Recollections of Carl Sauer and Research in Latin America

By Bruman, Henry J. | The Geographical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Recollections of Carl Sauer and Research in Latin America


Bruman, Henry J., The Geographical Review


Mr. Sauer was a wonderful man, a fine role model, and an inspiration to several generations of doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley. We students tried to emulate him in various ways, consciously and unconsciously, but none of us could attain the intellectual heights he reached. In spite of that fact, we have to admit that Mr. Sauer was a human being with foibles, like the rest of us. He could be opinionated, even intransigent. This was especially true with regard to some of his pronouncements about the diffusion of plants. We have come reluctantly to the conclusion that Mr. Sauer tended to be a mite reckless at times in what he said about them. He was a real diffusionist who looked whenever possible for evidence of preColumbian contacts across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And occasionally he went astray. A book by Elmer Drew Merrill on The Botany of Cook's Voyages . . . (1954) contains some fifteen pages of objections, approaching diatribes, about Mr. Sauer's statements on plant origins. Merrill, of course, was a professor of botany. He had been an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Philippines as early as 1902, and he conducted extensive research on the local flora.

In 1923, the year in which Sauer came to Berkeley to take charge of geography, Merrill became dean of agriculture and director of the university's Agricultural Experiment Station. A certain animosity may have sprung up between the two men in those early years. This was a time when the Department of Geography was growing and needed to expand from its small quarters in South Hall. Where did it go? Into Agriculture Hall, onto the turf of Dean Merrill. Some sparks may well have flown at times, and Merrill took his satisfaction three decades later, in a purely professional way, with this publication. In 1993 I visited the Regional Oral History Project on the Berkeley campus to see whether either man had recorded an oral history. Merrill did, without mentioning Sauer. Mr. Sauer did not, and more's the pity, because we thereby lost information, not only about the early university but also about California geography in the early decades.

Mr. Sauer's characteristic insights reached into the nature of geographical inquiry. His main preoccupation was with the land, with phenomena that varied in space as the land varied, and with the elucidation of the progress through time of such variation, physical and cultural, qualitative and quantitative. He looked for patterns of process and sequence, but in the course thereof specifically sought the solution of discrete research problems, not merely the compilation of projects. This is an important thought to keep in mind. He did not want to pursue, nor have his students pursue, projects that were mechanical or devoid of intellectual challenge. Even in the dissertation topics he proposed - or accepted, if they were proposed by doctoral candidates - there had to be nuggets of a problem within the overall project,(1) whatever it was. Although I never heard him put it in these terms, I think Mr. Sauer would have agreed that the quest for new knowledge and insights is a basic aim of a dissertation, and no less so the most basic function of a university.

COCONUTS

It may be useful for me to go back to my own experience and point out why my dissertation was chosen, where some nuggets of problem were, and what happened to them. First of all, my topic, as much negotiated as chosen, was "Aboriginal Drink Areas in New Spain" (1940). That is really an extraordinary title! What is a drink area? For initiates to geography it must mean an area of frequent or habitual consumption of one or more traditional beverages and an analysis of environmental and cultural factors related to their use. In the dissertation, the main emphasis was on alcoholic beverages because of the importance of alcohol consumption in many native societies in Mesoamerica.

The topic was suggested by Mr. …

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