Book Review: Overlook

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.

Much of the 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 bus tours, which are open to the public,  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.

8 Responses

  1. Barbara Seaton says:

    You help keep me wide-eyed.

  2. J. Ware says:

    I read with great interest your book review of Overlook. The American Landscape or rather how we as Americans have chosen to deal with it has always fascinated me. This is a little off topic, but as a civil engineer I am always amazed at the audacity that we have to make such grand interventions on the land – civil indeed. I know civil or civil works came about as contrasted to a war or defense engineer, but in our modern age our intentions and their impacts need to be constantly questioned and fully understood.

  3. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own.

    Those who don’t know about this unique public institution, may go to the Wikipedia website for a detailed history and look at other websites to read the visitors’ reviews.


  4. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own. If you want to learn more about this unique public institution, Go to its website and read the visitors’ reviews.


  5. L. Ogden says:

    Fascinating! Did you consider mentioning another “treasure trove of the little known”, CLUI’s neighbor in Los Angeles (Culver City), the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

  6. My thanks to Dan Gregory and Jay Claiborne for comments that extend the scope of my review by directing attention to other writers who have looked at our land with discerning eyes and written books worth re-reading.


  7. Great review that I almost wish I hadn’t read because I now want the book and the monk’s shelf says, so now who has to go. Don’t worry Jackson, Banham, McPhee, Pollen, Papa Lynch, you juar may have a new friend. This review made me pull a lesser known work on that shelf called Topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan which I continue to re-read for the insights she provides on the interaction between the physical world, culture and biology. Overlook seems to illustrate what Yi-Fu Tuan explains so clearly.
    Once again, Sally, you have gotten me into trouble. I want it.

  8. Wow, Sally — this is the greatest eye-opener of a review and I can’t wait to get the book! The Overlook project brings to mind the interpretive landscape writings of J. B. Jackson, Reyner Banham, and John McPhee. Fascinating to learn about the design esthetic of “show caves”; “drowned towns”; and “sit sim villages” developed for training exercises. I love the sign that says “Absolutely Nothing Next 22 Miles”. There is everything in this subject. Bravo!

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