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[ ] He happened on a people and a country that excited him and he went for it.—James Parsons, “Carl Sauer’s Vision,” 1996 5 Larger Horizons of Place and Time Mexico and the Southwest, 1923 – 1935 Sauer’s provocative foray into geographical methodology and his abortive dabbling in geomorphology were mere sidelines to his major research interests during the early Berkeley years. His main focus was on cultural and historical fieldwork in Mexico and adjacent parts of the American Southwest . He first crossed the border in 1926 and went back again almost every year until 1950, spending some fifty-six months there in all. His dedication to fieldwork in a foreign land had few equals.1 Fieldwork Sauer had a dogged faith that fieldwork would reveal problems worth investigating and supply some of the answers. That had guided him in the Illinois Valley and in the Ozarks. The land itself and the people who worked on it were the keys to understanding. Yet he spent a lot of time trekking and retrekking fruitlessly across vast stretches of Mexico for no apparent yield. In his student days he often talked of his “wanderlust” and expressed a longing to “tramp through Europe and South America.” The opportunity 76 to pass on a good earth presented itself in Mexico. No doubt the trips offered respite from administrative grind and campus infighting. But they also had a deeper purpose, enabling him to shed a layer of his cultural skin and see a remote culture from the inside. This was Verstehen in action—an empathetic understanding of people and places. He prided himself that unlike other “gringos” in Mexico he could converse easily with and gently handle folk who lived a simple life, close to the land.2 Joe Spencer, a student who went with him into northern Mexico during the winter of 1930 and spring of 1931, described his mode of operation: After dinner we went to . . . a tavern, where Sauer bought drinks and handed out cigarettes to get the locals to talk about things he was interested in. As the evenings went along, he occasionally would look at me and wiggle his fingers when some bit of information impressed him. . . . His lines of questioning in the taverns had to do with everything under the sun, but he kept on coming back, again and again, to the matter of evidences of old settlements, signs of [former] cultivation , irrigation, specific kinds of deforestation, etc.3 Coupled with empathetic understanding was slow travel. Walking was the preferred mode, but not always practical given the hundreds even thousands of miles Sauer covered. He disliked riding by horse or mule, so he usually ended up in a car or truck, traversing poor and unmade tracks. For reasons of economy as well as empathy, wherever possible he preferred to camp out, and in towns he tended to pick the cheaper hotels, or better still to lodge with peasants. From Mazatlán he wrote: “We’re staying with little Mexican families and being well fed according to the best of their lights. Pigs and chickens mingle in the household and are not disagreeable except early in the morning when the pigs scratch against your bedstead. They are quite clean animals, however, and certainly no less attractive than the dogs.” But sometimes there were unpleasant consequences. The archaeologist Isabel Kelly recalled how Sauer had rejected a perfectly clean and reasonably priced hotel for a cheaper one: “In the morning we came upon him, very aggrieved on a bench in the park where he had spent most of the night, owing to chinches [bed bugs].”4 Similarly, he loved Mexican food, the hotter the better. To get the authentic thing he frequented restaurants of ques- Larger Horizons of Place and Time 77 tionable cleanliness, and often ended up with severe intestinal ailments, diarrhea, even dysentery. After Lorena’s serious bout with bacillary dysentery in the field in 1930, Sauer became choosier about hotels, preferring those run by Germans or Chinese. His faith in fieldwork never wavered, though after 1931 his enthusiasm for it diminished. Increasingly he came to appreciate the value and richness of the written record, and over time the gloss of roughing it wore off. By 1933, after a particularly hot, grueling summer crossing the mountains and spending weeks in the archives of Chihuahua, Parral, and Durango with severe stomach upsets, he was despondent. Uncharacteristically, he fulmi­ nated against mestizos: I’m rather fed up with the north of Mexico...


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