Tag Archives: marine species

Mapping an Invasive Species? Eucalyptus in Berkeley, CA

The mapping of invasive species on land or sea provides one of the clearest ways of visualizing our shifting ecosphere:  in mapping of the threat of invasive marine species to coastal ecosystems, Michelle Slosberg developed her marine map of the spread of invasive species in 2011 when an undergraduate at MIT.  She did so by mapping sites of high-risk areas of marine “invasions” along coastal waters, geo-referencing data on ballast water of ships to determine the risks of the presence of invasive species that were carried by ships from one ecosystem to another and specific to the northeastern coast of the United States.

Invasive Marine Species Mapped

The vectors of travel in ballast water are shockingly widespread, and the container ships traveling from China to across the Pacific, or along the Atlantic, increasingly import species accidentally that are rarely noticed until they propagate:  the number of harmful alien species mapped worldwide have so grown that some 84% of the world’s 282 marine ecosystems are documented to contain invasive species, and in 2008 coastal regions with harmful alien species were dense in ecoregions in the Mediterranean, in the North Sea, and along the California shore and Hawai’i.

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Blue waters note areas where fewer harmful alien species were found to dwell.

The complex vectors of marine migration of alien species have only begun to be mapped, but heighten anxieties about the definition of “national waters” or marine borders, increased by shifting temperatures of ocean habitats and lend new meanings to the maelstrom of modern life:

Major Pathways of Marine Invaders


Fears of the heightened potential of geographic relocation of species by mapping points of transfer paths of airline flights offer by linking regions of similar temperate zones:

map invasive_species

The category of the “invasive” redraws spatial boundaries–and inflects taxonomic identifications–to suggest a shifting map of the natural world, combining nature and culture and resisting the stability of a fixed map.  But mapping the spread of “invasive species” often charts less an invasion in early stages of development than a process of resettlement, as in this map of wild carrots that flourished after they arrived in our national borders 250 years past, but still classified as weeds in mid-western and north-western agricultural fields:

WIld Carrots in US

The wild carrot seems relatively benign, and was introduced at about the same time as domesticated carrots to US farms. But the introduction of eucalypts from New Zealand redefined the Bay Area, where I live, and the exploding trees that are native to Australia–where they are known as “exploding trees” and played such a large role of combustibility in the recent bushfires where they provided exploding fire balls in the air that led to the advance of walls of flame when sustained drought increased the volatility of what became an explosive landscape, a flammability transmitted through the flammable fumes created by vaporized eucalyptus oil.

Australian residents have long called the native species “gasoline trees,” rooting them in an anthropocentric landscape or imaginary, whose highly combustable oils are released in fires, and whose explosions–sometimes sending parts of their crowns to spatially removed sites–create their ability to magnify grass fires into explosive threats of devastating scope, ramping up the danger and scale of the bushfire in what seem spontaneous combustions geographically removed from one another without any predictable pattern. The explosion of euclyptus crowns that can travel fourteen miles in the air increased not only the intensity but geographic distribution of the Australian fires. But the explosion of eucalypts immediately known in the Bay Area was revealed in the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, when the explosion of blue gums contributed some 70% of the energy during the devastating fires that destroyed upwards of 3,000 homes over days, leading to calls to remove the tens of thousands of blue gums and other non-native species from the ridges that had so long seemed to be a part of the local landscape for Northern California residents who had celebrated their health benefits soon after since their arrival in the late nineteenth century. While they soon exploded, the density of thin Eucalyptus crowding once open spaces raise questions of whether they belong or don’t in this landscape–and what sort of roles the eucs have and what they are even doing there.

Dan Rademacher, Eucalypts North of Claremont Avenue, East Bay

The danger of labeling an “invasive species” by mapping its lines of incursion is to constitute a category that elided the existence of external environmental influence.  But how to chart the undeniable impact of commercial practices or climactic shifts that serve to facilitate the geographic dispersion of an ‘invasive’ species?   The piles of perfumed litter that fill the roadsides of many of the East Bay hills, cascading downhill into the road, provide a nice remembrance of nature, but also are undeniably dangerous kindling for future potential fires, releasing oils in the air not only powerful in fragrance but combustible. And the multitude of Eucalypts that we see locally echoes the spread of blue gums and other eucs across delicate habitats across Malawi, South Africa, and Chile, crowding out local species, as in Patagonia; these large fast-growing plants of Australian origin suck up water and cast shade over other plants, and foliage, crowding out other native plants, in ways that don’t create calls for nativism–but biodiversity.

