Showing posts with label maps. Show all posts
Showing posts with label maps. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom": Book Review

While the last published of this trilogy, Robinson tells us first off it's meant to be the second installment. It nestles into the southern Connemara coastline. Concluding this exhaustive investigation of this Irish-speaking (if increasingly threatened) enclave thirty-odd miles west of Galway city, this Cambridge-trained mathematician turned Connacht cartographer tracks down its traditional place names and wanders in the lore and the landscapes of these locales near his Roundstone residence the past thirty years. The Atlantic pounds these shores with only slightly less fury than on the Aran Islands, the chief of which marked his earlier map and two books in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, nearing eighty, Robinson circles the last lap of his adopted home turf. He begins at Ros Muc, the "little Gaelic kingdom" envisioned by Patrick Pearse a century before, and looks at other writers, natives influenced by uneasy terrain, such as Pádraig Ó Conaire and Cáitlín Maude. Robinson deftly shows the tension in the former author's novels and the latter poet's terse, "tired" verse.

In "An Piarsach"'s adopted realm, Robinson finds "a glint of comedy" during Pearse's arrival. It's "not the last of the mutual misunderstandings between ruler and subjects of the little Gaelic kingdom-to-be, for the former came with an ideal of the latter that no one east of Tír na nÓg could ever have lived up to." (30) Robinson circles from where Pearse yearned to revive both a language and a nation.

The Irish language, despite Pearse's rural and urban ambitions, recedes a century later. Efforts by "An Ghluaiseacht," the civil rights movement of its speakers, led to TnG broadcasts from the Connacht heartland, but a better economy, massive tourism, and holiday homes endanger its "health" among an anglicized, globalized younger generation. One notable advantage Robinson possesses is not only his intellect and network of contacts, but his own (however English-accented) command of the local variant of Gaeilge. He reveals its rich store of placename lore by his access to overhearing or engaging in the local craic which would elude many visitors to this region, where Irish holds much behind closed doors that outsiders cannot eavesdrop upon or tease out from a signpost.

The twilit, sunset-oriented tone of this final volume, elegiac, suits the now-venerable author himself. Previous books on Aran and Connemara tended to become weighed down by eccentric tales of a Big House owner, eccentric blow-ins and misfits, and the flora and fauna often rendered in arguably necessary but at times typically overwhelming detail, given Robinson's Cambridge training and his combination of art and science. Mandelbrot's fractals, tectonics, kelp, middens: these fit into marine expanses and geological inheritances neatly. Still, he confesses after on such effort to figure out a derivation: "I have spent too much time trying to make these fragments cohere into significance." (155) Instead, he revels if soberly by "my walking of the tide-line between place and story." (169)

He intersperses bilingual renderings of songs and stories throughout, enriching the experience of the mentality and attitude of those who've come of age and endured, or emigrated from, these rugged contours. While fewer Big House or blow-ins (including one with a tragic tie to the Titanic who merits your own discovery) managed to endure its wastes and winds among islands and peninsulas of the jagged and blustering south coast, this narrative flows smoother than the preceding two studies.

His deft portrayals of Pádraic Ó Máille and Colm Ó Gaora during the Black and Tan War, or the sean-nós singers Joe Heaney and Sorcha Ní Ghuairim, resonate. Robinson finds common cause for a preservation of freedom and heritage among these eloquent natives raised around Mám's streams or on Iorras Aintheach, who found in now treeless plains, peat-stripped slopes, or barren shores a heap of lore akin to the seaweed dragged up and left to enrich the stony soil.

Around An Cheathrú Rua, at the studio home of painter Charles Lamb, Robinson observes the disjunction between what Lamb's student Walter Verling selects to paint and what's now evident. Neither telephone wires nor bungalow blight appears. "West of Ireland naturalism is reaching the end of a narrowing outlook. It will be driven into ever-greater selectivity, and so fall into undertruth by omission, unless it takes on modernity in all its ungainly contradictions." (297) Yet, he qualifies this as an exaggeration immediately.

