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This earlier post is now updated to reflect the recent release of a film, The Lost City of Z, based on Grann’s book of the same name. Both tell the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went into the Amazon in 1925 with his son looking for an ancient lost city. They both disappeared. For decades, explorers and scientists have tried to find evidence of his party and the Lost City of Z. Since then, perhaps another hundred people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett.

I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z in 2010 and halfway through it I realized what attracted me to it. It takes me back to a book of my youth – The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which was a novel I loved as a kid.  I probably read the Classics Illustrated Comic version before I actually read the book, as that was the case with many books from Treasure Island to Hamlet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is much better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Even if you have never read any of his fiction, you probably know a few of his stories and characters because, according to the Internet Movie Database (love that site) there are at least 215 films based on his writing.

I took out my old comic book version and also my paperback of the novel and rediscovered Doyle’s little introductory verse:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

There was another book titled The Lost World which was Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, but I have nothing to say about that book. To me, The Lost World is the one published in 1912 and it is the fictional story of an expedition to a place in the Amazon where prehistoric animals still survive. (Hmmm, did Mr. Crichton get inspiration for Jurassic Park from it?)  The book introduced the character Professor Challenger who appears in other books by Doyle.

Exploration and lost worlds captured the fancy of the public and authors in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is better known for his Tarzan and science-fiction stories) published The Land that Time Forgot, which was his version of a lost world story. In that  rather ridiculous tale, sailors  from a German U-Boat discover a world of dinosaurs and ape-men in Antarctica.

I read all of them. I didn’t really pay attention back then to the chronology of publication. If I had noted dates, I would have realized that another one of my childhood author heroes, Jules Verne, had introduced the whole prehistoric-animals-in-the-present-day adventure story with his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth which was published back in 1864. Those explorers find a prehistoric world of people and dinosaurs inside the Earth.

By the way, you can read The Lost World as an “e-book” free online at Project Gutenberg – if you can handle reading on a screen. I can’t.

cover

Now, to get back to where this post started, the setting for The Lost World is was probably inspired by reports about British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s expedition to Venezuela and Brazil, in a mountain region called Mount Roraima.

The modern-day non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z , tells the tale of Fawcett who launched his final expedition in 1925 into the Amazon.

His goal was to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.” El Dorado has captured the imaginations of kids, armchair explorers and real anthropologists, adventurers, and scientists for about 400 years – even though there really has never been evidence that it ever existed. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of expeditions from going out looking for it.

Fawcett was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London.  It humbles me to think that at age 57 he headed out again because he really believed in El Dorado, which he called the City of Z .

He set out with only his 21-year-old son Jack and one of Jack’s friends. He wanted to travel light and fast, eat off the land, and not harass the natives. They vanished in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Subsequent attempts to find Fawcett and the city have failed.

What happened to Fawcett? David Grann thinks he knows. The author is not an adventurer, but he ended up in the jungles of the Amazon to try to find an answer.

Fawcett’s expeditions inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of a lost world. Grann wrote an earlier book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

I’m not ready for any Amazon adventures, so I’m happy to follow Grann’s digging through Fawcett’s old diaries and logs for clues and doing my own armchair adventuring.

I liked that the book also deals with how in the past 40 years in Brazil alone, the Amazon has lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover. That’s an area bigger than France. Tribes are being threatened with extinction. Many animals and plants, some we never even knew existed, are also vanishing.

Much has been lost in those jungles.

More Reading
Vanished!: Explorers Forever Lost     

The Lost City

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islandUSA

I suspect that Treasure Island, the adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, is not much read these days. In my youth, it was one of the “classics” that teachers put on the acceptable reading list for book reports.

I’m not sure now if I read the novel or saw one of  the movie adaptations first (probably the 1950 Disney version). I definitely read the Classics Illustrated comic version. (A series that started me on many a classic work of fiction.)

It is probably still considered a book for young people, but I suspect the vocabulary and sentence structures of most of those classics would be a tough reading assignment for today’s young readers.

As a lover of islands and of maps, the book had both those elements going for it. I certainly didn’t think of it back then as a “coming-of-age” story and commentary on morality, though it’s that too. For me, and most readers, it is an adventure tale. Young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and the pirates seemed to live a pretty cool life.

