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Charting the landscape of the mind

Surveying the Interior Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place Rick Van Noy University of Nevada Press: 220 pp., $44.95, $21.95 paper

February 15, 2004|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

"No place, not even a wild place, is a place," wrote Wallace Stegner, "until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry."

Rick Van Noy, an English professor at Radford University, uses a different vocabulary to describe the same phenomenon in "Surveying the Interior," a cerebral but illuminating book that comfortably straddles literary criticism and the Earth sciences.

He is intrigued by the work of what he calls "literary cartographers" -- that is, "cartographers who wanted to write," as he puts it, and "writers who wanted to map." His focus is on John Wesley Powell and Clarence King, whom he places in the first category, and Henry David Thoreau and Stegner, who belong in the second.

"The literary cartographers I write about have surveyed spaces that looked inviting on official maps but came to sense the ways that the map ... failed to communicate the places they traveled through," explains Van Noy. "Their maps present a landscape, but their writing

Van Noy is describing a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has studied a AAA map in advance of a road trip and then experienced a moment of epiphany when the lines on paper are transformed before one's eyes into a landscape of shapes and textures, sounds and smells, emotions and memories: "The feel of a place," as one geographer quoted by the author puts it, "registered in one's muscles and bones."

Van Noy surveys the literary landscape through the lens of "ecocriticism," an approach to literature that brings the background into the foreground, as the author puts it. But he also draws on a toolbox of scholarship -- "geology, geography, cartography, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, art and history" -- to explain what he finds in the work of the writers on whom this volume concentrates and a whole army of others with similar ambitions, including Barry Lopez ("Arctic Dreams"), Edward Abbey ("Desert Solitaire") and William Least Heat-Moon ("PrairyErth"), who explored the distinctions between what he calls "paper land," which one finds on a map, and the "deep map" that one glimpses only with one's eyes. "If we experience space as an idea," Van Noy explains, "we experience places through sensory impressions -- the seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted."

Thoreau, for example, was a surveyor and cartographer by trade but found that mapmaking only distanced him from the land under his feet: "I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely," he wrote in his journal in 1858, "that I now see it mapped in my mind's eye ... as so many men's wood-lots." That is why Thoreau came to see the act of wandering in the woods as a spiritual discipline: "Not till we are lost ... ," he wrote, "do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."

Even a scientist like King came to something of the same conclusion. A field geologist whose maps were essential to the exploration and settlement of the West -- King was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey and mapped the route of the Transcontinental Railroad -- he realized that something subtle and precious is lost when a place is fixed by metes and bounds.

"King's discoveries aren't always of geological or scientific significance," writes Van Noy of King's memoir, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," (1872) "he also discovers that every ascent and mapped place diminishes the quantity of available mysteries."

King's successor at the USGS, John Wesley Powell, has come to be regarded as a near-mythic figure -- he is best remembered as the one-armed Civil War veteran who ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But Powell was also "the quintessential mapmaker," as Van Noy points out, and "ever the conscientious scientist." By a certain irony, however, Powell's colorful account of his fieldwork, "The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries" (1875), only reinforced the larger-than-life imagery in which the memory of the man is now fixed.

"While he aimed to correct some existing myths about the Colorado River country, Powell was also helping to perpetuate and construct myths about ... the American West," writes Van Noy. "The fact that he was exploring the last blank spot on the map facilitated the hero motif that would long be associated with the western frontier."

Stegner, who in his biography of Powell looked beyond the myth, is the most readable and the most often read of the authors whose work is contemplated in "Surveying the Interior." Perhaps no other writer of the 20th century achieved the same depth of emotion and grandeur of vision that he brought to his fiction and nonfiction about the West. Stegner "learn[ed] from the surveyor's life story what Powell learned too late," writes Van Noy. "Narratives about place 'map' landscape better than maps can."

Stegner endears himself to Van Noy when he muses on the surveyor as a forgotten hero of the West in "Wolf Willow": "The mythic light in which we have bathed our frontier times ... does not shine on the surveyor as it does on the trapper, trader, scout, cowboy, or Indian fighter." He admires how Stegner links intimate human experience with a vivid sense of place, as when the narrator in "Angle of Repose" explains: "I want to touch once more the ground I have been maimed away from."

"This is a contact that Thoreau knew," writes Van Noy, "but Stegner adds to the sensory experience a thick layer of memory, history, association, and affection."

Van Noy is clearly addressing his fellow scholars in "Surveying the Interior," but he also has something to say to the general reader. Indeed, Van Noy's book should inspire many to take a second look at "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," Stegner's magisterial biography of Powell, and to look at it in a wholly new light. *

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