Friday, July 31, 2015

… and Northern Ireland, Sir!

The title of this post is a phrase that comes to mind every time I consider the question of what exactly is meant by the terms England, Great Britain, and the UK. That shortest of monikers is an abbreviation, of course, for United Kingdom. But that in turn is shorthand for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But if you took geography with Norman (Stormin’ Norman) Little at North Kansas City High School in the 1970s, the word “Sir!” was added, as it was to all place names during recitations.
Yes, we had recitations as the main form of learning geography – in a room full of maps, half standard and half without any labels – we spent almost every class session in oral-quiz mode. If we failed to answer correctly – or if we failed to end with “Sir!” – the response would be “Young man (or lady) … that will be five points off your next examination!”
This approach to teaching geography had two results, one surprising and one to be expected. The surprise is that most students were fond of Mr. Little. They had actually painted “Stormin’ Norman” to give him an unofficial reserved parking space for his beloved Ford Pinto. He was “old school” with an official one-room schoolhouse on his resume, so I think we all just thought of him as quaint in a way that younger teachers could not have been.
The unsurprising result is that I finished high school with a geography course under my belt, and no idea that it was an actual academic discipline. We spent less than a day on any real geographic questions, so I never even looked at geography as an option when I started college.
But I digress. The real point here is to learn a bit more about the country, nation, state, and island we sometimes just call “the Brits.” Fortunately, we have the help of CGP Grey, who provides a lovely romp through this thicket of nomenclature.

And we don’t have to call him “Sir.”

NOTE: This is actually the third time I've mentioned this video. For some different contexts, see Queen Lisa? (2012) and Borderlines (2013).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dependent Development

When  we lived in Arizona (1990 to 1994), I was aware of deep fissures in the political philosophies prevalent in the desert Southwest, particularly with respect to land and water. This was the home, after all, of Barry Goldwater and of an abiding and even growing form of libertarian thinking. I was there to study political ecology and to prepare for my work in one of the world's very wet places -- Rondonia -- but I also thought quite a lot about what it meant to live in this very dry place.

I quickly realized that even the most fiercely independent westerners are highly dependent -- like it or not -- on the federal government. I became familiar with the contradictions of "welfare ranchers" such as the petulant Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who famously refuses to pay his rent. His tantrum has now inspired legislators in several western states to attempt land grabs that would amount to acre-by-acre secessions from the United States.
I also knew that our own ability to live, work and study depended upon highly subsidized water, but a recent Living on Earth story helped me to understand that dependence much more fully. It explains connections among politics, water, electricity, agriculture, and climate change, all focused on the infamous Navajo Generating Station. I use the word "infamous" because I have long known it as a major source of air pollution that often creates an ugly haze over the Grand Canyon. I did not realize, though, that its main purpose is pumping water against gravity to supply the cities and farms of Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Nor did I realize that it is the third-most important source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Steve Curwood explains who benefits from this arrangement, and why change is so unlikely.

Coffee People

In three decades of visiting coffeelands around the world, photographer Steve McCurry has emphasized the people who grow, process, roast, and brew it. Jordan Teicher describes McCurry's work for Slate and includes a few photos, such as this one showing how coffee is typically prepared in Ethiopia. More of these photos are in McCurry's book From These Hands.

McCurry's work is motivated by the conviction that it is important for people to understand that food comes to us not just from land, but also from people. Ten million people around the world make their livelihood from coffee. McCurry does a great service by bringing a few of them into focus. The work highlights two of the concepts of the geography of coffee that are also explored in Dean Cycon's Javatrekker. First is that coffee connects us to many people across many miles; the other is that since the best coffee is high-grown, it comes from communities that are often quite remote and isolated.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Frontier on Fire

Some of Alaska's fires this season. Source: Slate.
An area larger than our smallest state has already burned this season in our largest state. That is, something like 2,000 square miles have burned in Alaska. For comparison, Rhode Island and Delaware are about 1,500 and 2,500 square miles, respectively. As a percentage of the total land area, of course, the burn is trivial -- about one third of one percent so far. But as coverage in Slate points out, this is actually part of the problem: fire-fighting resources in Alaska are spread over an impossibly large area. Moreover, the amount of fire is a great great increase from the past, perhaps the most destructive burning season ever.

