Volume XXI, Number 2, July 2001


A festive evening in March saw the American Geographical Society award four outstanding geographers---Wilbur Zelinsky, David Stoddart, Mark Monmonier, and Bertha Becker---with a bouquet of medals.

The Cullum Geographical Medal for the “advancement of geographical science” was given to the redoubtable Wilbur Zelinsky. The Penn State geographer was characterized by Councilors Joseph Wood and Paul Starrs in their introductory essay on Professor Zelinsky as “an authentic and original voice in American cultural geography and a true academic provocateur.” And as anyone who has ever read his work will nod in agreement, he is “a wordsmith of uncanny ear, considerable wry humor, and incomparable devotion and attention to language and its nuances... He is in every way the consummate scholar, all the while having great fun and never assuming he has the last word.”

Professor Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University, who has done so much to bring cartography in line with the computer age, was given the O. M. Miller Cartographic Medal. The rarified world of digitized mapping is not Dr. Monmonier’s only bailiwick: He is also at home bringing the fascinating world of cartography to the general public with such books as The Cartographies of Danger, on the mapping of hazards; Air Apparent, on meteorological mapping; and the wonderful How to Lie with Maps, on the manipulation of maps.

A fixture of the Cambridge University (U.K.) geography faculty for over thirty years, Dr. David Stoddart accepted the position of Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987. Pioneering work on the geomorphology and phytogeography of coral reefs have been the earmarks of Professor Stoddart’s career, and so too has his study of salt marshes, mangroves, ecological and climatological controls of ecosystems, and general coastal geomorphology, as well as his teaching in the classroom. As Councilor Doug Sherman noted in his survey of Professor Stoddart’s contribution to geography, “in every aspect of his academic career, he has excelled.” He received the George Davidson Medal for exceptional achievement in research in the Pacific Ocean.

Dr. Bertha Becker has made the contemporary occupation of Amazonia the focus of her distinguished career. In the program biography, Councilor Alexander Murphy said of Professor Becker that “her innovative scholarship on the Amazon region has illuminated our understanding of settlement frontiers, regional migrations, and geopolitics in the developing world.” She has taught at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro for the past twenty-six years, served as Vice President of the International Geographical Union, and maintained an extensive publication record stretching back thirty-five years. Professor Becker was awarded the David Livingstone Centenary Medal, for scientific achievement in the field of geography of the Southern Hemisphere.

Peter Lewis


by Mary Lynne Bird, Executive Director, AGS

(Talk delivered at the AGS Sesquicentennial Symposium held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May 18, 2001)

Natural historians have a term to describe an organism that does not evolve with the times. The word they use is "extinct." It is a term that could just as easily be applied to an organization as an organism.

But if there is one overwhelming thought we should entertain after hearing these remarkable narratives of accomplishment on the part of the American Geographical Society over its first 150 years, it is that AGS has changed with the times. While taking pride in its past, the Society has not stayed fixed there. It has adapted to changed circumstances and new challenges, like any successful bivalve or anthropoid.

If it had not, we would not be celebrating a sesquicentennial today. The Society might well have earned the description of "extinct." And we would not be here looking forward to its next 150 years. So, lament Ye not for the glories we have been hearing about this afternoon. Nostalgia is inevitable. Regret is not. Instead we should be thanking the past leadership of AGS-Councilors and staff---those who made tough but wise decisions to adapt to the times.

As we acknowledge change and move on, the time is right to identify and perhaps to celebrate what it is that continues to define the American Geographical Society. What is its profile? What combination of priorities and modus operandi distinguishes AGS from other organizations in the field of geography? What are the continuing values and goals that have inspired its past and will carry it into the future? With all the changes that have taken place, what is it that will make AGS continue to be AGS and continue to matter? What is the institutional DNA that will persist?

I would contend that the polestars, the driving forces of AGS's past, have been relevance, accessibility, inclusiveness, breadth, and passion--a passion for knowledge. I believe they will continue to be in the future. If an organization can be said to have character traits, these are what mark the American Geographical Society.

To take relevance first, AGS has involved itself in important issues of the day. Once it was the challenge of finding the Northwest Passage for ships in trade. Later it was the question of the best route for a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Another time it was surveying where to build a railroad across the North American continent. There was the challenge of assisting the U.S. President and State Department to wind up a war. In World War II it was a matter of providing charts for the U.S. Air Force and help to some forty other government agencies. Or helping Exxon decide where in Africa to locate an operating facility. More recently, topics in the society's publications have dealt with flood management, tracing guns from their manufacture in Georgia to distribution in the streets of the nation's capitol, describing the impact of today's tourism on fragile environments, documenting the route of the AIDS pandemic from Africa to Europe, North America, and on and on.

The Society was founded to make geography influential in the world outside the discipline. Focusing on contemporary relevant issues has helped it to pursue that goal. Is the American Geographical Society the only organization dealing with such subjects? Of course not. But in the geographical community, it is the organization with the clearest and strongest record of making such issues top priority and of presenting what geographers have to say about those issues in language that speaks to non-geographers. And it is the geographical organization that has directly involved itself operationally in such matters.