Reading it today, a kid would think it ripped off all the many versions that have come since – some with the Treasure Island name, some with other names. But Stevenson was the original for many pirate standards such as a treasure map marked with an “X”, schooners and one-legged sailors with parrots on their shoulders.

But the map of the island fascinated me. The hardcover edition I read had a map as the inside covers and I studied it and copied it and then modified it. I made many treasure maps as a kid. Some were imaginary places. Some were my neighborhood places. Years later, I had my students make literary maps of novels we read in class.

Treasure-island-map-Stevenson

Stevenson’s map

Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired for novel by a painting he had made while playing with his stepson.  In the introduction to one of the editions to the novel, he wrote:

stevenson“On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies.”

He said that just staring at the map made the book “appear.” He could see characters, the woods, fights and hunting treasure, and he started outlining chapters.

64 treasure island

 

I am still up for a treasure hunt, if anyone is interested.

wessex

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

There are places that we have heard of, read of,  perhaps even seen on a map, but they don’t exist. Or, at least, they don’t exist in the world we walk through today.

These places appeal to me. You are reading now about a place called Paradelle that exists online but cannot be found (yet) on maps.  Imaginary places have fascinated me since I was a kid. It started with places in novels (like Treasure Island) which led me to love maps, which led me to draw and write about my own imaginary places.

When I was teaching middle school, I had my students create maps of the fictional settings of novels they read. Even if the setting was a “real” place or based on a real place, the maps needed things that you wouldn’t find on existing maps – the empty lot or the church that burns down in The Outsiders; the roads and ranches in Of Mice and Men; Scout Finch’s hometown and Boo’s tree in To Kill a Mockingbird or where Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio or Friar Lawrence lives in Shakespeare’s play.

I started a novel years ago that was set in Camptown, New Jersey. That is a town that did exist on maps at one time. It changed its name to Irvington. But my Camptown is a blended town that mixed my hometown of Irvington with other places I have lived along with things I wish were included in the place where I live. The river that runs through the town is all the rivers and creeks and streams I have known. It is the Elizabeth River that I knew as a boy, the Peckman River that runs through where I now live and the Passaic River that cuts across New Jersey and is sourced from a now-swampy glacial lake that dinosaurs edged up to for a drink and that spills over the Great Falls in Paterson and on to Newark Bay, New York Harbor, the Hudson River and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  As I wandered the Lenape trails around me as a child and adult, stories were always coming to me.

All this came to mind recently when I saw ads for the new film Paper Towns which is based on a novel by John Green. (You’ll see it labeled as a “young adult”[YA] novel, but that is a term I never liked. Are Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird YA novels just because they are often read by young adults?) Green is a very popular novelist with teenagers, but a lot of adults know his writing either from his book, The Fault in Our Stars, or the the film version of his book.

John Green tweetedCelebrating the release of #papertowns with a road trip to a place that wasn’t, then was, then wasn’t, and now…is?”

In that novel, Quentin loves, loses and searches for Margo.  Clues lead Q to believe that Margo may be possibly hiding out or buried in one of the many abandoned subdivision projects or “pseudovisions” around Orlando, Florida. Those turn out to be dead ends, but he does find a map he found in an abandoned strip mall which he connects with another map he made in an attempt to locate her.

map

Fictional copyright trap Agloe, New York shown on a real 1998 Exxon (American map) state map of New York, United States.

He matches up the holes from the pushpins in the mall map to his map and this leads him to believe that she is hiding in Agloe, New York.  He and some friends skip graduation and head to Agloe to find her.

Agloe is a fictional place in Delaware County, New York, that became an actual landmark, if not a real town. In the 1930s, two mapmakers (Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers) made an anagram of their initials and placed it as a town on the intersection of NY 206 and Morton Hill Road, north of the real town of Roscoe, New York.

Were they merry pranksters? No. The town was meant as a copyright trap. Mapmakers often place a fictitious place on their maps so that if someone plagiarized it, they have a way to easily check.

However, in the 1950s, a general store was built at that intersection and was named the Agloe General Store.

agloe store-001The fictional town appeared on Esso gas station road maps that were widely distributed. Agloe appeared on a Rand McNally map and Esso (now Exxon) threatened to sue Rand McNally for copyright infringement. But that never happened because Rand McNally pointed out that the place had now become “real” and therefore no infringement could be established.

