The Fourth Part of the World

Today’s post will be a departure from my usual content. Below, I offer a book review on an historical map. While it may not seem relevant, I believe history is important, and history about maps even more so. Read on to learn more about the map that named half of the world.


The Fourth Part of the World, The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester

The Fourth Part (my abbreviation for that long title) is a hefty tome.  At 462 pages (hardback edition – yes, it’s worth it), including an index and notes, one might think a book so long about one map would be a slog to get through. But Toby Lester easily engages the reader by bringing the European Middle Ages to life.

The author starts the book with a preface that details why he started on a quest to research the Waldseemuller world map of 1507.

$10 million.  (It’s always about money, isn’t it?)

In 2003, the Library of Congress had just purchased the Waldseemuller map for $10 million dollars, 2 million more than the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. This fact piqued Toby Lester’s interest and six years later, he produced The Fourth Part.

The Fourth Part is divided into three parts: Part One, Old World; Part Two, New World; and Part Three, The Whole World. It also includes a Prologue, Epilogue, and an Appendix along with Notes and an Index.

Part One – Old World

In this section, Mr. Lester delves into the mindset of the early Medieval scholar. Their religious view of the world told them that the world consisted of three parts only – Asia, Africa, and Europe. They based much of their geographic knowledge of the world on what the Bible taught or alluded to. This lead to representations of the world that were rather limited and did not take into account knowledge gathered outside of their religious texts. However, just because those religious scholars might not have wanted to know anything beyond the bounds of the world set out in their religious texts, the world has a way of making itself known.

In the mid 13th century, the Great Khan Guyuk (widely known as Genphis Khan) announced to the western world (Europe):

Through the power of God all empires from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them.

What a surprising and frightening proclamation! Ultimately, the Mongol empire building efforts, along with the numerous Crusades to win back Jerusalem, led to more geographic information circulating among the European scholars.

Monks were sent to parley and Christianize the Mongols. Though they did not succeed in that venture, they did bring back cultural and geographical details that helped flesh out European’s sense of the world. Still, their view of the world consisted of T-O maps and mappamundi – rather poor representations of the world that excluded at least half of it.

It’s easy for us to look back and scoff at the inadequate maps that were produced in Europe before the 14th century. It’s easy to forget that most people were illiterate. Merchants and travelers didn’t have the benefit of a travel guide, nor were they able to produce one with their own knowledge because they didn’t have the skills or means to do so. What geographic information they gathered, it mostly stayed int heir heads.

The Christian monks that produced maps and cosmology (geography) texts at the time worked with the best knowledge available to them, but they were bereft of the great secular knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Roman Latins. Much of their knowledge of the world’s geography was more accurate, but it was lost to Europe’s Catholics (who were the keeper of knowledge at that time).

Example of a mappamundi. Click on the image above to see more.

Part Two – New World

In this section, the author chronicles the efforts of the great Genoese and Florentine mariners at rediscovering the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the 14th century, surprisingly detailed and accurate marine charts of Europe and North Africa emerged. Europeans also rediscovered Ptolemy and other Greek texts that helped piece the larger world together. With Portugal and Spain’s drive to reach India (as their overland routes were hampered by the Muslims taking control over the entire Middle East), maps of the known world were improved, and the thought of sailing west gripped explorers. So they did.

Part Two is the largest section in The Fourth Part, and contain the most fascinating tales. Any summary of mine will do it injustice. So, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

Just as one thing leads to another and starts a train of thought, while he was in Portugal [my father] began to speculate that just as the Portuguese had sailed so far south, it should be possible to sail as far west, and to find land in that direction. – Ferdinand Columbus (circa 1538)

This was the great age of discovery. When maps and the information they held started and decided wars, when the slave trade fed European’s insatiable hunger for more goods, and when there was a rivalry between nations at a fervor. It was only a matter of time before something earth-shattering would happen.

Part Three – The Whole World

The last part of the book, Mr. Lester explains how Walter Lud, Matthias Ringmann, and Martin Waldseemuller, all cartographers, came across one of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters that detailed his explorations of the New World. Though that letter was a fake, the three scholars and map makers didn’t know that at the time. They took it, and the information it offered, at face value. Together they created a “curious little book” titled Cosmographiae introductio (1507). This little book included a huge map (the largest known map to have been produced at the time), and it just so happened to haphazardly name the New World – America.

What struck me most while reading The Fourth Part is how religion has played such a huge role in our political, social, and geographic history. Of course, I already knew that. Anyone with any sort of education can see religion’s stamp on just about everything, but the author presents the motives (both religious and otherwise) behind the map makers and explorers in a manner that drives that fact home.

Conclusion? I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a well-researched, yet concise, summary of the events that led up to the discovery of the New World – the fourth part of the world – then this is the perfect book for you. If you have any interest in history and/or maps, this is also a must read.