That statement leads to the next mark of the American Geographical Society-accessibility. More than any other organization in the geographical community, the American Geographical Society has consciously striven to reach out beyond the discipline as well as within it, not by watering down information---a very important point---but by making it more understandable. That goal was set by the founders of the Society and held to by all subsequent Councils, editors, and staff in the 150 years since. Striving for accessibility has made AGS influential because of its success in informing such a wide variety of audiences about issues that mattered to them. The well-known narrative style of what AGS publishes and produces may help to explain the degree to which it has reached decision makers in business and government as well as others beyond the borders of academe.

The reason for pursuing accessibility rises out of another characteristic-inclusiveness. The founders of the American Geographical Society were themselves members of the business community and the professions and holders of public office. The Society quickly became a joint community of producers and users of geographical information, with a membership that includes professional geographers-both academic and non-academic-and other people who take geography seriously and consciously make use of it. The AGS Council reflects that inclusiveness. So does the readership of its publications and the audiences of its speakers. To serve that inclusive community, the Council insisted right from the start on an editorial style that would maximize the impact and influence of AGS publications, lectures, maps, and other outreach on all those diverse groups. The Council has always included non-geographers who were willing to support geographical inquiry, as long as they and people like them could understand and make use of the results themselves. Hence, inclusiveness produced accessibility.

The fourth mark of the American Geographical Society is breadth. AGS has consistently dealt with the full sweep of what is happening in the discipline. While it has paid timely attention to new developments in the field, it has avoided the trap of neglecting the rest of the discipline to focus on the latest enthusiasm du jour. In a time of proliferating mini-journals and sub-sub-specialties, The American Geographical Society continues steadily to represent the entire scope of geography. It does it both within the geographical community and to the outside world and does so in language that communicates in both venues. It is unique in this country in playing that role.

The last driving force on my list is a passion for knowledge, but, of course, it really should have been first on the list, since it was the impetus behind the birth of the society. It was a search for specific geographical information, after all, that led to the establishment of the society in 1851. That passion for "the search" has never faded.

To be more precise, however, AGS has always been dedicated to the expansion of geographical knowledge. It was never enough to discover. That drive has always been accompanied by the zeal to capture, record and communicate to others what has been found or understood. There has never been an interest at AGS in adventure for adventure's sake-though adventures there have certainly been. Expeditions, fieldwork, and research have been undertaken for the purpose of learning, analyzing, and informing. The dedication to learn and to share that learning has been matched by what I can only term a reverence for responsible, scholarly work of quality.

I have been told that the policy of having manuscripts refereed for publication started at the American Geographical Society. Gladys Wrigley, the fabled and formidable editor of the Geographical Review for thirty years, is said to have developed the practice. Supposedly, through her leadership in the organization of scholarly journal editors, the practice of refereeing manuscripts spread to other journals. Apocryphal or not, the story captures the attitude at AGS toward research, fieldwork, and any other kind of scholarly inquiry it has supported or endorsed. Inquiry and the reporting of it had to be the best and had to stand up under scrutiny.

Those standards no doubt explain how AGS acquired the credibility that would cause the State Department, CBS News, Miramax Films, the Peruvian Embassy to the United Nations, or an oil company to turn to it for information, data, or advice.

New programs will come. Some will go. Just as people have come and gone in the life of the American Geographical Society. But I believe that whatever directions the society takes, whatever ventures it launches, whatever trails it blazes-as it wends its pioneering way into the future…I believe that the values and traits that have defined it so far will continue to distinguish and define the American Geographical Society. They are what has given the society its unique profile in this country. They provide the blueprint for its future.

So, here's to relevance, accessibility, inclusiveness, breadth, and an unquenchable passion for geographical knowledge. And here's to the next 150 years of the American Geographical Society!


John Fraser Hart and Douglas R. McManis will be honored by the American Geographical Society on Saturday, November 10th at a dinner in New York City to be attended by the AGS Council, Fellows, Galileo Circle, and other friends of the Society and of the honorees. Dr. Hart will be awarded the Paul P. Vouras Medal, which is given for "outstanding work in regional geography." Dr. McManis will be given the Samuel Finley Breese Morse Medal, which is awarded for "the encouragement of geographical research." American regional geography has been blessed with some fine and evocative writers, and among the finest is Dr. Hart. The Geographical Review was lucky to land such pieces as "Small Towns and Manufacturing," "Urban Encroachment on Rural Areas," "Field Patterns in Indiana," "Change in the Corn Belt," "Perimetropolitan Bow Wave," and "Turmoil in Tobaccoland," among a number of others. He has also written wrote frequently for FOCUS on Geography.

Dr. McManis edited the Geographical Review for nearly twenty years, from 1979 until his retirement with the publication of the 1995 volume. He fiercely upheld standards that have made the Review a premier geographical publication, and he was also known for his canny ability to identify and nurture bright young scholars, in particular those whose writing style might be considered too risky by other learned publications.

The event will be held at the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Avenue in New York, to begin at 6:30. The cost of attendance is $100 per person. Only sixty persons can be accommodated. Therefore those who wish to attend are urged to contact the AGS office immediately for further information and to reserve a space. Payment can be made by check or credit card.