Of course, forest and brush fires are natural occurrences that do not destroy land; they just change what is on it. But those degree and intensity of the changes are not natural, and they are damaging to resources we rely upon and should care about.

To learn more, start with Nathan Rott's vivid reporting on the scope and severity of this year's fire season in the Final Frontier state. Speaking with local experts, his story also explains why these fires will last longer than similar fires elsewhere would.
An Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter drops about 700 gallons of water onto the Stetson Creek Fire in June 2015. (Photo: Sgt. Balinda O’Neal/U.S. Army National Guard via Living on Earth)
For a deeper explanation of the interactions between fire policy and climate change, listen to Steve Curwood's extended discussion entitled Climate Change Fuels Forest Fires. As with many environmental threats we face, climate change compounds problems that have other causes.
... can cause so many forest fires.
In the 1980s it began to become apparent to many foresters and landscape ecologists that a half-century of success if fire suppression had created conditions that would make fires more difficult to contain. The foresters understood this in the familiar language of fuel loads, which are mentioned in the Curwood piece cited above.

In the 1980s I was fortunate to be studying with a landscape ecologist who helped me to understand an important, additional dimension of the problem: patchiness, to which Curwood's piece also alludes. Not only have decades of success allowed fuel to accumulate in millions of acres of forest; but the normal patchwork of old and new forest has been lost. Prior to the very successful campaigns embodied in Smokey the Bear, if one area of forest had a heavy load of fuel, it was likely to be surrounded by a patchwork in which some areas had less fuel because they had recently burned.

The result is a landscape in which fire is likely to behave differently than it did a century ago, in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The lack of a patchwork facilitates horizontal movement of fire; heavy fuel loads help the fire to reach the canopy much more readily. This can increase the temperature and intensity of the fire, and is much more likely to result in damage to trees that have evolved to withstand occasional, low-temperature ground fires.

As I mention above, these landscape-scale effects of fire policy were not understood for about 50 years -- the amount of time it took to reach uniform fuel loads over large areas. It has taken a couple more decades to understand the ability of climate change to intensify the resulting fire regimes -- and to add extreme temporal variation, as each fire year can be very different from the last.

For more thoughts on fire and climate, see my Hot or Not? post, written in the hottest month of the last presidential election cycle.


As if fire in Alaska were not concerning enough, consider the emergence of a new urban wildfire threat in Washington state. Eastern Washington is drier than the Pacific coast, but the threat of fires in downtown Spokane is nonetheless a novel problem.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Homeland Insecurity

I usually enjoy sharing maps, but I would rather not have to share this one.
Many justified the second war in Iraq with the mantra that it would be better to fight the terrorists "over there" than to fight them over here. I was never quite on board with that, since the people "over there" did not ask to be our arena. But now the terrorists really are "over here" and we need to step up to protect our fellow citizens.
The map clearly shows that these attacks are clustered in the South, but notice that they are points, representing a few or perhaps a few dozen individuals. I have been in the region enough to know that these terrorists do not speak for all of their neighbors. Such ilk never do.

Map: Recent fires at African-American churches in the South
Six predominantly black churches have caught on fire in the past two weeks. Where are they and what are officials saying?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Environmental Geography Gamut

One of my goals in general-education classes is to ensure that students will emerge better able to interpret course-related news they encounter in the future. For this reason, my final exams often ask them to find a news item, describe it, and relate it to something they learned in the course. This is a pedagogic approach I learned from the work of geographer L. Dee Fink; it is also a way to ensure that I continue to learn from my students.

