Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Walk

Amidst some errands Tuesday morning, I enjoyed hearing most of a conversation between WBUR journalist Meghna Chakrabarti and Norwegian author Erling Kagge, whose most recent book is Walking: One Step at a Time. Just as I was contemplating the pathetic irony of listening to their conversation -- Why We Walk -- in my car, I heard a caller describe her neuroscience research (yes, call-in shows in the Boston area are not like those in other places) about a place where I had a walk planned the very next day!
In the fall semester of alternate years, I teach a course called Land Protection (GEOG 332). It is the epitome of environmental geography class in that it examines the interface between physical and human geographies. In this case, we study forest ecology and landscape change as it relates to conservation policy and related elements of the tax code. It's a fun course, really, and many who take it go on to work as volunteers or professionals in conservation.

One of the texts in that course is Thoreau's Country, in which author David Foster compares observations from Henry David Thoreau's daily journal with his own observations of New England forests, especially those he has made as the long-time director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. I take my students to that forest -- almost all of which would have been agricultural land in Thoreau's day -- for some close-up examination of landscape change. Over the years I've been aware of various kinds of research going on in the forest, including snow studies by a friend of mine and long-term climate studies under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is at about 22m45s into the On Point installment that the caller Susan discusses her research into the mental-health benefits of walking, particularly in the woods, and by extension a key benefit of maintaining public open space. She has been learning more about these benefits through research in the very same woods that I was visiting in order to fine-tune the forest-ecology exploration I will be repeating in the autumn.


Humorist Bill Bryson has written a very different book with a similar title, which I have read with students in another context and that I highly recommend -- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Squaring History

Amidst the jumble of place names strewn across this scene from a busy part of the Belgian capital is symbolic but hard-won effort to right -- albeit in a very small way -- an historic wrong of European colonialism in Africa.

The square recognizes the 1960 independence of the Belgian Congo -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- by honoring Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. In 2018, officials in Brussels renamed Bastion Square in his honor; as of this writing, Google Earth continues to use both names.

As reported by Times journalist Milan Schreuer, the honor is in stark contrast to the brutality of Belgium in the Congo in general and of its treatment of Lumumba in particular. That he would be honored in a neighborhood that is both in the metropol and populated by many of his compatriots gives the irony of the honor a spatial manifestation.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo in New York in 1960.
Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Coffee Prices Under Water

I welcome this story from NPR's Planet Money journalists Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith, in which they draw attention to the perilously low prices of coffee.

Image (as seen in my family's dining room)
By Oliver Ray
They rightly ask why prices paid to farmers can be so low when retail prices for coffee drinks is increasing. The answers they provide are correct, as far as they go, and include one that I had not thought of: coffee itself constitutes a shrinking proportion of what is in a typical retail cup of coffee, as concoctions involving milks, creams, sugars and syrups become more popular.

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised that as a Coffee Maven, I have several caveats:
  • The story focuses on Colombia, which is an important producer, and Brazil, which is the biggest. Production trends in these countries certainly are important. They neglect to mention Vietnam, where the World Bank has promoted high-volume, low-quality production. Its rapid move to second place about two decades ago continues to disrupt the market, while causing environmental problems and not providing much benefit to farmers in Vietnam itself.
  • At $1.08/pound, the current price in Colombia, though low, is a bit higher than the most commonly used benchmark price, which is $0.94. Readers of this blog can always find the benchmark price at the top-left of this page, courtesy of a widget from Investing.com.
  • These prices refer to the export price -- coffee as it gets placed on a ship in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, or any producing country. Most farmers are several steps removed from this, and must work through a series of middlemen (they are always men), including unscrupulous ones known as coyotes. Unless they are involved in a fair-trade or direct-trade contract, farmers will see only a fraction of the export price.
  • Farm workers will earn even less if they do not own the farm. Harvesting coffee pays the equivalent of a nickel or so per pound.
  • Just as the piece focuses on Colombia as a producer, it also focuses on a single retailer: Starbucks. It is indeed important, but in many ways not representative of the retail side of the industry.
  • And finally, a small mistake that is often made. The story references the New York Stock Exchange, which facilitates public trade in equities (stocks) that constitute corporations. Coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange, also known as the C Market. The operation of this market is explained in the very important film Black Gold, which I mention in various contexts throughout many posts on this blog.
Still, this story is an important one, and I am very glad to hear it told to an audience beyond my small orbit. Please scroll up and give a listen!

