According to University of Chicago Press publicists, Jim Edgar is a map buff. And as he flew about the state during the recent gubernatorial campaign, he carried with him a copy of David Buisseret’s Historic Illinois From the Air. The vision of an Illinois governor with a book in his lap is an engaging one, all the more encouraging when the book is this one. Historic Illinois offers nearly 300 photos, but it is not strictly speaking a book of photographs. Instead it is an artful work of geography, the first about Illinois that I know of aimed at the general reader.

Illinoisans are ignorant about geography in both the intellectual and physical senses. Most people under 50 remember it as nothing more than a catechism of place names and economic products. I was reminded of this when I was aboard the Ravenswood the other day, heading into the Loop. The 30-ish mother in the seat ahead of me pointed out the Chicago River at Wolf Point to her toddler daughter and said, “That’s Lake Michigan.” In fact geography is the discipline that considers the relationship of human settlement to landscape. Few scientific inquiries are as interesting, or as important. There is hardly an issue of consequence–pollution control, urban planning, economic development, state politics–that is not geographic in its essence.

Topography hereabouts works against the desire, universal in humans, to place ourselves within the larger landscape. Except for spots along the bluffs of our great rivers and in the state’s extreme southern and northwestern corners, Illinois is a place of all middle and no edges. Its terrain offers few vantage points from which to get one’s bearings. Most people orient themselves visually, by reference to landmarks. Flat places offer few of these, so we orient ourselves instead to human landmarks, such as buildings and roads. When the natural landscape does not function as a mental context for our sense of place, it tends to disappear from consciousness (because it is useless) and become mere scenery.

Buisseret has assembled a fascinating collection of historic maps, U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps (themselves based on aerial photos), satellite images in both the optical and infrared wavelengths, high-altitude reconnaissance-style photographs, and low-altitude color photos original to this volume. Looking at them we are reminded that “history from the air” did not await the invention of the airplane. Mapmakers and photographers have always sought the perspective altitude afforded. Skyscrapers make splendid viewing platforms. (Skyscrapers of all kinds: Buisseret includes an 1874 drawing of a Menard County farm as viewed from an observatory atop the barn; barns then were, along with grain elevators, the most vertically imposing structures of the countryside.)

Lacking even a tall building for a platform, the very earliest artists of the Illinois landscape hied themselves to the nearest bluff, as we see from an 1858 sketch of Peoria. Of course artists could be conveyed by their imaginations to any perch. One George J. Robertson made a wonderfully detailed drawing of Chicago in 1853 that gives us a view of the city such as we might have seen suspended from a balloon above the lake a half mile or so off the mouth of the river.

However they looked at it, artists, photographers, and mapmakers encountered a landscape whose human features proved surprisingly durable. The boundaries of early farm fields were never quite obliterated by subsequent uses, and survive both on the ground and in deed descriptions. Landholding patterns varied among the different cultures that have occupied what is now Illinois. The French laid out their farms using different surveying methods than did, say, the Scots–and thus created fields of different shapes. In Kane County, the distinctive patchwork patterns of fields laid out by Welsh and Scotch settlers before 1840 are still visible to satellite cameras. The French used a system of long lots–narrow frontage on a major river that extended perpendicular from the river for some distance–that afforded each owner access to water, fertile bottomland, and (often) forested uplands on a single strip. French long lots are still a conspicuous part of the landscape near the early-18th-century settlement at Vincennes. As Buisseret puts it, “It is rather extraordinary to think that the mark left by peasants on the Illinois countryside during the life of Louis XIV is still plainly visible from a satellite.”

Human landmarks often survive the generations that build and use them. Abandoned railroad tracks and canals leave obvious scars on the landscape (and so do vanished forests, whose soils differ in color from the prairie that once surrounded them). Interstate 57 near Markham follows the 1812 Indian Boundary Line that demarked the corridor ceded by local tribes for the construction of a canal to the Illinois River. The once-bustling slips from Bridgeport’s canal days are still discernible from the air.