Mappy Hour

The other night, I participated in the North Bay’s first Mappy Hour, a social event designed to bring together GIS and map enthusiasts. The event was hosted by Griffin Map Design in his store/studio in Petaluma, California. We got to talk about maps without having to talk about work  – what a concept!


As a group, we explored interesting things we could do to bring prominence to maps and stories of place. I’m not entirely sure where Mappy Hour will lead us, but where ever it is, I’m sure it will be interesting. The event did get me thinking about how I could incorporate more art into my work.

The group also got a chance to peruse the maps and cartographic fusion with art Griffin Map Design offers for sale. I bought a wonderful print of the State of California that features oak leaves as well as a bag with a bike/world map collage.


We also talked about books. I know, not nearly as exciting as maps, but books about maps? What more could you ask for? I actually have quite a few books on maps. When I have time, I’ll post a few book reviews.

Overall, Mappy Hour was a great opportunity to see how maps can be used in creative ways to communicate information about a place that isn’t easily quantifiable. As GIS professionals and in this digital age, we forget that physical maps and cartographic representations have a long history of playing a key role in not only depicting the places we live in, but shaping our perceptions of them as well.

Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco, c1876 by SF Snow & May. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Back when the Golden Gate was just that, a gate with no Golden Gate ‘Bridge’.

Here’s to many more Mappy Hours.

Living With Fire

It has been some time since I posted about fire in our California landscape so I’ll give a quick recap.

In the summer of 2014, the King Fire in the central Sierra Nevada mountains burned close to 100,000 acres in less than two weeks. It is considered one of the worst wildland fire incidents in California history, prompting many in the popular media to predict the usual doomsday scenarios. So, I thought, let’s look at the numbers and see what they tell us.

I posted a quick article about how, indeed, given the small data sample available to me on recent fire history (from 1913 to 2013), fires have become more numerous and fire sizes (in terms of acres burned) have increased.

However, I failed to follow up on that post to illustrate that:

  1. those numbers reflect fire history during a period of intense fire suppression (a management policy born from human needs and fears, and do not reflect good land management practices), and
  2. an increase in fire size reflects those fires that started under extreme weather conditions in remote locations, guaranteeing they would escape suppression efforts to begin with.

I know that’s a poor substitute for an in-depth article, but you can read Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us by Michael Kodas, in On Earth. The author does a great job of detailing the controversy and the science (or lack of it) behind national fire policies (that inevitably influence state and local management policy).

The point is:

The rise in the number of fires and their sizes has more to do with our land management policies and human activity, than anything going on with climate change and/or our fire ecosystem. Fire has long played a starring role in shaping the California landscape and will continue to do so.

In mid-November, I wrote another post about the language used in media to describe forest fires. Public perception of fires are heavily influenced by how we refer to them. And whenever someone says things like:

I’ve never seen that before.

Please, for the love of all things green and black, do not take much stock in it. Think about it. Even a 40 year wildland fire veteran would not have seen it all. How could she? Our landscapes have been evolving with fire for thousands and thousands of years.

During a conference I attended last fall, Tamara Wall of the Desert Research Institute is trying to explore statements just like the one above. Her aim is to find out directly fire-fighters how they experience fire behavior, and how it changes throughout their careers. Remember, how we perceive something is based on what we expect and relative to what we have experienced before.

Living With Fire

I  hope that those two previous posts along with this one would bring us to a realization that fire in our landscape is at our doorsteps. It always has been and will continue to be so far into the future. And as our population balloons and more of us move into the edges of urban areas, we must all learn to live with fire instead of fight it.

In 1997, my post-graduate adviser, Paul Tueller (University of Nevada, Reno) and Ed Smith started a public outreach program called Living With Fire. It was initially developed for the Nevada landscape, but it has been adopted by many California communities. Along with the efforts of the California Fire Safe Council and the national Firewise program, these programs aim to educate the public on fire issues in their community, teach how to protect one’s home through defensible space and smart building material choices, and provide a framework to collaborate on larger, fuel reducing projects.

While these are all great, sometimes they fail on what I think is the most important issue facing Californian’s today – the lack of fire.

While protecting one’s home through defensible space is paramount in most people’s minds (and it should be, you shouldn’t expect someone to put their lives in the path of fire to save your home), what about the rest of the landscape?

Photo by Debbie Robinson (as it appeared on Ear to the Ground).

No matter how relieved the owner of the above house was after the fire, do you think they really want to live in that blackened landscape?

And what about homes that immediately abut other homes? And what about the 42% of California owned by federal and state agencies? And what about those large tracts of private land that no one seems to weed, let alone manage?

How do we protect all that land from fire?

The federal and state agencies task with managing our forests and wildlands cannot do it*.

The timber industry cannot do it**.

The military cannot do it***.

But fire can.

