Tag Archives: ecological maps

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.

The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.

The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

The Arid Region of the United States and its Afterlife: Beyond the 100th Meridian

The map may not be the territory.  But it powerfully orients relation to the territory–and to the presence of water in the land, as well as the land itself.  Indeed, the mapping of how the “Arid Region” of the United States could be settled by John Wesley Powell created as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881–1894, but which he had first expansively described in 1878.  The United States Congress followed Powell’s recommendation to consolidate the western surveys into the new U.S. Geological Survey, and he long sought to create a map capturing the fragile water ecology of the American West.  The completion of his classic report on the region first suggested a new relation to the distribution of water in the region in ways that would best serve all of its residents, and in his later map, he tried to articulate so clear a relation to the region’s future settlement.  Powell’s view on the need for systematic irrigation of the region stands in almost polemic relation to the place that the western states held in the spatial imaginary of the Homesteading Era:  indeed, his insistence that led to the charge to undertake a systematic irrigation survey of lands in the public domain of the wester United States in 1888, long a topic for which he had agitated, and his map of the region reflected a demand to integrate a topographic survey, hydrographic survey, and engineering survey of the region.  Perhaps the map offered a new sense of the territory, if “territory” includes the waterways that would be able to adequately irrigate all open lands.


Arid Region of US


For the reception of Major John Wesley Powell’s attempt to map what he called the “Arid Region of the United States” reveals both he difficulty in mapping the relation of water to the land, and the appeal that a piece of paper might gain over time.  The detailed map provided something of a ground plan and register of how the arid region might be best inhabited, and of the relation to the land and landwater of a region’s inhabitants.  And it provides an early recognition of problems of water management and distribution in the western states–captured in its naming simply as the “Arid Region” as if to set it apart from the plentiful water in other regions–that later eras began to appreciate in ways that Powell’s contemporaries were less able to see in his ambitious attempt to reorganize the management of its regions around its multiple inland watersheds that he had hoped to canalize.  For Powell’s ambitious 1890 remapping of lands west of the 100° meridian in the United States tried to encompass their unique aridity and to pose a solution for its future inhabitants with special attention to its drainage districts–as discreet riverine watersheds.


Arid Lands ReservationsArid Region of the United States (1890); detail


The best practices that motivated Powell’s map as a basis to orient the government to the land’s groundwater.  The distinctive scarcity of water in the western states became evident in a time of sustained drought, giving unexpected currency to how Powell’s map reoriented readers to the “Arid Region of the United States.”  The brightly colored map to which the explorer, geographer, and anthropologist not only dedicated an extreme amount of attention in his later life, and of which he became something of an evangelist, suggests a early recognition of the scarcity of water and its management, in an era when there is a specter of considerable anger around poor practices of water management in much of the western states, tempered by an expectation that groundwater would be available for farming and irrigation.

The rivers in the United States are quite widely distributed, leaving much of the western plateaux at a distance from riverine waterways–


Western Rivers.pngTim Sinott


–and the image of Virgin Land so deeply ingrained across that regions settlement that its unique character of low rainfall and widely dispersed water sources was erased in the spatial imaginary which replaced the detailed map Powell of the administration of groundwater in the western states that Powell had created with his surveying team as a guide to the region that he knew so well, and which he sought to communicate when he became second director of the United States Geographical Surveys (1881–1894).  The governmental office did not give him authority to organize , but to create a new map that might better organize the nation to the lesser rainwater in what was known as the Great American Desert.  For Powell attempted to re-orient homesteaders to the imperative of western migration through the map, by organizing water administration and the future prospect for canalization in order to grow prospects for the irrigation of the region and its future farmlands that have considerable ethical power to speak to us today.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under climatology, data visualization, drought, environmental stewardship, water management

Up in the Air

Guy Lussac en Ballon
The balloonist Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, who set a record for ballooning of 7,016 meters in 1804, flying in his hot air balloon beside the Himalayas, in Andriveau-Goujon’s 1834 Tableaux Comparatif et Figuré (Paris 1834).  The ballooning record was only broken in 1862.

