Outside magazine, July 1998
Imagining Atlantis, by Richard Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf, $28). Ever since the fourth century B.C., when Plato became the first to tell the tale of "the island of Atlantis that was swallowed up by the sea and vanished," the idea of this drowned civilization has teased, seduced, and provoked an amazing cast of obsessives — from Plutarch and Francis Bacon to Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the psychic Edgar Cayce, whose prediction that Atlantis would rise again in the Caribbean in 1968 did not come to pass. In his new book, Ellis, a renowned artist and popular author on marine subjects, shows how "the story of Atlantis has passed through time as bright and new...as it was when Plato wrote it," standing apart from any religious cosmology yet continually inspiring fervent speculation, along with crackpot theories and endless quests for the "real" Atlantis. The Greek islands of Crete and Santorini have been leading candidates in the past, but few Atlantis sleuths have been restrained by actual geography. And while the author convinces us that Atlantis never existed, he nonetheless acts as a patient guide through the thickets of controversy that surround the subject. In tracing both the scientific pursuit of this probably fictional place and numerous unscientific flights of fancy, Ellis gracefully imparts much about the history of archaeology and cartography, and the perennial yearning for lost worlds and romantic adventure.
Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, by David Ewing Duncan (Bard, $23). As we approach the great millennial transition, it's a propitious moment to consider how far we've come in measuring our passage across the firmament of time. To aid that cause, veteran science and travel writer Duncan has assembled a lively history — dating back 13,000 years to the first known timetable, a crosshatched eagle bone — of the attempt to follow our exact place in the whirl of days, lunar cycles, seasons, and years. Central to his story is the ongoing struggle with one small complication: A solar year is some five hours and 48 minutes longer than the 365-day calendar that's been widely used since it was introduced by the Egyptians 6,234 years ago. The ensuing discrepancies tend to get people riled up: Londoners rioted in 1752 when a royal edict, designed to calibrate the out-of-whack British calendar, expunged 11 days from the month of September. Duncan also explains how our grasp of time has given us a better handle on space. These days, everyone from hikers using GPS locators to sailors rely on atomic clocks; precise time is of the essence, since "a billionth of a second translates into the space of about one foot for navigation." Alas, not even atomic clocks are completely correct, because "the earth wobbles and wiggles, causing random fluctuations in the earth's rotation." It's a nice escape clause that reminds us that the calendar — "a cage of finite moments" — will never quite nail down reality.
An Affair with Africa: Expeditions and Adventures Across a Continent, by Alzada Carlisle Kistner (Island Press, $25). Between 1960 and 1973, Kistner accompanied her entomologist husband on five expeditions in Africa, including stays in the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, and Angola. Thankfully, she had a sharp naturalist's eye, took detailed notes, and was eventually talked into writing this modest, eminently readable book about her adventures amid the seemingly inexhaustible plenitude of Africa's wildlife in the waning days of colonialism. Flush with scientific zeal and protected by youthful enthusiasm, the Kistners enjoyed enviable encounters and not a few close calls with deadly mamba snakes, charging black rhinos, bull elephants, and lions (one of which used Kistner's daughter as a pillow throughout a very long night in Botswana). A lovely memoir, and a memorable exercise in nostalgia.
Photographs by Clay Ellis