Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Far from Pharr

Today in my Geography of Latin America class, I showed Like Water for Chocolate, one of our very favorite films. It is set a century or so ago along the Rio Grande, in an area about 200 miles north of where Pam and I lived. I spent much of the class time before showing the film (this is a four-hour class) discussing the geography of the region, including quite a few things mentioned in my most recent post, about the film All She Can.

So imagine my surprise when I got home and Pam mentioned that it was seventeen years ago TODAY that we arrived in Bridgewater, after a long journey by car. Our belongings arrived a few days later, owing to the incompetence of the cursed Mayflower organization. Our adventure as parents of a wonderful daughter began just a couple weeks later, and our affiliation with Bridgewater State (College) University a few weeks after that.
Route is approximate; road delays are as of the date of this blog post, not the original travel.
The route shown above is my best quick guess. I remember driving through Arkansas for the first (and so far only) time, and we did spend a couple of days in Catonsville at Pam's mother's house. There I pulled my "laptop" out of the car -- it was actually a complete PC set-up -- in order to make some last-minute changes on my dissertation. I thought they were minor changes, since my committee at Arizona had already approved the document. Two weeks later -- our second day as parents -- I learned the committee's true character when my chair informed me that they were not accepting the work, so actual approval did not come until my birthday in May the following year. Yes -- I had the bonus of spending part of my birthday with those fine folks at UA.

But I digress -- the move was a significant one, and we had some culture shock after seven years in the Southwest. Old friends had sent us off with many blessings and good wishes and new friends here welcomed us in with everything we needed.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Redemption at Alice

For the three years before we moved to Bridgewater in 1997, Pam and I lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It is not a valley, and the rio at that point is not grande. The river that rises in the mountains of New Mexico forms the border between arid parts of the former Republic of Texas and Old Mexico, and is rather tired by the time it reaches the delta in which we lived. But it is recognized as "The Valley" throughout Texas, and it is relatively lush compared to the deserts and grasslands that surround it.

Yes, the mascot is a scorpion!
Near the end of our stay there, I taught geography in the Valley, at a campus that is formally known as The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. Some of my students were international students living it home -- they walked over the river for class, just as I sometimes walked over the same river for lunch and shopping. Teaching there was invaluable in preparing me for the teaching I have been doing in Bridgewater ever since.

Prior to the UTB-TSC gig, though, I taught way outside the Valley, at what seems to have been the periphery of the periphery of higher education in Texas,

Texas & M University at Kingsville, Alice Extension. TAMU-K itself had been remade from Texas A &I, following a lawsuit that had failed in courts of law but succeeded in the court of public opinion.

That is to say, a class-action suit had been filed against the state of Texas over the lack of four-year universities in the area south of San Antonio. This area is just a little corner of Texas, of course, but bigger than many of the other 49 states, and home to millions of people whose access to higher education was seriously limited by the absence of the big two -- University of Texas and Texas A & M. The courts did not force the creation of new schools, but the legislature was sufficiently embarrassed to act, and each of the two big state universities created three new campuses, building on existing schools. In Kingsville, this led to a conversion of the two-year Agricultural & Industrial College into a four-year Agricultural & Mechanical University. When I visited campus, "A & I" was still on the water tower. The professor who hired me said that tradition was such that nobody would be brave enough to climb up and paint the new name, for fear of being shot at. He was joking, of course. Sort of.

All of this background is by way of explaining how we came to watch All She Can -- a movie well outside our usual range of interests -- and some of the reasons we found it so satisfying. According to an informative interview with writer-director Amy Wendel, the film was inspired by a 60 Minutes story about military recruiting in the nearby town of San Diego, Texas, where deep patriotism and limited options are equally important sides of the story of service. (My 2010 post on the belated recognition of Felix Longoria explores the legacy of military service in the region in more detail.)

Although the filmmakers come from far outside the region, they bring the viewer very close to the ground because they began the project with extensive listening. The main plotline was inspired by the very first interview with local youth -- like us, Wendel had not really heard of powerlifting as a sport for high-school girls, and was intrigued by this. Casting included a local actress in the main role, and writing avoided the cliched sequence of hardship-to-victory that makes many sports movies hard to take. The protagonist is complex, makes mistakes, and manages to make this story place-specific and universal at the same time.

The reason we found this film so effective is that it really conveys what geographers call "sense of place" -- those characteristics that people use to build identity of and around the places they live. The soundtrack features a "Benavides Born" -- a song that condenses many of these themes in just a few minutes of music. Originally the title of the film itself, the signature song has been produced with a video montage that deepens many of those connections. What is most interesting about the song -- especially as it is represented in the music video -- is that it perfectly balances pride in the place with a strong desire to get out of the place.

It was from the film that we learned of a significant upgrade in the educational landscape of Alice. Texas A&M-Kingsville was reaching out to this part of King Ranch country through a very modest extension program in which I played a very modest part; the arrival of a branch of Coastal Bend (Community) College is surely an improvement for the town, and is part of what makes it a relative metropolis.