What of the habitats they afford or create? In the East Bay, the euclypts that crowd the hills are improvised shelters and sights of nesting for the elevated platforms that red-tailed hawks take as their eyries, advantageous for their height and stability to allow them to swoop down, and the great horned owl who often succeed them in the same sites of roosting. But the benefits that eucalypts afford these larger predators are cause for worry in themselves as creating imbalances in the delicate dynamic of the biodiversity of any place, as Allen Fish, who directs the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, and has noted the advantages that shelter in tall trees can give to some species over those that, as raptors, occupy more specialized ecological niches: the eucs may often afford the larger avian predators a privileged position to swoop down into the smaller birds such as kestrels, spotted owls, screech owls, saw-whet owls, and and Coopers’ hawks, or even provide habitat for red-tails who will crowed out sensitive species from the grasslands and savannah, including long- and short-eared owls, and barn owls, that provide a fundamental role in habitat. How to map the effects of such invasive species in dynamic ways, as altering the ecosystems we often separate from maps?

Indeed, mapping the species’ ‘invasive’ nature–or even the term “invasive”–effectively renders transparent the identity of the pernicious plant as a bacillus, deflecting agency from economic practices to the collective species labelled nonindigenous; such maps become distorting lenses to foreground effects of a species’ dangerous tendencies to spread over space that remove blame (or responsibility) from the economic or climactic change to locate it in the species it tracks, and indeed flatten temporal change:  maps of invasive species prove a perfect example of the strategies for the power of map-signs to reframe the experience of nature illuminated by Denis Wood and John Fels.  A classic case is the dangers of rapidly reproducing predatory lionfish through the Florida keys, which having migrated or “arrived” from warmer ocean habitats threaten to destroy local marine life, whose presence can be highlighted, removed from its environment, in a striking map of its marine spread:

lionfish_dis_map

This sort of cartographical compartmentalization circuitously brings us to the battle over local eucalyptus trees, conducted largely around the invasive nature of nonindigenous Tasmanian blue gums long rooted in groves in the landscape of Bay Area hills.  Invasive species of plants are nonindigenous plants that spread in uncontrolled ways to an area they have never lived and lack predators, creating environmental problems and contributing to the extinction of native species and animals.  But how long can a plant be present in an ecosystem and continue to be labelled invasive?

Although airline traffic, like routes of ships, expands the network and increases the speeds at which seeds migrate across the earth, increasing the vectors of moving invasive species by accelerating contact between regions that did not share borders, introduced species–some 50,000 now exist in the United States–is conditioned by the suitability of the environments they arrive–few of which are on the west coast, although the travel of weeds alone cost California at least $82 million per year.  The very virulence of terminology to identify plants and animals as invasive–perhaps the biological threats of a postmodern age–has conditioned how we see the landscape before our eyes.

Recent debates around the proposals to clearcut 22,000 non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon reveal a pitched battle in the Berkeley Hills and Claremont Canyon around labelling the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus as ‘non-native.’  Whether or not the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus  (Eucalyptus globulus) is correctly labeled as invasive is not only a question of fact, however, but reflects how one maps the place of the towering blue gum trees in the landscape they have created and long lived–and how one maps them as signs of fire-risk.  The removal of the trees that cover a large part of the hills, especially on the west-facing hills of Berkeley and Oakland, from the environment when mapped for clear-cutting, revises their place in Bay Area landscapes, and the struggle that emerges among environmentalists and planners (or local constituent groups, since the division is not so clear) reveals a battle between landscape and map, or a naturalized landscape of welcoming groves and a firescape dotted with unwanted risks, but also offering transcendent moments of their own.

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Many land-owners share deep-running concerns about the fire-dangers created by the branches, shaggy bark, leaves, and seed-pods, all containing highly flammable oils, and explosive proclivities of eucalyptus trees:   multiple vectors of encouraging fire-risk have led the tree to be demonized as primary culprits of the disastrous 1991 fire in the Oakland hills that destroyed so much property and claimed 27, as well as forest habitat.