And always remember: #thankthefarmers

Dam Problems

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. Journalism can also serve as a window on geography. That is often the case with the work of journalist (and fellow employee of Massachusetts public higher education) Steve Curwood. The view is amplified by the journalists and scholars he brings onto his show, Living on Earth.
I recently found his January 2018 conversation with environmental journalist Fred Pearce is an excellent example. Wetlands are seasonally inundated areas that play a vital role in ecosystems throughout the world.

In the segment (13 minutes) entitled African Dams Dry Up Wetlands & Local Jobs, Pearce explains the causes and consequences of wetland losses in several parts of Africa. His emphasis is on the lost of riparian wetlands lost as annual floods are eliminated by the construction of dams. The conversation illustrates how environmental problems interact with economic security, migration, and even national security. He links the loss of wetlands to decisions about migration on the part of people who would have much preferred to stay home.
Manantali Dam, Senegal River Basin
The conversation also reminds us that although climate change has wide-reaching consequences, it is not always the primary driver of environmental problems. Sadly, humans have no shortage of ways to disrupt the natural systems upon which we depend.


The very first project initiated by the World Bank was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which created electricity and extended growing seasons, but disrupted the floods that had supported Egyptian civilizations for thousands of years and made farmers there dependent on chemical fertilizers. It would be the first of many dams that came to symbolize the arrogance of Rostovian  development theory (simply build infrastructure and everything will improve).

Dams featured prominently in the very first book I read as a geography student, and small dams were essential parts of my master's thesis, Source-area erosion rates in areas tributary to Miami Whitewater Lake (Ohio). Finally, this blog includes the story of the Rio Doce, a dam failure in Brazil that did incalculable damage.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mexican Countries

By now, this screenshot will be familiar to many:

FOX NEWS screenshot with title: "Trump Cuts U.S. Aid to 3 Mexican Countries"
Fox News screenshot, as reported by Newsweek
and everybody else.
This filled my weekend newsfeed, an some have asked for my thoughts on it. Here is what I posted in response to a query from a BSU alumnus:

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order, other than the first:
  • I am glad so many of my friends thought of my efforts in geographic education when they saw this.
  • I am also reminded that our most prolific geographer -- the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij -- told us that he wrote 1,000 letters a year to public officials and the editors of various programs and publications about errors of this kind or erroneous maps. Some stand out more than others, but many are made. Dr. de Blij, incidentally, was the first person to put a map of Kuwait on television when Iraq invaded it; he knew instantly that it would be an example of Americans learning geography through war.

And some more thoughts:

  • We wonder why Americans are so bad at geography, but we don't actually teach it much. The world is big and complicated; it needs more than a quick class in middle school. Massachusetts is about to increase it from a miniscule part of the curriculum to a tiny part. We need more, but someone in state government is working very hard against us.
  • It remains illegal to become a certified high-school geography teacher in Massachusetts.
  • Seeing this post did motivate me to get the publicity together for our next advocacy day (April 17, 2019) at the State House.

Photo by BSU Alumna Ashley (Costa) Harris
Massachusetts State House 2012
As published in National Geographic's
Geography for Life
And two more thoughts about the story:
  • The xenophobia of the people involved is giving the quote more attention.
  • The attention is a distraction from the important part of the story, which is the application of hamfisted negotiation tactics to a matter of extreme complexity in the international sphere.

My doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies can now be called Mexico & Stuff.


The essential site Latino Rebels provides an antidote to the ignorance, in the form of a map (hurrah!) and a poem that is as instructive as it is tragic: Central American (In)Visibility.