Robinson, not given to hyperbole or even belief in what cannot be charted, remains sensitive to the damage done by developers, as South Connemara divides between locals courting industry and visitors wishing naturalism--but who also demand accommodations, diversions, and excursions. Still, he inveighs against a Tír an Fhía "ranting demagogue" who portrayed Robinson as wanting "Connemara emptied of its human inhabitants in favour of the landscape." (335) His depictions of Carna's desolate industrial estates and defunct Sisters of Mercy school or the massive new harbor at Ros a' Mhíl which funnels 300,000 ferry passengers to Aran each year will comfort none eager to find in Robinson confirmation of an artist's careful avoidance of contemporary impacts. He ties a phrase from T.S. Eliot to a rape-murder of a girl on a waste shore; he learns where holy wells and famine graves endure next to concrete estates and gabled sprawl: he sums up much in little. (Shorter, by a couple hundred words 3-23-13 to Slugger O'Toole. As above to Amazon US 3-27-13)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness": Book Review


Taking its subtitle from Wittgenstein, who stayed here in 1948, this second installment of a trilogy surveys the tip of Western Ireland as elegantly as Robinson's previous explorations of Aran. While the little map cannot display his cartographic expertise (some places are not included and you'll have to consult his Folded Landscapes fold-out chart or an Irish road atlas), his nimble prose and learned eye combine for a rewarding companion along these byways.

I've driven many of them, but stopped on too few. So, a resident of Roundstone since 1984 such as Yorkshire-transplant Tim Robinson, with his Irish-language expertise and his mathematically trained gaze, is ideal as a guide. This time, he takes you from Killary Harbour near Leenane under the Mayo border with Co. Galway to Slyne Head in the south-west of the Connemara coast. He keeps mainly along the coast. Whereas the first book, "Connemara: Listening to the Wind," felt sometimes despairing in its evocation of ecological frailty, this one despite its subtitle feels lighter.

Even if Robinson by now is of "gammy leg and bleary eye," this volume testifies to his perspective and endurance on so many lonely lanes and along the empty shores. The concrete fills some of this, and it's sad to read of the tourist industry's scars on the landscape, too often spoiled by ugly construction. Noting the stopping of the Clifden airport on the Marconi radio station's ruins on the bog, but admitting it goes in somewhere else inevitably, he laments the "death by a thousand cuts of the natural world, and a thinning of the human spirit" that we suffer by letting one more plot of land give way to concrete and asphalt. (176)

He sees the same "mental command" in the dominating spirit to acquire and diminish even in the Neolithic sacred stones erected in 1200 BCE. This "will to power," to lock down the landscape with monumental sightlines, resembles the Ordnance Survey of the British in the imperialist age. The soil began to be depleted by these ancient Bronze Age arrivals, and it began the bog that then swallowed up the stones, "not to be revealed again until our own exploitative, turf-cutting times." (130)

He writes well of what still dominates most of the Irish west. Whether the Rev. Alexander Dallas and the Famine-era attempts to convert the Catholic peasants to Protestantism, the impact of Marconi's radio transmitter in the light of quantum physics, coral and saint's legends, or the end of Kylemore Abbey, he gets you interested. Combining scholarship with energy, he teaches you in an enjoyable and thoughtful manner at what he himself has learned and marveled.

Like his other writings on Ireland, Robinson immerses you. Sometimes in the Connemara books it feels as if the goings on of the gentry and those who have moved here take precedence over the nameless families who have endured, and perhaps then emigrated, without acclaim or notoriety. I found the sections most engaging that dealt with nature or the Irish language place names, rather than chronicles or Big Houses, but this reflects my own bias. Robinson, to his credit, tries to stay more even-handed, a mediator between those like him who have come to settle here, but who by his Irish-language acquisition understands the hidden layers. Parts may slacken only by my own comparative lack of equal engagement with a chapter's topic, but not for long--the sights keep changing as does the weather, and it's no sign of any loss of control over his considerable erudition.

He reflects on juxtapositions of ourselves with the past, hidden as the Irish language names hint at a shallow legacy under the English-language culture that has swept the old tongue nearly away and with it most of its hard-pressed natives. (I note how many living here now do not live off the land, and how many of them as himself come to this place to enjoy its views, newcomers from another land.) He ponders the lesson of the ancient markers of white quartz torn open by a bulldozer today. "Ghosts and fairies are moods of one's feeling for the Earth; they wax and wane with our desires and delusions. The glimmer of white quartz, dim afterlife of its daytime brilliance, may persist throughout a long summer evening, but will succumb to the black rainy nights after Hallowe'en." (135)

Such metaphors show Robinson's power on the page. He adds a naturalist's knowledge and a folklorist's ear to his travel account, and he mingles history, song, politics, religious rivalries, and a steady focus on the human and ecological balance in this niche off the Atlantic. Recommended and if you have not read his visits to Aran as well, add those to your list as well. (Amazon US 2-9-13)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: Listening to the Wind": Book Review

Reading this a few years after his pair of Aran books, the density of detail and erudition applied to what appears a far larger realm than an island is not diminished by the widened perspective. This Cambridge-trained mathematician, cartographer, and artist applies his Irish-language acquisition to his adapted terrain, where's he lived in Roundstone since 1984. Around his new home, he explores its shores, the Twelve Pins, and the Maamturk mountains inland in the western portion.

He walks without textbooks, so as not to get too bogged down in detail, but surely he consults them, as this learned first installment of his trilogy--well-indexed and over four-hundred pages-- documents. He tries to "see things as they are when he's not there," as a naturalist. (26) He visits a Dead Man's Grave and finds in its name a fitting reminder of our shared fate. He enters a bog to revel in its monoculture, where biodiversity may be lacking, but where it holds intact its own simple treasure.

As in all his writings and maps, the attention to the Irish enlivens this in terrain from which the spoken language has faded along this patch of its western enclave. "Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree." (81) In a "gargoyle-logic of creation," Robinson inserts our own small span, as we add years, distort, and then fall rigid ourselves in odd postures. Mortality infuses these eloquent pages, where Beckett's "skull in Connemara" (and I think since this of Martin McDonagh's plays) lingers in the fate of a Famine village of Rosroe. Graves speckle some boreens so much that in his map-making he gave up marking them. Such poetry and philosophy combined with archives and science deepens the fatal impacts of the abandoned.

This narrative is best read slowly and sparingly, for sometimes the amount of local history (he seems to enjoy telling the comings and goings of the titled and the eccentric, as often the incomers get the attention given their printed records of power or orally transmitted anecdotes of oddity that the anonymous dweller or nameless emigrant will never reclaim) or botanical precision can weary. I would have welcomed more follow-through on colonist Sir Richard Bingham's 1641 coverage of the land, the 1660s Survey & Distribution books, or Richard Martin's holdings, for instance; Robinson has published on the Martins separately, but sometimes he alludes in this volume too briefly to matters that only whet the curious appetite. And the map here, the same in the sequel (see my Feb. 2013 review of "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness") is far too small and sketchy. You will need Robinson's own maps of Connemara (and Aran) to fully enjoy his books.

Still, that gap shows a book that generates interest. Derryclare Wood's five thousand years in the making, the felled conifer plantation's disaster zone adjacent make for a telling symbol of Irish stewardship for a fragile ecosystem. But, a great joke about King Edward VII's visit to Recess in 1903, and a spirited encouragement on the Barony Bridge at Ballynahinch, restored after the War of Independence, sum up promise well. Young John Barlow hesitated to cross it; an army officer at the other end cheered him on. "Come on, little boy! This bridge was built for you!" (398) (Amazon US 2-14-13)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bart Jordans' "Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide": Book Review

While the justified standard reference from the respected Cicerone guidebooks for venturesome trekkers, this also informs the rest of us who wish to learn about what lies off the highways increasingly linking what were yak trails and footpaths across this largely vertically-biased kingdom. The Himalayas to the north, the tropics to the south, in between up and down over gorges and into the highland passes and pastures lie many of the 27 treks featured here.

They straddle the rugged terrain. Jordans' "Dutch-English" describes affectionately and carefully (the one drawback, if minor: a few glitches remain in his idiom, or the proofreading) the sights on the famous Snowman Trek. This same guidebook was taken along by Kevin Grange (see his Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World), and I bet Mark Horrell (Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek) consulted it too. While it preceded in its 2005 original ed. the 1984 venture partially along that trek detailed in Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson, the lore it shares will reward anybody planning a few days--or weeks--in the northern region.

Mastiffs guard yak herders' tents. Guides must push on ahead of trekkers--all must gain prior clearance for routes--and get to camp ahead of the visitors. Bears and leopards still roam the slopes. The flora and the fauna, given attention in the prefatory sections, both beckon. Similarly, Jordans packs a lot of information about altitude sickness, etiquette, geology, natural features, folklore, legends, and what to take along on both the day portions of the hikes and the trekking luggage carried by yaks or horses.

The maps look far too generalized given the topography, but as no trekker can go it alone, they seem more like sketches for groups to get a general lay of the land than they are orientation charts. You find a summation of the elevation gains or losses each day's section, but some treks are cursorily explained while others get much more coverage. This supplements, therefore, what a guide will provide, rather than serving to direct or inform a solo trekker, given Bhutan's restrictions for tours.

What adds value is the attention to adventures in the national parks. The Yeti have their own reserve, as does the Apeman: each have a trek to their name here. These creatures may remain hidden, but you find out about the yaks, takins, and those in Lunana who care for the herds. Sidebars update in the 2012 printing of the second 2008 ed. with summarized changes in roads due to weather, construction, and policy. (There's also an Adobe pdf format, unseen by me.)

As Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck in her foreward notes, the "reorientation" of traffic as feet and beast give way to jeeps and pavement threatens the viability of networks that have been used for centuries by villagers, farmers, and traders. However, "appreciative trekkers" may seek out "these near forgotten routes." This handy guide, with a water-resistant cover, colored maps, and an attractive array of photographs, is a must for anyone leaving the great lateral road for the heartlands of Bhutan.  (Amazon US 12-16-12)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Glen Creason's "Los Angeles in Maps": Book Review


This large format book is no coffee table artifact. A lively text by the Los Angeles Public Library’s map archivist, Glen Creason, along with an introduction by fellow native D. J. Waldie, with contributions by Dydia DeLyser, Joe Linton, William J. Warren, and Morgan P. Yates, attests to the diligence with which this compendium, one in a handsome series by Rizzoli, documents how cartography sold the world a vision of sunny L.A. Artistic maps, lavishly and perhaps misleadingly illustrated, spurred millions to dream about—and often move to—the sprawling City of the Angels.


The earliest charts show a few settlements scattered in blank spaces, a Spanish rancho, or a few hills the total of what can be filled in such terrain. The true natives, soon erased, rarely gain representation; Jo Mora’s exuberant 1940s maps celebrated the Indian-Mexican-Early Californian romance that sold more lots in dusty chaparral than perhaps even tickets to movies and festivals that also mythologized such scenes. Admittedly, Mora’s playful, vivid, and lovingly detailed maps exemplify the boosterism, blending data with dreams, that typifies many of these entries as land grant and sober surveying needs surrendered to Hollywood promotion.

Along with the would-be starlets and charlatans, everyday folks disembarked to spur L.A. into a boomtown along the rail routes that the robber barons laid out. Water lines, transportation, and utilities imprint their own overlays, as the remote ranchos turn into subdivisions named after the natural features and early outposts they obliterated. Pragmatism rather than beauty, Creason comments, impelled the patterns of the city, as highways and then freeways followed the rivers, rails, and pioneer trails to track the 20th century’s explosive growth.

Colorful charts often enliven what might have been in other cities a drearier duty of detail. Somehow, even a reservoir or a housing tract looks cheerier with an exotic street name or meandering lane around canyons and parks. This imaginative imprint upon abundant land characterizes the inventive necessity that drove the planners and speculators who led the rush to bulldoze the vistas they admired. This temptation to get rich quick invited the first settlers, pursuing a commodity not of gold but space. Real estate, the nearer the coast or the higher up the hill the better, continued to increase in value as oil supplanted agriculture. The movies inspired greedy arrivals to sell more lots to more migrants who came to the terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the palm-fringed edge of the continent.

Such depictions speckle the margins of more than one map. “Literary Los Angeles” and another map of the Library’s branches prove that not only Hollywood lured and sustained audiences. “Roads to Romance,” maps to the stars’ homes, Arnold Schoenberg’s modernist impact, Auto Club tourist guides—all appear. This last map features routes to such early 20th century attractions as the Cawston Ostrich Farm. That roadside attraction entertained crowds a few feet from the world’s first freeway. The Ostrich Farm was a few miles from where I type this. Long-abandoned, its site now a dull if functional work-live loft, its fate testifies to the pace of municipal change.

The population expansion, as movies exported L.A. as a global legend, accounts for recent maps of the dully titled L.A. Basin. Until the rise of the GPS navigator, as Creason observes, many Angelenos carried a Thomas Brothers Guide in their automobile. Half-memorizing its numbered pages, this grid became the local version of the A–Z London map. I doubt if anyone in this city, native or transplant, carries “The Knowledge” of its streets such as what London’s black cabbies do in their memories. Maps need revision. In a Southern California labyrinth, unlike a settled city such as the heart of The City, each year pushes more tracts deeper into the Basin.

Reviewing a galley of this work as a PDF file, I am unsure about the resolution of some maps at this degree street level. The Adobe Acrobat Reader that I welcomed as a boon to increase detail in fact lacks precise calibration to avoid pixilation of the details. I presume the large-format book form will afford the naked eye easier ways to investigate the intricate elements of these maps. I spot-checked many maps by testing them on my own neighborhood, just northeast of downtown, but the resolution failed to enlarge them into a more readable clarification.

I have seen some of these maps on display at the Los Angeles Public Library. My eye, close to those sheets, managed to make out better detail than the power of the PDF file’s less exact settings. Magnifying glasses may assist the reader, therefore, of this work in published form. However, the reduction of large charts and foldout sheets to a book that fits on the coffee table, let alone a shelf, may mean that some maps are meant more as impressions to be enjoyed—rather than scoured like my tattered Thomas Brothers Guide on the passenger seat.