Shots from an airplane can reveal things no written history can. Differences in color or elevation too minute–or too massive–to be comprehended by ground observers are revealed with sometimes startling clarity from above. The wrinkled skin of the ground surface at Illinois Beach State Park shows ancient beaches arrayed in parallel rows that mark the positions of the shore from centuries when the lake was higher. The ghostly remains of Fort de Chartres, on the Mississippi downstream from Saint Louis, were spotted in a 1928 aerial photo by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist; the fort had been built in the mid-1700s but was subsequently lost to floods and decay and its precise location forgotten.

Aerial images are especially useful in monitoring large-scale environmental changes, from strip-mining of coal or gravel to suburban encroachment onto farmland to air pollution. Buisseret uses old maps and modern photos to provide a before-and-after chronicle of the demise of the forests of greater Chicago. Before 1860, trees in Illinois were cut down as weeds. The area at the time of settlement was dotted with both bottomland woods and hardwood groves in open prairie. Today the Bloomingdale Grove off U.S. 20 is but a sad remnant of its 1874 self, although forest preserve status has helped keep alive some of the woods along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Buisseret is the director of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the Study of Cartography at the Newberry Library. For years his interest in aerial photography as a tool for historical research remained unfulfilled. (His doctoral thesis topic was 17th-century French finances, “an area where aerial photography is not very useful,” he notes in his introduction.) When he came to Chicago in 1980, he found that he could see as much of Illinois from a library as from an airplane. He says that since the 1920s Chicago has been one of the great centers for commercial aerial photography in the United States. And archived in the vast closets of the University of Illinois in Urbana he found piles of pictures taken by various federal agencies. He also drew upon the files of the Illinois Department of Transportation, which had by chance taken photographs of interest to historians in the course of its surveys for road and bridge projects.

So engaging is this book that you may wish it were much better. The publishers perhaps erred in trying to be comprehensive; certain chapters do little more than fill out an outline. We learn nothing new or useful about Chicago’s libraries from period drawings of the Academy of Sciences and the old Chicago main public library, or from a contemporary snapshot of the Newberry taken from a high rise across Washington Square Park.

The more significant failures are technical. Many of the photographs taken expressly for this volume were made with a 35-millimeter camera aboard a light plane–and look it. Superimposed graphic devices would have made hard-to-decipher black-and-white overhead shots more intelligible. The graphs and maps are often not keyed to the photographs from which they were derived. Too many of the photos are not quite aerial enough to reveal the shape and scope of topographical features like river systems. And the text too often reminds us that a picture is worth a thousand platitudes.

Those complaints registered, I want to stress the book’s strengths. The illustrative charts, drawings, and maps by Tom Willcockson–a late addition to the book–are crucial. These pen-and-ink drawings depict everything from canal boats to the flow of European migrations into and across Illinois and Chicago’s relationship to eastern canal systems. Because these highlight the information that is often obscure in the photographs, they are in fact more useful; the book could have been titled “Historic Illinois From the Drawing Table.”

Now that Buisseret and Willcockson have suggested the possibilities of historically oriented Illinois geography, some foundation or publisher ought to pop for a proper job. Oxford University Press offers a model in its new three-volume geography of Britain from the air: one volume chronicles the natural landscape, another the man-made landscape, and a third the environmental problems of those islands. A similar series exploiting all the latest imaging technologies ought to be made available for Illinois.

Until we have that work, we have Historic Illinois. With its bibliography of further reading and notes on sources, the book makes a pretty good introductory text for Illinois geography. The University of Chicago Press is promoting it in part as a “corrective” to the general ignorance of history and geography. Perhaps our new governor will attempt to do for Illinois geographic awareness what he tried as secretary of state to do for literacy. It’s hard to lead people in new directions, after all, if they aren’t sure where they are to begin with.

Historic Illinois From the Air by David Buisseret, University of Chicago Press, $34.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Pablo Montes O’Neill.