What? Fight fire with fire?

Prescribed Fire Councils began in the United States in the southeastern states of Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. They quickly spread throughout the southeast when land managers and private land owners realized how great they worked. Councils in the west have been recently formed in Washington, Oregon, California, as well as British Columbia, Canada.

Their goals are to facilitate the use of prescribed fire to manage our landscapes – regardless of ownership boundaries and regardless of who wields the torch. They do this by working to change national, state and local policy, collaborating closely with regulators, and educating citizens on the use of prescribed fire. They also provide training venues for everyone (regardless of agency affiliation or lack of it).

In other words, they are doing everything they can to get fire back in its natural role in our landscapes. By allowing prescribed fire to do the heaving lifting of removing dead and dying material (that no one wants to buy nor can we pay to remove it all) and thinning excessive vegetation, the aim is to create landscapes resilient to fire. The idea is so when an unplanned burn does start (it will, we know it will), its effects are moderated (because of less fuel).

Yes, this means more smoke in the air.

Californians crow and covet their clear, blue skies. I know I do. I love them.

And haven’t we just spent the last forty years trying to clean up our air?

While it is true that prescribed fire will put more smoke into our skies, it does not mean a return to smoggy cities. Emissions can be estimated and plume travel tracked to optimize when and how a fire occurs to reduce smoke impacts.

This is what I mean by living with fire. It means all land managers implementing fire policies that allow us to use fire to live with fire.

I admit, that is a lofty goal. However, it is inevitable. Our landscapes are going to burn one way or another. Would you (i.e., land managers, private home owners, etc) want to be holding the torch when it burns? Or are you willing to give that up to some random arsonist or the weather?

Living with fire is not just about defensible space, but includes embracing fire as a land management partner.

* Federal and state agencies have been hampered by policy, and environmental and management constraints.

** The timber industry’s goals are not (necessarily) coincident with developing a fire-resilient landscape.

*** They have other wars to battle.




Getting Out There

No, I don’t mean stop reading this post and get outside to enjoy the great California weather (is it raining yet?). You can do that later.

What I meant was: let’s get OUT THERE. Beyond our moon and over 34 million miles away to the surface of MARS.

Click on the image for an interactive experience.
Click on the image for an interactive experience.

Click on the image above to visit Mars via ESRI’s interactive map of Mars, the fourth planet in our solar system. Who knows where we’ll end up next? Fancy a ride on a comet?

This concludes my posts on Geography Awareness Week. I hope I’ve sparked an interest in geography and the world around you.

Where in the World?

Here’s another neat test. Don’t worry, this one isn’t timed and you can use other resources to figure it out.

The BBC put together a game that combines Google’s ground-level photography with maps. They give you a starting point and allow you to look around (search for signage and landmarks, check the angle of the sun). Once you figure out where you are at, place a point on the inset map and make a guess.

Some spots are truly hard to figure out (no signage!) while others are super easy (major landmarks nearby). Either way, give it a shot! It’s a cool way to visit unique places in the world without leaving the comforts of home.

BBC’s Geoguessr

Can you beat my (terrible) score of 6,998?

Today is GIS Day 2014

What is GIS?

No, that doesn’t stand for gastro-intestinal system nor the General Mills stock exchange label. For me, it stands for Geographic Information System. The standard definition of what a GIS is goes something like this:

A computer system designed to capture, integrate, edit, share, store, manipulate, analyze, display, manage, and formally present all types of spatial data.*

* From Wikipedia (more or less).

What is its history?

Map by John Snow showing clusters of cholera outbreaks in London, 1854. Image via Wikipedia.

Technically, one can say it’s been around since cartographers started scribbling lines on hide, but formally it all got started in the 1960s with the rise of computers, which allowed for easier data dissemination and manipulation.

There’s a long history of government, particularly defense departments, playing key roles in GIS software development.

But today, the commercialization of GIS is evident with the proliferation of companies like ESRI, and, well, ESRI. However, there is a whole host of open source solutions like QGIS.

How has it changed the world?

If you’ve used a BING, Yahoo!, or Google Map, you’ve used a GIS. Or rather, the fruit of a GIS (and GPS). GIS has made spatial information available to the public in way that normal paper maps just never did (or could). Instead of a static map that shows where things are (or were), we can ask the map where the items we are interested are right now and where they might be.

How I got into GIS

By accident. I worked for a small natural resource department with California State Parks and someone had to do it. My ability to learn quickly and natural affinity to maps made me an easy choice to head up the effort in our office to develop our GIS database.

Since then, I’ve worked on many projects in a variety of fields and, honestly, I can say I haven’t gotten bored. The application of GIS is infinite. Everything has a spatial component to it. A crime happens in our neighborhoods. Disease spreads from one nation to another. And plants propagate across the landscape. Each of these things can be mapped, tallied, and analysed to help us better understand our world.