At the moment I am taking a break from grading summer courses to share some of the articles that came my way as the result of such an assignment, because all of them fit nicely into the theme of this blog -- and the title of the course in question -- Environmental Geography. (See my "What is environmental geography, anyway?" web page if you've been wondering about that title. Most of what is on this blog fits somehow into that category, though some of it is more appropriately called political, economic, or cultural geography.)

Here -- without elaboration, in the interest of time -- are the articles and radio pieces that students shared. Each one made a connection between the article and Carl Safina's book The View from Lazy Point. (See more Safina references throughout this blog.) In some cases, several students commented on the same stories, making different connections.

Supreme Court Blocks Obama Administration Plan on Power Plant Emissions. NPR June 29th, 2015.

Note From A Civilized City: Boston Parks To Offer Dispensers Of Free Sunscreen. WBUR June 26, 2015.

New Panda Count Brings Cheers And Debate. WBUR March 2, 2015.
Shameless and gratuitous use of cute charismatic megafauna.

Survival Of The Greenest Beer? Breweries Adapt To A Changing Climate. NPR June 24, 2015.

Risk of Extreme Weather From Climate Change to Rise Over Next Century, Report Says. New York Times, June 22, 2015.

Chinese Couples Urged to Have More Children. The Guardian June 29, 2015.

The Dutch Ruling On Climate Change That Could Have A Global Impact. NPR June 25, 2015.

The Evolution of Birdsong. Living on Earth, June 26, 2015.

Genetically Modified Salmon: Coming To A River Near You? NPR June 24, 2015.

How A Historical Blunder Helped Create The Water Crisis In The West. NPR June 25, 2015.
Image: NPR
To Tackle Food Waste, Big Grocery Chain Will Sell Produce Rejects. NPR June 17, 2015. (In searching for this, I also found Landfill of Lettuce by the same reporter.)

Decisions On Climate Change Will Affect Economic Future Of U.S. NPR June 22, 2015.

Save Wildlife, Save Yourself? NPR June 26, 2015.

Scientists Build Case for 'Sixth Extinction' ... and Say It Could Kill Us. NBC News. June 19, 2015.

OK, so I will elaborate on this one. This story was cited by a couple of students. I had seen the headline but had not yet worked up the nerve to read the article. Not only will I now be assigning it in some of my classes -- such as Land Protection -- but I will also be assigning the original article on which it is based:

Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.  Science Advances 1(5): June 19, 2015. Gerardo Cebellos, Paul Ehrlich, et al.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mas Musica

It was almost a decade ago that I made a small tour of Massachusetts college and university campuses, speaking on the cultural geography of Latin American music. The tour was sponsored by  MaCIE, and allowed me to meet a lot of interesting educators and students around the state. I am not a musicologist by any means, but I do find that music often reveals a lot about cultural geography, and my presentations consisted in discussing some examples. I carried around our Bose CD player and a suitcase of CDs at the time, and very much enjoyed myself.

I continue to find and enjoy new examples of culturally interesting music that I share with my students, though I do not attempt to update the Musica web site very often, but I occasionally add something to the blog. And today is such an occasion, as I just found a list of 11 Latina musicians who exemplify the great variety of music in the region.

I embed Fiesta from Bomba Estéreo simply because it is by far the most colorful and among the most modern of the examples collected by Marcelo Baéz on music.mic, but I encourage readers to watch all of the videos he has shared.
I found this article just as I was sharing the film Selena with my students and discussing my experience of living in South Texas during her rise and tragic fall. Both that film and the song "Sorry I Stole Your Man" by Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas reminds us that many Latin@s in the United States do not speak Spanish fluently.
Together,they are a rich lesson on the dynamic music of Latin America.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Oh, The Places to Go

I created the map below for students in our geography program, as a way to encourage them to explore the many fascinating places in our region. Each marker represents a convenient and rewarding destination that can be enjoyed from Bridgewater in a single day or perhaps even a few hours. 

