New Views of the Hoop

"Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."

Mature, well educated offspring of the Age of Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson and his friends in Philadelphia whom Lewis sought as mentors, believed in one overriding purpose in human existence: to study the world about and beyond them, to learn to name and identify its elements, and to synthesize their knowledge into a holistic understanding of the Earth and its celestial context. They were devoted to the study of all of the hoops that make up the whole circle of the universe.

As naturalists, Lewis and Clark did their work subjectively, with specimens they could approach and often hold in their hands to study at the level defined by those "faculties of the Soul," the five senses.2 Lewis recorded certain particularities of the plants, animals,and people he walked among. He counted, measured, weighed, watched, listened, smelled, and tasted. He synthesized, compared, and made rudimentary verbal maps of habitats, climatic zones, ecosystems, and patterns of human occupancy and use. He could begin to place disparate small details into larger contexts, and speculate on the seasonal and spatial maps of bears and bison, birds, fish, and trees. Every little answer resonates with its inherent query.

By the time he arrived at the Pacific Ocean he could compare grouse he saw there with those he remembered on the East Coast, as well as those on the high plains and in the Rockies along K'useyneiskit.3 He could distinguish between meadowlarks from the fields of Virginia and those of the high plains. He could recognize and record the ecotones of different species of cottonwood trees. He was not always right, but he tried.

He made a significant beginning toward the mapping of ecosystems, and began to understand the juxtaposition and the interlocking of ecosystems and habitats. Knowing his own limitations, he nonetheless made a stab at descriptions with scientific precision, but refrained from assuming the prerogatives of an experienced laboratory scientist; he never established type specimens. He knew there was more to be done, and knew there were trained scientists who were poised to carry understanding to its next level, to place all the details they could observe, including his, into the larger and ostensibly more objective framework of Carl Linn&ligae;us's systematic taxonomy and its contemporary variants.

Indeed, the systematics that Linnaeus established continued to be refined and revised throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. In the 1930s a new level of technology provided new ways of studying the land—aerial photography.4

Lolo Pass in 1964

Figure 1

Black and white photo with Lewis and Clark camps labeled in red

Courtesy, USDA Forest Service, Lolo National Forest

Aerial photos from the 1930s until the late 20th century rarely included more than a few square miles each, and were black-and-white images until the 1980s, when full-color aerials became standard. While the aircraft flew straight "flight lines"—usually north-south or east-west—overlapping exposures were taken at regular intervals. Consecutive images overlapped so that views of contiguous two- to three-mile square images could be studied with a stereographic effect. The process of photographing areas as large as that contained in one Landsat image today (see "The Highest Mountain," below) could take months or even years to complete, owing to the shortness of the flying season as well as periodic interferences from low-level cloud cover, storms, smoke, or snow.

This photo was taken in July of 1964 at a scale of 1 to 15,840, which means that one unit (inch, centimeter) on the photo equals 15,840 units (feet, meters) on the ground. The labels and section lines have been added for clarification. The segment of U.S. Highway 12 shown here was completed in 1962.


The work that Meriwether Lewis, his mentors, and his contemporaries began is not yet done. The quest for that ultimate understanding still goes on, driven now by awareness of the common molecular elements of all life. Botanists and biologists continue to use the basic tools Lewis and his contemporaries employed, but they also revisit the same species, and even the same specimens, equipped with microanalytical information systems to study them at the level of genetics and DNA. Equally revolutionary is the new means of expanding the worldwide scope at new levels of analysis–the orbiting space platform represented by the Landsat program. The discovery continues.

Figure 2

Landsat Components

To see labels, point to the image.

Realistic drawing of a satellite with interactive labels

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Highest Mountain

Bitterroot Valley and Mountains

To see labels, point to the image.

color satellite images of a snow-capped range of mountains

Courtesy EOS Education Project, University of Montana, Missoula

Viewed from approximately 460 miles above the Earth in an image that encompasses approximately 17,000 square miles, the realm where we live looks like a chaos of textures and colors. At right is the Bitterroot River valley, defined on the west by the main Bitterroot Range already dusted with the snows of autumn, and on the east by the Sapphire Mountains.

Notice the checkerboard pattern of light and dark green dots–actually 1-mile squares–that are visible just to the right of center (there are more at extreme bottom right). That is where we are going next.


1. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1932), 36.

2. At Camp Dubois, evidently in January of 1804, William Clark copied a paragraph on "Senses" from the encyclopedia Lewis had brought along, Owen's Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, into his journal that summarized scientific theory in his time: "It is a faculty of the Soul [a doctrine attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)], whereby it perceive[s] external Objects, by means of the impressions they make on certain organs of the body. These organs are Commonly reconed 5, Viz: the Eyes, whereby we See objects; the ear, which enables us to hear sounds; the nose, by which we receive the Ideas of different smells; the Palate, by which we judge of tastes; and the Skin, which enables us to feel–the different, forms, hardness, or Softness of bodies." Clark was an avid reader and a compulsive note-taker, but perhaps he and Lewis had had a serious discussion on the subject. Moulton, Journals, 2:161.

3. K'useyneiskit is a Nez Perce name for the road they followed annually across the Rockies to the buffalo country on the upper Missouri River. It has also been known as the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) Trail and the Lolo Trail.

4. Actually, aerial photography began in the 1860s both in the U.S. and in Italy, using hot-air balloons as platforms from which to shoot photos for purposes of military reconnaissance, if not just for the novelty of it. Those photos typically were oblique views rather than verticals. Moreover, being at the mercy of shifting air currents and fluctuating temperatures it was practically impossible to fly in a straight line at a fixed air speed and altitude, which systematic aerial coverage of a management area requires.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee