Friday, July 14, 2017

Grazie, Agricoltori!

When the alarm sounded this morning -- ever-so gently -- I was tempted to roll back over. But I pushed through, knowing that in order to have the coffee, I would need to make the coffee. Most of the steps had already been taken care of by others -- planting the tree, tending the soil, harvesting, drying, milling had been done in East Timor, on the other side of the world. I had taken care of the roasting a couple of days ago, so all that remained was the grinding and brewing, which I would do with the accompaniment of Morning Edition.

After a few short items about the latest political fiascos, the hosts got my full attention by admitting that on many days, the program seems as if it is hosted by a giant cup of coffee. These people get up even earlier than I do, after all!

As I continued to prepare the Chemex, my industry was rewarded by the mellifluous voice of Sylvia Poggioli intoning on the virtues of Italian coffee culture.
In five minutes, she explains a lot about the geography of coffee shops in general and of Italian shops in particular, along with some interesting insights into some of the varieties of espresso drinks and the time of day it is considered appropriate to drink each. 

Poggioli's reporting draws on the expertise of the Coffee University, also known as the Illy training center. It was in the U.S. training center of Illy's rival Lavazza that I first became acquainted with the rudiments of caring for coffee at the brewing stage. I believe some of the voices I heard from Illy are also featured in the film Black Gold, a bold documentary that contrasts the refinement of coffee consumption with the destitution of coffee production in Ethiopia.

I enjoyed this report as much as I enjoyed the coffee in my favorite (and now twice=emptied) cup. But the report lacked one idea that I think should be part of any coffee discussion, so I supplied it in the title of this post: #thankthefarmers 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

California Coffee

Geographers often study agriculture, and for several good reasons. As a discipline concerned with earth systems, we can help to ascertain how a given crop fits into -- or does not fit into -- the ecology of the places where it is grown. Because agricultural systems move food grown in some places to people living in other places, it is rich with questions of movement, networks, and connections. Agriculture operates at the interface between people and the land, and so does geography.
Jay Ruskey on his coffee farm in Goleta, California.
This comes to mind as I read a story that a friend in the coffee industry recently shared about California coffee. Many people already associate coffee with the Golden State, because significant players in the specialty coffee movement have come from there, especially from the San Francisco area. One of these is Paul Katzeff, founder of Thanksgiving Coffee and a key importer for my friend Byron. The definitive coffee history book Uncommon Grounds includes subchapter entitled "God's Gift to Coffee." I met him briefly in Matagalpa during my very first trip to Nicaragua in 2006, and among many important things I learned in that quick conversation was that it is possible to grow coffee in California, as he was doing near his home.

This was not a complete shock -- geographers understand that a given crop can be grown just about anywhere if cost is not a factor. A classic example is that greenhouses can provide tomatoes for miners in Siberia. A lot of the work geographers have done on agriculture concerns identifying factors that influence crop choice, which include both climate and soil as one would expect, and the costs of labor, machinery and transportation.

Katzeff's coffee is akin to the Siberian tomatoes -- something he is willing to do at a high cost because of his passion for the crop, but not something that would be considered commercially viable.

CCC? Commercial California Coffee?

Until now, possibly. The photograph above was taken at an elevation of just 650 feet in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara. That is a fraction of the elevation of most world-class coffee farms, and more than 10 degrees of latitude outside the traditional Coffee Belt.

It accompanies Stephanie Strom's recent New York Times article Your Coffee Is From Where? California? A widely-accomplished journalist who has recently focused on food, Strom's reporting on the emerging coffee-growing scene in California touches on several interesting aspects of the geography of coffee.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee is associated with avocados. It was from coffee farmers we met during a 2008 visit to the Atitlan area of Guatemala that I learned that the two tree crops could thrive in the same environment. As coffee farmers throughout the world seek to diversify their crops as a protection against climate change, related pests, and market volatility, avocados are therefore one possibility.

Avocados do not, however, provide the shade needed for genuine shade-grown coffee, of which there are several kinds. Real shade-grown coffee conserves water, provides an ideal habitat for coffee as well as birds, other wildlife, and perhaps epiphytes. It provides appropriate conditions for organic and biodynamic coffee. Simply planting coffee next to trees of a similar size provides minimal shade benefits, and only the slight ecological benefits of duoculture over monoculture. (I made that word up, but I think I am correct on this critique.)

Second -- and even more important -- is the insights the article provides into the costs of growing coffee. As I write this, coffee futures are trading for $1.26 per pound of green, ready-to-export coffee; see the widget at the top-left of this screen for up-to-the-minute prices (shown per 100-pound bag). Customers tend to pay several times more than this, of course, to cover packaging, shipping, transportation, processing, brewing, and profits amounting to many hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Fair-trade prices are based on the minimum cost to produce coffee, and although this varies geographically, certification currently requires a payment of $1.40 or more. A story far more important than California coffee, therefore, is the story of how farmers get locked into agreements in which they do not even meet costs most years.

As the article points out, production costs in California are much higher, mainly because of prevailing labor and land costs. As with Hawaiian coffee, the higher costs will only be justified if truly remarkable flavors can be developed.  This presents California growers with an interesting challenge: mechanization is the only real way to keep costs under some kind of control, but mechanization -- particularly in the harvest -- is likely to reduce quality.

Brazil and Nicaragua Comparisons

Mechanization in coffee usually involves harvesting methods that simply shake each tree over a large pan that catches the fruit. Because Arabica coffee does not ripen at the same time, high-quality coffee is harvested by hand four or five times during the season. All of my friends in Nicaragua do this; my friends in Brazil do not, because the low elevation of their farm means that they cannot command a premium for quality, and therefore cannot afford to pay for handpicking at Brazil's higher labor costs. Hand-picking would improve the quality of their coffee, but not enough to justify the cost.

It remains to be seen whether California can square the circle of commanding a higher price without paying for human harvesters. As the article mentions, California growers are placing a great deal of their faith in selecting the best varietals. These are cultivated sub-species of Arabica, analogous to grape varietals. The Caturra mentioned in the article, for example, is commonly grown in Nicaragua as well as Colombia, and is known as Coffea arabica var. caturra. Each is best suited to particular conditions of soil and microclimate.

Coffee Calendar Countdown

Strom points out that the quantity of coffee being grown in California is still very small? How small? Much smaller than the quantity grown on Hawaii's 800 farms (it grows on every major island in that state -- it is not all about Kona). But Hawaii is small, too, in comparison to the huge quantity of coffee grown in the world.

As I thought about how to represent these differences graphically, I struggled with how to make California's crop visible on the same image as the world's crop. As I was playing with the math, I realized that another analogy might be helpful. Consider the year's coffee production, which in 2016 totaled just over 20 billion pounds -- enough to make something like a TRILLION cups of coffee.

Imagine the crop being consumed in this order through the calendar year: biggest producer, next biggest, then all the rest, followed by Hawaii and California at the very end. This is not possible, for a whole host of reasons, but as a thought experiment it is telling.

On January 1, we could begin drinking coffee from Brazil. In 2016, Brazil's coffee could have supplied the world right up through my birthday in early May. The second-largest producer is Vietnam, whose coffee could supply the world from then through Independence Day on July 4. That is correct -- well-known Brazil and little-known (in coffee terms) Vietnam supplied over half the world's coffee in 2016, though almost none of its specialty coffee.

From the summer months until Christmas, we could drink coffee from about 50 other countries throughout the coffee belt -- Mexico, Peru, Indonesia (mainly Java & Sumatra), Kenya, Ethiopia, and many more.

On Christmas Eve -- as a special treat -- we could start drinking coffee from Nicaragua, where my friends grow some of the highest-quality coffees in the world. On the afternoon of New Year's Day, perhaps around 5 p.m., it would be time to drink some Hawaiian coffee, which would take us through our evening celebrations. And then ONE SECOND BEFORE MIDNIGHT, the world could slurp down all of the coffee produced in California!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Second Coffee Myth: Busted

The first myth of coffee is the myth of its origin about 1500 years ago in Abyssinia, in what is now Ethiopia. A goatherd named Kaldi is said to have noticed his goats dancing with extra energy. He also noticed that they were eating the fruit of some tall shrubs, so he chewed on them, got energized, and the rest is history.
Coffee: Fruit to grounds
The rest is also geography -- the Abyssinians only got as far as mashing the fruit into something like a power bar; it was across the Red Sea in Yemen that coffee as we know it began to emerge about a century later.