From the film it was clear to us that the campus is housed in a former WalMart store. It is part of WalMart's scorched-earth approach to retailing that after its "regular" stores eliminate local competition, its "super" stores eliminate them. From the point of view of WalMart, it does not matter what happens to those abandoned boxes, as long as they do not become retail space. They can sit empty for years, or they can be leased or sold to local governments. One of the most storied examples has been the recent move of the McAllen Public Library (where my favorite librarian was once Head of Reference) into an abandoned WalMart. Coverage in Slate, Huffington Post, New York Times and American Libraries emphasize the creativity of the architecture -- which is indeed impressive -- rather than the overall strategy of wage suppression of which this story is a part.


Just as I was finally posting this review, I found this brief audio story about the exhumation of human remains in Falfurrias, through which I drove each week that I taught in Alice. A secondary border crossing was a small annoyance for me, but for many making the journey north, it is one obstacle too many, and some do not survive their efforts to detour around it. A recent graduate in forensic science applied her skills to the removal of bodies buried anonymously in the scrublands, and shares what she learned from the experience.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nicaragua Contrast

About a decade ago, I made plans to lead a study tour on the geography of coffee to Nicaragua. I would go in January 2006, and then perhaps take the same concept to another country. As anybody who knows me is well aware, I fell in love with the place, and as I write this I am planning my ninth visit for January 2015. My wife has gone with me twice, and I am pleased -- as are my Nicaraguan friends -- that our daughter will be going with me this time.

My comfort in bringing both students and family members is my answer to the most common question I get about my travel there: "Is it safe?" Of course, no place is perfectly safe; murders happen even in our bucolic home town in New England. But Nicaragua is much safer than most people north of the Rio Grande would imagine, and is in fact among the least dangerous places in Latin America, despite having one of the highest levels of poverty.

As violence in Central America drives a refugee crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, it is important to understand the geography of that violence -- it is prevalent in four countries, three of which have been the "beneficiaries" of U.S. involvement. In What About Nicaragua?, Tim Rogers describes some of the reasons that Nicaragua is not part of the current crisis. (Thanks to my student Tom for finding this article!)

The article is not just cheerleading for the Sandinistas -- he points out some of the very real problems with Ortega's strange second run as president. But the article does call into serious question how and why the United States has continued disastrous policies in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Central America crime rates -- map by Fusion.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Capital of Latin America

I often ask students and audiences a quirky question: "What is the capital of Latin America?" Of course, it is a region of a couple dozen sovereign countries and the colonies of several empires, so there is no real capital. But if there were, I assert, it would be MIA: Miami International Airport. Specifically, the American Airlines hub at MIA is the nexus of most of the hemisphere, as illustrated in this 2002 route map.
Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Timetablist.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cabbage Hypos

From the newsfeed of the EPA's Facebook page (yes, there is such a thing) I learned the details of the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988. I remember the events that triggered it, and was surprised to learn its tracking requirements were only in effect for four years, though every visit to a medical office reminds me that the lessons about the handling of "medical sharps" were learned. Or mostly learned -- I have seen medical waste during beach cleanups.

Whenever I think of this issue, I am reminded of "Sick of You," which is Professor Lou Reed's litany of indignities from of the waning days of the Reagan Administration.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coffee: Shifts in the Geography of Production

The International Coffee Organization was established by the United Nations to administer the International Coffee Agreement, by which producing and consuming countries used a series of yearly quotas to stabilize coffee production volumes and prices. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity on the planet (after oil), and wide swings in price and inventory had been seen as problematic for the industry itself and for the millions of people who earn their living as producers. The accord was in place from 1963 until 1990, when the United States withdrew, leading to the agreement's collapse.

The organization has re-emerged in recent years. As before, it is an unusual association in that it includes producers and consumers. It does not regulate the industry as it did previously, but it is fostering cooperation on a number of problems that threaten coffee production, such as poverty among producers (despite the billions of dollars to be made) and climate change.

Among its projects has been the release of a comprehensive history of the organization and of its member countries. Roast magazine is publishing highlights of the report on its Daily Coffee News blog, beginning with A Brief History, which focuses on shifts in production between the Agreement and post-agreement periods. Angola, for example, was once the fourth-largest producer but now produces only 33,000 bags (though this is up from a scant truckload a few years ago).

Many countries within the tropics grow one or both kinds of coffee, but of course within each country -- even the smaller ones -- coffee has a particular geography and is not found everywhere. This map from the German Coffee Association was included in the Distractify article 17 Awesome Facts That You Never Knew About Coffee. (Of course, most of my students know at least a few of the 17!)
For those wishing to do further research on coffee -- particularly those in the BSU community, librarian Pamela Hayes-Bohanan has created the Coffee MaxGuide, a portal to all of the online and on-shelf resources related to coffee at the Maxwell Library.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Riveting Malala

In her work Yes, She Can!, Texas muralist Anat Rosen envisions Malala as a modern Rosie the Riveter, the icon of U.S. women who provided much of the industrial might that helped to win World War II. 
Along with other geographers, I have been admiring the courage of Malala Yousafzai, a young activist who was nearly killed for advocating the education of girls in Pakistan. Hers is not a fight that is limited to the Islamic world, of course, as U.S. politics tilt ever further in the direction of the dystopian future portrayed in A Handmaid's Tale.