For information and/or reservations, call (212)422-5456, fax (212)422-5480, e-mail: AGS@amergeog.org.

Mail: 120 Wall Street, Suite 100, New York, New York 10005-3904.


Susan Hardwick, Clifton W. Pannell, and Deborah Popper were elected to the Council of the American Geographical Society at the Annual Meeting of the Council, held in Milwaukee in the Pfister Hotel on May 19th. All three were elected to three-year terms on the Council.

Dr. Hardwick is an Associate Professor of Geography and Education Project Director in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon. Previously she was a member of faculties at Southwest Texas State University and California State University-Chico. Her degrees were earned at Slippery Rock University (B.S.), California State University-Chico (M.A.), and University of California-Davis (Ph.D.). She is an ethnic geographer, well known as the author of Russian Refuge: Religion, Migration, and Settlement on the North American Pacific Rim (1993, University of Chicago Press). She is also prominent in geographic education and active in work on gender issues. Dr. Hardwick has received numerous awards for excellence in teaching, in particular the "Statewide Outstanding Professor Award" from the California State University System in 1995.

Dr. Pannell is a Professor of Geography and Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia. He has also taught as a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong and the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, among others. His education, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (A.B.), the University of Virginia (M.A.), and the University of Chicago (Ph.D.) also includes five years of service in the U.S. Navy, 1962-1966. Dr. Pannell is well known as a specialist on East Asia, especially China, with particular emphasis on urbanization, land use, and economics. His numerous publications have earned him research awards from the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers and the University of Georgia Research Foundation, among others. Dr. Pannell was one of the first geographers to serve as a lecturer in AGS's Travel Program. He has continued to lecture on AGS trips periodically over the years.

Dr. Popper is an Associate Professor of Geography at the College of Staten Island-City University of New York. Previously she taught at New York University and Rutgers University. She earned her A.B. at Bryn Mawr, an M.L.S. at Rosary College, and her M.A. and Ph.D. at Rutgers University. One of the rare academics able to communicate well with the general public, she, and her husband Frank, have written and spoken extensively about the development and fate of the Great Plains, dubbing the area "The Buffalo Commons." In 1997, the Poppers were awarded the Paul P. Vouras Medal for Regional Geography by the American Geographical Society. Dr. Deborah Popper holds an Associate Fellowship at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis.


The AGS held its 150th annual meeting on May 18-19, 2001, at the American Geographical Society Collection of the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In celebration of the Society's sesquicentennial, the AGSC hosted a symposium as part of its on-going Arthur Holzheimer Lecture Series, "Maps and America." "Maps and Milestones," as the symposium was entitled, included presentations both historical and forward-looking. Councilor Jerry Dobson spoke on the Society's history of exploration while laying out an agenda for the Society's renewed emphasis on exploration. AGSC Curator, Chris Baruth described the historical development and present status of the remarkable collection of maps that the AGS donated to the university and which the university has both effectively presented and widely expanded. The Society itself was a producer of cartography, of course, and Miklos Pinther, former AGS director of cartography and now retired from the United Nations, where he held a similar post, looked back at the role of the Society in cartographic development. Both the Society's map collection and its cartographers contributed to "The Inquiry," which supported the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. Geoffrey Martin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southern Connecticut University gave an overview of the AGS's and Isaiah Bowman's significant contribution to The Inquiry. The archive of the AGS, as opposed to its collection of published materials, is remarkable in its own right, and AGS staff member James Thomas read excerpts of correspondence from some of the great explorers and geographers of the past, as well as some of the leading AGS members, councilors, and officers, from academics to U.S. presidents. To conclude the symposium's afternoon presentation, Executive Director Mary Lynne Bird assessed the AGS's role in the contemporary geography scene. New York Times Senior Science Correspondent and AGS Councilor John Noble Wilford gave the banquet address, Maps and Their Makers: A Sense of Where We Are, challenging the Society and its members to make geography meaningful for people everywhere. A final highlight of the symposium was Chris Baruth's presentation from the AGSC to AGS members in attendance of a facsimile copy of the Society's original constitution, adopted at its first formal meeting, October 9, 1851.

Joseph S. Wood, Chair

AGS Sesquicentennial Committee

IN MEMORIAM: Robert C. West

Boyd Professor Emeritus Robert C. West, who made Latin American geography come alive for his students at Louisiana State University and geographers everywhere, and who was a recipient of the American Geographical Society's Vouras Medal, died on May 14, 2001.

For over fifty years he carefully observed and wrote about a wide variety of topics illustrating the unique regional identity of Latin America. A consummate field geographer and a professor at LSU for thirty-two years, West's grasp of Latin America geography spanned the cultural, economic, historical and physical realms. And always it is noted, as in the citation accompanying West's Vouras Medal, "the affectionate esteem in which he is held by his colleagues," he was a scholar for sure, and also a gentleman.


Congratulations to Paul Starrs for his garnering of the University of Nevada's Outstanding Teacher Award. This notable achievement comes on the heels of back-to-back awards as outstanding teacher in the College of Arts and Science (1997-1998) and as the College's Researcher of the Year (1998-1999).

McCOLL FAMILY FELLOWSHIP: Third Annual Competition

The McColl Family Fellowship, given by Dr. and Mrs. Robert W. McColl, consists of a round trip air ticket to any place in the world of the candidate's choosing. The candidate must secure funding for other expenses from other sources. The only obligation of the Fellow is to write an article based on the visit abroad that is suitable for publication in FOCUS on Geography magazine and that is submitted to the editor within six months upon return from the trip.

As is true of all FOCUS on Geography authors, candidates must be geographers or others "who think like geographers and write like journalists." Currently, one fellowship is being offered for each year. Selection is by a committee chosen by the AGS Council.

The winner of the first McColl Fellowship was Dr. Joseph Hobbs of the Department of Geography, University of Missouri-Columbia. The award provided $2,000 toward the cost of Professor Hobbs' travel to Madagascar in 2000 for first-hand study of the human use of caves there. His article will appear in an upcoming issue of FOCUS on Geography. The second McColl Fellowship was awarded to Dr. Kendra McSweeney for work in Central America in 2001. The third McColl Fellowship is to be awarded for the year 2002. Applications must be received in the AGS office by October 12, 2001. They are to consist of the candidate's curriculum vitae and a covering letter of no more than three pages that describes the proposed trip, the reasons for selecting that itinerary, the candidate's particular competence for making a field trip there, and an estimate of the travels funds requested.

Applications should be sent to:

McColl Family Fellowship Committee

The American Geographical Society

120 Wall Street, Suite 100

New York, New York 10005. For further information contact Mary Lynne Bird at (212)422-5456 voice, (212)422-5480 fax, or email to: AGS@amergeog.org


American Geographical Society Collection

The Helen and John S. Best Research Fellowship program is intended to help bring to the AGS Collection scholars who reside beyond commuting distance of UWM, and whose research would benefit from extensive use of the Collection. John S. Best was for many years a prominent Milwaukee attorney, book-collector, and conservationist. The Best family members are long-time supporters of UWM and the Golda Meir Library. Fellowships can last up to four weeks and provide a weekly stipend of $375.00 ($1,500 maximum) to help defray the travel and living expenses relative to the residency. Research projects supported by the Fellowship program must fall within the wide range of subject areas that could be supported by the Collection. Examples include history of cartography (including cartobibliography); history of geographic thought, discovery and exploration; historical geography; and history themes with a significant geographical component, among others.       The awards will be made by the Director of the Golda Meir Library, based on recommendations from the AGSC Curator and the AGSC Advisory Committee. On the conclusion of their tenure, Fellows will be expected to submit short written reports on their research and to make acknowledgment of the Fellowship program in any publication or dissertation issuing wholly or in part from the Fellowship.

Eligibility: Candidates for Fellowships are either established scholars, or doctoral students who have completed their coursework and are at the stage of writing their dissertations.

To Apply: Application must be made in writing to the AGSC Curator. The application shall include 1) a two page letter describing the project to be pursued, the proposed end result of the project (publication, dissertation, etc), an explanation of how the AGS Collection will be utilized in completing the project, and the number of weeks of support requested (up to 4); 2) a brief curriculum vitae; and 3) a letter of support from a reputable scholar in the field.

Timetable: Applications must be postmarked by September 17, 2001. Awards will be announced on or before October 31, 2001 for fellowships to be held between December 3, 2001, and November 30, 2002.

The past recipients have been Philip Steinberg, Florida State University; Mercedes Maroto Camino, Univ. of Auckland, New Zealand; Joel Outtes, Oxford University; and Alexei V. Postnikov, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

For further information, call or e-mail the AGS Collection, P.O. Box 399, Milwaukee, WI 53201-0399, Tel. (414) 229-6282, E-mail: agsc@leardo.lib.uwm.edu. Web site: http://leardo.lib.uwm.edu.


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.

e-mail: AGStravl@sover.net

Address: The AGS Travel Program, RR 1, Box 12, Walpole, NH 03608-9703


Fitness is all well and good when it comes to evolutionary survival, argues Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire (Random House), but big time evolutionary success likes a measure of serendipity and some longing as well. Marijuana, he takes as a for instance, might never have attained its status if, perhaps, some ancient Scythian hadn't chanced upon a blissed-out pigeon snacking on seeds, made the connection, and had the urge to join the bird in its altered state.

Pollan takes four objects of our desire -- the apple, the tulip, our friend marijuana here, the potato -- and explores how we and the plants have changed each other. How the plants, in their quest to be fruitful and multiply, have played upon our fancy for sweetness and beauty and the otherworldly. How we in turn have tapped them to satisfy our cravings and shaped them to fit our (sometimes loony) notions of earthly perfection.

The four essays in The Botany of Desire are trim, elegant, and engaging. Pollan moves about the cultural landscapes of his subjects with enthusiasm and a hungry curiosity. If you were dismayed by the preciousness that found its way into his earlier book Second Nature, you will find that The Botany of Desire is more leathery by half, though Pollan still pulls some fruity comments out of the ether: "Could that be it - right there, in a flower - the meaning of life?" It couldn’t. And forget the whole business about coevolutionary strategies with which he tries to lash together these comfortably self-contained essays. That theme crumbles when it comes to the tulip. The rare and unexpected breaks in color and shape that made the flower so ruinously desirable to the Dutch of the 17th century, and were encouraged by Dutch florists, are caused by a deadly virus.