The second coffee myth comes much later, in the 1970s, and it actually includes the word "second." The myth goes like this:
Myth: Coffee is the second-most actively traded commodity, after oil.
This is a myth that I have repeated online, in classes, and in public lectures. I have read it on coffee web sites and many kinds of books about the beverage. And I have heard it in almost every documentary film about coffee that I have watched.

And, it appears, it is about as likely to be true as the legend of Kaldi. Perhaps less so.

Over the years, I have intended to look up the numbers behind the claim, to make sure that they were "still" true. The possibility that the claim was never true simply did not occur to me.

And then an alum shared Jon Greenberg's PolitiFact article No, Coffee Is Not the Second-Most Traded Commodity After Oil. The article is a bit blustery and inexplicably centers on Starbucks, but it usefully cites a couple of statistics and authorities that cast doubt on the second-most ranking. One of those incorrectly says that the claim was once true, which would give me comfort, but it turns out that even this is not the case.

Fortunately, Greenberg cites one authority I know personally -- Mark Pendergrast. When I first began preparing to teach coffee classes in 2005, I chose his book Uncommon Grounds as a text. Coincidentally, a teacher who was attending a geography workshop at which I was giving a short presentation on coffee said, "My uncle has written a book about coffee." It was the book I had already chosen, and I was able to arrange for him to speak on our campus as part of the send-off for my first coffee travel course. I later took a group of students who had read his book to meet him while we were touring a roastery near his home.

I mention those meetings because they took place after the book was published, but before Pendergrast had been made aware of the error shared by so many scholars of coffee. Scholar that he is, he doggedly researched the topic, going much deeper, of course, than the PolitiFact author could go. Details of his retraction were published in a 2009 issue of Coffee & Tea Trade Journal  with the cumbersome title Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?, which is helpfully republished on The Free Library.

Pendergrast's best theory as to the origin of the myth is that it originally referred not to global trade, but to exports from developing countries. He explains this distinction clearly, and also explains why apples-to-apples comparisons (as it were) between the 1970s and today are no longer possible.

As careful as he is in the retraction, Pendergrast is also careful to emphasize that the ranking is not so important. However it is measured, the coffee business touches tens of millions of lives directly, along with wildlife habitat and water supplies throughout the tropics. Those of us who care deeply about those people and places should never have taken the "big is important" bait.

A second edition of Uncommon Grounds includes the correction, but as we all know -- retractions never travel as widely or quickly as errors. I am making it my duty as Coffee Maven -- beginning with this post -- to set the record straight.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

If I am in my car, I am almost certainly listening to public radio. We live in a place where thoughtful stories and interviews from NPR, PRI, APR, or BBC are available on one local station or another almost all the time. Recently I heard a few minutes near the end of this conversation with Salma Hayek.

We had heard a little about Hayek's latest film, in which she is an ordinary, working person who finds herself at a small dinner party with economically powerful -- ruthless, even -- guests in the home of one of her massage/reiki clients. This is the sort of film that we would usually just put on our list for eventual release online, but in part because of the interview, I joined Pam in wanting to catch it in the theater. During travel to visit family in Maryland, we did just that.
Beatriz at Dinner
She was invited but not welcome
This film can be seen as a sort of sequel to the T.C. Boyle novel Tortilla Curtain, which treats very similar tensions between people who are physically proximate but socially distant.

It is different in a couple of key ways. Most important is that the story brings its disparate characters into even more direct -- even personal -- contact with each other. This is a story of conversation, and as the most privileged character (Doug Strutt, played with glee by John Lithgow) sometimes steers the conversation with Hayek's Beatriz toward interrogation, she is increasingly emboldened to do the same. Not used to having his actions and values questioned, the tension between the two escalates uncomfortably.

A second key difference is that although both stories involve characters on opposite sides of racial and economic divides, the economic dichotomy is a bit different. If Boyle's wealthy were "one percenters" or even "1/10 percenters," Doug and his pals represent the billionaire class and their allies. And although Beatriz clearly comes from outside the gate, she is a professional with her own business. Though modest in the context of the home where the dinner takes place, her status is clearly different from the housekeeper played by Soledad St. Hilaire.