The characterization of the tree as an invasive–and even as a weed–are all rooted in its change on the landscape, as much as unquantifiable expansion of fire risks.  None seem greater than the piles of as the bark that, shed, create a dry ground cover that inhibits future plant growth, and raises the specter of quickly igniting kindling that stimulate powerful underdrafts after its combustible oils ignite that would push a wildfire’s growth out of control, as updrafts push flaming bark ahead of the actual fire-front, onto the roofs of nearby houses, at the same time crown-fires spread the canopy of leaves create crown-fires among towering trees that carry the level of flames into the atmosphere.  Once their combustible oils ignite, leaves and litter are feared to fuel a raging fire, offering firewood as groves of Eucalyptus themselves explode and ignite.  Hence the fears summoned by imagined firescapes expanding by burning crowns and flaming bark thrown by winds that are provoked by those leaves’ presence.

eucalyptus

So what are the abilities to contain this vegetation whose vigorous spread seems to obstruct the growth of other plants in the ground area they cover by displacing native plants?  Attempts to map areas for their elimination reflect the fears of property owners, recently saddled with newfound legal liability for responsible land management, and responsive to the availability of federal funds to land management in the hope that future fires would not consume the lands they manage or impinge on nearby houses, and create any suits of environmental liability.  If causing huge financial damages is hoped to be avoided, the question of legal liability seems to have been the primary factor that motivated further attention from large-scale land-owners as the University of California or regional parks.  Already by 1991, the University of California at Berkeley began to clear thousands of “invasive” eucalyptus within the purple section, as part of a larger ten-year plan to remove 25,000 trees from its property–or the grove in the below aerial view in the Claremont Canyon, in projects of “land management” directed to such a reduction of risk.

Claremont Canyon Fire Mitigation
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In December 2009, these plans received a setback as FEMA denied four separate grants to the University of California, Oakland and the park system for $5 million to remove eucalyptus, pine and acacia trees from the ridges above Oakland and Berkeley, but plans to for clear-cutting some 82,000 Berkeley and Oakland trees, a quarter of which lie in the protected Claremont and Strawberry Canyons, to be followed up by 700-1400 gallons of herbicide in land belonging to Regional Parks.  Similar interventions clearing eucalyptus encouraged the large-scale project to clear-cut the eucalyptus from the hills–dramatically revising the landscape of the region to be reforested by “native” plants whose seeds may lie buried by eucalyptus litter, and would be re-introduced after careful extraction of each and every blue gum.

The hills were colonized and indeed filled by eucalyptus, and most especially the Australian import of the Tasmanian blue gums, around UC Berkeley’s campus, in Regional Parks that could be said to themselves litter the  Berkeley and Oakland hills–Tilden, Wildcat, Kennedy Grove, Anthony Chabot, Lake Chabot, Redwood, and Sibley–where the planting of eucalyptus replaced grasses and wildflowers that covered the region, as in this image of the stately eucs that provide posts for Kennedy Grove.

Kennedy Grove

Yet there is some evidence–not widely acknowledged–that cast the eucalyptus as something of a windshield whose presence in dense groves, by blocking winds, would actually fights wind-driven fire, acting both to break and interrupt the flow of the wind that bears the fire and as a screen to trap flying embers that might be in danger of spreading and starting wildfires.

The decision of UC Berkeley to once more seek needed FEMA funds of $5.6 million to fund for the clearcutting began in 2013, with hopes target an expanse of some 22,000 non-native trees from Claremont and Strawberry Canyon, in order to mitigate fire risks for residents haunted by the devastating firestorm that swept through the Oakland Hills in 1991 Oakland Hills that destroyed some 3,000 homes in the hills.  Many residents remember the Eucalyptus as fostering the rapidity with which the flames of the raging fire spread across the hills:  as “fuel-productive” trees that produce huge quantities of combustible litter, they are readily labeled high fire risks, and have few protectors.  Even though some 19,000 non-native acacia, blue gums, and Monterrey pines have already been destroyed, the destruction of the expansive grove destined to be felled and chipped would potentially end a major protective windshield, but would no doubt reduce how we quantify fire risk.  