Map: Latino Rebels

Saturday, March 16, 2019


OrangesOranges by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always tell my students -- and anyone else who might listen -- that reading is the key to good writing. As I read Oranges, I realized that reading the work of John McPhee is an especially good way to improve one's writing. He is often credited as the forebear of the entire genre of creative nonfiction, and this early work (his third book, published in 1967) puts his gift for clarity on display.

Another of his books (Encounters with the Archdruid) was assigned in the first geography course I ever took, and another (Rising from the Plains) was the first book given to me as a gift by a professor. I thoroughly enjoyed those and a half-dozen more, but I always felt I was missing something important when I would see him described as the author of just one book: Oranges.

During a sabbatical that is ostensibly about a lot of other things, I decided that I should give myself the gift of taking the time to read this book that has been lurking at the edges of my attention for three decades. In 150 short pages, McPhee shows that behind the seemingly ordinary -- a piece of fruit or a glass of juice -- is a story much broader than most people know. The geography, agronomy, and economy of oranges is fascinating and complex; in his straightforward narrative style, McPhee answers questions about oranges that we did not know we had.

A half-century after publication, some details certainly have changed, but I recommend beginning the story of oranges with this book. The book does fail the test of time in one noticeable way: McPhee describes an industry entirely devoid of women, except as customers, and makes no comment about that imbalance. That he did not notice this in 1966 is not surprising, but some of the examples should have been mentioned in his 2000 preface.

All of the other McPhee books I have read are told from the point of view of biography. He writes about environmental ethics by introducing us to an environmentalist; he begins a geology story with the biography of a woman whose grandson would become a geologist; the world's shipping industry is seen from the point of view of an ordinary sailor. He does tell parts of the story of Oranges through the biographies of orange growers, scientists and marketers. The overall story, however, is told as autobiography. That is, he describes his own journey of exploration in an engaging, first-person narrative so that the reader is learning as he learns, as if peering over his shoulder. In this way, he teaches us not only good writing but also good research.

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Standing Up By Sitting Down

Remembering a productive crime committed by nine black men on this date in 1960. The real crime, of course, was that sitting in a diner was considered a crime. In journalist Leoneda Inge's report on the anniversary, Clyde Perry describe segregated public services as something that was part of everyday experience when he was growing up in North Carolina. Nonetheless, the time had come to challenge those norms, so they did what was both right and unlawful.

This story describes how Chapel Hill -- especially the public library -- continues to honor their bravery. The local public-radio version of the story provides a bit more detail.
The four surviving members pose near the site of the former lunch counter.
L-R: Albert Williams, David Mason, Jr., Jim Merritt and Clyde Perry
Photo: Leoneda Inge, WUNC 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

From Eswatini to Flatbush

The Ezulwini Valley in the Kingdom of Eswatini, a.k.a. Swaziland
I am learning from many sources during my Africa sabbatical, and today's lesson was truly unexpected. On the way to my morning row, I caught -- as I often do -- a few minutes of The New Yorker Radio Hour. From this I learned that the actor Richard E. Grant -- of whom I have been only vaguely aware -- is, like me, somewhat smitten with a certain young entertainer from Flatbush.

No, not that one. She's from Minnesota. The one who is young for a person born a year before my parents were. New Yorker contributor Rachel Syme tells the story of Grant's passion for Barbra in a very geographic way, taking him to Streisand landmarks in New York City and sharing the story of the time he invited her to use his family's home in the Esulwini .  Valley as a retreat from the madding crowd.

Hear the entire charming tale at Dear Barbra, It's Me, Richard E. Grant.

Bamako, The Trial

As part of my Africa sabbatical, I have been exploring quite a few works related Mali and its neighbors along the Niger River. The 2006 film Bamako somehow got onto my list, and by the time the DVD arrived from Netflix, I had forgotten exactly why. Seeing the title, I assumed it had something to do with the music festivals for which that city was once known.

This impression was reinforced by the opening scene in which Senegal-born actress Aïssa Maïga portrays the lounge singer Melé, but I soon realized that this would be a very different sort of film than I expected. The film takes place in a wide courtyard near her family's home, and intertwines local and global stories of dysfunction.