Written by Michael White and directed by Miguel Arteta, Beatriz at Dinner passes the Bechdel Test, many times over. The greatest fireworks are between Beatriz and Doug, and these interactions bring out the most timely (2017) political lessons. But the most important social lessons play out in the interactions between Beatriz and homeowner Cathy (played by Bostonian Connie Britton), who sees herself as both an admirer and friend of Beatriz.

When reviewing the IMDb page for the film, I noticed an interesting Bechdel connection, which cannot have been accidental. A film passes the Bechdel test only if a conversation takes place between two female characters who have names, and if that conversation is about something other than a man. A surprising number of films do not pass this simple test. Beatriz has conversations with all of the named characters, male and female. But other than herself, only the wealthy characters have names, and only Doug Strutt has a surname. The housekeeper in this film is no different than those in any of the films to which Hayek refers in her radio interview.

Environmental Geography

This film is so richly layered with respect to social and economic geography that I almost forgot to mention two threads of the story that are germane to the title of this blog. One is the phenomenon of wealthy trophy hunters slaughtering endangered large mammals as boost to their own egos, with devastating consequences. Doug Strutt is one such "hunter" who justifies his participation in these rigged hunts -- perhaps even to himself -- by arguing that they support wildlife management. Although such models commonly work in the U.S., Beatriz is rightly quite skeptical of the kinds of "hunts" that attract the likes of her dinner companion.

The other environmental problem that Beatriz and the rest of the guests see quite differently is cancer. This is especially poignant because her connection to the hosts of the party is the healing work she did with their daughter as she suffered from cancer. As much as Cathy, the mother, admires Beatriz as a healer, she is skeptical when Beatriz speaks of environmental factors that cause the disease. In this part of the conversation, she echoes Rachel Carson, who drew connections between pesticides and health risks that many people simply found to uncomfortable to believe. At this fictional dinner party, it is as if Carson has the opportunity to bring her findings about pollution directly to a powerful culprit.


Beatriz at Dinner does the viewer a favor of not resolving all of the questions it raises. It is a Hollywood film without a Hollywood resolution. It also makes good of magic realism, an important thread in much of the literature of Latin America.

Throughout the film, I thought of the irony of Hayek playing a character who is uncomfortable as a guest in a big, expensive house, even though she must own one. I wondered, in fact, if her own house was being used as the set, but from what I can tell on celebrity web sites, it is not. She does appear to own at least two houses larger than the one used in the film, and probably more than that. She is a multimillionaire married to a multibillionaire. She clearly has a Latina life that many film directors would consider implausible for a Latina character.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Writing Matters

Good writing is the best evidence of clear thinking.
Good writing is also hard work.
from Not-the-13th Grade

I wrote this aphorism myself more than 20 years ago. I had said it to a class, and then realized that it should be at the top of the writing pages I had created as part of my very first web site. My entire online life began, in fact, with this small effort to help my geography students to think more critically about their own writing.

I was reminded of this when my favorite librarian shared Dave Stuart's recent article, "Writing: The Most Underrated Twenty-First Century Skill," which she had found through one of her librarian newsletters.

I flinched momentarily at his use of the phrase "most underrated," but quickly realized he is absolutely right. Education is full of fads, and an increasingly consequential constellation of fads surrounds efforts to figure out what employers want from graduates and then to make damn sure we educators "give" it to them.

My own university is caught up in this, seeking to identify exactly which skills we provide in each class, and figuring out how to plan, validate, document and (Goddess help us) assess each such skill.

The result is less emphasis on three things we know build writing skills:
Sadly, outcome-driven fads that have worked poorly in K-12 education are now being inflicted on higher education, notwithstanding the important role of academic freedom that has been at the core of the latter heretofore. Today, university professors at all levels are being pushed to orient their courses toward narrowly defined workplace "skills," to the detriment of holistic skills in writing and -- by extension -- reasoning.

Those of us who teach at the university level already know well what outcome-based, data-driven "reforms" have done at the K-12 level. Many of our students arrive without much experience with sustained reading or with writing beyond a strictly prescribed, five-paragraph essay. Vocabularies and facility with syntax are shrinking, while a tendency toward passive learning is growing.

Nobody has expressed the value of reading for its own sake more eloquently than U.S. Representative (and civil-rights hero) John Lewis, upon receipt of the National Book Award. His admonition is part of my November 2016 post, Just Read.