That store went out of business, but Agloe continued to appear on maps until about 25 years ago when it was deleted. Interestingly, it appears in Google Maps and the very official United States Geological Survey added “Agloe (Not Official)” to the Geographic Names Information System database in February 2014.

Places that aren’t there are nothing new and there are lots of examples.  There are the ones created by writers, such as Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Maine and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. In my abandoned novel, I considered placing Camptown in the county of Wessex in New Jersey as the western portion of the real county of Essex.

There are also places created by mapmakers.  Besides the paper towns, another copyright-protection technique is to include a “trap street” on a map. This fictitious street on a map, often outside the area the map nominally covers, has also been used as a way of trapping copyright violators. Alternatives are nonexistent towns, rivers or perhaps a mountain with the intentionally wrong elevation inserted for the same purpose. Of course, you don’t want to add something that confuses users or just looks like an unintentional mistake. The mapmaker may add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Phantom settlements are settlements that appear on maps but do not actually exist. They can be accidents or copyright traps. Some examples are Argleton, Lancashire, UK and Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, USA.

map

The Zeno map of 1558 showing Frisland – a phantom island in the North Atlantic

As a lover of islands, I have always had an interest in “phantom islands.”  They are islands that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but were later removed after it was proven not to exist.

These are not copyright traps. They often came from reports of early sailors exploring new waters. Some were purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons or Atlantis. Sometimes actual islands were mislocated or just a plain old mistake. The Baja California Peninsula appears on some early maps as an island but was later discovered to be attached to the mainland of North America. Some phantom islands were probably due to navigational errors, misidentification of icebergs, or optical illusions due to fog or poor conditions.

An interesting subset are islands that existed and were destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, submarine landslides, or rising waters and erosion. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake, may fit into this category.

Pactolus Bank (AKA Burnham Bank) was discovered by Captain W.D. Burnham on the American ship Pactolus on November 6, 1885. They postulated that this was the sunken location of Elizabeth Island, discovered by Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hinde in 1578. Drake anchored off an island which he named “Elizabeth Island,” (for Queen Elizabeth I) where wood and water was collected and seals and penguins captured for food, along with “herbs of great virtue.” According to Drake’s pilot, their position at the anchorage was 57°S. However, no island has been confirmed at that latitude.

Elizabeth Island, off the southern tip of South America, might be a good setting for another novel, or for Paradelle.


John Green talks about finding Agloe on an old Esso road map

Niijima (NASA)

Niijima (NASA)

The Earth is still changing geologically, even though we commonly think of all those changes as something from the distant past.  Mountains and oceans are being created and destroyed and almost nothing is permanent.  Our little human lifespan is short enough to not take notice.

So, it’s nice to have an occasional reminder – like when a volcano creates a new island.

Just a few days before our Thanksgiving, an eruption began in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles south of Tokyo. In the weeks that followed, an island has formed.

People are calling the new land mass Niijima. It has an area of about 14 acres and it continues to grow.

Newly formed islands don’t only survive. They can quickly erode or the sea floor sinks under the weight of them and they go below the surface of the water. But, so far, Niijima is remaining an island as a reminder that life is change.

I hope Google doesn’t buy it.

I encountered Lou Ureneck online with his From the Ground UpNew York Times blog, which was a memoir about building and brotherhood.

There is also a book about the experience.  After middle age-job loss, the death of his mother, a health scare, and a divorce, Ureneck looked for some project to engage him back into the world. He had been a city dweller for a decade and decided that he needed to build a simple cabin in the woods. He bought five acres in the hills of western Maine and asked his younger brother, Paul, to help him.

He is not the first person to have a book come from that experience. We think of Henry David Thoreau and Walden first. There’s also Louise Dickinson Rich who wrote fiction and non-fiction works about New England, particularly Massachusetts and Maine. Her best-known work is her first book, We Took to the Woods, set in the 1930s when she and her husband Ralph, and her friend and hired help Gerrish, lived in a remote cabin near Lake Umbagog. It is described as “a witty account of a Thoreau-like existence in a wilderness home.

Lou Ureneck’s Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine  fits nicely on that bookshelf.

He may have new to building a cabin, but he was not new to writing. He was a journalism professor at Boston University and a former newspaper editor at the Portland Press Herald in Maine and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

His first book, Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, received the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award.

And, the brothers had also built a house together 20 years before.

Building the cabin was a way to reconnect to his life, nature and his brother. It sounds like it should have been easy to build the cabin after building a house, and they had the help of Paul’s sons. But the construction turned out to be challenging and nothing seems to go according to plan.

The complications are also about building family relationships. Yes, there is a healing power in nature. Yes, you do need to set roots and have a place to call home.

See photos of the cabin being built

It wasn’t really planned that I would write this Memorial Day weekend about all these people trying to get away and find themselves. But I had gotten all these books in a bunch. And this is a summer when I am coming to the end of my current academic job.

I don’t know what I;; be doing this fall. And part of me would like to just pack up my office and head out into the woods to build that cabin I keep thinking and writing about.

I have been armchair building and traveling for years. It was accidental that the books I wrote about this weekend all seem to focus on Maine. I have friends (also educators) who own property in Maine and they escape from New Jersey every summer to their rustic pond-side places.

The final book in that pile I brought home is also set in Maine. Eva Murray took a job on Matinicus Island in 1987 and expected to stay a year as the island’s K-8 teacher. But when the school year ended, she turned down her graduate school acceptance, remained on Matinicus, and in 1989 married the island’s electrician. She and her husband Paul raised their two children on Matinicus and continue to live and work there (as an EMT) full time.

Her book is Well Out to Sea: Year-Round on Matinicus Island. Though it might be cataloged along with the other simple life, off the grid, farewell to the 21st century books, her life is hardly simple.

Growing and canning your own produce co-exists with high-speed internet.  These essays are about the land and the people. And the people are, to use an idea from Emerson, self-reliant. I’m sure there is a shelf full of Alaska books about this kind of person too. People who encounter problems with both hands and get dirty and greasy solving them.

Now, to put all those books aside and start building something myself this summer.

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote  John Donne.  And yet, Art and Nan Kellam bought an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949 and lived there for more than 35 years. They were quite content with little more than the company of each other. And they thought of themselves as an island.

I have been reading several books that I’ll share here about people who dis their own Walden kind of expereinece and it’s very easy to Romanticize those experiences into some kind of idyllic fantasy.  Though the story of the Kellams is appealing, you have to keep in mind that they had no electricity or running water, and heated the house they built with firewood from their forest. To fetch supplies, they rowed a dory several miles to the mainland and back.

They goal was self-sufficiency, so they were building things rather than buying them and  growing whatever foods they could. But that was more to stretch their limited money than it was to serve as models of good living or inspire a book.

Their story is told in We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam by New Jersey native and conservationist Peter Blanchard III. The book is based largely on journals kept by the Kellams.

Their island was Placentia Island, a forested 550-acre island a few miles from Acadia National Park. They moved to the island to lead, like Thoreau, a simple life, free of technology and modern contrivances.

These are not Caribbean desert or deserted islands that are along the coast of Maine. More often than not, they are rocks in a cold ocean.

They lived there year round for nearly forty years.

The story is illustrated with historic photographs and recent photographs by David Graham. As much a story of a relationship that grew in isolation, it is also one of those tales of “living “off the grid” that I find appealing.

Don’t confuse them with anyone who has some idealistic, environmental, survivalist, sustainability movement behind their actions.  “They made a conscious decision to inhabit a world that they had total control over,” says Blanchard. And though they were not naturalists or conservationists when they took to the island, it would be hard not to say that they had a growing mindfulness and appreciation for not only nature’s beauty, but its power.

And in the end, they didn’t want to see their land destroyed or built on, so they turned to conservation and donated the island to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy after retaining a “life estate” that allowed them exclusive use of Placentia during their lifetimes.

Blanchard learned of the Kellams when he volunteered for the Nature Conservancy. He  himself “owns” two islands near Placentia – Black Island and Sheep Island – that have been permanently preserved, and is part-owner of a third preserved island, Pond Island.

If you visit Placentia Island now (it is a public nature preserve), all you will find of the Kellams are some stone foundations and a square of cement with their footprints.

We Were an Island  is published by the University Press of New England

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Hands off Hello Not all labyrinths are traps Happy to be inside but already missing summer outdoors.  The plant feels the same way. There’s something in the first cold nights when autumn teases winter that seem to require a fire. Still drinking morning tea in the afternoon.  #teaetiquette

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