At that bird’s-eye level, then, this book succeeds, for many maps panoramically aim at the eye of wonder rather than the commuter of habit. The maps show, over many decades, how the area turned on paper less fanciful and more functional. Their colors fade over the decades.

Many examples demonstrate this evolution of L.A. neighborhoods from fabled theme park to another freeway offramp. For instance, see the entry about “Barnes City.” Al G. Barnes kept his four thousand animals off season on land not far from the Pacific. In the late 1920s, he sought to cash in. His map announces “Barnes City:” “Now Subdividing This Tract—My Former Winter Quarters.” The neighbors, as if actors from the nearby studios in a silent comedy cum real-life plot, feared takeover by a “simian cognomen” of “Monkeytown” voters. Barnes never realized his own boom. The area has been long subsumed into the placid, modest community of Mar Vista, even if the “sea” is hard to “see” from nearly all of its location. Such tales accompany many entries here, if in less grandstanding manner.

No orange groves remain from my childhood on the outskirts of L.A. County. Neither do simian quarters nor ostrich farms. The later maps fill with detail, but of the thirty off-ramps between a seeker of the surf, an implied hint of the traffic in between, and the vision of that beach itself.

Los Angeles, as these maps show, sold itself so well that the maps turn poignant testimony to the loss of what they celebrated. (Published to the New York Journal of Books 10-20-10. Published in shorter form to Amazon US and Lunch.com 10-20-10.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


"Our Dumb World: The Onion Atlas" Book Review

Mine never came with the "Free Globe Inside" promised on the cover, but I bet it was stolen from my copy which I borrowed from the library. It's a challenge to take on around two hundred countries, maps, flags, and funny little photos and keep you not only amused but educated-- at your own ethnocentricity, ignorance, half-baked notions of everywhere else outside a hundred miles from where you live, and those hazy regions where what passes here for fact actually makes sort of sense. Madagascar's ruled by lemurs; Taiwanese labor under a perpetual sense of second-class diligence; Western Sahara's Africa's success story thanks to its (un-)inhabitability; Andorra's a giant retail outlet. Uruguay could be Paraguay, Chile's too skinny, and Delaware stays a state only to warn the Federal government not to make that mistake again.

It's best to peruse this a few pages at a time, then to give it a rest. Like reading "The Onion" itself, the humor's certainly unrelenting, but the snarky, ironic, and half-erudite, half-idiotic tone verges both on brilliance and sarcasm in copious amounts of one-liners, cartographic captions, and haughty, sophomoric text. It's instructive to have your own lack of education and information overload tossed back at you, from places you barely know on real maps, and as ignored footnotes in textbooks. You'll find such reading habits excoriated when you get to San Marino!

My ancestral land, I found, after centuries of British subjugation, "has at last managed to beat the stereotype of the poor, drunken, fighting Irishman to a bloody pulp." (141) Across the Northern border, I can attest to the veracity of this claim: the people there "are envied for their beautiful accent, a lyrical brogue that reminds many listeners of an aggressive, expletive-ridden poem." (140) Meanwhile the "Leading Cause of Death" remains, post-ceasefire, apparently "going to the pub."

Elsewhere, in my home state, "at least it's sunny." I agree with what the experts here say. San Francisco's the "alternative-lifestyle capital" where you find thousands of young men "living openly off trust-fund money wherever you look." My hometown "is home to some of the kindest and most outgoing people in the world until they realize you're not an agent." If you break into showbiz, you face "the biggest acting role" of your life: "pretending like nothing is wrong while everything around" you turns to #$*%. (022)

Mexico's frontier's charted, where "dozens of Americans" can be found "crossing the border in hopes of escaping work." (025) Hungary's "porn name" is "Gary Hung," while a student can be found mapped fantasizing about his hot teacher "giving legitimate algebra lesson for once." (171) It's better in these places than Africa. The map of Senegal shows where "major imports are peanuts and pretzels" may lead to unrest. Neighboring Gambia's migration pattern similarly causes challenges: "More citizens leave the shallow end as they get older." (104) Lesotho's history's pithy: the original inhabitants "are now dead." (064) The Democratic Rep. of the Congo does track the abyss where humor collapses into misery, and even the writers pale at what they find in the "Home to the world's most horrifying ventriloquist act." (069)

This clash of pampered Western sensibilities and Third World pain makes the atlas, in this section, less lighthearted and more Swiftian in its take on human frailty and geopolitical savagery. Niger's "only available form of birth control remains pregnancy." (097) Malaysia finds the spot where a "Muslim environmentalist" can be tracked "chaining wife to tree." (223) Vietnam hosts a "POW who still thinks U.S. lost the war." (219) But, there's a 20-square-mile "Impossible-to-Satirize Zone." Iraq does not have one yet, but you can plot their "Coalition Troops Welcome-Back Center." (123)

