rare-earth elements, with tantalum, rhenium, and osmium---Uncle Tungsten (Knopf) is Oliver Sacks’ artful, impassioned memoir of a youth spent lost in the blinding light of chemistry.
Sacks grew up in England, during wartime, into a sizeable extended intellectual family: doctors and mathematicians, physicists and chemists and general polymaths. Early on an uncle introduced him to the thrall of metals, and he came to know gold, silver, copper, tungsten, and so many others as a child knows an attic or a woodlot: by taste and smell and quirk: the cry of tin as it is bent, the nobility of iridium, radium’s “ultimate, fatal red.” He became a familiar of their gleam and slick, heft and chroma, and especially their inviolacy, for his was a precarious world---if he wasn’t having bombs dropped on his head in London, he was being savagely beaten at boarding school---and he found security and relief in the stability of metals.
In a kind and gracious voice, Sacks guides readers on his journey of passionate discovery into the romance of chemistry---as a detailed, naturalistic, and descriptive science, a 19th-century science, but make no bones about it, lots of pure science marches through these pages---and its ability to spark wonder and delight. Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier are introduced, as are Humphry Davy and his alkaline earth metals, John Dalton and his atomic theory, the wild and extravagant Dmitry Mendeleev, whose periodic table sends Sacks reeling with an appreciation of the mind’s ability to decipher the “superarching principle uniting and relating all the elements.”
Sacks always has an eye skinned for the evocative and poignant in this history of family and science---from his brother’s madness to the intensity of limelight to the intoxication and seeming redemption of radioactivity---and his own decaying orbit under the spell of chemistry. The realm of science is alchemy in Sacks’ hands, as he spins pure gold from base metals.
Mark Kurlansky takes Salt (Walker) and does for it what he did for cod a few years back by presenting a lively social history that leaves the reader with the impression that the subject is far more important, and interesting, than the evolution of language or the harnessing of fire.
Without salt, Kurlansky lets it be known from the outset, there would be no life, let alone a nifty preservative from anything from herring to mummies. Salt keeps the muscles pumping, the blood flowing, the brain firing. Its importance, naturally, has trailed endless strife. Salt enters written history, as so many things do, with the Chinese, who had the first known saltworks, imposed the first known salt tax, and fought the first known salt war. They also used it to preserve the wondrous 1,000-year-old egg, which "take about 100 days to make, and will keep for another 100 days," give or take, evidently, 365,000 days.
Kurlansky follows the salt story through its deployment by Phoenicians and Egyptians; Celts, who are seen to have been more crazily far-flung than the Basques; said Basques, who salted the cod that they chased all the way to North America a 1000 years ago; through essentially all of history. In salt, politics and food mix continually, if uncomfortably (numerous old salt-specializing recipes are included). The Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans rose to power partly on the back of salt; control of it made and unmade royal houses in Europe and the Far East. There developed a whole semiotics of salt, and Kurlansky deconstructs it.
A couple of curious errors---such as attributing the famous comment "Kill them all. God knows his own" to "an Albigensian leader" rather than to Pope Innocent III, who was busy slaughtering Albigensians---are piddling in relation to the encyclopedic glory of the study. As a food historian, enlightening and delighting as he goes, Kurlansky is, like Jane Grigson before him, peerless.
Fire (Norton) features run-for-cover writing from scary places by Sebastian Junger, a man with an appetite for the ragged edge of life and the ability to write about it with restrained power.
The ten pieces in this collection of magazine articles, one of which won a National Magazine Award for Reporting, have the authentic tang of dispatches from the front. Junger might be considered a bit of an adrenaline junkie because of the situations he puts himself into, but as for being in someone’s gunsight: “there was nothing exciting about it, nothing even abstractly interesting. It was purely, exclusively bad.” What comes across here is his overpowering sense of awe at the events he describes. He writes with a pressure-cooker urgency, though with the lid firmly in place: no screeching high notes here, but the steady awful thrum of things going out of control and death standing by.
Junger tells of the intimations that smoke jumpers feel when the woods they are in are about to explode into flame, and of the survival instincts followed by a man kidnapped with a group of trekkers by Kashmiri guerrillas that allow him alone to live. A good number of the pieces are situated in Kosovo, where the slaughter of Albanians by Serbians is without mercy or bounds.
