BAASICS.4: Watershed — Field Trip #8: The Beating Heart, a visit with Megan Prelinger

1915 Yukon Gold Company proposed regulation of Yuba River showing dredging limits

1915 Yukon Gold Company proposed regulation of Yuba River showing dredging limits – courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

 

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know much about Megan Prelinger when Christopher and I met with her a few weeks ago. I was introduced to her work in the Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory, where I perused her Watershed atlas. That was enough to leave me a little star struck. Had I known more about the atlas project and the Prelinger Library (perhaps the most publicly accessible of her and her husband Rick Prelinger’s projects), I might have been too shy for comfort when we met.

1892 Map of Tulare County by Thompson

1892 Map of Tulare County by Thompson, courtesy of David Rumsey (http://www.davidrumsey.com)

 

It is truly rare to meet someone with Megan’s curiosity and intellectual integrity. The Watershed atlas, based on archival research from many sources, is a visual representation of those qualities, and a real gift to anyone with the time to dive in. It is also an inspiring anthology that coherently presents a whirlpool of informatics, political intrigue, geological uncertainty, and natural history. As we sat together with a half-size copy of the atlas (the full size is too awkward for a stroll down a city street), I was reminded that there is something undeniably satisfying, for both creator and consumer, about a work which can be fondled and flipped through, as opposed to clicked on and scrolled down.

1848 illustration of Sacramento gold region by Thomas Oliver Larkin

1848 illustration of Sacramento gold region by Thomas Oliver Larkin (detail), courtesy of David Rumsey (http://www.davidrumsey.com)

 

In a May 2007 article in Harper’s Magazine, Megan says, “When I left graduate school, I needed to regain some historical perspective by reclaiming my sense of engagement with the landscape, which then helped me reclaim my relationship to my intellect.” The article’s author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, later clarifies that “landscape,” for Megan, “means not the unspoiled veld but rather the landmarked history of individuals, communities, and their environs.”

1949

1949 promotional poster, courtesy of the Prelinger Library

 

Today, Megan considers herself an independent scholar of landscape history and a curator of previously unexposed material. This dedication is obvious across each of the atlases now in the archives of the Bay Observatory. The atlas project is a collaboration between Megan and Rick, each contributing their expertise to particular aspects of the project. For various reasons, Watershed, in particular, was proudly and mainly birthed by Megan, which is why she will be guiding the attendees of BAASICS.4: Watershed through its compelling narrative.

As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Megan speaks eloquently about how the development of our watershed, and the growing knowledge of its importance in our lives, led to the literal redrawing of California across thousands of maps. Slowly but surely, the watershed and the valley it feeds became the beating heart of the visual representations of our landscape.

US Dept. of Agriculture Map of the State of California showing areas included in investigations and location of irrigated and partly irrigated lands

US Dept. of Agriculture Map of the State of California showing areas included in investigations and location of irrigated and partly irrigated lands, courtesy of the Prelinger Library

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  1. The Berkeley Science Review » Our Changing Watershed - January 13, 2014

    […] We live in a watershed. Berkeley is part of a 4,600 square mile region known as the San Francisco Bay Watershed, because all of the snow or rain that falls on this land drains into the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, our beloved San Francisco Bay. As Chris Holdgraf mused in his recent post, “From Snowmelt to City Blocks,” it is easy to take the water we use in our homes for granted. He explained that much of our water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, 174 miles away. Though most of us never think of it, we are connected to Hetch Hetchy by meandering depressions in the earth that collect water as it travels down to the Pacific. This Saturday, BAASICS invites you to reflect on our local watershed through an evening of artist and scientist presentations. Our connection to Hetch Hetchy will be explored from the perspective of Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, Jay Lund, as well as from site research inspired composer Karl Cronin and the Americana Orchestra. The ecology and history of the San Francisco Bay Watershed will also be discussed. For several of the presenters, there is no distinction between science and art. Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien create ecological sculptures that heal damaged parts of the watershed. Megan Prelinger has curated historical maps of the San Francisco Bay landscape and co-authored an atlas showing the increasing emphasis on the watershed with time. […]

  2. Our Changing Watershed | The Berkeley Science Review - January 18, 2014

    […] We live in a watershed. Berkeley is part of a 4,600 square mile region known as the San Francisco Bay Watershed, because all of the snow or rain that falls on this land drains into the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, our beloved San Francisco Bay. As Chris Holdgraf mused in his recent post, “From Snowmelt to City Blocks,” it is easy to take the water we use in our homes for granted. He explained that much of our water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, 174 miles away. Though most of us never think of it, we are connected to Hetch Hetchy by meandering depressions in the earth that collect water as it travels down to the Pacific. This Saturday, BAASICS invites you to reflect on our local watershed through an evening of artist and scientist presentations. Our connection to Hetch Hetchy will be explored from the perspective of Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, Jay Lund, as well as from site-research-inspired composer Karl Cronin and the Americana Orchestra. The ecology and history of the San Francisco Bay Watershed will also be discussed. For several of the presenters, there is no distinction between science and art. Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien create ecological sculptures that heal damaged parts of the watershed. Megan Prelinger has curated historical maps of the San Francisco Bay landscape and co-authored an atlas showing the increasing emphasis on the watershed with time. […]

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