by Rebecca Solnit
There’s truth in old maps
1. Islands are places apart, but they are not necessarily isolated. California has long exported ideas and values to the mainland. Its most important imports are immigrants from across the country and the world who become Californians in various ways. Many of them also become the exports, the people who, transformed in some way, bring something of the Golden State with them when they return to India or Iowa as surgeons or poets or practitioners of some alternative mode of existence.
2. Major media outlets and politicians routinely refer to California as the world’s eighth largest economy, as though it were an independent country. New York is almost never mentioned as the world’s eleventh largest economy, perhaps because it is part of an interstate economic base that dilutes its identity, while California is flanked by comparatively unpopulated and states with smallish economies. Attached to the North American continent, it is nevertheless surrounded by deserts and mountains that isolate it as effectively as the ocean to its west and more so than the international border to its south. Equally cultural and political island, it is routinely distinct from or even in opposition to the rest of the United States, though its populous and liberal-to-left dominated coast obscures the state’s conservative interior from many observers; this is the state of Reagan and Nixon, and tax revolts, too. California is geographically and ecologically distinct from the rest of the country and the continent. It is also culturally distinct. The geography shaped the society, or rather the myriad geographies shaped the plethora of societies, in precontact indigenous times and in the present. Geography is identity, even when those shaped by it forget it.
3. The description of California as a place apart persists, though in many variations it’s not just that California is an island but that Southern California is an island within it, and so is the Bay Area; and San Francisco is, in terms of both culture and climate, something of an island even within the Bay Area. The place contains marked differences within itself but as a whole is distinct from the rest of the country. Imagine it as an archipelago off the coast of the continent—many “islands” of distinct ecological and cultural presence or as degrees of islandness, of separateness from the mainstream.
4. One of the longest peninsulas on Earth, Baja is flanked on the east by the Sea of Cortez, which early navigators sailed without reaching all the way to where it joins with the mainland. For more than two centuries afterward, theories of California geography were debated from afar: it was a peninsula, an arm of a gigantic bay linked up with the also-mythical Northwest Passage (now a reality, thanks to climate change), it was an island, it was many islands. A beautiful map by Frederik de Wit of 1670 shows both the island of California, a perfect dagger afloat in the near Pacific, and a mythic Northwest Passage, the strait of Anian. Anian itself perhaps got its name from a place in Marco Polo’s unreliable account of China. Eventually, California would yield up wonders nearly as astonishing as those in the legends.
5. If you can recover the sense of wonder of the old explorers, you can see California as an island beyond even their fantasies, an island that is a world in miniature, this place about three-quarters the size of Madagascar, a little smaller than New Guinea or Sweden, this island with the tallest and the biggest trees in the world, one where the lowest point in North America (in Death Valley) is very close to the highest point in the lower forty-eight, Mount Whitney, where there are deserts in which it hardly rains and winds skid rocks across hard, flat ground and another place, near Donner Pass, that is the snowiest in the country, not excluding Alaska, and the snow piles dozens of feet high at times, where there are rainforests where your feet sink deep into moss and ferns under ancient dripping trees, lush valleys, great rivers, salt lakes (or at least one: Mono), enormous grasslands, and perhaps the richest farmland in the world, a world-famous wine country and an even larger shadow economy of marijuana in the north, the world capital of cinema in the south, and technology in the center, enclaves of almost every ethnicity on Earth, and more.
Note on maps
These maps come from the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection at Stanford University Libraries. McLaughlin collected nearly 800 island of California maps over a period of forty years, assembling the largest privately held collection of these maps known. The essence of his collection is in its depth—materials ranging from hemisphere to world maps, title pages to celestial charts. The collection also includes multiple states of the same map, where minute differences between maps are preserved in sequence. Through a combination of a donation and a purchase, the maps came to Stanford University in 2011. Scanned maps are available online through the digital collections at Stanford University Libraries. The original maps are being accessioned and will be available in the near future at Stanford.
The first mention of California as an island is in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandián, published in 1510. This rendering, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps—California was depicted as an island on maps in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This cartographic blunder was not exposed until Father Eusebio Kino’s map, entitled “A Passage by Land to California,” informed by his travels between 1698 and 1701. Even so, it took another half century for the island to attach itself back onto North America on maps—the maps lagged behind reality and became a cartographic phenomenon that defied the science of mapping. The island of imagination won over terrestrial reality and resulted in some of the most beautiful maps ever produced.
— G. Salim Mohammed, Digital and Rare Maps Librarian, Stanford University Libraries
All images from the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection courtesy Stanford University Libraries. You can find more information on each map above at the following links: