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To Pass On a Good Earth

The Life and Work of Carl O. Sauer
Michael Williams. With David Lowenthal and William M. Denevan

BUY Cloth · 288 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935669 · $45.00 · Jun 2014
BUY Ebook · 288 pp. · ISBN 9780813935775 · $45.00 · Jun 2014

To Pass On a Good Earth is the candid and compelling new biography of one of the twentieth century’s most distinctive and influential scholars. The legendary "Great God beyond the Sierras," Carl Ortwin Sauer is America’s most famed geographer, an inspiration to both academics and poets, yet no book-length biography of him has existed until now.

This Missouri-born son of German immigrants contributed to many fields, with a versatility rare in his time and virtually unknown today. Sauer explored plant and animal domestication, the entry of Native Americans into the continent, their transformation of the land into prairies and cultivated fields, and subsequent European enterprise that fueled prosperity but also triggered environmental degradation and the loss of cultural diversity. Providing profound and invaluable insights into the human occupance, cultivation--and often ruination--of the earth, Sauer revolutionized our understanding of the impact of European conquest of the New World.

Author and fellow geographer Michael Williams had access to Sauer’s voluminous correspondence in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and in family collections. Enlivened by these intimate letters to family and colleagues, To Pass On a Good Earth reveals the rare qualities of mind and heart that made Sauer one of America’s most treasured--as well as troubled--intellectual pioneers. He brought both historical rigor and humanistic understanding to the burgeoning environmental movement and ceaselessly championed an ecumenical approach in an age of increasing specialization.


This is both a biography and an exposition of the work by a man who, in his day, was a towering figure. It is based on an amazing amount of research in the papers, letters, and files of Sauer. Williams wrote extensively on aspects of Sauer, but this book brings together his phenomenal knowledge of the man and his many fields of endeavor.

John R. Gillis, Rutgers University, author of Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World

Sauer was a giant in geography and well known outside his field. Williams’s biography helps us to understand not only the individuals and institutions that influenced Sauer and his work but also the links between trends in the academy and events in the broader world. His story is often fascinating.

Edmund Russell, University of Kansas, author of Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth

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