The crisp condensation of an array of multiple mountains and rivers by their magnitudes in a uniform scale and imagined plane represents an image of the coherence of scientific knowledge by its transformation of nature into a single reference tool.   The etched “comparative map” reveals an exquisite conflation of legibility and the cartographic surface: it contains not only a database of Humboldtian proportions, but information about the nature of the world’s tallest mountain ranges, volcanic eruptions, longest rivers, and even some waterfalls in Peru–although not the waterfalls in Yosemite, which were not yet discovered or surveyed, or Andes.  The map, if prosaic, is a register of the first age of globalism, before maps of air-travel or internet bandwidth, but processing and echoing a new taste for global aspirations in a post-Napoleonic era, in the elegance of lithographic form.

Containing, and finding a unique way of dominating the increased expanse of the natural world, the popular comparative chart of rivers, mountains, and waterfalls of the world first printed by Bulla & Fontana in 1828– based on Darton’s far more stodgily titled “New and Improved View of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers of the World” (1823)–offers more than an episode of cartographical entertainment. The landscape that it opened for viewers suggested something like a popular panorama, in cartographic detail, a prospective view of global scope the likes of which was on the cutting edge of popular entertainments and sophisticated cosmopolitanism of a global map.

As it was redesigned to accommodate increased information and encompass a greater global purview in its qualitative imagery, the map became something of an assertion of the unboundedness of post-Napoleonic levels of global knowledge, and a celebration of data.  Encyclopedically growing through the complex 1834 chart of Andriveau and Goujon celebrated the addition of new claims of knowledge as a domestication of the natural world by indices of scale, even if it abandoned the orientation of the viewer to their geographic locations or spatial relations in a purely idealized record of the mastery of global proportions–the illusion of a growing global mastery illustrated by the comprehending a proliferation of local qualitative detail in its frame in encyclopedic detail.

bulla and fontanaBulla & Fontana, Tableau Comparatif des principales montagnes, des principaux fleuves, et cataractes de la terre

The vertiginous pleasure of the lithographic map lay in the combination of metric precision and exactitude with utter abstraction from place. The marvels of the world were presented, as it were, in a mental landscape of the geomorphological features of the known world, abstracted from territoriality or national divisions, in a gloriously unified view of the world.

The terribly successful genre of mapmaking essentially offered an elegant compilation of human achievements as well as of the natural world–from the pyramids, to the tallest buildings in cities, and highest ascension made by a voyage in a helium balloon.  Despite its encyclopedic scope and the range of data it processed, the “table” is human-sized, a large wall-map abel to be readily scanned, in order to digest spatial immensity to a scale designed at a human dimension for exploring a virtual record of the natural world that seemed to distill a global atlas to one sheet:  the findings it collated derive from first-hand observations, each concretized in a clearly pictorial fashion so that it can be immediately recognized and understood.  If the aerial triumph of ballooning as a transcendence of the everyday was well-known from the late eighteenth-century aerial flight over the English channel by a French-American team, accomplished in 1785, the celebrated flight of the hot-air balloon was an emblem of the national transcendence offered in the comprehensive map, breaking the bounds of national survey.

1785 British Channel crossed by balloon.png

The most striking single detail that dates the map is the place it accords Gay-Lassac’s recent triumphant ascent to 7000 meters in a hot-air balloon of 1808, noted in the sky of the Tableaux, just above the mountain range of the Himalayas.  Perhaps more importantly for readers, the height of the balloon was just above the highest elevation that Humboldt himself had climbed (5914 feet), as well as the highest levels at which vegetative life–for lichen, 5488.  As it rises above this barrier of living vegetation, and beyond the furthest height of the German explorer, the lone balloon is a triumph of the modern world, and an exploration of the unknown that was great as the ascension of peaks or waterfalls.  The balloonist suggests a sort of French victory in the transcendence of previous bounds of knowledge, and a sign of national pride for the Andriveau-Goujon workshop (fl. 1805-94).

Readers of the map could not only recognize the transcendent flight of Gay-Lussac, but could project themselves into a range of comparable adventures.  The map is not in any familiar sense a projection–or a uniform transference of a conformal expanse to fixed bounds.  There’s not even a pretense of uniformity in the map, because the assembled landscape discards usual cartographical operations that ensure continuity, fix orientation, establish directionality, or claim exact measures of adjacency.  All are sacrificed for one criteria of scale–height–that provides a lens by which the cartographer’s fantasia of representing how space can be viewed.