So the big picture isn’t Pollan’s strong suit, but the details are - little blasts of memorable cultural information that he showcases for their flabbergasting yet insightful qualities. From these you can build your own theory of how things fit together. Such details include Pollan rescuing John Chapman by digging below the Disney horizon and the importunings of the apple industry to reveal the Dionysian Johnny Appleseed, a creature of the fluid margins, bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. Or when he follows the shifting ideals of beauty expressed through the petal of a tulip. And for those who have never read anything into the image of a witch riding on a broomstick, or even thought it might have a strange history, boy are you in for a surprise.

Take one step back to look around, consider, and rue, as Pollan does, the bowdlerization of our gardens. Gone are the plants that might inspire a vision, take us on a journey, or simply satisfy our fancy for intoxication. One step further back reveals the poverty of monoculture that banishes the apple called Ladies Favorite of Tennessee to make yet more room for the punky Delicious, that eliminates the Maris Piper potato to make way for the techno New Leaf. If Pollan deals in the beguiling flash of coins, concentrating on the pennies in the hope that the dollars will take care of themselves, then Louis Bromfield heads the Federal Reserve. He is a man with vision and voice and strong views on green manure.

Seventy-five years ago, Bromfield was a big name, nabbing a Pulitzer in 1927 for his novel Early Autumn and making a bundle from writing screenplays for Samuel Goldwyn. Fifty years ago he had an even bigger name, even though his soapbox was soil conservation. His books of rural essays were bestsellers, full of sober wisdom that, in small doses, feels utterly refreshing, like getting your common sense realigned. In 1939, Bromfield bought three down-on-their-knees farms in Pleasant Valley, Ohio, and combined them to make Malabar Farm. It was a homecoming for Bromfield, a small-town Ohio boy, who had lived for a dozen years in France. "What I wanted was a piece of land which I could love passionately," a place with a "sense of continuity and the permanence of small but eternal things, of the incredible resistance and resiliency of the small people."

In the pages of this collection, Return to Pleasant Valley (American Botanist), Bromfield holds forth on barn and field management at Malabar, imbibing spirituality as he communes with the land, discussing the uses of lime and compost, praising hogs and woodchucks, and deriding the use of large quantities of chemicals. But Bromfield is not organic. He’s open to a measured shot of old-fashioned 4-2-4, if he sees no other way to add nutrients to the soil. Bromfield is always level-headed: farmers will find salvation, economic and otherwise, in nature - and particularly in nutrient-rich soil - not in the lab; but don’t spurn the tools and materials that ease drudgery or increase production, as long as they don’t compromise the soil or water. He wants farming to pay. Otherwise, it’s all just talk.

Bromfield has his downside. He has the humor of a stoat, and, Pulitzer notwithstanding, his sentences don’t always soar: "Chilled fresh vegetables can be delivered fresh each morning with the minimum loss of freshness." But more often than not, his seriousness is bracing. He is involved in a great project, nothing less than the proper way to conduct ourselves upon the Earth.

When Luke Howard named the clouds 200 years ago, it was an exciting, popular event. Science writer Richard Hamblyn has tapped into that electricity and sent it running through the pages of The Invention of Clouds (FSG), an exemplary scientific history.

Others had tried to get a handle on clouds, the most ungraspable of all nature, explains Hamblyn. There were Thales of Miletus and Anaximander, the Taoist Ministry of Thunder, and those men whose heads were always in the clouds: Democritus, Aristotle, and Lucretius. The brilliant if quixotic Robert Hooke had tagged clouds in the mid-17th century---cleer, checker'd, hairy, water'd, lowring---but it was Howard's classification that seized the popular imagination and held fast.

The turn of the 19th century was a great age of science and talk, and the natural sciences were in "a search for narrative order among events...Since the sky has always been more read than measured, it has always been the province of words." If something as restless and mutable as clouds could be captured in variations of four terms---cirrus, stratus, cumulous, nimbus---well that made Howard a latter-day alchemist who brought home the bacon. Hamblyn does a peerless job setting the scientific scene during the period, describing the increasingly charged atmosphere at the hall where Howard unveiled his classification, and the remarkable journey it led him on into "the nacreous realm of fame": Goethe took his paper and made a poem out of it; Constable consulted his work during his studies of clouds. Hamblyn is a particularly graceful writer, even when, rapt in the sound of his own voice, he finds another way to say what he said the sentence before. "Clouds themselves, by their very nature, are self-ruining and fragmentary," he says, then quickly reminds us that "every cloud is a small catastrophe, a world of vapor that dies before our eyes." Yet, readers will never confuse a nimbocumulus with a cumulonimbus again. A through-and-through entertainment and a luminous picture of the history of meteorology.

With Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Scribner) comes a lucid presentation of emergence theory---how decentralized thinking allows for cannily effective self-organization---from Steven Johnson. "The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence," writes Johnson, in which local, parallel, cumulatively complex interactions result in some kind of discernable macrobehavior. And that behavior, if adaptive, has the distinctive quality of growing smarter over time, of learning. One needn't be conscious or aware of the process either, argues Johnson: if learning is considered the absorption and retrieval of information, then, for instance, the topography of a city qualifies as emergent behavior. Sound familiar to any of you Jane Jacobs fans? An ant colony is another good example, where the ants as agents produce behavior that allows for a step in the direction of higher organization---ants to colonies.

Johnson's clarity of expression is a boon when it comes to explaining such ideas as swarm logic and how elements like critical mass, ignorance, random encounters, pattern recognition, and local attentiveness result in a collective phenomenon of remarkable elegance organized from below, that is without the dubious benefits of hierarchy.

Emergence is nothing new, Johnson notes---surely the way in which the guilds organized themselves in 12th-century Florence is an example, let alone how the cells in our very bodies act the way they do, for better or worse---it is simply that we are recognizing it as a quiet, generative force, working in theaters as seemingly disparate as the behavior of the slime mold---dissolving and regrouping upon signals from the molecular level---to the negative-positive feedback loops that self-govern sites on the Internet. Examples abound, and Johnson pulls them from software design to the nightly news, where the common pool of news at CNN has allowed local networks to choose their own programming, subverting the mother network’s dominance. Johnson is though-provoking in the best of ways, and deeply appealing to the iconoclast in us.

Talented popular-science writer Amir Aczel joyfully delves into the story of the magnetic compass in The Riddle of the Compass (Harcourt Brace). Make no mistake about the importance Aczel places on the magnetic compass: "the most important technological invention since the wheel." For Aczel, that importance lies largely in its role making the transport of goods efficient and reliable---the 13th-century revolution in maritime trade---and its benefits during the age of exploration.

Like many major inventions, Aczel finds the compass to be a synthesis of extant parts---the magnetized element, a wind rose, the use of a 360-degree field---and he tracks down its genesis both in Asia and Europe. He sensibly suggests that it was in China, prior to 1040 AD, that the first compass was constructed, a magnetized iron fish suspended in water. Soon thereafter, also in China, came a wooden turtle that pivoted on a post to the dictates of its lodestone tail. China may even have had a dry magnetic compass as early as the 1st century AD, but, as the Jesuits burned most of the ancient Chinese texts, we may never know. In Europe, the boxed compass produced in the Italian seacoast town of Amalfi at the turn of the 14th century is the first on record.

But Aczel’s story ranges way beyond these conjectures, seeking the contexts in which the compass took shape. Soon he finds himself immersed in feng shui, Etruscan divination methods, the art of reading the wind (and a beguiling discussion of the original 4 prevailing winds, or 8 or 12 or 16, that surrendered their poetry to the wind rose), histories of Tuscany and Venice and Marco Polo, tailing a rumor that a Chinese divination compass made its way to the cults of Samothrace. Nimble writer that he is, Aczel keeps these and other topics in constant, easy motion, like a master juggler.

Southern Louisiana's vast wetlands are on the skids, and Christopher Hallowell explains in Holding Back the Sea (HarperCollins) the reasons behind their impending demise and the halting steps being taken to bring them back from the brink. Down where the Mississippi empties itself into the Gulf of Mexico are the wetlands of Louisiana, a wild tangle of grass, bayou, marsh, and swamp that has sustained a unique culture for hundreds of years. As Hallowell understands the place, it is also an indicator landscape, a measure of our environmental regard, for this poor cousin to purple mountain's majesty has until recently been thought of as wasteland, and how we treat the disenfranchised aptly conveys our concern for the greater whole. We haven't done too well by the wetlands.

The entire coastal wetland system is tilting into the Gulf and with it is sinking a whole way of life, food to music, businesses to language. The reasons for the land's subsidence are understandable: a "combination of the Mississippi's levees, the rise in sea level, coastal erosion, and salt water intrusion," but its "restoration is one thing in fact, another in practice, and highly subject to interpretation." And not only is history in jeopardy, but so too are the 20,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines now exposed to the storm surge of passing hurricanes, not unknown in these parts.

Hallowell lays before his readers the major players and their visions of the future, as well as imparting a sense of the land's mystery, its anarchy of life---human, plant, and animal. He presents the notion of the wetlands as a commons wherein those who directly impact the wetlands work in concert with nature, from oil company canal diggers to shrimpers to Corps engineers to alligator hunters, all of whom he profiles in compact yet mellow style. Despite Hallowell's optimistic mood, prompted by the passion southern Louisianans have for their home turf, the wetlands still hang in a very precarious balance.

Nearest Star (Harvard) may be "the story of one tiny star among the trillions that have come and gone during the past 15 billion years," but it sure makes for soul-stirring, mind-blowing reading. Leon Golub and Jay Pasachoff tender here a superb profile of the Sun. They don't assume any special foreknowledge on the part of their readers, so they explain their subject starting with broad overviews and theories, such as the birth of the Sun, its composition, and the various tools used to understand its history and makeup, including spectroscopy, high-resolution imaging, and helioseismology. Though the progression into more complex material is gradual, Golub and Pasachoff don't cut readers a lot of slack either---there may be no mathematical equations to wrestle with, but expect to meet parallax and yottawatt, Maunder minimums and limb darkenings, faculae, auroral electrojets, and the Transit of Venus---yet they do so in concise language, and as elegantly as you can get when discussing "Fraunhofer's notation to, say P and Q."

