Traveling a Fragile Planet

The artist’s book Kalumet, opened

How sweet the world
Must have been before man

—Giuseppe Ungaretti, from a 1928 poem, “Prayer”

To turn the handmade pages of this artist’s book is to feel under your fingertips the fragility of our world. The featherweight Nepalese papers that begin each section of Kalumet are printed with starkly beautiful images of nature, and the pages make a whispering sound as you lift them.

German artist Clemens Tobias Lange (b. 1960) created only 24 editions of Kalumet, one of which is in the Margaret Clapp Library Special Collections. The book is arranged as a kind of atlas comprising five regions: Australasia, Europe, North America, Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Lange researched the number of languages spoken on each of the four continents, as well as official data on the number of airline flights at a specific time of day. In the book, the flights are represented by images of tiny silver airplanes printed over dark, Japanese-ink-washed backgrounds. At first glance, the airplanes look like stars in a night sky, but a closer look reveals the outlines of each landmass.

A reader begins to see the relationship between the number of languages and flights. North America and Europe have the most flights and the fewest languages. Africa and Australasia have the fewest flights and the most languages.

“Lange is showing that the more we travel, the more we become the same,” says Ruth Rogers, curator of Special Collections. “As we lose languages, we lose cultures.”

The book also includes five poems by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970), one of the most important Italian poets of the 20th century. His poetry exudes not only a love of the natural world, but also an ineffable sadness. His poem “Kalumet” provides the title for the book. It describes a country so inhospitable that even scorpions cannot survive in this “climate of death.” The poem, written in the early 20th century, strikes us today as eerily prescient.

Lange said in a published interview, “My spirit asks me to reference globalism as a spiritual or religious condition.” His book bears witness to the movement of people around the planet, and he asks us to ponder the losses and gains from this global travel. Through poetry and nature imagery, he points out the urgent need to safeguard what we love about this Earth.


Kalumet, 2015. ​Artist’s book by Clemens Tobias Lange, with poetry by Giuseppe Ungaretti. Handmade Japanese and Nepalese papers, with Japanese ink paintings and photography, printed letterpress by the artist. No. 3 of an edition of 24.

Margaret Clapp Library Special Collections

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