I am pleased to be reading her story -- I Am Malala -- with students in the BSU Honors Program this summer. I will be one of several faculty members leading discussions during a day-long program about the book in September. I am working with students in the program -- especially the geographers -- to develop  the Malala Honors Map, which will highlight all of the places mentioned in the rich story of her life.

At the time of this writing, the map includes only the location of the Salman Rushdie protests in Islamabad, but the students and I will be adding many more locations related to Malala's story as the summer progresses.

Misplaced Optimism

Because Brazil once had the greatest gap between its rich and its poor, scholars use the word Brazilianization to describe processes that concentration wealth. Brazil continues to have an extremely high wealth gap, but over the past decade, it has diminished. The United States has historically been more egalitarian and thereby more equal, but over the past decade that has been reversed by a series of policies motivated by political fetishes.

John Oliver explains how American optimism contributes to acceptance of a perversely rigged game. "If the economy were a little league game, someone would have called it by now."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Where Are the Songs?

Professor David Byrne is just one of the many musicians featured on Constantine Valhouli's interactive map of New York City. As explained on Mashable, he had friends help him use Google Maps to highlight locations mentioned in 200 popular songs of many genres, in and near New York City.
Small excerpt of the NYC Music Map
I call David Byrne of Talking Heads Professor Byrne because he teaches so much geography. Lessons on urban planning and world music are scattered throughout many posts on this blog that include his name. Without his pioneering work in cultural geography, my Musica project would never have happened. The subtitle of this iconic song is also one of several key quotes at the top of my Not-the-13th-Grade page.

I was so fortunate to have seen him perform this and other songs live one Halloween in Boston, about 30 years after the video above. His athleticism had scarcely diminished.

Monday, July 07, 2014

More Than Modified

This year is the sesquicentennial of what some consider the first modern geography book. In 1864, Vermont geographer and diplomat George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature. It would take another century for such a title to be seen as sexist, but the subtitle was ahead of its time and recognizes both men and women as ecological agents: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.

Marsh was in his prime just as the American frontier closed, and he was among the first to recognize the paradox of Manifest Destiny. As outlined in the Schoolhouse Rock classic "Elbow Room," what passed for resource planning for the first couple centuries of European settlement in North America (and really in South America, too) was simply to keep moving west. It was widely accepted that God had ordained that we should occupy the entire continent, but it still came as a bit of a surprise when we actually did.

Marsh had extended stays in both Italy and Turkey during this pivotal period, and especially in the latter he began to realize what happened as human population grew in place: the land changed, and not generally for the better. This allowed him to see changes in his native Vermont more clearly. Humans were affected by nature, to be sure, but nature -- no matter how vast it might seem -- could be affected by humans as well.

To some degree, Marsh was successful, and he deserves some of the credit for the first round of environmental conservation measures adopted by the United States. Those efforts were not enough, however, to overcome more than two centuries of simply getting resources elsewhere when they became scarce. Expansion as resource policy had become so deeply ingrained that the country turned to Plan B, which was for the colony to become a colonizer. This was, of course, at odds with our revolutionary rhetoric, so we have spent more than a century in deep denial of our place at the center of a global empire.

I was thinking about Marsh and the scant century and a half since we really began to recognize the human capacity to disrupt ecosystems, when I learned of a new an iPad app from NASA, based on a series of images that depict changes of many kinds that are taking place in the earth environment. The changes are of many kinds -- including floodier floods and droughtier droughts -- and most point to a growing influence of humans on the lands and waters that sustain us.
In 1996 I found myself in the center of these images, midway through the timespan depicted.
In many ways, this is where I became a geographer.
I recount the reasons and my findings on Rondonia Web.
I was drawn into environmental geography when I learned of one serious disruption -- tropical deforestation. It is the kind of change that Marsh would have recognized, though he could scarcely have imagined the speed and scale of that process.

Because the human population has grown about six-fold since Marsh was writing -- and the economy incalculably more than that -- these images depict changes that are beyond a scale that he could have imagined.

Not all change is visible, of course. The United States has recently -- and temporarily -- achieved what proponents call "energy independence" by the unregulated use of a new method of extracting fossil fuels. By shattering the earth's crust, hydraulic fracturing -- known as fracking -- makes available natural gas that was previously not economically viable to mine. Drilling companies displacing the environmental and social costs to neighbors and to the future, making a lot of money in the short term. The toxicity of ground water is one kind of invisible consequence; the seismic effects are another. As reported by The Guardian and others, the wastewater wells are causing a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes. Defenders are in two camps -- those who ignore the data and those who now argue that since they are relatively small earthquakes, this is not a serious problem.