An Island Is Anything Surrounded By Difference: Thoughts on Maps and History

Detail from 1700s map from the Glen McLaughlin Maps Collection at the Stanford Libraries

Author Rebecca Solnit was a visiting researcher at the Center in the Winter and Spring of 2013, exploring Stanford's newly acquired collection of historic maps that curiously depict California as an island off the West coast of North America. The maps date from the 1600s to the 1860s, and are now viewable online through the Stanford University Libraries

For those inclined toward research, there is nothing more luxurious than an invitation to delve into an archive and no more delicious territory than an extensive array of primary documents, two glories I’m still profoundly grateful Stanford offered me this year, and to which I hope to return as time permits. I feel now like an explorer who had to turn back after only catching sight of the splendors and curiosities of the terrain. I will return. That the material I focused on was astonishingly gorgeous—hundreds of maps full of compass roses, mermen splashing on seahorses, an allegorical America riding an armadillo, land masses whose edges were delicately tinted in golds and roses and greens, western places I’ve visited mingling confidently with places that don’t exist – made it all the richer. But that was frosting; the cake, or the central concept, was about California and islands.

It must have been in 2009, when I was working on my atlas of San Francisco, that the great map collector David Rumsey told me the biggest private collection of maps of California as an island was also in the Bay Area, in the hands of Glen McLaughlin. I thought that someday I would look him up and ask to see the maps, and the very idea of this trove within reach was intoxicating, magical, alluring. And then it came very much more within range when Stanford acquired the collection and made it available to me.

I had long thought that we asked the wrong question of these maps, which are usually discussed as though the most salient point is that they are wrong. To me, in other crucial ways they are right, in ways that raise resonant questions about what California is and what islands are. To me an island is anything surrounded by difference, which is why we also talk about heat islands or cultural islands, and California—a densely populated landscape of great biological diversity and richness surrounded by ocean, desert and mountains, beyond which lie starker realms—is all kinds of island, or archipelago.

To call it an island is to get beyond the old idea of islands as inherently isolated; some are; many are instead particularly rich places of coming and going, of migratory birds, of goods and products and people and ideas. California is that kind of island, a place Europeans and then European-Americans mostly approached by boat from Cortez’s expeditions to the legions of argonauts in 1849, until Stanford and his cronies completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

There is no vermilion sea between California and the North American continent, as there is in many of these maps, but there are so many important ways that California is a distinct and separate entity, not just a continuation of the United States or North America. The place is so separated by mountains and deserts that it has its own ecology, with more than two thousand plants that occur nowhere else in the world, but it also has its own culture in many ways, or rather its own cultures, and an identity that is distinct from that of the U.S. as well.

The dominant culture of the U.S. faced Europe; we face Asia, used to be part of Latin America (and are well on our way to being that again), and the past that was wilderness and indigenous homeland is far more present. It’s a different place. I grew up in the Bay Area, feeling rather like a colonial subject of the Northeast, as I was taught in school that there were two wars that counted in our history, both unfolding thousands of miles from here, that there are four seasons, one including a lot of snow, and that civilization was something that was transmitted from Europe across the Atlantic that didn’t get much further west than the Hudson River. In those days California was often belittled, and what its history, culture, and contributions might be weren’t discussed, since they were assumed not to exist.

So the question of what California is was an open one, and the answers had to do with what I was doing sticking around here, rather than moving east, as had been the obvious path when I was a young art critic. Happily, I left art criticism behind and wrote a few of the histories of California I wanted to read, and both adventures in actual places and scholarly work drew me deeper into California and its questions. Thinking about it as an island seemed to pose interesting answers—and so it was two kinds of wonderful for me when Stanford acquired Glen McLaughlin’s collection and gave me a fellowship to work with the maps. Glen’s collection is the world’s largest of maps of California as an island, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, from among the very first attempts to map the West Coast according to the island doctrine to a very late map—Japanese, from the 19th century—that hung onto the idea after everyone else got over it.

Slideshow: Historic maps depicting California as an island (Stanford News Service)

The maps! Even to think of my various perches in the Earth Sciences library and the cabinet of maps I was given access to is to contemplate a luxuriousness I now only regret I was unable to take maximum advantage of. I spent many happy Thursdays and other days there reading and looking at maps, but another set of maps got in the way — my atlas of New Orleans, supposed to have been finished before I began the fellowship, was delayed and finally demanded my full attention. But during the time at Stanford, I met people who could answer some of my questions and asked others, began to form ideas for a book, read earlier California history than I had before — the conquistador-era histories — and basked in maps. And buttressed that with conversations, with reading, with thinking. And with looking forward to the time when I will return to this material.