Readers interested in reviews of some of my favorite books can have a look at my read shelf at Goodreads.

From the Writer's Circle comes a list of ways to make writing a bit more interesting. The more we read, the more subtlety and precision our writing will have. The use of dictionaries and thesauri -- now available both in print and online -- is also essential.

Unicorn Cult

One of my proudest moments as an academic came during a panel discussion on fair trade in 2013, when the economist sitting next to me wrote "pink unicorn" in her notebook, exclaiming that she would be borrowing my metaphor for her own teaching. This was especially gratifying to me, because I see almost the entire field of economics as deluded by its fixation on free markets.

What the Free Market looks like.
I recently became aware of Chris Floyd's short, brilliant, and important 2008 article, The God That Failed that sheds important light on how damaging that fixation has become, and how so many people have been taken in by it. Writing just after the bubble burst (and coincidentally, shortly before I started blogging), Floyd explains how the simplistic pronouncements of Thatcher, Reagan, and Norquist became deeply embedded in our politics over the previous three decades, normalizing the impoverishment of public institutions.

As dire as his words were in 2008, he could not have predicted the extent to which the public has accepted and even embraced austerity, transferring trillions of dollars from the bottom 80 percent to the top 1 percent via tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization.


I explain my use of the unicorn metaphor in my 2013 Return of the Pink Unicorn and 2014 Galloping Unicorns posts. Adam Smith's metaphor for the magical market, of course, is the invisible hand. See my 2012 Smashing Hand post for a Monty cartoon and links to several related, mildly risqué, comparisons.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Fifty Years of Temporary Living

Dalia & Bashir
As I have written in this space before, Sandy Tolan's novel* The Lemon Tree has been among the most powerful works I have assigned to my students. In my survey course The Developing World, I assign it to complement the traditional textbook chapter on the Middle East. I intended to assign this only once -- during the semester that it was our town and university community read, in which Mr. Tolan visited our campus. But the writing that resulted from this assignment was among the most thoughtful writing I have seen from my students, so I have continued to assign it.

The conflict over Palestine is one of the most important for U.S. foreign policy, but one that is little understood by most U.S. citizens, and understood in only the simplest terms by most of the rest. It is, of course, a conflict with a complicated geography and a complicated history, and both have implications for daily life in the West Bank and throughout the entire region. So while a few students have resisted this assignment -- because it is complex or because it challenges deeply-held assumptions -- many more have thanked me for it. The novel is beautifully written and delicately balanced.

All of this is timely during the anniversary week of the Six-Day War, which both preserved and expanded the state of Israel. NPR is marking the anniversary with a series of reports.

Two good places to start, I think, are the Encyclopedia Britannica West Bank article and Greg Myre's blog post about the efforts of 10 U.S. presidents to broker a lasting peace. His post includes a brief video in which Myre outlines the broad implications of the war for the U.S., Israel, and its neighbors.

Next, I suggest Dan Efron's report on the lack of historical understanding of the basic facts of the 1967 war; many in Israel are not aware that the settlements in the West Bank are contested. He argues that blurring of the lines is part of a deliberate effort to make the de facto settlements more difficult to reverse. Whether it is deliberate or not, his reference to weather maps is certainly correct. This image from today's official weather report gives no indication that the lands shown are anything but Israel proper.

All of this is by way of preparation for the two reports that reminded me most directly of Tolan's work. They are first-hand profiles of two men with connections in both the West Bank and the United States, one Jewish and one Palestinian.

Omar Omar was a young man studying abroad when the war took place, and though his family was in the West Bank, he was not allowed to return for many years, and instead moved to the United States. His story includes a fascinating chance encounter with a U.S. client after he did eventually return.

Conversely, Ephraim Bluth was a college student in the U.S. during the war, and decided to move to the West Bank in order to participate actively in securing Israel as a Jewish homeland.

For more background on The Lemon Tree, see the introduction and excerpt that were published on the PBS Frontline web site shortly after its publication. I also cite Tolan in my 2012 article Cool Arab Autumn and my 2017 Bilingual Street article.

For more information on the West Bank, see the West Bank occupation maps from Al-Jazeera and the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs OPT web site.