The notion of such a mental transcendence of space-and idealization of the basis of knowledge–was of deeply Humboldtian spin, and rested on his neo-Kantian comparative categorization of the relative height at which he scaled Mt. Chimborazo to place it in the context of the scaling of Mt. Blanc, Vesuvius, and the elevation of Quito. The scaling of mountains provided a sense not only of worldly retreat–as, for example, Petrarch, who ascended Mt. Ventoux for a new look on life and worldly vanity–but of global triumphalism of geographic plates, trumpeting natural knowledge of the Andes as a register of global sophistication by tallying a comprehensive compendium of all terrestrial mountains of in a panoptic survey of heights.


Unlike Humboldt, however, the atmospheric ascension of the balloonist implies an imagined prospective of an actual landscape, where the pictorial embraces, domesticities, and processes the comparative, and presents a pictorial unity of comprehensive scope–in ways that echoed how the prospect of ballooning was long associated with maps.

The synthesis is truly cartographical because of how it “writes” space against uniform indices to offer a domestication of geographic diversity and variety within the inhabited world–even while abandoning actual inter-relationships.  A fantasy of mapping, stripped of coordinates, enlists the familiar repertory of cartographic conventions of accuracy to offer a compendium of statistical knowledge.  The cartographer abandons the usual cartographical conventions of noting spatial orientation, directionality, or adjacency, as well as cartographical signs, but transfers statistical measurements to a pictorial view in which heights can be viewed in relation to one another.  This popular format of mapping uses our familiarity with mapped space to sacrifice the need to record or establish location to fashion a comparative collation of known topographic variations.  Optimistically, it shows the world as a unity and unified landscape, without divisions of nationality, in a project in which knowledge about the world is curiously disembodied (in numbers) and re-embodied in a single tableaux of global synthesis.

Gilbert’s Modern Atlas (1840)

The elegant steel plate from Gilbert’s Modern Atlas, 1840 arranged the world’s rivers and the heights of its mountains by length across an imagined chasm, juxtaposing Western and Eastern Hemisphere, running off from the spine of the bifold plate, even abandoning indices in a prospective view of the globe’s natural splendor that suggest a reduction of natural philosophy to one triumphal prospective view: akin to an unveiling of a natural harmony of revealed knowledge, the cleverly combined plate of Rivers with Mountains is not only an economic illustration of information but encourages an imagination of how rivers descend from the mountain ranges that flank them–including the now-iconic figure of Guy-Lussac’s aerialist feat as a way of entering the tallest heights ascended by man in the upper left and upper right as an index of human achievement before this natural splendor, as if to ask the reader to imagine achieving a view over this imaginary landscape from an awesome prospective, if not the landscape that it might afford.

Although there are no recognizable cartographic indices in the, the Tableaux comparatif reveals a familiarity with the collation of information in mapped space, rising above the range of important cities that formed points of spatial orientation on most maps–including, but by no means limited to, Paris, Rome, London, Geneva, Mexico, Bogota, and Quito, among others, that were noted prominently in the various maps and pocket atlases that its printers also produced, Whereas most maps map itineraries, routes, pathways, or memorable sites of human interaction, the Tableaux is a compendium that draws from different human experiences, correlated with one another in a space that does not exist, but assembled in a single whole.  It is a sort of surrogate for the totality of what we know about the inhabited world and its bounds, and the victory of the diffusion of a form of cartographic writing:  its readers were able to place each of the world’s greatest rivers in their geographic situation,–but now afforded a chance to measure (or rank) the Nile beside the far longer Amazon and Mississippi, in order to decontextualize and historicize the limits of global knowledge, and afford a transcendent view.  

As the ascension of the balloonist occupies a crucial pride of place in the 1834 map, verticality is the implicit theme of the map, which registers heights and lengths, to be sure, but focussed on the collation of knowledge by elevations, including forest lines, barometric readings of the elevations of cities, and heights of mountain ascents to make it a repeated object of visual curiosity that merits intensive scrutiny to local landscape detail.


The Tableaux stands as the culmination of known science, and the triumph of the map–and Geography–as a subject able to comprehend the physical sciences.  One might take the map may be a final redaction of the Ortelian ecumene (the inhabited world),  which it processes for the mind’s eye, but takes the idiom of a pictorial landscape to decontextualize the abstracted record of geographical knowledge.  And also to the observer’s eye:  for the data accumulated and synthesized is clearly both “figured” and “represented” to be readily recognized by viewers familiar with maps. The synoptic register of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and rivers that exploited the four-color potential of maps.  The image was based on a map first assembled in Paris during the 1820s, before being widely reprinted in schoolbooks or atlases through the century as a compendium.