The authors glide smoothly between fundamental questions---Just how come that great roiling sea of gas keeps on burning? Are stars solid?---to more arcane but immediately relevant topics, such as the nature and consequences of solar wind on Earth's magnetic field. Discussions of prominences, flares, and spicules take your breath away, as will zodiacal light and sunspots and total eclipses (though there is no mention of everyone's favorite, the green flash). Then an overview of the Sun's role in climate, and how humans have, in their ineptitude and to their disadvantage, overwhelmed certain solar influences, will get the blood boiling as if lit by thermonuclear fusion. The Sun is without equal from any angle and this enlightening biography shows it in all its glory, as stunning as staring straight at the star.

by Peter Lewis


One-hundred-fifty years and counting! That’s how old The American Geographical Society is this year.

How does an influential, but small, learned society survive that long and continue steadily to produce work of quality and tackle new issues?

A large part of the answer lies in the independence that has been made possible by people like you over a century and a half. You stand in a long line of those who have had the vision to recognize the implications of geography in the affairs of the nation and the world. You and they have been willing to support the research, exploration, fieldwork, mapping, analysis, intellectual exchange, publishing, and countless other ways of expanding the body of geographical knowledge and increasing the number of people who know it. You have a right to be proud of that heritage.

Just how important has that support been? Over the years, a quarter to a third of the society’s income has come from contributions. In the last ten years alone, for instance, donations each year provided an average of 27% of the funds on which AGS has operated.

That is an extraordinary record for an organization of this kind. It says that there is an ongoing and loyal community of people who value the work of The American Geographical Society and want to see it continue and prosper. And since there are few really affluent people among AGS supporters, the contributions record suggests that most donors stretch themselves to give as much as they do. That kind of generosity is inspiring for all those in the AGS family: editors, Councilors, officers, staff, authors, lecturers, et al.

Early summer is one time of year when such support is particularly crucial. With special issues of the Geographical Review (on fieldwork) and FOCUS on Geography(on Mongolia and on Greece) in the immediate offing, we are particularly determined not to let sparse cash flow slow down the timely production of either journal.

We ask you, therefore, to celebrate the upcoming 150th birthday of The American Geographical Society on October 9th by making the most generous contribution you can as soon as you can.

Then take a bow for all you have done to make the sesquicentennial of The American Geographical Society a reality. You deserve it!

Thank you!

Mary Lynne Bird

Executive Director


A letter arrived at the American Geographical Society last year. “I must have access to your secret files. It is imperative that I know what transpired between Richard Byrd and Isaiah Bowman on December 11, 1930. The confession must be made public.” According to Peter G. Lewis, the Archivist at the AGS, there was, alas, no secret file in the archives holding the truth behind Byrd’s Polar flight. Nor does the AGS archives hold the secret to the location of Atlantis or the meaning of Stonehenge. The archives simply hold a fascinating, if less explosive, gathering of material from the Society’s past. There was no letter of admission from Byrd confessing to flying his plane home for Christmas instead of heading for the North Pole. There are, however, folders full of letters between Byrd and Bowman. They were friends as well as professional colleagues and Bowman long championed Byrd’s explorations. If you don’t mind tight quarters and a bit of dust in the Archive Room, you can go through cabinets of correspondence from Bowman, who was Director of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. Reading a letter signed by such a figure as Bowman or Byrd or many more does feel like eavesdropping on history.

Started with the Society’s founding in 1851, the archives are first and foremost a comprehensive institutional record of the AGS. The administrative and editorial correspondence and the Society’s financial records go back 150 years. (AGS will be 150 on 9 October - John Lennon’s birthday.) Now some of this material is scant and some if it is voluminous but chances are good that if it happened within the orbit of the American Geographical Society, there is at least note of it in the archives. We even have a flag carried by Richard Byrd on his November 1929 flight to the South Pole. No secrets there.

There are a lot of personal items, including a stunning array of diaries and notebooks from explorers. For example, there is Hudson Stuck's diary of his ascent of Mount Denali. The University of Alaska just ordered a copy of it for their files. The archives also have Gerald McKiernan’s diary of five year’s travel through southern Africa in the 1870’s; the Fanning Collection comprising notebooks and correspondence from Edmund Fanning’s exploration of the South Seas from 1799 to 1840; John F. Steward’s diary of the Second Powell Colorado River Expedition; and correspondence regarding the scientific results of the Challenger Expedition of 1872-76.

As the Society started partly in response to the searches for the lost Franklin Expedition, and further polar exploration, not surprisingly the AGS archives contain a wealth of polar materials. A sampling includes notebooks, diaries and original manuscripts of Sir George Hubert Wilkins; the log of Lincoln Ellsworth’s Graf Zeppelin flight to the Arctic in 1931; memorabilia from Robert E. Peary, who was AGS President on his North Pole trek just before his successful one that got to (or really near) the Pole; diaries of Vilhajalmar Stefanson; and - photographically - original materials from Louise Arner Boyd and her expeditions to Greenland.

There is correspondence from Charles Francis Adams, Franz Boas, Frederick Cook, Rudyard Kipling, John Wesley Powell, Finn Ronne, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Schwatka, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Alfred Wallace. There also is correspondence from Dr. David Livingstone in 1859 reporting on conditions in Africa. Dr. Henry Schliemann in 1873 wrote a four-page letter about the excavations at Troy. Robert Falcon Scott thanked the Society in 1906 for awarding him the Cullum Medal. T.E. Shaw in 1927 refused the offer to review a set of books by Alois Musil. Shaw was also known as T.E. Lawrence, aka "Lawrence of Arabia". In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt resigned from the AGS Council because he had just accepted a new job in Washington - as the President.

There are also illustrations, such as an undated painting of Nathaniel Palmer, discoverer of the Antarctic mainland in 1820; an 1862 engraving of Elisha Kent Kane; an 1892 Albert Operti painting, "The Last Franklin Search"; an autographed chart of the 1926 route flown by Richard Byrd to the North Pole; and a New York Daily News photograph from 1969 of Edwin Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, the Apollo XI crew, wearing the medals awarded them by the American Geographical Society.

And a propeller from Charles Lindbergh. He was a Fellow of AGS and, after he had made several flights in 1931 in his Lockheed Orion to prove the Great Circle route to Japan was viable, as the story goes, he drove up to the AGS building, then at 156th Street and Broadway, with a propeller sticking out of the back seat of his convertible, walked in and asked, “Hey, do you want a souvenir?” We still have it.

There are, as well, records relating to government contracts carried out by the Society, ranging from the Map of the Arctic Region, done for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to country handbooks written during World War II, to the materials relating to the Inquiry of World War I. Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser, established the Inquiry to amass information needed for Wilson’s approach to the post-war world. The information gathered was ultimately shipped to France for the Versailles Peace Conference. The Inquiry was based at the AGS because of the superior library, map collection and cartographic facilities.

This geographical connection led Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1919 to ask for Bowman and the Society’s help with a border dispute between Guatemala and Honduras. Bowman recommended an “Economic Survey” of the disputed territory. The dispute was finally settled in 1933, but, in the meanwhile, AGS took this impetus to start the Millionth Map Series - one inch to one million inches - from Mexico and the Caribbean down to Tierra del Fuego. The 107 sheets were produced between 1922 and 1945 and they still have an impact on border disputes. They were used as authoritative sources to settle disputes between Chile and Peru in 1925, between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1929, between Colombia and Peru in 1932, between Colombia and Venezuela in 1933…In the early 90’s, the office would get calls from the Chilean and Argentinian consulates in New York asking for copies of the Isla Wellington-Santa Cruz materials. There was no official word sent back to AGS on whether or not they ever settled this. And in October 1998 Peru and Ecuador signed a peace accord on a border dispute after Peruvian diplomats consulted the Archives of the AGS over a three-year period. The Archives are not irrelevant to today’s world.

Just last December, we brought out the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe from the Archives. This Globe was given to the Society in 1929 by John H. Finley, President of the AGS from 1925 through 1934, and later Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times . Finley had a habit of inviting outstanding fliers and explorers to draw their routes on the Globe and then sign their names. After Finley presented the Globe to the Society, AGS continued the tradition. With over sixty names, the Globe is a unique collection of priceless graffiti. Some of the names on the Globe might be recognizable: Roald Amundsen, William Beebe, Louise Boyd, Richard Byrd, Amelia Earhart, Lincoln Ellsworth, John Glenn, Mathhew Hensen, Edmund Hillary, Charles Lindbergh, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Wiley Post, and, the last to sign before the year 2000, Anders, Borman and Lovell from the first Apollo flight around the Moon.

The American Geographical Society updated the archival Globe on 11 December 2000 with six new signers: Bertrand Piccard, Brian Jones, Walter Pittman, William Ryan, Neil Armstrong, and Don Walsh. Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard were the first fliers ever to circumnavigate the earth by balloon in 1999. Walter Pittman and William Ryan explored the Black Sea floor and discovered a massive flood that occurred there about 7,500 years ago, possibly explaining the source of the story of Noah’s Flood. William Ryan and colleagues explored the Mediterranean Sea floor and discovered a massive desiccation and then inundation that occurred there about five million years ago. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the Moon in 1969. Don Walsh, along with Jacques Piccard, Bertrand Piccard’s father, descended to the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench in 1960 in the bathyscaphe Trieste.

Besides the famous names from the Archives, a wide variety of people, from scholars to the simply curious have made good use of the Archives. Just call us and ask for Peter Lewis, our Archivist, if you need to poke around. There is more. Oh, did I mention the Inuit stone axe head and, as the label says, “the matchbox with its contents left intact in a cabin built by Roald Amundsen on Mt. Betty, Queen Maud Mountains, Antarctica, on his way home from the Discovery of the South Pole in December 1911”? But then they’re no secret, merely further examples of the scope of the Archives befitting a scholarly society that first saw the light of day when Millard Fillmore was president, who himself, indeed, is a well-kept secret.

By Peter G. Lewis and James W. Thomas