And the current thinning of Eucalyptus and other invasive species as acacia and Monterrey pine in the regional parks in the East Bay hills, despite the mobilization of a community-based Hills Conservation Network (HCN) to protect them, will cover 2,000 acres, targeting diseased and dying non-native trees as much as converting the region to grasslands, leave a forest spotted with chemically treated stumps where trees once grew.

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920x920-3Paul Chin (S.F. Chronicle)/July, 2015

Native Americans regularly burnt grasses to encourage their growth and spread their seeds, inhibiting the spread of trees. This allowed a massive spread of eucalyptus was so extensive in the grassy hills, where they were planted, erroneously to impede further local grass-fires.  The importation of the eucalyptus plant from 1850 was not only for ornamental ends, but to create fast-growing hard-wood forests was originally celebrated–if incorrectly–and presented, strange to say, as a further reduction of hazards of fire that regularly broke out in the grasslands.   They were also screens, to be sure, for further construction of residences and houses in the hills, valued as protective natural obstacles for privacy as houses gained increasing density on the hillsides, placing neighbors in greater proximity than they had wanted–and perhaps offering an even more welcome screen during Prohibition for private parties, as the eucs became part of the Northern California atmosphere, viewed largely as benevolent, convenient ways of adding further salubrious greenery.

The arrival of the trees in the Bay Area was spawned by unsuccessful lumber schemes, designed to meet the needed infrastructure and housing materials for the region’s growing population.  When the Judson Dynamite and Powder Company first introduced the tree in the 1880s to use their canopies and dense foliage in order to hide ravages of construction and muffle sounds of explosion or construction, the trees’ arrival was greeted in local papers as offering relief from the regular grass fires “that almost every year swept over the hills,” as was argued in the Oakland Tribune–a somewhat common-sense theory that research as now revived, although the argument that they offered wood that resisted burning was openly fraudulent.   At any event, the species robustly grew on plantations of trees as Frank Havens’ land company–the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company–planted some three million eucalyptus and Monterrey pine in plantations of 400-900 trees/acre across 3,000 acres in the East Bay, billing the tree as “the most valuable on the face of the globe,” offering hardwood for fences, firewood, shingles, telegraph poles or “ecclesiastical furniture.”  

The tree seemed magically powerful not only in the rapidity of their growth, quickly attained huge heights, but the multiplying of trunks from their bases so their wood could be regularly re-harvested:  yet as it was realized not to be quite so suitable for milling, and  readily cracked, Eucalypt monoculture became jungles able to suck water out of the ground, leading to calls to thin the population that crowded out native species.  As the difficulty of combatting its fires became clear, the survival of the eucalyptus became something of an economic dinosaur that had outlived schemes for the sudden profits of crops of wood.

One can map the spread of the species first planted to disguise sites of construction, mitigate disturbing sounds, or create miniature parks or groves, to a mini-industry of plantations.  But can one ever map the losses or the density of Eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills?  One can hardly call the tree non-naive to the state, given the century-long spread of the mid-nineteenth century arrival across different micro regions and environments from coasts to valleys to foothills to dry desert:

Eucalyptus globus state-wide

The prime danger that the trees pose to fire is in shedding their foliage, particularly after colder weather:  the 1972 freeze led trees to shed some 50 tons of debris per acre, over an expanse of 3,000 acres, creating a tinderbox of bark; the shedding was cleared by federal disaster funds.  The 1990 freeze played a considerable contribution to the disastrous 1991 East Bay hills blaze which consumed over 3,300 homes, and led East Bay landowners to work to prevent risks of future fires.  Regular clearing in times of intense shedding of shaggy bark–the eucalyptus trees’ “litter”–surely poses a more economic response to the need to mitigate fire risk.

But the characterization of “match sticks loaded with freeze dried fuel” shifted the blame from dead grass, wooden houses, and vacant lots–and points the finger at the invasive tree, and particularly to question its proliferation on public lands.  Loni Hancock, then Berkeley’s mayor proposed chainsawing down thousand of these “invasive species” or “weeds,” to reduce the dangers of fire-risk–albeit while creating dangers of soil erosion and changing the habitat.  The wide planting of the tree throughout the state not only served needed screens or decorative cover, but valuable fence- or scrap-wood and firewood, given its quick growth.)

sheddingbark

The “disorderly” trees that did not clean up for themselves were labeled “invasive” and even identified by the evocative term  “unwanted immigrants” that needed to removed from public parks and lands conceals the risks equally posed by landscaping with non-native shrubs or Monterrey pines.  Tasmanian blue gums have, no doubt because of their visual presence, coppicing, rapid growth, and towering size been seen as weeds, and also been defended as “native enough”–as residents of over a century and a half–continuing the arboreal personification and obscuring debate.  