While a tragedy involving Melé's husband unfolds, characters walk back and forth through some sort of legal proceedings. The exact nature of the legalities are not revealed until almost a full hour into this two-hour film; the audience becomes aware only gradually how the trial connects the lived experience of Africans with the policies that shape that experience from very far away.

The film has several valuable soliloquies, delivered both by African and European speakers. Each is a well-crafted indictment (or in one case defense) of the status quo that should be heard in its entirety. The best single line comes during closing arguments:
"We cannot throw Paul Wolfowitz into the Niger (River). The caimans (alligators) wouldn't want him."
The alternative i

I recommend seeking the DVD from Netflix or Amazon, as I do not know of a legitimate streaming source. At least at the moment, however, the entire film is on YouTube.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Toto's Rains of Africa

Early in my Africa sabbatical, I spent about 15 minutes going down the rabbit hole of the eponymous 1981 song by Toto. I reemerged quickly, but the song is still with me, consarnit! In a undoubtedly vain effort to stop it from playing in my head before I board a plane to Africa next month, I'm returning to that rabbit hole for a bit, this time bringing along any willing readers.

After all, if a serious public intellectual like Meghna Chakrabarti can devote 26 giggling minutes of her show to the questions raised by Weezer's unfortunate cover of the song (and the Twitter campaign that made it inevitable), I can justify a couple hours delving into some geographic considerations.

This Radio Boston program aired in August 2018, just before I was to teach  GEOG 388 -- Africa: People, Resources, Development for the first time. Because I somehow ended up teaching the course before the sabbatical in which I would plan the course, I grasped at more than a few straws for content, and playing the original music video on the first day was one of these straws.

I did so by waying of highlighting the fact that in the United States Africa exists primarily as a vague cluster of stereotypes, rather than the world's second-biggest continent. The original MTV video has two things to recommend it: is set in an imaginatively-staged library and it features a globe. Its connection to Africa is in the form of overworked and disjointed tropes.

This may be seen as ironic -- just as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" was explicitly not "about" its subject, so too "Africa" has nothing to do with the place it names. The irony is celebrated by Namibian artist Max Siedentopf, who is -- as you read this -- playing "Africa" in Africa. Specifically, he has installed an armored, solar-powered, omni-directional speaker system that plays the song on infinite loop in an undisclosed location in the tractless Namib desert. He chose the oldest desert in the world, and though it is not as big as the Sahara, its very name means "vast," so that Toto has a good chance of playing for years without being heard.

BBC's report on this installation is what started me down this rabbit hole back in January, starting with a link to another BBC article about the surprising endurance of the song and its malleability into memes and parodies. By hiding the song in plain sight in a tangible but unknown place in Africa itself, Siedentopf in part reclaims continent's ownership of its own discourse. He disrupts -- or at least interrogates -- the problematic imbalance between the narrator and the periphery that is "down in" his subject.


It was from the reporting of Meghna Chakrabarti that I learned that "Africa" is an exemplar -- perhaps the exemplar -- of something known as yacht rock, a genre whose name derived from an internet television program produced only after the genre had been put to rest. Catchy tunes and vacuous lyricare hallmarks of yacht rock. This explains the longevity of a song that nobody can -- or even tries to -- explain.
I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in, 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(Ah, gonna take the time)
Gonna take some time to do the things we never hadSongwriters: David Paich / Jeff PorcaroAfrica lyrics © Spirit Music Group

Coming the lyrics for geographic meaning, I find nothing more significant than a weak metaphor involving Kilimanjaro. I am still likely, however to play this song on opening day of my next GEOG 388 section in September.


In my "research" for this post, I learned of the existence of this artifact, an Africa picture disk. Rather than plunking $275 to buy one for a phonography I no longer own, I will share this virtual version.

Final Note (for now)

In the opening paragraph, I mention my upcoming trip "to Africa," reinforcing the common representation of it as a single place. It is, of course, a continent of 55 countries over a billion people, so I should be a bit more specific. I will be visiting Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban Maseru, and Johannesburg.

I will be carrying with me a giant National Geographic floor map of the entire continent to do some school programs while learning what I can of the geography of its southernmost edge. This blog, of course, will feature some of what I learn.

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