*novel: Two books that I regularly assign to students are described by their authors and publishers as novels, even though they are based on thorough research of the lives of actual people. I consider both books -- The Lemon Tree and In the Time of the Butterflies -- to be reliable sources of insight and information about their subjects, though their designation as novels does give me some slight discomfort.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

5 Themes, 50 States, 34 Birds

Spoiler Alert: Maryland Wins!
Image: via Nicholas Lund, Slate
Readers of this space know that I have a very broad conception of what constitutes geography, even environmental geography. Everything from cigarette butts to snowboards have been included in these posts. So my inclusion of a snarky column about the selection of state birds should come as no surprise. Birds are very geographic, after all!

I am taking the opportunity, however, to make some connections between Nicholas Lund's brilliant 2013 screed on state birds and the Five Themes of Geography identified by the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE).

Lund offers a state-by-state listing of officially designated birds, with a suggestion for a better choice in the vast majority of cases. His reasoning is as geographic as his humor is acerbic.

1. Location: Birds are found in specific locations, and nobody is a birder who is not also good with maps. In many cases, Lund's complaint about state birds is that they are found over a much broader range than the state that they are purported to represent. Most of the birds he recommends are not limited to a given state (they tend to migrate, after all), but he rightly prefers those that are not ubiquitous across the continent.

2. Place: This theme is the one that is most relevant to Lund's essay. Maryland and New Mexico, for example, have state birds that people can readily associate with those states. In many cases -- such as Florida -- Lund suggests a choice that people would automatically associate with the state, but which the state itself has not chosen. Birds, sports teams, food, music, topography, climate, vegetation, universities -- all of these and more come together to form what geographers call "sense of place." Smart state-bird choices can reinforce that kind of identity.

3. Human-Environment Interaction: Lund does not address this very directly, but the interaction is implied by his careful attention to the rich variety of bird species found in the United States. The National Audubon Society is one of our most important environmental organizations precisely because the fate of birds is so inextricably linked to the environmental behaviors of humans. Pollution, hunting, habitat alteration, and climate change all have important implications for birds. Birds also are among the aspects of the natural environment that humans can most enjoy.

4. Movement: The NCGE document above emphasizes the movement of humans and their goods and ideas, but movements in the natural world are also important to the study of geography. Whether it be birds, plants, air masses, or continents -- natural movements help to define and connect places. In my study of coffee, I find many parallels in the movements of birds and humans in the western hemisphere. See the Coffee & Conservation blog for many examples of the connections between migratory birds and coffee cultivation in the Americas.

Where Lund mentions 400 birds in Texas, it is not related to the great size of the state. Rather, he is referring to the convergence of flyways that essentially funnel more than half of all birds sighted in the United States into one small area in the southern tip of Texas. Because of the limited remaining habitat in that southern tip (where I lived from 1990 to 1994), all of those species can be found -- at different times of the year -- in just two small places: the Port Aransas and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges.

5. Region: Lund does not overtly address the concept of regions, but researching this post led me to an interesting example of how humans conceptualize regions. The aforementioned Audubon Society organizes its own activities on the basis of the flyways that are pursued by migratory birds. A large number of these converge in South Texas, but other flyways are important for organizing ornithological studies throughout the continent.
Image: Audubon Flyways

As Lund mentions, Texas has many birds that would be more distinctive candidates for state bird than the northern mockingbird. It is the only state for which he offers a short list of alternatives. Discussing this with my wife Pam, who lived with me in Texas for three years, we have another suggestion: the chachalaca. Our home in the Rio Grande Valley (which is not a valley, but that's another story) was in the southern tip of Texas and the northern edge of the chachalaca's range.

No place else has a bird that sounds like this. As the person who posted this video writes, it sounds like broken machinery. Texas is also were we attended Quaker meeting. That is -- 60-minute, silent meditation meeting. Chachalacas certainly were not conducive to that!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

E Pluribus New Orleans

... indivisible ...
I was in South Carolina the day in 2000 that the confederate flag was removed from the top of its capitol building and placed in a less prominent position at the edge of the grounds. As we drove along I-95, we listened to the announcers on the local public-radio affiliate describe the proceedings in hushed tones resembling the coverage of a state funeral.  Any doubt as to what was really at stake were erased by a fellow motorist in a pickup truck, who sped along with banners flying from two large poles in the bed of the truck -- one of the Confederacy itself and one of the Confederacy's spinoff -- the Ku Klux Klan.

