California as an "Island": Finding Grains of Truth in Misbegotten Maps
Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian, Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections, with some of the maps depicting California as an island. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
The Stanford Libraries have acquired a trove of nearly 800 historic maps that all share one grevious error: they depict California as an island floating off of the West Coast of North America. Donated by the prominent collector Glen McLaughlin, these European and Asian maps date from the 1600s to as late as the 1860s.
The Stanford News Service spoke to the Center's executive director, Jon Christensen, and our visiting fellow Rebecca Solinit, about how these maps – while utterly wrong – speak to something essentially right about the idea of California as an island:
According to Christensen, "Californians often think of themselves as an island. Bio-geographically, it's still very much an island," with its unique Mediterranean climate at the edge of a continent.
"California is surrounded by deserts and mountains, so much so that it might as well be an island," said Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. "It has 2,000 species of plants found nowhere else on the Earth, as well as a lot of endemic butterflies, reptiles and other critters."