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To Pass On a Good Earth

To Pass On a Good Earth: The Life and Work of Carl O. Sauer

David Lowenthal
William M. Denevan
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    To Pass On a Good Earth
    Book Description:

    To Pass On a Good Earthis the candid and compelling new biography of one of the twentieth century's most distinctive and influential scholars. The legendary "Great God beyond the Sierras," Carl Ortwin Sauer is America's most famed geographer, an inspiration to both academics and poets, yet no book-length biography of him has existed until now.

    This Missouri-born son of German immigrants contributed to many fields, with a versatility rare in his time and virtually unknown today. Sauer explored plant and animal domestication, the entry of Native Americans into the continent, their transformation of the land into prairies and cultivated fields, and subsequent European enterprise that fueled prosperity but also triggered environmental degradation and the loss of cultural diversity. Providing profound and invaluable insights into the human occupance, cultivation--and often ruination--of the earth, Sauer revolutionized our understanding of the impact of European conquest of the New World.

    Author and fellow geographer Michael Williams had access to Sauer's voluminous correspondence in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and in family collections. Enlivened by these intimate letters to family and colleagues,To Pass On a Good Earthreveals the rare qualities of mind and heart that made Sauer one of America's most treasured--as well as troubled--intellectual pioneers. He brought both historical rigor and humanistic understanding to the burgeoning environmental movement and ceaselessly championed an ecumenical approach in an age of increasing specialization.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3577-5
    Subjects: Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    David Lowenthal

    Carl Sauer was my charismatic teacher. Michael Williams, steeped in the Sauer tradition, was my longtime friend and colleague.¹ Much of this biography came into being during Michael and Eleanore’s several tenures in my Berkeley home, a scant stone’s throw from Sauer’s, and an easy walk from the University of California campus, where Sauer was for more than half a century a guiding beacon.

    To introduce this substantive life of America’s most eminent geographer, crafted by a scholar of great distinction, is a task alike painful and chastening. Painful because both subject and author are no longer with us, and...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    David Lowenthal and William M. Denevan
    (pp. xv-xx)
    Michael Williams

    During the summer of 1978 my family and I exchanged houses with an academic family from San Rafael, California, who came to Oxford for Summer School. Early on in our Bay Area sojourn I visited an old friend and fellow Welshman, David Hooson, who was then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Berkeley after having been a professor of geography there for nearly two decades. As we reminisced over lunch on the terrace of the Faculty Club the conversation got around to Carl Sauer, who had died some three years earlier, and whom I had never met....

  6. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    In the late afternoon, at the end of a gloomy, windy, rainy day at the beginning of March 1907, Carl Sauer, just seventeen, sat at the work table by the window of his room at home, thinking about his life. Home was Warrenton, Missouri, a reasonably busy and bustling small country town and county seat that served an indifferent farming district just south of Highway 40, some fifty miles west of St. Louis. From his window he looked across the yard to the woodlot. Through the split-rail fence that surrounded it, his view extended away to the open fields and...

  7. 1 Warrenton of the Middle Border, 1889–1908
    (pp. 5-16)

    Warrenton, Missouri, with one important exception, was anything but special. It was the epitome of the small-town Midwest, the Middle Border as Hamlin Garland called it in his 1917 novel.¹ Warrenton was an elongated, east-west trending grid of about ten to twelve blocks, aligned on either side of the commercial core of Boone’s Lick Road, the town’s Main Street. Its mile or more of sidewalks with overhanging wooden verandas was lined with stores, saloons, banks, a pool hall, a drugstore, livery stables, a dentist, a doctor, a baker, a shoe repairer, attorneys’ offices, the office of the local newspaper, the...

  8. 2 Graduate Studies and New Places, 1908–1915
    (pp. 17-36)

    In October 1908 Sauer arrived in Evanston, Illinois, about thirteen miles north of Chicago, the suburban seat of Northwestern University. He came in some trepidation. Although a smart pupil with a fellowship, he saw himself as a small-town boy in a far more demanding big-city academic environment. After cozy, comfortable Warrenton with its extended family cocoon, where everything was slow and easy, Chicago and Northwestern were more than a bit of a shock. “Brash and bustling” was how he described the busy, noisy metropolis, the commercial and industrial hub of the Midwest. “I often sigh and pine,” he wrote Lorena,...

  9. 3 Michigan, 1916–1923
    (pp. 37-51)

    Sauer’s euphoria on leaving Chicago and attaining his doctorate was soon tempered by the realities of academic life in Ann Arbor. Pressures of work, the blastingly cold winters, and an anti-German wartime campaign to oust him from the department because of his German parentage got him down. Although at first warmly welcomed, after two years he confessed, “I’m not the least bit enthusiastic about this place.”¹ A difficult pregnancy sent Lorena home to Warrenton. During the separation she worried that he would be called up for military service. He consoled her by saying that rumors of the length of the...

  10. 4 Berkeley: AN INSIDER, 1923–1941
    (pp. 52-74)

    When Carl Sauer and his family arrived in Berkeley in 1923 they left behind nearly everything that was familiar. Warrenton, their birthplace and beloved sanctuary from busy urban life, was far away and time-consuming to visit. The extreme heat and cold of the Midwest gave way to the equable climate of California’s Bay Area. He was glad to leave Ann Arbor, of which he “did not ever grow fond”:

    I never went back to Ann Arbor and its raw fall weather without the feeling of a man going to a prison sentence, that creeping drabness that precedes the Michigan winters....

