August 20, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Cartographic bliss 

A local collector explains his hopeless devotion to maps

Every map is a treasure map. For those initiated into their secret language, maps promise much and often deliver.

            Every map can be an explanation, a revelation. For instance, I've pondered for years why Rochester was a boomtown in the early 1800s, the Young Lion of the West. Why it reached a then-impressive population of 300,000 quite early, but then it stopped growing and stayed the same size for over a hundred years while other cities --- such as Buffalo, Toronto and Detroit --- far outstripped us.

            Endless reading didn't help me make much sense of that. But finally, a clear look at a map that showed mountain ranges and rivers of the eastern US answered my question. After the Revolution, this place was the prime path west. The stretch of land between Rochester and Albany is the widest gap in the Appalachian chain from Maine to Alabama. The Erie Canal ran along this level path. So do the New York Central trunk line, and now the Thruway. In places you can see all three traveling parallel like a cord of braided arteries and nerves. A map can show in a glance what it takes a paragraph to explain.

            You can read a map like you read a story. Quicker than linear text, you get the picture, the idea, the feel of names and relationships. Or more aptly perhaps, you read a map like a palm. Secrets lie there, on the crowded page full of tiny names, squiggling lines, cryptic symbols.

Seymour Schwartz is clearly a man who has seen the beauty and the charm of the cartographer's art. A liver surgeon by day, Schwartz owns a collection of over 400 maps of the American continents, most of them made before 1800. Yes, some are worth quite a bit of money. Far more important to Schwartz, however, is their scholarly and aesthetic value. For Schwartz, the maps in his collection are "documents of history and pieces of art simultaneously."

            And some are indeed quite beautiful. Mostly copper engravings, the maps in his collection have a graceful appeal that you won't see in your Rand McNally or your AAA Triptik. Some lines seem as delicate as spider web. Others have a boldness that can't help but catch the eye. Some names are inscribed tiny as a whisper. Others stand out like a shout.

            In his office hangs the first world map done in more than one color. Nearby is one presented by Cortez to the Spanish King. This is the first map ever to show Florida. Others --- woodcuts, copper engravings, and manuscript maps --- show the evolution of Europe's understanding of the Western hemisphere. Schwartz owns two maps done by John Smith, including the map that names New England for the first time.

            Schwartz takes pleasure, even delight, in his collection. Each one has a story and a special meaning, both to him, and to the course of American history. Still, there are favorites. "The map I'm most psychologically attached to," the gem of the collection, is one drawn by George Washington as a 20-year-old surveyor. Though pleasing to the eye, as a work of art it is not remarkable. Still, to know that the then-unknown Washington had his hand in creating the map makes it, for Schwartz, a kind of "icon."

            "Every day I'm home, without fail, I genuflect before it." Schwartz exaggerates here, but not much. He derives genuine gratification not just from owning such a document, but feels a kind of gratitude that he has "the opportunity to house and be caretaker of the map."

            Schwartz describes map collecting as a "passion and an excitement" for him. Having spent a half-century in medicine, he says, the maps are "particularly memorable as my surgical career winds down."

            His cartographic efforts have gone well beyond collecting. He's published five books in the field. His first, The Mapping of America, was co-authored with Ralph Ehrenberg, head of the map division at the Library of Congress. Next came The French and Indian Wars, and then This Land is Your Land, which Schwartz describes as a "popular book of geography, a book that would allow people to teach geography in a systematic fashion." Next he edited An Englishman's Journey Along America's Waterways, by Herbert Holtham.

            His most recent work is The Mismapping of America, which traces the origin and results of five important cartographic errors. He explores the reasons why our continent is called America, when Amerigo Vespucci is far less significant than a hundred other European explorers. Filled with dozens of map reproductions, the book is a fascinating look into the ways knowledge is shaped by error and ignorance.

            "Some of the errors became ingrained permanently," according to Schwartz, "or were perpetuated for prolonged periods of time. Maps, as powerful instruments for the dissemination of information, have also spread and nurtured misinformation. At times, maps have depicted fancies rather than facts; at other times they have shown wishes rather than wisdom."

            Apocryphal islands, a mythical Amazonian queen, conquistadors, exotic natives, strange fauna, the world-shaking greed of European monarchs: these and dozens of other intertwining factors make their appearance in the cartographic history Schwartz traces in The Mismapping of America.

Schwartz began collecting in 1964. "My wife said I needed a hobby," he explains, something other than surgery to occupy his thoughts. She bought him a 50-cent book called Maps and Mapmakers. And this set him off on a lifetime of study. The first map he bought for his collection was made in 1656, a derivative Dutch version of John Smith's map of Virginia.

            Schwartz's collection will end up at the Library of Congress when he dies. This is appropriate, and will facilitate further study. But perhaps something will be lost when Schwartz's 400 maps go to Washington, DC. A private collector, with personal passions and fascinations, brings something to scholarship that large institutions can never recreate. The Library of Congress is supposed to collect these artifacts. Public funding and the weight of centuries keep this institution in the business of cartographic study.

