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Overlook – book review

by Sally B. Woodbridge last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:44 AM
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by Sally B. Woodbridge last modified Sep 26, 2010

OVERLOOK, Exploring the Internal Fringes of America presents a panoramic view of how land is used in United States. This book is for the curious who want to inhabit, investigate, and learn to interpret the environment.



Traveling by car around our country, we are likely to find signs indicating a high point offering us a wider view of the surrounding landscape. Such overlooks may enrich our experience by prompting us to pause and reflect on more than just the physical aspect of what we see. This book offers that kind of overlook from an armchair instead of a car.

In this book Matthew Coolidge, founder of the CLUI, and Sarah Simons, its director, presents the work of a non-profit research organization which, since 1994, has been exploring and exposing the ways we humans have interacted with the earth’s surface in the USA. Whether or not you think such work is important, or even interesting, depends on your level of curiosity about the American landscape and the unusual things in its internal fringes reveal.

The contributors to this book believe that, “The shared space of the earth is physically and metaphorically what unites us, and until we colonize space, what we have here on this planet is all we have to work with. So it makes sense to investigate the human experience from the ground up.”

There are many disciplines dedicated to increasing our knowledge of the earth and its past and present inhabitants. But not all of perception’s spectrum has been explored by scholars, scientists, and other kinds of specialists. These overlooked parts may have the answers to our lingering questions hidden in plain sight.

The CLUI’s mission is to explore the roads not yet taken and to assemble the information found on them to help us understand where we are now. The results are compiled, sorted, processed, and stored in the  Land Use Data Base to be used for research and educational purposes.

Another of CLUI’s work is carried out as an open source project by a volunteer army whose findings are published in the Land Use Data Base on the CLUI website,, and in its printed newsletter, the Lay of the Land. The Another important program is the bus tours, which are open to the public and encourage reading the landscape for discoveries that further the Center’s research on regional projects. Tour routes are carefully studied and punctuated with stops at the sites and meetings with local experts. Live narration provided en route is supplemented by information on the history and context given in videos of the tour sites.

The book’s six chapters are:

  1. Round on the Edges: Let’s Look at Ohio
  2. Terrestrial Miniaturizations: Thinking Big in a Small World
  3. Subterranean Renovations: The Unique Architectural Spaces of Show Caves
  4. Under Water: Intentionally Drowned Towns
  5. Practiceland: Places Playing Places
  6. Federaland: America’s Internal Fringe.

The titles suggest a fanciful version of the National Geographic, but the tone is very different. As Ralph Rugoff, a contributor to the book observed,

“…Even when describing odd, disturbing, or potentially humorous phenomena, the tenor of these presentations is never dramatic or self-conscious. Texts tend to be straightforward and factually oriented,. . .photographs typically resemble the seemingly authorless images compiled in government and industrial archives. In their tone…the programs conjure the work of a benevolent social science agency. “

The organization espouses no policies and courts no particular audience beyond the attentive spectators who sign up for their guided bus tours to unlikely places.

Tour of a debris dam

The chapters are treasure troves of the little known. But rather than fail in an attempt to review them all, I offer a sampling of their content that I hope will inspire further exploration.



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