(Written for History 615: History and Cartography (2007))
In 1950, Roberto Rossellini directed The Flowers of St. Francis. In the movie, Brother Francis (not yet saint) directs one monk to cook for the other friars. The cook throws the brotherhood’s entire available supply of food into a giant cauldron which appears to be the height and width of a small room, figuring that he’ll make meals enough for them all to last a long time. Needless to say, the results are apparently hard to digest.
Every time the gold standard becomes a topic of discussion in a history class, my heart moves into doubletime, I speed read beyond paragraphs on Keynesian economics into socio-political-cultural text, and I hide under the desk to avoid having to speak. It’s crowded under there. I join a rather sizable group of historians and students of history with little or no background in economics, business, or finance.
The intersection of history and environmental geography is only one of many laudable qualities of Scott Reynolds Nelson’s work, Steel Drivin’ Man, John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend. In his narrative, geoforms have agency (to use a word that likely doesn’t appear in Nelson’s highly readable narrative), and to those who look closely, the history of our move to dominate natural surroundings is written on every landscape.
But this is one of Nelson’s anecdotes that had me laughing out loud from the end of a long line of automobiles waiting for emission inspections.