Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Skipjack Learning

"Thought into action," my old traveling buddy (and fellow geographer) Mike used to say, whenever we actually followed through on some talked-about adventure, whether it be spelunking in Virginia or our 8,500-mile jaunt to Ensenada in his old VW.

That phrase came to mind as I prepared for a small adventure on Great Shellfish Bay, better known as the Chesapeake. It was near the Chesapeake that I first became a geographer -- as a student at UMBC -- and it is also where I was fortunate to experience learning geography in the field for the first time. Dr. Parker's courses on the Amazon are what drew me into geography, but he was not able to take us there (I of course went later on my own a few times, taking a student with me once).

But his colleague Dr. Miller was able to take classes to one of his study areas -- the nearby Chesapeake Bay. I took a whole course on the bay, reading Beautiful Swimmers and hearing from local experts who came to our class. A real highlight was going out on the bay itself, on a research craft operating from another University of Maryland campus. Little did I realize back then how important experiential learning would become in my own work as a geography educator.

A couple of years ago, I found out that only a few skipjacks -- which I had learned about in the course -- were still sailing, and that it was sometime possible to go aboard, in or out of oystering season. I have grown increasingly interested, as I continue to learn about the maritime history and coastal geography of my adoptive home from the seats of replica whaleboats. "Some day," I thought, "I'll do that." As I prepared for our latest visit to family in the area, I decided that this would be that "some day," and I put thought into action. As a bonus, I was able to bring my brother along, as we had the same day free.

We went to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's, from which we departed on a two-hour cruise aboard the H.M. Krentz. (Museum admission is included with the price of a sailing tour, but not vice-versa, of course.) The H.M.Krentz is one of a very small number of craft that continues to harvest oysters under sail, and its captain is a font of knowledge about the maritime history, ecology, and economy of the Bay. This is a very nice way to support regional ecotourism, learn about local fisheries, and get a bit of fresh air at the same time.

The H.M. Krentz is berthed aside a classic Chesapeake Bay lighthouse, many of which once dotted the shallow waters of the Bay. They were specially designed to be stable in soft sediments. This was the last of a couple dozen photos I took on board, all of which are in my Skipjack 2016 folder on Flickr.
I can also recommend grabbing a coffee at the nearby Blue Crab Coffee Company on Fremont Street.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yemen: First Coffee

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by a goatherd named Kaldi, according to legend. But it was first cultivated across the Red Sea in Yemen. Because this all happened some time ago, we should add "what is now" to the place names. We should also note that we call the main species of coffee (comprising 70 percent of world production) Arabica because Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula. About 30 percent is known as robusta because it comes from a heartier, heat-resistant plant that originated somewhere in West Africa.
I was thinking of this recently because a new friend told me of a fort he had visited in Yemen -- constructed by the Portuguese to protect exports of coffee to Brazil. Of course, Brazil itself eventually became the leading producer of coffee, currently growing about 1/3 of the world total of both major types.

This led me to revisit some of my earlier posts about Yemen. In Missing Coffee (2013), I point readers to a whimsical but informative essay by a professor of food science, who explains the importance of Moka. In Arabica and Arabians (2010), I point to a few items related to Arabian iconography in the coffee business.

Coffee grows on terraces at unusually high elevation in Yemen, where it is too hot and
dry for coffee to be grown in more typical circumstances.
Image: Al Mokha
In my coffee seminars, students work in small groups to do research about the coffees of specific countries. They make posters and brew coffee from each country, which we present and serve at a large tasting event. Only one group has undertaken to research Yemen. They had difficulty finding much information about the current status of the coffee industry there. They learned that production is small -- something like 1/10 of one percent of the world total -- and the only vendors they could find were selling by the container (37,000 pound minimum). This suggested that most Yemen coffee production is for commodity markets, but I did find a single-origin source in the strangest place:, which does coffee from Yemen by way of several roasters.

One of those roasters is among those I found in today's research -- a company that is based in my home town and that is deeply committed to the coffee farmers of Yemen. Even though Yemen is not a major producer, its coffee industry is thought to employ one million people, or about 4 percent of the world's population. Washington-based Al Mokha (The World's First CoffeeTM) is connecting customers directly to those workers through direct trade, development programs, and consumer education. I hope to visit with Al Mokha staff during my next trip to D.C.

It is from Al Mokha's blog that I learned about a 2004 report on Yemen's coffee from the U.S. Agency for International Development. A dozen years is a long time -- especially in coffee -- but the great detail of the report suggests that it would be valuable for understanding at least the background of the current coffee scene in Yemen. Yemen's Coffee Revival is a briefer but more recent (2014) report from the regional news magazine Al-Monitor.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Coffee Week

Yes, Coffee Week (Not Weak)!

Beneficio Hayes-Boh: Doing the
dry-mill process at home on a
very small scale.
Coffee Week (Not Weak) is a course that I am offering -- with the help of many coffee professionals -- during the second week in July. I arrived at that quirky title because two other good titles were already taken. Geography of Coffee is my annual study tour in Nicaragua (coming soon to Peru and Ethiopia) and the Secret Life of Coffee (cleverly named by my wife Pamela) is the speaking-intensive seminar I offer each spring.

As soon as I read the notice that our university was offering faculty a new format for courses -- allowing us to teach all day for five days (or in half-day segments for 10 days), the Coffee Week concept was born. To make it punnier, I wanted to call it Coffee Week -- Not Weak Coffee, but that would not fit in the scheduling software. Hence the cryptic, parenthetical subtitle.

The reason I was able to visualize the course so quickly is that our region is rich with coffee-related resources, including all kinds of excellent cafes and a handful of the world's most important roasters. The 8-hour class sessions give us a chance to visit quite a few of these, hearing directly from the people for whom coffee is a way of changing the world ... for the better.

Most of the places we will visit are independent cafes -- by their very nature, these are ideal places for discussion of any topic. The cafes will serve both as venues for conversation and topics of conversation. When millions of dollars are being spent on the marketing of commodity coffee in generic storefronts, what makes a local shop with limited resources survive and even thrive?

Our visits will also include a couple of those important roasters -- important because they focus on the fair treatment of the people who actually grow the coffee -- and some non-profit organizations with coffee connections.


This map is not complete, by any means. I could easily fill a second week, including full days in Providence and Boston. I am willing to bet, though, that the six students taking this class will find their own way to more of our region's coffee treasures in the near future.

Find reviews of more than 100 independent cafes on my GeoCafes blog. This includes many student reviews and a few of my own, of cafes throughout New England and as far away as Shanghai. That blog has its own map, of course!

Read more about the original plans for Coffee Week (Not Weak) on my November 2015 Cafe Crawl for Credit post. Learn more about all of my endeavors -- coffee-related and otherwise -- through my new portal at

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Retiring Home

Photo: Lancaster Times
Garrison Keillor tried to retire a couple of times, but it seems this is the real thing, and it is fitting that he has ended A Prairie Home Companion 42 years after he started it. Not quite the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but pretty close. I have not listened every week, but I have listened many weeks, and I remember hearing him for the first time early in the run. Pamela Hayes-Bohanan and I never saw the live show, but we did have the great privilege of seeing him as a solo act at our wonderful Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford -- a real treat of nothing but his story-telling.
Another public-radio great -- Scott Simon -- shared a moving tribute this morning, crediting Keillor with creating public radio as we know it.

We will miss him, but few deserve a retirement more than Keillor, and I suspect that he will continue to spin stories for years to come. And when he finally does set down his microphone for the last time, we have four decades of great works -- audio, print, and even a little bit of film -- to explore.

But what is so spatial about Keillor? In other words, why is his retirement acknowledged on a geography blog? The short answer is that just about everything that interests me can be seen as related to my way of thinking about geography. But in this case, I can offer a few specific connections.

First, Keillor told fictional stories about people we eventually came to feel we knew personally, and he put those characters in a place that he described with many details and with obvious affection. We could tell that it was similar to -- but distinct from -- the places he had grown up in. Almost like Tolkien, he created an entire imaginary world, but in this case it was a world quite small in scale and quite close to our own.

Second, he took the time to get to know the places where he found his audience. I spend a lot of time learning about New Bedford, but heard quite a few new things about it from his most recent monologue there. I was reminded of this when I listened to part of his penultimate PHC broadcast, from Tanglewood in the Berkshires. Not only was he sharing information about western Massachusetts with his audience, he was bragging about its many virtues, even though he does not live there. He simply loves places, and that makes him a geographer!

Third -- and this is a reach -- he named the most famous radio variety show of the past four decades for a biome. It does not get much more geographic than that!

The New York Times also published a nice tribute, with a lot more detail about Keillor, including some early photos that are quite funny.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Netherlands of America

This is what Norfolk, Virginia could be, according to recent reporting on PRI's The World.

We own a home 22 feet above sea-level, closer to the Atlantic than the end zones of a proverbial football field. I was listening to a story about preparing for climate change in coastal Virginia just as I drove past the structure that makes this possible -- a hurricane barrier built in 1966 to protect New Bedford and Fairhaven from hurricane storm surges. That wall is the world's largest such barrier, and could not be built today because of Nixon-era environmental regulations (see M.L. Baron's video and narrative for fascinating details). Without it, though, our bank would have required prohibitively expensive insurance or elaborate engineering before approving a mortgage so close to the steadily rising sea. (We have not delusions about that wall being a perfect defense, by the way. It was designed based on careful review of the previous 100 years of flood records.)

