UO Professor Shares Tales of Explorers Past

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

UO Professor Shares Tales of Explorers Past


Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Gordon Sayre will give a talk about his life's work on Tuesday, and it's likely one that a 10-year-old could appreciate.

The University of Oregon English professor, tapped to give the spring UO Presidential Lecture, spends his time exploring a world populated by explorers, soldiers, fur traders and "The Indian Chief as a Tragic Hero" from 300 years ago.

Sayre translated the adventures of French Lt. Dumont de Montigny - an adventurer who read Daniel Defoe while Defoe was alive - who considered himself the "French Robinson Crusoe."

Sayre has been an active faculty member in his 21 years at the university. He's been a Fulbright Scholar, the UO Senate president and a leader in the newly organized faculty union.

His talk is the fourth in the twice-yearly presidential lecture series, following public talks on the Higgs Boson particle, environmental properties of water surfaces, and the science of educating struggling learners.

Sayre's reading of American history and literature is relevant to the way things are today - for example, why the United States has a big city that lies, in part, 10 feet under sea level and floods with regularity.

The French, he said, built New Orleans where it is today because they believed that - at that location - they could control commerce through the vast heart of the continent, including the drainages of the Ohio, Missouri and Illinois rivers.

The founders knew all about the swamps, the mosquitoes, the heat, the hurricanes and the floods, Sayre said. "All of that is worth enduring because it meant that you could control all of the trade."

It didn't make sense to build farther up the riverbank, he said, because "the land right next to the Mississippi was the highest land because, during the spring floods, the water would overtop those levees and as it flowed back into the bayous, it would deposit sediment there.

"It was the annual floods that made the levees that protected you the rest of the year against storm surges and hurricanes," he said. …

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