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[ ] The treasure the scholar lays on earth is largely the printed page.—Carl Sauer to Earl Hamilton, 1943 6 The Frontiers of Knowledge “What do you consider your most important publication?” asked geographer J. Russell Smith in 1939. Sauer wasn’t sure. He knew that his work on disparate themes had attracted attention, both favorable and unfavorable. He seldom referred to his previous methodological writing and lamented that his field and archive studies in Mexico were well known to archaeologists and anthropologists but ignored by geographers. What interested him most at the time were destructive exploitation, settlement, and cultivated plants.1 Sauer’s easy, attractive, and direct writing style led publishers to badger him for textbooks. But this highly lucrative activity did not interest him, and in any case, he had no time for it. Time and again he quoted a line from Chaucer, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”2 I’d much rather be doing what I’m doing and helping a good youngster to pioneer along with me now and then than to do what Barrows and Atwood and Perkins and Dodge have done and become academically speaking a plutocrat. I wouldn’t trade places with them. They never had the thrill of turning up an ancient civilization, or discovering a new type of mountain sculpture or of reconstructing the missions of a vanished frontier. There’s a zest to it that you wouldn’t exchange for all the reviewing of other people’s ideas in a text book. The Frontiers of Knowledge 91 He toyed with a suggestion from the publisher Alfred Knopf for a book on “sketches of village life” in Mexico of a “somewhat popular character. I’d rather like to try that sort of thing.”3 However, there was no time even for this. He was determined to persevere with his research on the frontiers of knowledge. Mexico and Cultivated Plants The work of the German geographer Eduard Hahn had persuaded Sauer that domesticated plants and animals were cultural artifacts just as surely as were buildings, walls, tools, and routes.4 Sauer had noted how intimately interwoven Mexican peasants were with their cultivated plants. Corn (Zea mays), for example, was more than a crop; it had symbolic and spiritual meaning for those who grew it. If crops were cultural artifacts, then their distribution was a key element in cultural diffusion. Where they had originated , where and when they had spread, were vital topics to be addressed. While studying crops in April 1935 in Guadalajara, Sauer was also pursuing a new cultural corridor hypothesis. Perhaps the Mexican link with the southwestern United States wasn’t west of the central plateau, as he had earlier argued, but through the center of the country. The center was richly endowed with varieties of native crops, as well as putative evidence of early metallurgy, as seen in Isabel Kelly’s excavations in Sinaloa.5 Without his family he followed his usual bent of staying in third-class hotels. The inevitable chinches and stomach upsets interrupted archival work in Mexico City. Rains and indifferent health made for “a miserable summer, but the country is lousy politically, anyway.” “I believe I can write finis under the Mexican fieldwork. I’ve eaten my share of dirt and flies.”6 Despite this sour farewell after having invested so much time in the country, he did return numerous times. Cultivated plants and their origins increasingly preoccupied him. A 1936 essay entitled “American Agricultural Origins” was his first speculative foray into that field. The renowned Soviet plant scientist Nikolai Vavilov had suggested that the domestication of crops originated in just a few locales, and Sauer sought discrete centers where slope, soil, altitude, and climate favored agricultural development. Today, Vavilov’s hypothesis is discredited in favor of multiple domestications in many parts of the world. Sauer 92 to pass on a good earth too thought the rich variety of South American starch-laden plants, such as maize and manioc, suggested “many centers of plant domestication.” One thing seemed crucial, following Hahn: most seeding was initially done by planting with a dibble or digging stick, difficult to use in heavily matted grasslands. Hence, American agriculture had most likely begun in fields cleared from woodland where trees could easily be killed by ringbarking and then burnt when dry.7 Sauer energetically pursued the “possibilities of genetic study” of crops. Seed varieties collected in the field might be propagated in plant-breeding stations and...


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