As I wrote in Climate Foxholes in late 2013, people with grown-up responsibilities such as running insurance companies are no longer able to avoid figuring climate change into their planning. Lately, the Scottish golf industry -- like the tea and coffee industries elsewhere -- is preparing for climate change, as described in some detail in journalist Robin Young's recent interview of turf agronomist Richard Windows. Even our own country's most audacious climate denier takes the risks seriously when it comes to his own golf courses.
Caption from original story: Hurricane Sandy sent 8-year-old Avery Solan out to play in the flooded streets of Norfolk, Virginia, in October 2012. The city is trying to prevent worse flooding as sea levels rise, and at the same time grow new industry in a region currently dependent on military jobs.  Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters 
What intrigues me about the Norfolk example is that leaders there -- beginning, I think, with those who had to make long-term plans for the U.S. Navy's many facilities in the area -- were early adopters of a pragmatic, defensive approach to climate change; they now see themselves as being able to turn long-term peril into a growth industry.

Coastal Virginia is not the only place where planning for resilience to climate change is underway. Some of the greatest progress seems to be found in post-Sandy New York, including New York City and the neighboring Hudson Valley.

Lagniappe -- Why the focus on coastlines?

The effects of climate change are not limited to coastlines, as those who study agriculture, ecology, and a variety of other subjects well know. But the greater vulnerability of coastal areas to flooding does warrant significant attention. That vulnerability actually has several, interrelated causes:

  • Melting ice. About 2 percent of ALL the water on the planet is currently in the form of ice caps and glaciers. In many cases, that melting is accelerating (increasing at an increasing rate), lowering albedo (reflectivity) at the surface and thereby causing even more warming. Most people who know that sea levels are rising seem to be aware of only this cause.
  • Water already in the oceans is expanding as it warms, causing to to rise just as mercury rises in a thermometer. With average ocean depth at about 12,000 feet, we are very fortunate that the entire water column is not susceptible to thermal expansion.
Both of these factors raise Mean Sea Level, and it is easy to see why estimates vary as to exactly how much. Local sea level varies with topography and also, it turns out, with such local conditions as the amount of aquifer pumping that is taking place or sediment loads in nearby rivers.

Whatever the local sea level turns out to be, houses and business above that level can be at elevated risk for flooding. That is because winds, waves, and tidal surges from future storms (which may themselves be more frequently intense) will be occurring on top of higher local sea levels. So although our house at 22 feet would not ever become waterfront on a regular basis, it is potentially vulnerable to rising seas, making us quite grateful for the wall mentioned above.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Geo Veritas

Schadenfreude -- taking joy in the pain or failures of others -- is an unattractive emotion. But it is exactly what many geographers -- especially those who work in the shadows of a certain venerable institution on the Charles River -- feel when we view these vignettes recorded on the edges of a Harvard commencement.

The clip is from a longer piece about private education in general, and fails to point out that it is geographic learning in particular that is missing in the background of these young scholars -- and future decision-makers. How many people with strong opinions on climate change would perform just as poorly? Far too many, it seems, and it is for this reason that any glee geographers take from this video is short-lived.

BSU EarthView as shown in the
 national standards for
geography education.
Photo: Ashley Costa (Harris)
National Geographic
We know that geographic illiteracy is a serious problem. We also know that decisions taken at Harvard almost 70 years ago are part of the cause. The short version is that homophobia was the cause, as shutting down the department was the only way to get rid of Derwent Whittlsey, the brilliant chair of the department when the attack on the department began in 1947. On the 40th anniversary of the events, Neil Smith wrote a detailed discussion of these and other factors in an analysis published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (now called the American Association of Geographers, of which I am a member.)

In an undated article on Education.About, Brian Baskerville briefly describes the factors that led to the closing of the department (though he erroneously uses "preference" to describe Whittlsey's sexual orientation). He goes on to assert that geography remains at Harvard, as each of Pattison's 1964 Four Traditions of Geography can be found in one form or another in various parts of the curriculum. This is a rather "thin gruel" as they say, and a far cry from the systematic study of geography that is required to develop a geographically informed person.

About a decade ago, Harvard tried -- in its own flawed way -- to make amends with geography. Or at least to reclaim the word, if not the discipline itself. The effort is described in an understandably self-serving article in Harvard Magazine, Geographers See Death, Birth and Job Prospects. The article acknowledges but dismisses the claims of homophobia as it tries to build the case that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both the key to returning intellectual rigor to the field and a necessary part of mending the "hopeless divide" between human and physical geography.

This is all by way, of course, of promoting the GIS program at Harvard. Although it is good to see a significant aspect of our field embraced there, it sadly represents a real missed opportunity. The tools and technologies of geography are important, but they are not geography itself. A conversation I had at Harvard a few years ago with GIS pioneer Jack Dangermond was telling. He had given a presentation in which he offered example after example of geographic principles and patterns. After the lecture, I was hoping that he would lend support to our efforts to expand geography education in Massachusetts. He was shockingly dismissive of the idea. The founder of ESRI is so convinced of the value of his product that he thinks it makes geographic literacy irrelevant. It is as if Word and Excel would make writing and math obsolete (which I suppose they have for some people). He argued that gap in our knowledge of geography would be remedied simply by adding more data to our GIS databases and improving user interfaces.

Whatever really transpired in the 1940s, Harvard remains a drag on geographic literacy.
Veritas -- Truth

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Their Poem

Eggs at Casa Hayes-Boh come from The Country Hen, as part of our regular milk delivery from Crescent Ridge Dairy. This week's delivery included the following colorful poem.

Eat them here or eat them there.
Enjoy the goodness anywhere.
Green eggs are not to cause alarm.
We're really talking 'bout the farm!
The eggs are brown as all have seen.
It is the farm that's much more green!

Solar has been nature's way
from the beginning of our days.
Fossil fuels lead men* [sic] astray.
Making skies an ugly gray.
Now solar is back in a big way!
And blue skies will be here to stay!

We've been good stewards of the land
farming with nature hand-in-hand.
The soil, the water and the air
always reward us for our care.
The sun will run all our machines
And keep the air so nice and clean.
Our organic eggs will be more green!

Country Hen eggs are also available in many of our area grocery stores.

*as we know, women have also been known to use fossil fuels.

My Poem

Every place I have ever been
Is still there

Indicating one of my favorite places on a National Geographic giant traveling flat map.
We rent one of these maps for a couple of weeks each year.
We will soon have our own NGS giant traveling flat map of Massachusetts.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Underground Shipwreck

To build up, construction workers first have to dig down. Doing foundation work 25 feet below grade, workers in Boston recently found a shipwreck! Even in Boston, such a find is rare -- probably the first of such a large vessel -- but it is not entirely unexpected.
Image: WBZ-TV
As the photo shows, at least one beam had been pushed through the wreck before further work revealed the hull. To its credit, the developer alerted city officials and is allowing for at least some preliminary research. The ship appears to have been carrying a cargo of lime when it ran aground in Dorchester Flats about a century and a half ago.

As most Bostonians know, a significant portion of the city -- notably such neighborhoods as Back Bay -- were built by filling in shallow waters at the mouth of the Charles River over a period of many decades, so that nautical structures are sometimes encountered far from the shoreline.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thinking TRANSitions

I had the good fortunate of excellent teaching throughout my years as a student. (This was in the days before the Testing Industrial Complex tried to put all teaching into little boxes, but that is a digression I will take up elsewhere.)

Several of those teachers were in my history and social-studies classes in late elementary and middle school, and I remember clearly a realization that they helped me to reach somewhere around seventh grade. The history of the United States could be seen as a series of episodic expansions of the ideals of liberty and justice to encompass new populations. The ideals originally applied to a very few, and each generation addressed its own project of widening the circle.

It was years later that I learned something about the context in which all of this learning took place. I was in a school that had only very recently been integrated -- we learned that Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954. We did not learn that it has only reached our part of Virginia in around 1970. We also did not learn that the legality of mixed-race marriage had only been settled in 1967, based on the case of Mr. and Mrs. Loving, who had arrested in their bedroom just 90 miles from our school, simply for being married.

Attitudes change, thankfully, and what seems a perfectly defensible societal norm in one generation is recognized as harmful bigotry in the next.

We live in volatile times, in a political season characterized more by division than by reason. But in general, the arc of history continues to bend toward justice, as the Reverends Parker and King have said. In fact, today's fractious politics can be seen as the last gasps of outdated thinking, as people struggle with their loss of unearned privilege.

In any case, this week I heard two compelling conversations with people who have been surprised to find that they have become leading advocates on one of the current growing edges of liberty -- the rights of transgender Americans. Neither of these straight, white men expected to speaking out as they have been, which makes these conversations with Marc Benioff and Rev. Mark Winfield all the more interesting. Each is worth listening to carefully.

Mr. Benioff is the CEO of Salesforce, who speaks with David Greene about his company's support for GLBT civil rights in North Carolina. Rev. Winfield is a Baptist pastor who decided he should do some research about transgender people, resulting in a Dallas Morning News blog post that has received far more attention than he ever expected. His recent conversation with Rachel Martin warrants thoughtful listening.

Karen Wireman, a mother of a Southlake transgender child, stands outside a room where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addressed the media regarding Fort Worth school Superintendent Kent Scribner's policy to allow transgender students comfortable access to bathrooms. Photo: Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News