I created it following a conversation with a colleague -- Dr. Vernon Domingo -- with whom I travel frequently. He asserted that our students should never have a boring date, because they have plenty of interesting places to take someone.

We are fortunate that Bridgewater is situated in the middle of such a diverse region, with an extraordinary variety of ways to learn about physical, human, and historical geography. We offer just a few here. When visiting any of these sites, be sure to explore the neighborhoods that surround them as well.

Details about what each of these places has to offer are in the GeoDates post on our department blog.


Dr. Domingo and I have had the privilege of getting to know many local communities -- especially in eastern Massachusetts -- through our travels with EarthView. The map below is a snapshot of visits to date. See the dynamic map for more recent visits in Massachusetts and for visits outside the region.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Three Flags, Three Colors

I post these flags for no other reason than the fact that I frequently forget which is which. I was reminded of this while watching Rosie Perez' excellent film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas!

These three territories share the same three colors and each sports a single star, along with other design elements. All three were separated from Spain by the United States and the Spanish language remains associated with each, though to different degrees.


My favorite librarian reminds me that about 20 years ago, a court house in Texas was accidentally flying the flag of Chile. That is certainly a mistake I could have made.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Monarch Highway

When we lived in the southmost tip of Texas, one of our main environmental projects was to help improve a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande. The idea was to connect small fragments of wildlife habitat, using carefully-chosen strips of land to facilitate movement between patches of preserved land. This would magnify the benefits of available land. For example, if four fragments of 100 acres each are connected, the resulting land might not be quite as valuable -- from a biodiversity perspective -- as a 400-acre plot would be, but it would likely support greater genetic diversity than a 100-acre fragment. In other words, the value of fragmented habitat is no greater than that of the largest fragment.
When we lived in South Texas, we neverr saw a cluster of monarchs like this, but we knew that they gathered by the billions just a hundred miles or so away in Mexico, and we would see them on their way to and fro each year, thousands at a time.
Later, they became important to me as part of the story of Rachel Carson, as recounted on The American Experience.

Creating such corridors is as difficult as it is important. Habitat fragmentation occurs because people put the land between patches to human uses -- such as housing, commerce, transportation, and agriculture -- and some of these uses are difficult to reverse, even where there is a will do so. The effort in South Texas had been underway for more than a decade when we arrived, and two decades later, US Fish & Wildlife Service presents it as an aspiration, rather than a reality.

This is all prelude to a few stories I have encountered recently, regarding the protection of migratory butterflies and of bees. One of these is the news that actor extraordinaire and all-around great human Morgan Freeman has created his own reserve for bees in Mississippi. He makes the case that setting aside space for wildlife -- especially pollinators -- is important. One a much smaller scale, we have tried to do something similar, and have greatly increased the plant, bird, and insect biodiversity at Casa Hayes-Boh, a mere one-third of an acre that is part of the WWF Habitat program.

More directly relevant to the corridor concept is the effort to create a safe passage for monarch butterflies along the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota. This is the same highway that is considered the backbone of NAFTA trade among Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and is close to the natural flyways for this important and beautiful insect. The plan is part of the Whitehouse's comprehensive (though still nascent) plans to address the frighteningly rapid collapse of pollinator populations.

At this point, it is not clear from available documents exactly what will be dong along this corridor to facilitate migrations. Some combination of making certain plants available along the entire route while reducing pesticide use will be needed for a corridor of this kind to succeed. Because the corridor is not intended directly to support terrestrial species, this corridor can work without necessarily having the spatial continuity that characteristic of most corridor plans.

It is not yet clear exactly what form pesticide restrictions will take. The EPA has proposed temporary pesticide-free zones specifically to reverse the dangerous and costly decline of honeybees. The timing of the two announcements suggests a connection, but so far it is not clear where the proposed zones would be.