Ross Coen: The Aerial View

Thank you to Ross Coen, our featured author, for this final May post.
Those who love books almost without exception also love maps.

Give me a map, especially a road atlas, and I will be entertained for hours tracing routes with my finger and imagining far-off towns with names so fun to say the locales themselves must be just as stupendous. The work of the historian is not dissimilar from that of the cartographer; both take an almost infinite series of data points, distill the most relevant from the collection, and create the truest possible representation of something that cannot ever be fully reproduced. In the case of the mapmaker, it is the landscape; for the historian, the past.

And if you appreciate maps, you are probably very much like me in another way—you always take the window seat on airplanes and then sit transfixed by the view below. William Langewiesche, a pilot and essayist, writes in his 1998 book Inside the Sky, “Flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around.” This seemingly simple statement actually reveals something quite profound about how we observe and catalog information within spatial contexts. Our liberation from the earth has made it possible to view a landscape whole and all at once, as though we were looking at the most complete map possible. Features that could not be contemplated while one is standing directly atop them suddenly emerge distinct and identifiable when viewed from above.

I remember as a boy reading about the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, the one made by the meteor that might have killed the dinosaurs, and how from the jungle floor its rim would appear as nothing more than a ridge impeding one’s travel. But from above—especially with aerial magnetic imagery from way, way above—the curious symmetry of the ring becomes clear. It may sound like a forced metaphor to us cynical adults, but to my ten-year old self that book changed everything. I now looked at the moon and actually saw the craters with some perspective. I watched the river that ran through my hometown and wondered about the fish that, lacking the aerial view, would never know its true length and course (or if they did—how?). I studied the geometry of the ironwork on a half-mile railroad trestle behind my house, the repeating and identical sequence of beams that stretched as far as I could see, and understood infinity. I have clear memories of all of these things.

Hence, the maps. To hold a map in my hands is to possess the aerial view that liberates me from the muck and mire of the landscape itself and reveals more than even the direct experience of tramping over the terrain ever could.

John Lewis Gaddis, professor of history at Yale and another writer whose work I admire, notes that a selective representation of a thing is often more useful than the thing itself. A life-size map with labels on every single feature would be useless, not to mention impossible to produce. Maps only work because they highlight only those features needed for directional utility while ignoring all others that have no relevance. A highway map, for example, would never identify geological features of the landscape, while a geological map would have no reason to note the location of rest stops on Route 81.

A historical account works by the same principle, according to Gaddis. “The direct experience of events,” he writes in The Landscape of History, “isn’t necessarily the best path toward understanding them, because your field of vision extends no further than your own immediate senses.” A book about the Normandy landing, for example, would prove much more useful to your understanding of that event than actually storming the beach, rifle in hand.

What makes the work of historians valuable is the ability to transcend the muck and mire of past eras and events and create selective yet faithful representations. We include certain facts and ignore others the same way mapmakers do. It is precisely because historians have such distance from their topics of research that makes them qualified to comment on them.

I am often reminded of this when a still-living participant or witness to some past event complains that a historian has twisted the facts. “But that’s not how it happened!” the witness will say. A more accurate version of the complaint would be, “But that’s not how my mind has constructed the memory based on my limited perspective!” Much less effective. (Dr. Gaddis himself came in for some of this recently with his biography of George Kennan, architect of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. The two men started as friends, but by the end of the project Kennan believed his biographer had missed a few very key points.)

In a sense this is every writer’s challenge. We strive for perfection, all the while knowing that creating a true representation of some person, place, or thing, whether real or fictional, is impossible. Mapmakers do not produce landscapes, only a facsimile thereof. So with writers. Do your best.

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political, and environmental history of Alaska and the Arctic. He is the author of The Long View: Dispatches On Alaska History from Ester Republic Press and Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage from University of Alaska Press. He lives in Fairbanks.

3 thoughts on “Ross Coen: The Aerial View”

  1. Your map metaphor misses: the aerial, abstracted view does not provide more useful or important information — only a different kind. An aerial perspective does not tell me what plants or animals live in a landscape. Likewise, storming a Normandy beach with rifle in hand gives me some kind of understanding of the experience — and who's to say the personal, sensuous perspective — involved with muck and mire — is less valid or valuable?

    On the down side, an aerial perspective as from a plane allows disassociation — the green that disappears over the years (forests clear-cut, for example) is replaced by brown, another nice color. It is in the muck and mire that we have to live most of our life. So we better take care of it.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I think there are valid lessons to be learned from both viewpoints–
    details and sensations up close; patterns and context from further away–and for me, this was an inspirational post. Ross's example of the Mexican crater was particularly vivid for me. I remember when that discovery was made, and having seen the Yucatan region of Mexico upclose (and even from underground, via cenotes or caves) I got the same shiver realizing how a different kind of understanding came from the aerial (and also temporally more expansive) view.

  3. "The work of the historian is not dissimilar from that of the cartographer; both take an almost infinite series of data points, distill the most relevant from the collection, and create the truest possible representation of something that cannot ever be fully reproduced." This is a great line. I like thinking of myself as a verbal cartographer.

    The comments underscore the blog post's point, to me: it's no good to get stuck in a view of things–above, within, participating, or distant–it's all useful. Walking through a beetle-kill forest is critical for the intense, visceral sense that the woods is changing. Seeing an aerial view of beetle kill spanning an entire state, whether photo or in person, brings home the scope and scale of forest damage. Both are critical for "taking care of it."

    For me, changing up the stance makes for good investigation, as a writers, a mapmakers, a citizen. Getting a wider view undermines an inherent tendency towards dogmatism.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top