            But liver surgeons don't typically devote such time, money, and enthusiasm to this kind of scholarship. Of course, the wealthy often spend their money on valuable objects. But Schwartz is not interested in showing off the valuable maps like so much bullion.

            He draws a distinction between collectors and acquirers. An acquirer is indiscriminate, buying things merely to own them. A collector, on the other hand, has a "focus of interest." Not just interested in possessing, but also "investigating in a scholarly fashion." Schwartz says that for a true collector, the individual items in the collection "become a part of you."

            An effort to understand the collection, to put it in context and make sense of it, separates the collector from the acquirer. You can have 100 Barbie Dolls, 10,000 comic books, priceless art or garage sale kitsch, pre-Columbian artifacts or Precious Moments figurines, but if there's no attempt to understand the items, then they're just acquisitions, mere dust-collectors.

            "Maps," Schwartz believes, "can convey more factual information, more nuance, or more texture than a multitude of words. And the information is often presented in such an attractive fashion, replete with real or fanciful regional fauna and flora, portraits, allegories and decorative cartouches, that maps are truly works of art."

Most of us will never have more than second-hand experience of these beauties. But even the AAA map, misfolded and crammed into the glove compartment, might prove Schwartz's point.

            You won't see snarling sea beasts in the blue lozenge of Lake Ontario. And the edge of the map doesn't say "here be monsters." No, it's just Pennsylvania and Massachusetts on the fringes.

            Still, a map of New York does tell a hundred stories.

            For instance, 20 years ago I began marking on a road map all the routes I've taken in New York State. Highlighted in brilliant yellow, my paths form a steadily exfoliating web. More and more of the luminous threads were added every year, a glowing golden network superimposed on the state.

            First I filled in the main routes, the standard paths to places I've been a hundred times. Syracuse via the Thruway; Buffalo and Ithaca; the Thousand Islands by route 81. But over the years I took more obscure routes, choosing to travel in an almost random way --- losing and finding myself on the map. Driving with little idea where I was, I often came across hidden delights.

            Somewhere south of Rochester, near Stony Brook, is a full-sized concrete dinosaur in a hill-country farmer's front yard. I have a muzzy snapshot. The brontosaurus' neck is held up by an iron bar. The skin is pink, mottled, as the rain and snow wear off the paint.

            Lost another time, in the Catskills on a one-lane road, I found a derelict Tyrolean inn. The doors were open. The interior was still heavy with mock-Alpine decorations: cuckoo clocks and gingerbread decor right out of the Grimms' fairy tales. The place looked like it had been abandoned in a hurry. No cups of coffee on the table, but just about everything else. Lost, but still on the map, I could twist myself free of the rigid internal compass that keeps me perpetually oriented.

            And so I've traveled paths that lead from nowhere to nowhere else: Italy to Italy Hill to Guyonoga; Big Indian to Arkville; Arkport to Almond to Angelica.

            Just the classical town names of New York State, a web of ancient terms superimposed on the raw 19th-century backwater, is rich with meaning. Euclid, Apulia, Rome, Cato, Syracuse, Brutus, Romulus, Ovid, Ithaca, Cicero, Utica, Etna, Fabius, Macedon, Aristotle, Attica.

            Schwartz claims, "The names assigned to locations on the North American continent are unequaled in diversity of their origin. To the original descriptive terms imposed by the Native Americans, names have been added from essentially all of Europe, as well as from Asia, Polynesia, and biblical sites during the last five centuries. The names found on the continent today memorialize saints, kings, aristocrats, heroes, settlers, developers, and entrepreneurs."

            To that, I'd add that the richness and strangeness of some names give a nearly mythic feel to a map of New York. Some of my favorites: Horseheads, Painted Post, Rattlesnake Hill, Himrod, Podunk, Protection, Sodom, and Bliss.

            On my private map, there are dense webs around Rochester and Geneseo, the Catskills, Ithaca, and Albany. Far fewer bright yellow lines are found in the southern tier and the high peaks region of the Adirondacks. Hardly anything south and west of Buffalo to the Ohio border.

            I've kept the map for years, now a relic with frayed edges and fragile seams. I open it carefully each time to add my inch or two of newly broken terrain. Connect the dots, fill in this little loop of light gray (local roads) or that red line (county highway).

            The map is my way of organizing memory. I count it as evidence, a kind of testimony. There are times it seems a bit ridiculous, as though I'm a kid pretending to be an explorer. "I claim this territory for my sovereign Lord and Master!" I've never gotten out of the car and stuck a flag in the dirt like Columbus. Still, somehow that place is mine, if I mark my travels through it. The details and the actual texture of the places are more real if I've recorded my path.

            And all the preceding verbiage is a footnote to that map. It takes hundreds of words to explain it. But one glance and it would be clear.

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