Friday, March 27, 2009

Maps, Questions, and Walking

This map is one that I generated on my laptop using software and land use data from iMapData (you can click on the map to enlarge it):

The image below is my room and the USGS quads on my wall (you can click on this one too, if you really want to):

Both show a transect of the state of California from San Francisco and the Pacific in the west to Yosemite and the Sierra in the East. On April 6, I will begin walking this transect, as part of research on land use and land management, past and present, in California.

The map on my wall is a constant reminder to me that the trip is coming up. But it reminds me of more than that as well. It reminds me of the questions I will be asking. How has the land changed, from one side of the state of California to the other, since John Muir’s time? Muir was the man who put conservation on the map in many ways. What is the legacy of his effort? Looking at the patchwork of green parks around the bay, the gridded and subdued whiteness of the central valley, the vast and unbroken verdure of the Sierra, the map is a reminder that there is a history behind the land, a hidden axis in time coming out of the Cartesian plane. Since Muir’s time, and certainly before too, a myriad of forces, attitudes, and decisions have all contributed to shape the map as it appears now.

Standing closer to the map, there is great detail. This canal, that access road, those tailings, big features, small features, all have their history, a swelling lineage of forces that shaped and continue to shape what is now printed and posted on my wall.

Two things strike me about this last sentence. First, an expectation might be that a “swelling” complexity of land management and land use ought to produce an increasingly “disturbed” landscape, like a chalk board that becomes more difficult to wipe clean. Truly, when used unsustainably, the land can only sustain so much. Yet the landscape pictured is neither entirely sculpted, nor scarred, nor “improved” by man, nor is it entirely “natural.” I use many quotation marks here, because I have heard many arguments about what qualifies as natural and what as human. I have observed a resilient nature, able to incorporate some human changes into its own narrative. On the other side, I have observed relentless development and relentless protection of nature by humans. Nature and man both blur the line between nature and man. The story of this blurring, of this murky and permeable boundary, maps a tangled management history, and helps explain why even in the face of dramatic change, parts of the chalk board are unrecognizable, while others remain green.

Second, along one historical strand is the printing of this map. The map provides a quantification of the landscape. It provides something readable and accessible at a small scale, even when in large format, as it is on my wall. The map then, reminds me of another question: can a landscape be read? Can it be understood in this quantified, simplified, two dimensional form? If not, can it be understood in three dimensions? Can someone speeding across the actual area represented in the map understand the state better than someone reading a map? And if not, can the landscape be understood in four dimensions? Can someone walking across the physicality of the land, slowly, at a pace biologically rational to humans (rather than a faster, incomprehensible speed developed only in the last few hundred years in which, as the Pope quotation popular in the 19th century goes “time and space are annihilated” ) understand the land? Can the land be understood at all, and what does it mean to understand the land?

I do not imagine that the land of California can be understood in all its detail. A map is one way to compress data, however. It is one way to focus on some data but not all, to rationalize, connect, and explore a region made up of a great deal of academic and casual pieces, far too many to be totally absorbed. A walk is another means of compression. Research is another, talking to people yet another.

I hope to engage all of these, in the hope that I might develop at least beginning of understanding of one aspect of the landscape: its protection. By telling a new story, one comprised in part of the components mentioned above, I hope to shed new light on the past and future of land conservation, and of man’s role in protecting the land, home to the gene, the ecosystem, and everything in between.


  1. I'm so excited!! What a great project!

  2. Alex, your blog looks great. The physical maps seem to have a different presence than the online version.

  3. Such a cool are you going to read Muir along the way and keep a log to compare the transformation of land, ecosystem, biodiversity, etc, along the way? I wish I could go too...Your point on walking above, Carl Sauer used to say that the slowest form of locomotion across a geography yields the best results for researching it...[I paraphrase]. Are you plotting your trail via GPS on the blog? Be sure to look for a Dipper when you get to the rivers... a video for those of you who haven't seen this curious bird.

  4. Please Twitter your walk for immediate sharing, conversation, collaboration.

  5. Dear Alex,

    First of all good luck on your walk. Your thoughts on the insights one can gain from walking a transect of the state in an aware and well-informed way are really inspiring.

    You have some fans here, and we'd like you to know about a similar effort we are making to revisit the route the Buffalo Soldiers took around forty years after Muir on their way from the Presidio of San Francisco the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. You probably have better things to on the few days left before your walk than to listen to a radio show, but...

    Perhaps after you return, you'll be able to listen to a Stanford Storytelling Project piece on the trip two former Bill Lane Center interns took from San Francisco to the Sierra along the route of the soldiers in 1903. See:

    In the meantime, best of luck, and I hope we can talk after you return,

    Steve Haller
    Park Historian
    Golden Gate National Recreation Area

  6. I read about your planned adventure in the Mercury News. What a great idea this is! It will be a treat to follow your trek here. Best wishes and happy trails!

    Jim Griffith

  7. I often drive via Hwy 132 from the Bay Area to Coulterville where my daughter owns Mr. Coulter's home. Great that you are walking this route -- I love the history and connection to the early days of California


  8. Alex,
    Glad to hear about your adventure in following John Muir's trip to Yosemite. I would like to hear more about your timeline and when you are going to be around Greeley Hill? We have a ranch here --- Birders Homestead --- and I am leading an initiative to have Highway 132 named in honor of John Muir. You might enjoy camping on the meadow portion of our 165 acre ranch( we have sighted over 100 different species of birds since moving up here in 2003). Please take a minute or two to check up the updates at the temporary web site for the John Muir Highway project, our supporters, our reasons and our vision for geotourism in the Yosemite region,

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

  9. This is a great idea. I am a resident of Martinez and drive by Muir's house all the time. They are having a festival to celebrate Muir's Legacy and birthday, you should try to coordinate with them. The phone number is (925) 229-3857 or visit their website at It would be a great addition to the festivities and also keeping his legacy alive

  10. We would love to have you stay at Yosemite Pines on your walk. Yosemite Pines is an RV resort, campground, and lodge located near Yosemite National Park offering Yosemite lodging. Yosemite Pines offers Yosemite camping near Yosemite National Park with full hook-up RV and campsites Yosemite camping. Yosemite Pines also offers Yosemite lodging and cabins near Yosemite National Park with Yosemite cabin rentals. Amenities include a clubhouse, gold mine, gold panning, petting zoo, swimming pool, hiking trail, general store, children’s playground, horseshoe pit, and volleyball.

  11. Hey Alex,

    Saw an article about you in my newspaper and was totally intrigued. John Muir was a neat guy and your project sounds so cool! I'm jealous to be honest.

    Good luck to you--can't wait to read about it on this blog!


  12. mcintizzle,

    didn't get to say bye to you last night but hope you are well on your way today. good luck with everything and don't hesitate to reach out if you are ever in need. keep me posted!

    just read the mercury news article btw, nice pictures


  13. Good luck on your journey; I wish I were accompanying you like Chilwell accompanied Muir. I have read accounts of Muir's walk many times and dreamed that I was with him. I have driven the route, but perhaps some day will have the opportunity to walk it.--Frank

  14. You are an inspiration! Heard a tiny bit on NPR and then found the whole story in the Merc. I will be a follower. Cool to know you are passing through part of Morgan Hill on your way.