Most remarkable are his accounts of such places where all moral referents are severely out of alignment, and Junger having only hours before jump-shifted from everyday life to begin a whirling decent into madness. Sometimes these places are experiencing instants of war, others simply accept atrocity as a condition of existence. Sierra Leone is a good example: being shot by a diamond-smuggling, AK-47-toting, drug-crazed teenager is just a daily precaution one guards against, like typhus or dysentery.
These are deeply affecting stories of a ruthless world, natural and man-made, that will leave you stunned and distraught.
A rather different mindset comes with Cultivating Delight (HarperCollins), a rapt and lovely seasonal pilgrimage, enviously attuned, through Diane Ackerman's home garden to points beyond.
Time pools as Ackerman takes readers through the gardens around her home in Ithaca, New York. She enjoys simply hanging out, is highly distractible, spontaneously journeys off to big thoughts---beauty, mortality, fear---as she deadheads the asters, and, like a Romantic garden, she comes with lots of surprises. She is highly observant ("There's a cricket head lying on the flagstone, probably left by a toad.") and seems to know the life story and cultural history behind every plant in her landscape, redbud to leucothoe to her legions of roses.
The outdoors feeds her---"Wonder is a bulky emotion; when it fills the heart and mind there's little room for anything else. We need the intimate truths of daylight and deer"---and has very much filled her mind with wild imagery: hummingbird nests of lichen and spider silk, roses that break their necks in a blooming fury, "apple trees ripe as a gin mill."
Ackerman likes to reveal nature's intricate machinery. How does a bird know which one has been fed in a nest full of gaping mouths? Why is that cardinal shivering in June? This she balances with all the mystery that remains in the garden, in particular the workings of fate, as when she is bitten hard by the disappearance of a wren family after their birdhouse took a fall.
Each season brings its stamp, but spring has got Ackerman in her pocket---"the air tastes tinny and sweet"---and, good Northeasterner she is, she measures it progress against the buffetings of winter as if holding on for dear life: ""Spring travels north at about thirteen miles a day, which is 47.6 feet per minute…I start looking for subtle clues and signs." Like Pan, Ackerman is an unpredictable sensualist in the garden, a sensualist with lots of facts, and a more gladdening companion therein it is hard to imagine.
Ann-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall pleasingly convey the palpable sense of orientation that archaeology---in this case, New York City's---can give "to reach a deeper understanding of the human predicament, “ in Unearthing Gotham (Yale).
As America's oldest city, New York has plenty to reveal by digging below its surface, and Cantwell and Wall treat it as one big site with a timetable stretching from the Paleoindians to the 19th century. Temples, agricultural fields, privies, backyards, cemeteries---all were as embedded in the everyday worlds of their makers as they are now embedded under a cap of cement and asphalt, and they have much to lend the multicultural movements and identity politics of today, not to mention their ability to assuage cultural anxiety and discontinuity. Cantwell and Wall tap into all this in their chronological survey.
Though it is difficult to coax any detail or intimacy from the ancient past, at least a general perspective can be gained from Staten Island Clovis sites, now nestled between the bunkering facilities of a huge oil tank farm; such queer juxtapositions are part of New York's archaeological charm. Inwood Park's late-Archaic stone habitations are still being used by people seeking shelter from life's storms, while the various Woodland sites give indications of the wide world of the native cultures running up and down the entire eastern seaboard.
Cantwell and Wall also outline the difficulties of doing archaeological work in the city: the time constraints and logistics imposed on archaeologists, as real estate interests snap at their heels to get a move on so development can proceed. They chart as well the political sensitizing of archaeologists as pertaining to burial sites, and the evolution of historic preservation movement. In all, an 11,000-year narrative of a great city, thronging with details and possessing a specific cultural gravity as weighty, and as mutable, as quicksilver.
Elizabeth Royte presents an intriguing story of time spent with the field scientists of Panama's Barro Colorado Island in The Tapir’s Morning Bath (Houghton Mifflin). Barro Colorado Island is six square miles of tropical wonder in the middle of the Panama Canal, which has, since 1923, been the site of a Smithsonian-administered research center. There, scientists of many stripes seek to take the measure of the baffling mechanics of the tropical forest, to try to answer Darwin's question: "What explains the riot?" Royte, in turn, went to seek the scientists' measure. Who were these people studying tent-making bats, the role of epiphytes in anthropod diversity, the limits to the population density of spiny rats?