I was reminded of all of this recently, when I learned that the great city of New Orleans was removing four major Confederate monuments from places of prominence. I was not surprised to learn that -- as in South Carolina and elsewhere -- supporters of the 1861 insurgency were on hand to protest. But I was pleased to learn that each removal event went forward without major incident.

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's eloquent speech on the significance of removing those icons. The SPLC indicates that the speech is a "defense" of the action, but it goes far beyond that posture. Some did contest the decision, and he had an obligation to justify it. 

He does much more, though, using the occasion to teach both some history, some civics, and some geography. The history lesson echoes the work of James Loewen in Lies Across America, who explains what monuments have to tell us about the past they commemorate, the past in which they were built, and the more recent past in which we find them. He explains that the installation of statues honoring the confederacy were part of a deliberate effort to reject the results of the civil war, and to perpetuate the harsh inequalities that precipitated that conflict -- revisionist histories notwithstanding.

The civics lesson concerns both the founding ideals of the country -- unity, equality, and the inclusion of everyone in the democratic project -- and the process by which his city worked toward realizing those ideals. His speech -- delivered with incredible clarity -- embraces individuals and institutions that were part of that process over the long arc of more than 150 years. For example, he acknowledges members of the Plessy family in the audience and the Ferguson family as participants in the process. I had forgotten most of what little I knew about that case. In reading about the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision today, I was reminded that the deplorable "separate but equal" decision was based in New Orleans. I also learned that Ferguson's error had been justified in part on a much earlier case decided in Massachusetts. Most importantly, though, descendants of both sides were recognized as part of the reconciliation process that led to the removal of the Confederate statues.

The geography lessons begin with a sweeping description of the diversity of the New Orleans community, which has been an essential hub in many civilizations over the past several thousand years -- and he ties all of this to jazz! At a finer scale, he makes clear why removing these symbols of a barbaric past is essential to unity in the present. He explains how the removal of the pernicious statuary is essential to creating a landscape that reflects the greatness and diversity of the New Orleans community.
All of this is very timely for geographers. The 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be meeting in New Orleans. My department's EarthView team will be there with our giant globe -- both at the conference itself and (we hope) in at least some nearby schools. I learned of the mayor's speech on the same day that the AAG and other leading geography organizations announced that the them for Geography Awareness Week (November 12-18, 2017) will be civil rights. Landrieu's speech will certainly be part of my teaching that week! 


I just learned that the mayor of Baltimore is considering the removal of public statues honoring Generals Lee & Jackson (who of course were the military leaders of the insurgency) and Supreme Court Justice Taney, who penned the odious Dred Scott decision. Anticipating fiscal objections, Mayor Pugh suggests that the statues could perhaps be auctioned, which it seems to me could create unintended complexities. An apologist for the Confederacy is indeed quoted in the story, blithely citing the cost as an objection. This is certainly a facile way to object to Mayor Pugh's suggestion without addressing the very real questions so eloquently examined by Mayor Landrieu above. 

Baltimore's previous mayor had interpretive signs added to the statue of the generals. The Taney statue is located a mile south of the spot where I was married.

Monday, May 15, 2017

NOLA: 90W, 30N

"You think of New Orleans, you know, like a place, longitude and latitude on a map on Earth, but in a sense, like New Orleans to me it is an address in the whole of the whole of existence. And if you match up with that address, if you're supposed to be here, then you'll feel it. You'll walk in here and you'll go, 'Whoa!'"
This explanation of New Orleans as a place comes halfway through the 2007 PBS American Experience documentary New Orleans. He captures beautifully the connection people have to this city that both cannot be real and must be real.

This is an hour well spent, stretching from the social and racial inequalities of the 1927 flood through the active segregation of the city mid-century and ending with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those still-fresh wounds provide an excellent example of New Orleans as a deeply artistic community, as it looks deeply into the first Mardi Gras celebration after the flood.

The film ends (spoiler alert!) with more local insight:

"New Orleans' promise is, we could teach America how to be America. If anybody's listening."

See the PBS New Orleans page for more resources.