India's introduced as a place where "they fix slow Internet connections while standing waist-deep in sewage, reassure anxious customers that everything will be fine with their hard drive between cholera-induced fainting spells, and listen to iPod-related complaints while fending off giant football-sized rodents." The next page shows the place where you may meet a "librarian with dislocated hip filing Kama Sutra under fiction." (109) Out of such contrasts, indeed, humor and satire and insight into where Wests and Easts, Norths and Souths meet but fail to connect enriches this book, which rewards the browser with thought-provoking cleverness as well as insipid puns, sublime comedy, and lots more flag-related quips than you or I could have come up in a thousand all-nighters in a dorm room or campus watering hole.

Posted to Amazon today as "Where's My Free Globe?" The Onion: Our Dumb World Interactive Site

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Owlshead Mountains & Mt. Washington

I've made an armchair expedition today, with the help of Google given the fact that oil prices, a heat wave, my often remarked sun sensitivity, probably a four-hour drive one-way, no vehicle worthy of the trek, and lack of cash all prevent me from venturing to these barren expanses myself. But, as when I was a teenager, poring over maps of San Bernardino County's deserts eccentrically inspired my imagination. We form, I read, a deep attachment to a spot that we saw, maybe only on an outing, as a child, and no matter the mundane reality, this setting lingers in our soul.

Wandering with the help of photos on the Net (see below for two of the area I write about now) and charts makes it a wonderful way to vicariously roam while saving the toll on Mother Earth. Maybe too it's her way of warning us that our footprints, carbon or tread, have left too many paths that time cannot erode, and that we need to cut back our manifest destinies so as to ensure our survival in more humble manner? Or, as many jeeps and 4WD's will still pummel the desert floor despite my own retreat from that fray, will my stance matter? As with recycling, you do pause when so many around you toss into the trash next to you what a few more steps urges you to dispose and renew. But, the green part of me hopes that more people pause before their thoughtless behavior endangers our future. This may be the upside to energy costs, although I doubt if many Indians or Chinese, let alone most of my neighbors, care much about Earth Day. Perhaps more of us will be vacationing this cyber-friendly way as fuel rises, incomes stagnate, and roadtrips for many of us become luxuries rather than impulses? Wasn't it in "Soylent Green" where the man dies as he sees on the big screen panoramas of a natural world long despoiled?

Maps always spark my dreams of travel away from the smog that comes with such urban destruction. I too long for escape-- even a lazy stick-in-the-mud who longs to retire not to the oasis but the fog. I loved Mojave placenames left by miners and railroaders. And, as I like owls, here's the best of all: "the curious twin basins on the southwest edge of Death Valley, which appear to form the eyes and face of an owl, gave rise to their current name, the Owlshead Mountains." (Richard Lingenfelter, "Death Valley & The Amargosa": 83).

Intrigued by the owl shapes, I have tried to find a suitable image of the aerial terrain that allows me to pinpoint the avian features projected by wishful men upon indifferent shrugs of tectonic nature. There's places with this name in (at least) New York, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Nova Scotia. Google Maps does not help much for California; there's no image I can find on-line of the sketch that christened the Owlsheads that Lingenfelter reproduces in his history on pg. 84. That survey done in 1856 and published the next year would be the first for the newish state of California establishing its borders with Nevada-- in hindsight all the more necessary given the Comstock Lode sparked a rush in 1859. Claims would soon matter much to another new rival state.

The map done by William Denton's crew chops up the owl image since any level ground's erased of features. More about that in a moment. The topographical-like maps I can locate show, oddly, "Owl's Head" immediately north of a double ring of "eyes" that to me look more like twin orbs. Not so much a couple of basins to me as a pair of circular peaks. Perhaps the lack of mapping accounts for present-day border disputes and another century's realities of the importance of deserts for more than gold. Back neatly, in a recursive hell that brings the wheel spinning back to apocalyptic prophets and pious assassins from another continent's pitiless buttes. Coincidentally, where we also find oil-- spinning into the RVs and dune buggies that crawl about the grit and dust today. Yesterday a hulking pick-up cut me off as I tried to enter a treacherous and poorly signed freeway onramp. The back of the glittering black truck had an enormous sticker: "Glamis." It's the endangered sand dunes near the Chocolate (another great title) Mountains in the Imperial Valley, which attract heaps of emissions, stink, and trash. That's only the drivers. Apropos, there's an "Owlshead Mountains Aerial Bombardment" facility listed, at the lowest end of the Panamints at the southwest corner of the National Park, north of the Marine base at Ft. Irwin where tanks prepare for combat in another arid latitude of dust and grit across the globe.