Berkeley-based poet and Poet Laureate Robert Hass, longtime friend of the eucalyptus’ shaggy bark and camphor smells, got in on the fun when vaunting the blue gum as “California’s largest naturalized citizen,” aware of the serious stakes.  The debate on the trees’ status as alien immigrants set the stage for Verlyn Klinkenborg to enter the debate about “non-native” status of the blue gum eucalyptus, noting that the tree’s exclusion from a “native” land that existed over five hundred years ago relies on a pretty “imaginary snapshot of this continent taken just before European contact,” and, in omphalocentric New York-ese, questionably comparing their place in the landscape to the evolving arboreal landscape of Central Park, whose variety has long welcomed interlopers and foreigners in ways often imagined as a microcosm that reflects the urban population.   The point being that the landscape evolves.

But to shift from a human-centered approach to the place of eucalypts in our environment, it may make more sense to ask the overall environmental impact of the shedding trees.

Yet the California Native Plant Society deems “native” only species predating European contact, and the concerted efforts of public lands to strip the areas that they administer of fire risk have led to a huge investments of regional park and utilities corporations, no doubt eager to respond to insurance threats, to eradicate the blue gum from the local landscape, labeling it as a tinderbox to be uprooted.  A broad range of local authorities who administer parklands–UC Berkeley; City of Oakland; East Bay Regional Park District–have tried to secure up to $5.6 million  from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program to mitigate fire risk by a plan to remove tens of thousands of eucalyptus.  The group of suspicious non-natives—eucalyptus, Monterey pine and acacia—would be removed in over 1,000 acres, in hopes to expand the indigenous oaks that eucalyptus first replaced.

The 2010 result was to put a mosaic of vegetation management on view:

Proposed Actions on Eucalyptus

The 2010 report proposed Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction measures largely administered by the East Bay Regional Park Development:

EBRPD
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Or, in the most focussed picture of mitigation in the regional parks of the Oakland and Berkeley Hills:

Tilden Termination of Eucs
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Yet local environmentalists’ have resisted a plan to begin with clear-cutting of Eucalyptus trees, followed by annual application of herbicides, and then five to seven years of pulling seedlings–not only for posing risks to local endangered wildlife, from the whipsnake or California red legged frog, as members of the Hills Conservation Network argue, but may well stand to create even greater fire risks.

Yet the classification of the tree as “non-natives” is to some extent laughable–to judge by the crude state-wide choropleth of their spread, which is in many senses a basic counter-map to the final solution of arboreal demolition.  Indeed, the demand for their clear-cutting or selective clearing in residential areas reflects a desire to mitigate risks to expensive property, and no doubt lower insurance rates, as much as it reflects a direct tie between the growing risk of fires in California in an age of rising temperatures:

Eucalyptus globus state-wide

Elwood Cooper, no mere booster of Californian wildlife, wrote in his 1876 Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees, distinguished the value of the trees by noting that they “possess qualities which place it transcendentally above all other plants; . . . rendering localities healthy in which to sleep a single night was almost certain death,” placing on their doorsteps credit for making healthy the environment. Recent recent attack on these non-natives for increasing fire-risk on account of their contribution of dry leaves–or “litter”–to the underbrush may contribute to fires spread by their oil-rich tree crowns and highly flammable litters, but contrast to the majesty of the tree that was once seen as a basis for encouraging local forests.

Book

It is hard to imagine the loss of the trees from the landscape, whose branches hold birds’ nests and whose flowers feed hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, whose groves smell “of camphor and the fog-soaked earth,” in Robert Hass’s organic poetics, themselves word maps of the physical experience of the Bay Area he loves.

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Filed under alien species, EBMUD, ecosystems, eucalyptus, FEMA, invasive species, mapping environmental risk, mapping invasive species, mitigating environmental risk, University of California

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data