Jan 312010

It is impossible to do justice in these few lines to the brilliance of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, aptly described by Charles Darwin as “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived”. He was born in Berlin, Prussia, in 1769 to a very well-connected family.

He studied political economy before turning to science at the University of Göttingen in 1789. One of his friends there, George Forster, had been scientific illustrator on Captain James Cook’s second voyage. This friendship undoubtedly reinforced Humboldt’s determination to undertake his own long distance travels. Humboldt systematically prepared himself for a life as a scientific explorer, first studying commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, then geology and mining at Freiberg, followed by anatomy at Jena, as well as astronomy and the use of scientific instruments.

Humboldt spent five years in the New World, from 1799 to 1804. His visit to Mexico began in Acapulco on March 22, 1803, and lasted until he set sail from Veracruz for the United States on March 7, 1804. In the intervening months, Humboldt measured, recorded, observed and wrote about anything and everything, with remarkable industry and accuracy. He climbed mountains, burned his boots on active volcanoes, descended into mines, recorded geographical coordinates, and collected specimens and antiquities. He also drew a large number of maps, drawings and sketches. Humboldt’s Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain was the first systematic scientific description of the New World. It appeared in 1811, and marked the birth of modern geography in Mexico. His figures and ideas were used and quoted by writers for many many years.

On his return to Europe, he spent more than twenty years, mainly in Paris, writing and publishing his results. The crowning glory of Humboldt’s career was his five-volume Cosmos. Begun at age 76, it turned out to be a masterpiece, proposing conceptual generalizations, supported by the observations of the physical world he had made decades earlier.

Humboldt’s work was the foundation for the subsequent development of physical geography and meteorology. Developing the concept of isotherms allowed climatic comparisons to be made. He recognized that altitudinal differences in climate echoed latitudinal differences. His essay on the geography of plants related the distribution of plant forms to varying physical conditions. Finding that volcanoes fell naturally into linear groups, Humboldt argued that these presumably corresponded with vast subterranean fissures. In addition, he demonstrated the igneous origin of volcanic rocks for the first time.

Humboldt’s work awakened considerable European interest in the Americas and caused many later artists to travel to Mexico to draw and paint.

Humboldt died, at the age of 89, on May 6, 1859. His travels, experiments, and knowledge had transformed western science in the 19th century. Humanist, naturalist, botanist, geographer, geologist: Humboldt was all of these, and more.

A brief extract from Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” is included in Tony Burton’s “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008).  This book has extracts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530-1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.

Jan 152010

The new book Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico has been launched at various events in the village of Ajijic, the home of lead author Dr.Richard Rhoda. With co-author Tony Burton in attendance, Rhoda gave the first lecture in his 10-lecture series exploring the geography of Mexico in the Lake Chapala Society on Friday January 15, 2010. Earlier in the week, Burton had given talks to a local environmental group and also to the Canadian Club of Chapala. We expect to ship the first copies of the book to meet advance orders on Wednesday January 20.

Jan 052010

Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is a landmark new book by Dr. Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton. Advance copies have received great reviews. (See our sister site geo-mexico.com for full details).
The first edition is now printed in Mexico and being bound, and will be available, right on schedule (thank you Ediciones de la Noche), on January 15 (and YES, that is 2010…!)

For more details, visit our companion site: www.geo-mexico.com

Jan 032010

Charles Fleming Embree was born in Princeton, Indiana, October 1, 1874, the son of lawyer David Franklin Embree, member of a prominent pioneer family, and Mary Fleming Embree. Charles was still an infant when his father died in 1877. To this day, one of the main streets in Princeton is N. Embree Street, and the Fire Department Chief at the fire hall (on Embree and W. Brumfield) has the surname Embree.

embree-portrait-2Charles Embree was educated in Princeton public schools and entered Wabash College in the fall of 1892. After three years he left college without graduating to devote himself to writing, and achieved immediate success. For the Love of Tonita, and other tales of the Mesas was his first book, published in 1897. The success of his first book led to two more novels.

On January 18, 1898, he married Virginia Broadwell. The young couple moved to Mexico, and lived in Chapala for eight months in 1898, before moving to Oaxaca. The precise motives behind Embree’s decision to spend two years in Mexico remain frustratingly unclear.

Embree’s second book, dedicated to his wife, is set in the Lake Chapala region, but was written while they were in Oaxaca. A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), is illustrated with five black and white drawings by Henry Sandham (1842-1910), a very well-known Canadian illustrator of the time. From Oaxaca, Embree also penned a short newspaper piece about anthropologist Frederick Starr, who was conducting fieldwork there.

Embree’s third book, illustrated by Dan Smith, was A Heart of Flame: the Story of a Master Passion (1901). Embree also had several short stories published in McClure’s Magazine, from 1902 to (posthumously) 1906. In recognition of the distinguished place he had already achieved among American novelists, Embree was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Wabash College in 1903.

Embree and his wife moved to Santa Ana, California. Sadly, the couple had not long celebrated the birth of their only daughter Elinor in 1905 when Embree was taken seriously ill. He died on July 3, not yet 31 years old.

A short extract from Embree’s “A Dream of a Throne” is included in Tony Burton’s “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008).  This book has extracts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530-1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Jan 032010

Tony Burton’s Tony Burton’s Western Mexico: A Traveller’s Treasury
Reviewed by Allan Cogan in MexConnect, 2003,

I’m not sure why I haven’t reviewed this book sooner. It’s been around since 1993 and it was one of the first books my wife and I read when we arrived here in Ajijic eight years ago. And – heaven knows! – I’ve reviewed more than 60 books about this fascinating country in the past few years. Anyway, this useful volume is back in a new and updated edition and it’s still as essential as ever. Whether you’re making a brief visit as a tourist, or escaping the northern winter for a few months or checking out the area more extensively as a place to spend one’s retirement years, this is one item you should have in your survival kit. It’s a nice blend of guidebook, travelogue and history text with lots of local color and some ecological notes sprinkled throughout.

Re-reading it brings back a host of good memories. I’d forgotten, for instance, Santa Maria del Oro and the impromptu New Year’s party we were invited to in the campsite there in 1994 when we visited the area – as a result of reading this book. And then there’s the lovely drive up the flower-covered slopes to Mazamitla in September and October. Also, my wife says I shouldn’t forget to mention the restaurant that Burton recommends on page 158 – the Camino Real just outside Pátzcuaro. (Cecilia never forgets a good comida.) The restaurant is located in an unlikely place, next to a gas station. But Burton’s book is like that – well researched and he’s obviously checked out all these places before writing about them. Lots of other memories flooded back as a result of a rereading.

The book covers eight distinct areas of Western Mexico in the States of Jalisco, Colima and Michoacan. Reading it leaves you wondering if there’s any country anywhere that’s offers so much variety in such a relatively small geographic area. Altitudes range from sea level to 12,600 feet, which is the peak of Tancítaro, the highest peak in Michoacan. That’s almost 2-1/2 miles straight up! The terrain includes desert, cloud forest, ocean beaches, picturesque villages, swampland, mountain ranges, tropical jungle and several cities, including, of course, one huge metropolis….Guadalajara. Also, we have volcanoes. I don’t know the precise number but there are obviously lots of them. And some are still active. As I write this, in February 2002, our local community newspaper, The Reporter, features a front page story on a volcano very close to Colima which is spewing out lava and causing the evacuation of several villages.

Guadalajara receives little mention because Burton is obviously more interested in getting into the hinterlands and exploring everything that’s out there. Be warned that it’s very much a book that’s geared to driving although the author provides maps and clear directions on how to reach the offbeat places he describes.

I know that there are lots of buses in Mexico and the first class ones are really first class. But this volume is also concerned with getting you down side roads and visiting places you might otherwise miss. Along the way you pick up all sorts of information on the various specialties offered in each community – whether it be equipal furniture, quilts, ceramic tiles, straw goods, woollen sweaters, guitars, pottery, toys or whatever. And you’re also given useful information on accommodations and restaurants and Feast Days and other occasions that might tickle your fancy.

History isn’t neglected either. People have been living in this area for thousands of years and there’s evidence everywhere regarding these former inhabitants and their societies. The author covers them with colorful accounts that enhance your explorations or are simply interesting to read, not just about the various Indian tribes that inhabited the area but also about the coming of the Conquistadors and the profound effect they had on every aspect of life here.

Burton is obviously interested in the geological and ecological history of this part of the world. He provides accounts on topics such as how Lake Chapala was formed and why there are so many of those troublesome volcanoes still around.

The book also contains some 30 or so short highlighted passages that cover various relevant subjects. For example half-page sidebars discuss topics like “Why There is Such an Astonishing Variety of Flora Here”, or “The Production of Tequila”, or “The Volcán de Fuego”, a brief look at Mexico’s most active volcano.

The book is illustrated throughout with drawings by Mark Eager. There are about three dozen of them, bringing the overall story even more to life. Maps are also provided for all the areas Burton explores and the driving routes he’s recommending.

Western Mexico: A Traveller’s Treasury is readily available in the usual shops here in the Lakeside area and also at Sandi’s Bookstore in Guadalajara. For those of you who live further afield, Sombrero Books has it.

In my humble O: It’s a volume that just makes you want to git up and go. Now then – where on earth did I leave those car keys….?

Jan 022010

“The area of Mexico covered by Mr. Burton’s book is filled with historical, cultural and geographical/geological riches. The problem for me as a resident of this area has been where to find them, and where to learn about them, once you have heard about them. This book has been a god-send as it has allowed us to learn and explore our “neighbourhood” with confidence and always rewarding experiences. If you are interested in more than beach, babes, and beer, then this is a wonderful book to use, or just to read, learn and dream. It is truly a “Mexico” book.
David McLaughlin, Jalisco, Mexico.

British born Tony Burton is a long time resident of Mexico and an award winning travel writer and naturalist. He has collected and updated the best of his writings over the years into what is a unique guidebook to western Mexico. Based on his frequent travels and intimate knowledge of the region, Tony offers his special insights into this scenic and culturally rich area of lakes and mountains, colonial towns and Indian villages. From San Blas on the Pacific coast to the celebrated Monarch butterfly refuge in the high Sierra of Michoacan, the author takes us to all of his favorite places along the less traveled roads of the region, revealing their history, ecology and archaeology, as well as their arts, crafts and folklore. I found the book to be especially valuable for his keen observations on, and enthusiasm for the varied natural wonders of western Mexico. Charmingly illustrated by artist Mark Eager, Tony’s guide is easy on the eye. It is well organized, packed with suggestions for the traveler, with suggested itineraries and detailed maps. A full bibliography and index is also appended.
Reader from Santa Barbara, California.

“I am very impressed with his literary style and his ability to transport the reader to the very presence of the action. I’ve never seen the villages or localities he describes but I can almost believe that I’m there, feeling the gentle breeze off the lake, hearing the birds, seeing the children in the square and seeing the changing scenes. Tony Burton adds a new dimension. He weaves in a history rich in detail and color. The book speaks about the pride of the Mexican people and their love of their homeland.”
Armchair Traveler from Vermont

“I have just finished reading your great book on Western Mexico and found it one of the most interesting and factual books on Mexico I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Even where I think I know a place, you add material that will increase my enjoyment and understanding the next time I visit.”
Editor of AIM (Adventures in Mexico).