Americas Archive

Gunnar and the Grand view

‘View from Yaki Point’ by Gunnar Widforss. Courtesy the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project

It’s over a century since the Grand Canyon was made a national park. Hard to believe that Americans once had to be encouraged to visit this natural wonder, but they did, and one of the people who did most to attract them in the early days was a Swedish watercolour painter, Gunnar Widforss. Researching a piece for last year to tie in with the anniversary (February 26, 2019), I followed the Widforss trail for Telegraph Travel. While I was in Arizona, I was lucky enough to meet Alan Petersen, who is curator of fine arts at the Museum of Northern Arizona, in Flagstaff, and who was then appealing for funds to complete a catalogue of Widforss’s works. That catalogue, which has taken him nearly 11 years of research and preparation, has now gone online; you can find it at www.gunnarwidforss.org.

Wade Davis on the Magdalena for 5×15

Wade Davis, author of Magdalena: River of Dreams, gave a talk recently in a session organised by 5×15, which books “world-leading figures to speak to audiences to spark ideas and inspiration”. Contributors to the same session included Helen (H is for Hawk) Macdonald, talking ahout her new essay collection, Vesper Flights, and Merlin Sheldrake, whose debut, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, has been generating rave reviews.

Seeing ‘beyond the shadow of self’

Exploration, Wade Davis declares in a piece this week for the Financial Times, has too often been driven by a desire for personal glory and fame. The same, he reckons, is true of much travel writing. He urges us to follow the examples of Rasmussen and Herodotus, and to see “beyond the shadow of self”.

Davis has just published an account of what he calls “the Mississippi of Colombia”, Magdalena: River of Dreams (Bodley Head, £14.99), a book he was researching and writing for nearly five years. He says:

I came to know the river… in all its dimensions, in all months of the year, with every shift of the seasons, from the headwaters in the Macizo Colombiano to the sand and stones of the Caribbean shore. At no point, however, was I tempted to paddle the Magdalena from source to mouth, or to travel its length in a single journey, hitching rides perhaps on a series of barges and river boats. Admirable as such achievements might be, my goal was not to produce a study of self, an account of a personal journey; it was to write a biography of Colombia through the metaphor of the river that made possible the nation. When in doubt, an author should always get out of the way. Building a narrative around self is to travel writing what false heroics are to exploration.

Reviews of Magdalena have appeared in publications including The Guardian and The Spectator.

Place, as seen by the ‘Oxford American’

The excellent Oxford American magazine, which covers the South, has a new double issue exploring the theme of place. Contributions, as the editor, Eliza Borné, explains in her introduction, are “all rooted in various historic, and sometimes personal, events, yet united by connection to the four core elements” — soil, wood, water and stone. I particularly enjoyed one of the earliest pieces to go online, in which Holly Haworth writes of the places she and her dog have explored over the years: 

He was fox-red, his pelt vivid against the bare trees as we wound through them. He was a tug at my waist, pulling me down the path behind the old marble quarry, to the glinting river. I followed him deeper into the place I lived. He stopped often to put his nose to the ground, the burnished-gold leaf litter: traces of scent left by animals, made visible to me by the lines his nose drew across the earth. 

I set forth on foot following this tug of energy that urged my legs to walk. The circle of my life, small as it was, widened outward. 

  I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.

Talking about Tangier Island

Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem (Dey Street) has been mentioned a few times here. It’s a superlative account of a place where the effects of climate change are already evident (at least to outsiders). That place is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. You can hear the author talk about his time there, and his book, on the latest episode of Broken Ground, a podcast dedicated to “digging up environmental stories in the [US] South”.

On the ‘Kings of the Yukon’

In this week’s free lecture from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, Adam Weymouth talks about the 2,000-mile canoe journey he made to write his acclaimed debut, Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey (now in Penguin paperback).

Headphones on, and off to the Amazon

Fancy lighting out for the Amazon? You won’t need to go near an airport, never mind wear a mask. All you’ll need is a connection to YouTube and a pair of headphones. Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter, which I saw at the Barbican in London in 2016, is online until May 22. I worried it would be a huge disappointment after the stage version, but I dipped in for 45 minutes and it’s astoundingly good even on a desktop in daytime. I’d forgotten how funny the preamble was, and there’s a haircut joke that now seems made for our locked-down times. I’m going to watch the whole thing again on a big screen, in a darkened room, this evening.

Africa, America and slavery’s fierce undertow

Ghana, once a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, is encouraging descendants of enslaved Africans to visit, and to see the country as their “home”. The novelist Jacqueline Woodson, with her family, was among those who responded to the invitation. In The New York Times, she writes: “There is nowhere in this country where the eye can land and the body not feel, at once, both a deep pain and an immense joy.”

On the trail of ‘the lost man of science’

It’s 250 years since the birth of Alexander von Humboldt. Chris Moss, for Telegraph Travel, has retraced some of the South American journeys of this pioneering polymath — “the first person to think of nature as a complete interconnected web, spanning topographies and even continents”. (You’ll have to register to read the piece online.)

Sailing the St Lawrence Seaway

Sixty years ago today, the first cargo ship began sailing the 2,300-mile length of the Great Lakes St Lawrence Seaway System, the world’s largest inland waterway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the western tip of Lake Superior. Traffic is no longer what it was at its height in the mid-1970s, but the seaway remains an important waterway, and one increasingly used by pleasure craft. I travelled part of it last autumn on a cruise ship, the Canadian Empress, for Telegraph Travel.