About the place, well, it's desolate. The Panamints seem quite barren, and early travellers recount how they rose to eleven thousand feet above a depression, in more ways than one, nearly three hundred feet below sea level. The exaggerated contrast, heightened by the snow that sat on the top of Telescope Peak and the two-thousand foot fingers of stone called The Minarets, must have disheartened many lost pioneers. But, as the photographs credited below also show, in the snatches of spring that the area enjoys, wildflowers soften the plains and ease the glare. A "vision quest" (I wonder what the Shoshone and Paiute there think of such pilgrims) has been logged on the Net as one man's encounter with the area, Off-roaders share their trails-- the map link gives a NGS map of the one-way road into the area; the military apparently controls the rest of the region, although part of the Owlsheads have recently been added to the park. Not that far away, news last month of investigations at Manson's '69 hideout (pre-infamy) at Barker Ranch in the canyon and possible leads for more bodies buried out there in the empty lands raises the specter of madness that accompanied so many taletellers who left this place, or pretended to have entered it! Saltpeter, it appears, firing up greenish spontaneously at night on the floor of Death Valley, is to blame.

So, not only New Agers but insane messiahs seem to have a short shelf-life left out here in unforgiving territory. Surveyors in 1856-57 drew optimistic "township lines" that showed farming or ranching plots-- I suppose wherever the ground was flat enough. Why? The maps were not at fault, but if you look at them, you see they leave numbered squares across any place where no elevation's highlighted. Even the owl is half-drawn. The rest of his head's a tidy grid on featureless white. A developer's dream, and a mapper's profit, but an explorer's shortchange and a government's defrauding. The cartographers were paid by how many of these wide acres they subdivided. Similar to the robber barons today who buy untouched hills, draw up plans for housing tracts in pristine open space, and then sell the land at inflated values to the nature conservancies that we taxpayers foot the bill for.

Lingenfelter explains that this practice led to suspicion of these maps. Salt flats, sand dunes, and mountainsides "so steep and rugged a man could hardly climb up them." Same problem today where I live near the lower slope of Mt. Washington (all of 800 feet!). There are "paper streets" on older maps of the neighborhood for homes and roads that would have to defy gravity, but unfortunately we have technology today able to cantilever and blast our way vertically, like goats.

Although the bulldozer replaced dynamite (a recent invention around the mid-nineteenth century, I suppose, by Alfred Nobel). So, at least until for me the welcome collapse of the housing bubble, it became not only feasible but, given inflation affordable, for speculators to tear up vertical rocky outcrops and wrench holes deep enough to plunk concrete blocks with windows. Three of these monoliths (one on a triple lot at thrice the size) have been erected around me the past three years, so I have reason for frustration.

To ease my edge, I can look at these photographs. Q.T. Luong, whose pinkish Panamint Range vista I included on this blog last week, here has another shot with flowers:Butte and Owlshead Mountains. Ron Niebrugge has his shot that I post, looking south, and perhaps I conjure owlish eyes on the foothills, of Hairy Desert Sunflower and Owlshead Mountains, from Ashford Mill, Death Valley. TrekNow has a good map of the general road, but the more fanciful viewer cannot make out the underlying roll of the birdland well. Map of Owlshead Mountain Trail. Finally, an article from BioEd Online: "Owl's Ears Map the World"

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Derek Hayes' "Historical Atlas of California": Book Review

This chronologically depicts California's discovery, development, and divisions. It follows the guesses of the earliest European explorers (I wonder what a native map would look like, but none's represented) and you see the island gradually become a peninsula or archipelago before assuming over the centuries its coastline. Then, the interior begins to take shape, and cities and farms and railroads fill the spaces. A sort of time-lapse ideologically and practically from the past five centuries.

You better understand the gaps: Virginia is shown a few days from California in one early attempt, while the Gold Rush pioneers used routes that were narrowly drawn and could not be deviated from-- around the rest of the West there might be empty spaces, figuratively or cartographically. San Francisco benefits especially throughout its growth, and a 1906 aerial drawing shows dramatically the fire sweeping some--but not all-- of The City. Hayes informs us in his text how the fatalities had been underreported (under 500) when they may have been three or even six thousand. The speculators and profiteers did not want to ruin their chances of rebuilding and selling to new residents. Such chicanery can also be found in the early Spanish who kept their findings off the maps, or kept the maps secret, to avoid tipping off discoveries to the rival British.