Royte reports here on the daily life at the center and the staff members, some more, some less, endearing but all dedicated to their work. Among them are old fashioned naturalists---they observe, they take notes, they draw conclusions---and there are thinkers of the big picture---of mutualism and the origin and persistence of species---but fewer and fewer are permitted such cerebrating: "Sadly, unorthodox thinking and broad studies are now neither encouraged nor rewarded."
Royte becomes as comfortable among the "classic BCI weirdo---smart and nerdy, hyperfocused on work and socially awkward…a festival of scratching, toe tapping, and other expressions of nervous energy," as she is working with the handfuls young field assistants doing the droog work. Almost all, however, have a passion for fieldwork, putting up with the endless physical misery---believe it---for the joy of studying evolution at ground zero. They also give Royte a chance to witness the disconnect between doing fieldwork on biodiversity and acting in biodiversity's behalf; importantly for Royte, the fruits of the field scientists' work have to be marshaled for conservation planning. A finely drawn chronicle of fieldwork, with an appealing moral edge---"a plea for conservation, and the basic research that made it possible, that anyone can understand."
Forty-second Street, that "ground zero for the manufacture, exhibition, and distribution of pornography, drug dealing, pedophilia, prostitution, and violent street crime" gets a root-tootin' send up from Marc Eliot in Down 42nd Street (Warner).
As a home to raunch, 42nd Street---leastwise those blocks west of Sixth Avenue---has long been true to itself, writes Eliot in this sensationalistic history. Even back when it was known as Long Acre Square, in the days before the New York Times moved in a changed the address, it had as many brothels as it did rookeries and horse stables, as many hoodlums as rats. Eliot charts the street's sordid past, in which everyone seemed to have a scam to run: Tweed, Vanderbilt, Astor, Chrysler, pimps, cardsharps, and real estate developers by the peck and drove.
Eliot has a talent for cutting through the city's Byzantine politics (without a loss of nuance) to explain how mayors from Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia to Lindsay, Beame, Koch, and Giuliani played their 42nd Street card to their aggrandizement. Eliot does a fine job conjuring a sense of the street's atmosphere beyond the sleaze, particularly the world of the theater: the great spaces, of course, but also the rehearsal halls, script services, wigmakers, makeup companies, costume makers, violin bow makers, the entire theater raft community that worked and lived therein.
Eliot's research and detailing presents a rich picture of the street's evolution, and he has a lot of fun in a depressing way with the street's color. Then again, he has a tendency to logorrhea and lards the narrative with a kind of 1950s melodrama: "the air began to stink from a turgid waft of human sweat and canned Lysol that hung tough at the nostril level"---that wears real thin real fast.
Few will mourn the passing of 42nd Street's world of violence and drugs. It's true as well that few will cheer the coming of the Koch/Giuliani "big-ticket corporate alley."
Lastly, and a personal favorite, comes 52 McGs (Scribner), dispatches from the dark side made funny---or how to turn an obituary into a comic masterpiece---from the late New York Times reporter Robert McG. Thomas.
For the last half of the 1990s, readers of the Times could be excused if they searched out Thomas's work before they bothered with the front page. Known as McGs after Thomas's middle name, these little beauties celebrated the unsung, the queer, the unpretentious, the low of rent. His obituary of the Kitty Litter king Edward Lowe in 1995 first brought him to public attention, and for the next 5 years he paraded an endless sideshow of worthies before his readership.
Drollery was Thomas's forte, taking the high note in someone's life---often of incongruous or absurd nature---and then garnishing it with plenty of wit. His lead for Anton Rosenberg is a fine example: "a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of the 1950s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything"---the poetry of compression.
Thomas had a knack for extolling and leveling in a breath---"a perennial world champion in a decidedly regional sport," he wrote of the Queen of Duckpins in 1998---and could massage a piece of farce with deadpanned certainty: "You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man." The cornerstone of Thomas's interests were summed up in the line that attended an obituary of Angelo Zuccotti, who wielded the velvet rope at El Morocco: "He may have been a working stiff…but he also saw his work as an art."
Thomas died last year, robbing many folks of their daily act of courage---laughing in the face of death.
by Peter Lewis