Inscribing the landscape with remarks on vegetation and marking the turning points of ports on rivers, which the cartographer has straightened for adequate comparison as if from a laundry line, the picture is a representation of the use of the inhabited world as well as of the limits of its inhabitability, and a condensation of all that needs to be known about the world and all one shall, presumably, ever know.

bulla and fontana

The collage-like landscape, if impossible, placed global features for the observer in a way that reflected their own competency and sophistication, boasting its accuracy and transparency in the manner of a geographic map.  

Rather than constitute a new genre, the assembly of the world’s principle mountains had become a sub-genre of geographical knowledge, echoing the French taste for lists, perhaps, and the mastery of geomorphological features in ways ways that suggest an imaginary landscape, and the power of placing the world’s known mountains beneath the viewer’s eyes, as the hemispheric division of principle mountains of note suggested, in this 1825 atlas that abandons territorial bounds, but presents the romantic mountainous landscape as divided between the hemispheres,–with the ancient Egyptian pyramids, topics of huge touristic attraction that were almost included in a French patrimony in the post-Napoleonic period, if by erudition alone, front and center–

Carte des principales montagnes du globe. Hauteur comparative des principales montagnes du globe. Fonderie et Imprimerie de J. Carez. (Paris 1825)
“Montagne du Globe: Hémisphère Occidental/Hémisphere Oriental,” Bossange/Carez 1825

–between both hemispheres, as if in a signature of French erudition. The synthesis of global triumphalism in a pictorial landscape is the triumph, as it were, of pictorials over borders, in a graphic synthesis of volcanic and ice-capped glacial mountains arranged for the viewer in a landscape panorama of sheer verticality, measured on a scale rooted, at its base, by the limits of human achievements–the Egyptian pyramids.

Instead of offering any spatial or directional frame of reference, the Tableaux is strikingly framed by statistical tables that serve as the basis for its ordering of space–an imaginary space, that compiles locations in relation to one another, without correspondence to actual directionality or adjacency.  Adjacency and orientation are sacrificed in the hope of registering human measurements and achievements of measurement, conducted “après les observation des plus savants voyageurs” with the truth-claims familiar from geographic maps, but by expanding its level of synthetic view and the scope and range of its qualitative content o a degree that few earlier geographic maps had ever dared.  By collating these measurements in a truly utopic map, the cartographer transformed these multiple observations into a single scene that viewers could readily survey–in a supremely confident of compendium of collective observations that demand our trust, and promise to enlighten ourselves about the world’s entire form.  The arrangement of these observations in a map allow us to measure distances in ways that were not possible, moreover, in a simple map:  in a map, we see a river, like the Nile, as difficult to measure given its many twists and turns to its source, but all–even the Amazon–are now laid out in their relative lengths for easy measurement.  

This format of mapping, both for its synthetic scope and pedagogic utility, was extremely popular. Indeed, the genre was so popular as a synthetic view of space that it was widely imitated–if without the detail of the French balloonist.  An undated German reprinting grouped ranges of mountains not only by size, but actual geographic location in continents, as if the map was somehow an image of the members of different continental families–elevation of mountain ranges trumping coextensiveness of global expanse:

The imagined landscape of global topography, newly indexed for ready consultation, imagined the landscape as a library catalogue.  A contemporary Russian chart comparing rivers expanded on the genre in its own manner, displaying rivers as if their estuaries lined up to open to a contiguous body of water, to facilitate their comparison:

Russian Rivers

More often, this variety of map disembodied rivers or topographic markers from its surrounding landscape, oddly tracing the outlines of aqueous bodies alone:


All exemplify a recognized cartographical imaginary; the geographical compendia became popular tools to synthesize information for schoolchildren at their fingertips. The abstraction of the Ortelian globalism that reconciled topography with political bounds was dismissed, with a French wave of the hand, in a sort of cartographical magic trick that reduced space to a flat surface of the engraving, and hierarchalized rivers by size.

Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbis Terrarum

To be sure, John Thompson’s earlier undated “Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and other Elevations in the World,” dated to 1817, presented a composite prospect of mountain tops from different hemispheres, in something of a cartographic collage that took advantage of the aesthetics of landscape to abandon the principles of coherence or spatial proximity that paramount in most geographical maps.  Thompson, a Scottish cartographer, united the relative heights of the mountain tops of the eastern and western hemispheres, comparing the presence of buildings, cities, vegetation limits, and even fauna in an aestheticization of empirical observations that bridged Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, beside which flies an Andean Condor at an altitude of 21,000 feet, and figured Alexander von Humboldt himself scaling the peak, as well as Lake Toluca, Quito, Caracas, and Mexico City, in the same frame as Nepal’s Dhaulagiri, 27,677 feet–promising a global prospect if without either the Chilean peaks or Himalayas. 


If the map of mountains echoes Humboldt’s maps of mountains, Thompson had issued the first comparative atlas of rivers–“A Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” which had a purely choreographic intent, in 1822, in one of the first comparative river chart of the century, just after his inclusion of the comparative chart showing the height of global mountains for the 1817 edition of his “New General Atlas” (Edinburgh), which built on Humboldt’s 1805 work–and also acknowledged that dependence by including Humboldt in his map, scaling Mt. Chimborazo.  The map of Scotland’s rivers offered an even more pictorial rendition of the many rivers that watered Scotland’s heaths–and is striking for representing the same sort of Kantian transcendence that inspired Humboldt’s own work.

Comparative Veiw oft he Lengths of the Principle Rivers of Schotland

“Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” (1822) (Courtesy Rumsey Associates)

But the esthetic appeal of the composite map’s original designers and cartographers, Bulla and Fontana, had designed it in the 1820s as a landscape for viewers to enter and explore in ways that Thompson did not fully exploit, so careful was he to preserve and synthesize the newly arrived data of naturalists.  The slightly later Bulla and Fontana Tableaux comparatif retains the four-color format of printed maps; the original Bulla and Fontana from 1826 was exquisitely hand-colored in a range of manners that spectacularly heighten its coherence as a landscape that is inviting to the eye:  the warmth of these hand-painted colors is hard to ignore, and contributed to how the map was cast as a landscape picture.

The set of impressive rivers that emerge from the upper edge of the Tableaux extend, for example, from a grassy region near their mouths, the waterfalls are thunderously crashing with white spray, the snowy peaks with their blueish hues imposingly weigh heavily upon the stoney landscape beneath them:  the mountain ranges indeed fill up the yellow frame of measured indices, which serves as a pictorial frame for the scene, unlike the neo-classical border that frames a band of white in the later Tableaux.   In Bulla and Fontana’s map, the icy light-green valley underneath the mountain ranges invites eyes,and suggests a reserve of ice from which one can believe the set of lengthening waterfalls contain the freezing cold run-off of icy plateaux.  It seems that this wonderful post-Enlightenment map not only synthesizes measurements, but presented to the post-Napoleonic Europe the harmony of a state of total geographic knowledge as another green world, in true Renaissance fashion, in a sort of bucolic land that was both richly irrigated, filled with waters indicated by the synecdoche of waterfalls,and ready to be cultivated by man, even as Europe had been dissolved by wars and the migrations of soldiers and military campaigns planned in military maps.

Comparatif, 1836.png

Goujon and Andriveau, Tableau Comparatif et Figure de la Hauteur des Principales Montagnes et du Cours des Principaux Fleuves du Monde (1836)

The 1836 expansion of the comparative chart of mountains, rivers, and waterfalls engraved was produced by the prolific cartographic partnership Goujon and Andriveau, and proved particularly popular–meeting a clear demand for the investigation of natural spectacles such as volcanos, whose synchronized explosions are rendered on the visual center of the map that claims one’s visual attention in almost all of its parts, echoing the memory of the global influence of the eruption of Mount Tambora during the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps illustrating a sense of the climatological inter-relations even in a map that abandoned the rendering of accurate geographical relations:  volcanoes almost provided an acknowledgment, almost, of knowledge of the ecological complexity, after actual inter-relations had been abandoned in the name of the economy of map-engraving.


Both include the easily overlooked detail of the balloonist who surveys the landscape. The balloonist seems to be something of the hero of this scene, who has not only entered into the picture but, in one’s imagination, is able to survey the entire expanse that lies below.  His view would be what would look more like a map, even though what we see reflects the range of geographic knowledge that we can collate through our own unsurpassed cartographical abilities.

Leave a comment

Filed under air travel, fluvial maps, mapping nature, natural history, pictorial maps