  11. 5 Larger Horizons of Place and Time: MEXICO AND THE SOUTHWEST, 1923–1935
    (pp. 75-89)

    Sauer’s provocative foray into geographical methodology and his abortive dabbling in geomorphology were mere sidelines to his major research interests during the early Berkeley years. His main focus was on cultural and historical fieldwork in Mexico and adjacent parts of the American Southwest. He first crossed the border in 1926 and went back again almost every year until 1950, spending some fifty-six months there in all. His dedication to fieldwork in a foreign land had few equals.¹

    Sauer had a dogged faith that fieldwork would reveal problems worth investigating and supply some of the answers. That had guided him in...

  12. 6 The Frontiers of Knowledge
    (pp. 90-100)

    “What do you consider your most important publication?” asked geographer J. Russell Smith in 1939. Sauer wasn’t sure. He knew that his work on disparate themes had attracted attention, both favorable and unfavorable. He seldom referred to his previous methodological writing and lamented that his field and archive studies in Mexico were well known to archaeologists and anthropologists but ignored by geographers. What interested him most at the time were destructive exploitation, settlement, and cultivated plants.¹

    Sauer’s easy, attractive, and direct writing style led publishers to badger him for textbooks. But this highly lucrative activity did not interest him, and...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. 7 “The Great God West of the Sierras”
    (pp. 101-114)

    Sauer’s prestige but also aloofness had become legendary. In 1937 his old Chicago friend and mentor Wellington Jones urged him to attend the upcoming Association of American Geographers’ annual meeting in Ann Arbor “and show yourself to a whole generation of younger geographers who think you are a semi-mythical personage on the Pacific Coast. I cannot indefinitely convince them that you actually exist.”¹ At that meeting, with Sauer as ever absent, Richard Hartshorne, the distinguished geographer then at the University of Minnesota, referred to the influence of “this great god” Sauer.²

    Sauer’s reputation and continued absence from AAG meetings also...

  15. 8 The Farthest Corridors of Human Time
    (pp. 115-128)

    During the 1940s Sauer trod a speculative and controversial pathway of research into human origins in the Americas, still a topic of lively debate. What especially engaged Sauer were the domestication of New World crops and the antiquity of initial human entry into the hemisphere. The origins of the first crops and of the first Americans—the “paleogeography of man,” as he called it—became a consuming passion throughout his remaining years, leading eventually to a grand synthesis of global agricultural domestication and diffusion.

    In the late 1930s Sauer realized that his long-sought cultural corridor, from central Mexico up the...

  16. 9 “The Heart of Human Geography”
    (pp. 129-141)

    During the Second World War Sauer’s fears that war with Germany would revive anti-German feelings against the “hyphenates” were never realized.¹ But the conflict affected him professionally and personally. John Leighly, whom he relied on heavily for running the department during his frequent absences, and later John Kesseli, were both seconded to Washington, so that Sauer had to stretch his own teaching. Both Sauer’s children also went to Washington. Jonathan, soon to marry Hilda Sievers, was drafted as a weather specialist in the Air Force. Daughter Elizabeth had gone there to work with the Latin American division of the Office...

  17. 10 “Born in Another Age”
    (pp. 142-153)

    Sauer’s social science disenchantment stemmed largely from his 1930s experiences with New Deal programs that ignored cultural, environmental, and historical circumstances and sought to solve everything by formula. To Sauer, their universalizing abstractions heralded an ominous doctrine of social regimentation. Social science trends in the 1940s only deepened his dismay.¹

    In 1944 Joseph Willits at the Rockefeller Foundation asked Sauer to vet a memorandum on the role of the social sciences by Robert Redfield, a Chicago anthropologist. Redfield had charted the disruption of traditional Mexican lifestyles induced by the spread of trade and modern technology.² Sauer faulted Redfield’s sociological approach...

  18. 11 “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”
    (pp. 154-164)

    At the height of Sauer’s black pessimism about the state of learning and academic life, he gained unexpected respite from a major collaborative enterprise.¹ In October 1953 William Thomas, a geographer at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, invited him to chair a forthcoming symposium entitled “Man’s Impact as a Dynamic Agent in Changing the Face of the Earth,” as “the logical person to give impetus to such a vast undertaking.” From a list of ninety humanities and social science luminaries, Sauer was asked to select thirty participants. Although “aghast, excited, and somewhat scared” by the boldness...

  19. 12 A Productive Retirement, 1957–1975
    (pp. 165-180)

    As retirement approached in 1957, Sauer if anything increased his commitments. Between extended stays abroad, he kept up his writing, guest lecturing, and committee work, especially the time-consuming Guggenheim, National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, and Office of Naval Research meetings. Planning for the geography department’s new home in the Earth Sciences Building (now McCone Hall) made his last year as head of the department in 1954 particularly grueling. “The old horse is staggering down the track, looking no further than the June finish line.”¹ The comfortable surplus of time that he had when young now was rushing away from...

  20. Afterword
    (pp. 181-184)

    Fulfilled in family and career, and famed as seer and mentor, Carl Sauer felt increasingly alienated from modern ways. In the guise of progress, re-sources were gutted, landscapes befouled, rural communities impoverished, traditional cultures eviscerated. Sanctimonious do-gooders St. Bureaucraticus’s “more and better jobs” to guide “this wobbly world,” and St. Scholasticus’s “five-dollar phrases for commonplaces” ruled government and academe alike. Cultural and agricultural diversity gave way to monocultural uniformity, an arid and rootless sameness of soil and spirit, whether on the American or the Soviet model. Moneyed malefactors backed purblind planners’ development programs that squandered finite reserves of soils, water,...

  21. NOTES
    (pp. 185-210)
    (pp. 211-232)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 233-252)