Time for a Test

Believe it or not, tests can be fun. At least, when geography is involved!

National Geographic hosts an online GeoBee (like a spelling bee, but way easier). If you are a student, you can participate officially through your school. Or if you’d just like to join in for fun, they have daily quizzes you can take – every day!

Can you beat my first-time score of 8,312.5?

Find out here at the National Geographic GeoBee Quiz and report back! This is timed, so the quicker you answer the better.

Good luck!


How We Communicate Geography

With maps, of course.

So, just what is a map? And why is it important in understanding geography?

Maps are visual representation of what we see around us. They show spatial relationships between things (transportation corridors, destinations, physical features on the landscape, etc) and, more importantly, maps show the connections between all these things.

Why should you care?

Maps have never been as widely used as they are today.


Maps are being used in just about every niche and function you can imagine.

Taking a trip on a bus?
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile

Your city has probably installed map panels at popular junctions or on the bus itself.

Playing a video game?

There’s probably a map included to help guide you through the game. See that tiny map to the right of Spiderman? Can’t be flying through the streets unless you know where you are at and where you are going!

Trying to find that great, new restaurant?

header-androidYour phone has a map application that will get you there in just a few screen taps.

You use maps to navigate through your life. Don’t you think it might be important to know a bit more about them?

History of Maps

You might be shocked to find out that maps as we know them today are a relatively new thing to humans. Prior to the late 1200s, maps were…well, they were all over the map. Depictions of the world around us varied widely and you probably wouldn’t have recognized them as maps (nor were they called that).

T-O or Mappa mundi map. From

Proper land surveying techniques were developed independently in many regions of the world and the maps that resulted from those efforts are definitely recognizable. However, like most information, maps were often hoarded by the educated and powerful. Accurate spatial information meant knowing where resources were and how to transport them, and it meant knowing where your enemies lived and how to access them. Keeping that information secret determined who ruled the land.

It wasn’t until the Europe’s Age of Discovery, and the invention of the printing press, that maps became more common place and standardization in visual representations were adopted.

Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.
Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.

Today, with the proliferation of the internet and smartphones with map applications, accurate spatial information is literally at our fingertips and comes in forms we might not be expecting.

Click on map for an interactive experience!
Click on map for an interactive experience!

Maps of the Future

Many of us (okay, only me) still like physical maps printed on paper with ingenious folds. We spread them out on the kitchen table and pore over the details, learning interesting names for physical features or realizing how close that creek is to our own backyard.

But more and more people today are using a different kind of map. With smartphone and other mobile devices, we now have the entire world in the palm of our hands.

Just who knows what the future holds for maps? Maybe one day we’ll all just insert a map-chip into our brains and know where everything is (even ourselves – yikes, getting a bit “big brotherish”, eh?). Or maybe you’ll just create custom maps based on the places you go every day.

There’s no way for me to predict the future of maps because the field is wide open to innovation. It always has been and will continue to be so in the future. What I do know is that maps will stay with us for the long haul because they link us to the world.

Will the map become the place?

Read/listen to Del rigor en la ciencia by Jorge Lius Borges. English version here: On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges.

Geography Awareness Week 2014

Geography Awareness Week is a movement to expose you, the public, to geography.

It all got started in 1987 by the National Geographic Society when their staff became alarmed at how geo-illiterate U.S. citizens have become. Since geography is no longer taught in earnest in many U.S. schools (having suffered from the reader/writing/arithmetic focus), most folks are not aware of how geography shapes their cities, farms, and the interactions between humans and the environment. Not to mention all the physical processes on this earth that go on regardless of what we do.

To help us all better understand the world around us, Geography Awareness Week was created to promote geography in our lives to

understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time.

~ from the National Geographic Geography Awareness About page.


Each year, Geography Awareness Week has a theme associated with it. This year, that theme is “The Future of Food”. Hmmm, you’d think I’d be all over that theme, but to be honest, I don’t have any particular expertise in the department (other that eating it), so I’ll leave that to the food connoisseurs out there. Check out this interesting Thanksgiving food map put together by the staff over at ESRI:

Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.
Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.

This interactive map highlights where the food on your Thanksgiving dinner plate likely came from. I was surprised to learn that the green beans we eat are grown all over the United States.

Did you know that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one (only one) almond?

Map image from Mother Jones.
Map image from Mother Jones.

Check out this article from Mother Jones to find out more about where food is grown in California and how much water is needed. The article also highlights which cities in California use the most water.

What you’ll get from DMS this week:

As a GIS professional, I deal with geography every single day. Most of the work I do involves showing where things are and how they relate to each other. This week, I’ll go beyond that by highlighting places on the internet you can go to find out about maps, test your geographic knowledge, explain exactly what it is we GIS folks do, explore how geographic shapes conflict, and then move us out beyond this world.