Not only rail and auto and industrial, but oil, military, and unusual maps appear. Those in which the patterns of Los Angeles 125 years ago can be found in the train routes, and how these mirror the freeways today, are instructive. I also learned that a 185-mile interurban line once ran from Chico to the Bay Area, to my great surprise. Among other finds: the color-coded charts directing the Japanese relocations during WWII, Jo Mora's Sierra cartoon (but his Hollywood one's not here), and a 1887 Hollywood real estate map from its first booster who, typically, showed many more mountains than even a pre-smoggy day could be glimpsed from Tinseltown-- let alone the beaches!

The text is informative, but I caught an error: Henry Kaiser's steel mill would have not been built at Fontana "eight miles inland" to avoid Japanese attack. Perhaps Hayes meant "eighty"? I do wish some of the maps were larger; the book's affordable and portable enough, but this invariably cuts down the ability even with magnification to discern the kinds of precision that any lover of maps likely has who'd buy this book.

(Posted to Amazon today.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Rosita Boland's "A Secret Map of Ireland" Book Review

A longtime journalist for the Irish Times, Boland's narratives move along generally with efficiency, detail, and organization. Her style, honed at the newspaper, tends more towards that of the personal feature granted by her employer than that of her poetry. The imagery's less potent and the facts more present than I expected. The best of these short chapters, one for a sight seen in each of the thirty-two counties, reveal Boland's ability to employ synecdoche-- in which a quirky or overlooked part stands for the whole nation.

For instance, the border in the Armagh visit to the Tayto factory at Tandragee Castle reveals a great detail, in impressively subtle observation and comparison, about the cultural differences on each side of the frontier. Similarly, the Fermanagh example of the border hamlets at Pettigo-Tullyhommon & Belcoo/Blacklion show the daily idiosyncracies of phone service, postal delivery, and commercial trade across a sturdy if nearly invisible divide. Another rift she enters in the Meath visit to the Columban missionary fathers' nearly empty but once filled former seminary and the graying and diminishing ranks of the Trappists at Waterford's Mount Melleray opens up deftly the fading echo of retreating Catholicism in an era of declining vocations and secularized lifestyles.

At Malin Head in Donegal, I liked her treatment of how visibility for weather forecasting still depends in a technological era on a human observer looking at the sky and checking gauges on the hour no matter what. This attention for the telling detail is Boland at her best. When she gets to the Sligo "fairy theme park" run by one "Melody, Baroness of Leyne, Ph.D.," all Boland needs to place the dreadful place in its kitschy niche is a deadpan recital of its plastic (or "resin") figurines. The edge the author reveals in her portrayal, however, avoids cruelty and she manages out of a depressing sight to conjure up the appeal of how it's not what we see that makes it inspiring or tawdry, it's what we do with the sights we see that manages to transcend the banal. A tricky point, and this moment, perhaps due to its depth of meaning, makes for me the highlight of this collection.

Yet, many other attractions she locates do not, in her telling, rise above the dutiful depiction of accumulated statistics or information. Staying three days on "Great" Skellig Michael, she transmits little of the gales and the sheer drops and the exhilarating vertigo that must be part of every lucky visitor's memory. How she got there by navigating Irish bureaucracy takes up much of her account; the stay's anticlimactic. Dan Donnelly's long arm in Kildare, carols sung in Laois, a cluttered Temple of Isis in Carlow, or a Raggedy Bush in Kilkenny are examples of the topics she discusses, but while all of these are admittedly interesting, they do not leap off the page or remain long in the memory.

A long recital of the intriguing journey to Africa's Mountains of the Moon by Surgeon Major Thomas Heazle Parke 1887-89 appears better suited to a non-Irish account. A monkey's afterlife fame in Cork, a cabinet of curiousities in Tyrone, or Derry's immense Lough Neagh all intermittently engage you, but the energy dissipates. I suppose the sad fate of the Millennium Tree that Boland had been issued in Wicklow may prove a metaphor for this gathering of attempts at surprising one's self with the hidden but accessible corners of one's own native land. The destination may disappoint or remain stubbornly elusive, but the sense of wonder and mystery still pulls Boland, and you, along to the next stop.

Posted review above today to British and U.S. Amazon; image, as the cover of that book merely faded the original "Educational School Map of Ireland" is not of the original, which deserved its elegantly delineated reproduction, after all. Unbelievably, I cannot find a depiction of that map on the Net. Here's an earlier, late 19c. map from a handsomely stocked site, "Heritage History: old-fashioned history straight from your great-grandparent's bookshelf." You can view a much larger, scanned, version there. I love maps! www.heritage-history.com