Monday, March 29, 2010

Lone Star Pilgrims

Texas is big. Really big. Some of the counties would make decent states if they were in New England. When I drove 108 miles each way to teach a night class (from Pharr to Alice and back to Pharr), I spent much of that time driving through one ranch. That ranch -- the King Ranch -- has its own Chevy truck edition.

I lived in Texas for three years, and I've now been in Massachusetts for almost 13. (It is easy to keep track, since our daughter was born practically 5 minutes after our moving truck arrived.) During those three brief years, we learned quite a bit about Texas and got to visit many parts of it, especially since driving out of the state in almost any direction required more than a day of driving (except due South -- Mexico in 10 minutes from our house). We visited every county in West Texas, for example.

Aside from NPR, I used to get a lot of my local information from Texas Monthly, which featured ads and articles that were clearly aimed at people who would get on an airplane to go shopping or visit a museum or restaurant elsewhere in the state. We were in Texas just long enough that we were starting to become those people. We once drove 250 miles round-trip to see the Nutcracker with some friends, and we did fly to Ft. Worth (pronounced "fo-at wuth")  to see an exhibit of landscape prints. Did I mention it is a big state?

Today, however, I get a lot of my local news from the Boston Globe, the daily digest of the Hub of the Universe (where a friend of mine is a brilliant editor). From the article 21st-century pioneers, I learned about Texarrakis -- the ambitious project of four young Bostonians who are about to find out just how big West Texas is. One of them purchased over 8 square miles of west Texas on eBay for about the cost of a decent couch. To purchase that much land in Greater Boston would set you back billions of dollars, and the process would have you tied up with lawyers for the rest of your natural life.

But land is plentiful in West Texas, giving these four friends a chance to learn a lot about living close to the land and -- through their various electronic outlets -- sharing what they learn with the rest of us.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Coffee & Climate change

As most people who know me already know, I use coffee to teach geography, and geography to teach coffee. Murray Carpenter's report from the World Coffee Conference in Guatemala (sadly, I was not there), does exactly what I strive for: it uses coffee as a lesson on climate change.

When I visit coffee farms in Nicaragua, I am sometimes asked, "What are you doing about climate change?" As Carpenter's story points out, the mountains are pointy, so going up is not necessarily an option. And coffee requires a great deal of specialized knowledge, hard work, and patience. So even if a changing climate results in suitable microclimates in new locations, good coffee will not automatically follow.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Atlas, Schmatlas

Written by a non-geographer, Craig Robinson's Atlas Schmatlas nonetheless reveals a rather subtle understanding of the discipline. It is bitterly satirical -- a sort of South Park meets National Geographic -- sending up stereotypes in ways both profane and irreverent.

The entries are very uneven -- deliberately so, it seems, but some are spot-on. I particularly enjoyed entries for some of the places I know fairly well, such as Brazil and Nicaragua (neither of which is included among the excerpts on the web site). As with any good satire, it is guaranteed to offend -- even I was offended by some passages -- but the overall result is thought-provoking and, well, funny.

Monday, March 15, 2010

M*A*S*H and Coffee

I enjoy films. A lot. I had the good fortune of taking a Brazilian cinema course in graduate school, from which I learned that I could learn a lot while enjoying movies. I assign films to my students, and I have created a modest page of favorite films.

Just recently, I realized that I should create a separate page for films related to coffee and tea. The page includes documentaries and a few film and television favorites. The first of these is M*A*S*H (the series, not the film), because references to bad coffee arise frequently. One of Major Houlihan's most memorable lines, in fact, relates to coffee.

Readers of this blog are invited to post some of their favorite coffee references. Please use the "comments" link to share, and include the season and episode if you have it handy. M*A*S*H is the only television series for which my family has the complete boxed set, so we will enjoy looking up the references. (See the episode guide on for some assistance.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coffee vs. Tea Parties

As many of my friends, students, and colleagues know, I have become quite interested in the geography of coffee in recent years. In just the past few months, I have also been studying tea, as I prepare to write a two-volume book about the geography of both beverages. For me, that geography extends all the way from the growing regions -- mainly in low-latitude/high-altitude regions in developing countries -- to the corner coffee and tea shops throughout the world.

Because of my interest in these beverages and how the shops can relate to sense of place -- and because I am a bit of a political junkie -- I have been very interested in the growing use of the beverages in political discourse. It started with the Tea Party movement on the right, which has now generated the center-left Coffee Party. Ironically, though both beverages have long been associated with good conversation, only one of these movements has been genuinely interested in dialog and community-building. This CNN story is a good description of the counter-movement. (Pun intended.)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Florida Day

Yesterday was Florida Day -- the Sunshine State is 165 years young! As with all the states this year, my wife and soul-mate Pam is celebrating with munchies, movies, and manuscripts. In this case, I very much enjoyed the food and enjoyed her company during the movie. See her post and my comment, which includes a link back to my own Florida page.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Puerto Rico day

Puerto Rico is neither a state nor a country, so it is difficult to declare a "statehood" or "independence" day. For her Celebrating the States blog -- an elaborate, year-long celebration of statehood anniversaries -- my wife Pam (librarian and honorary geographer) has chosen March 2. Read her post for an explanation of that choice and a very good explanation of Puerto Rico's status, along with a discussion of our personal connection to the island through our late dog, Clover.

Read my addition in the Comments section. It is no coincidence that the project I did in Puerto Rico (without ever visiting) was for a shampoo factory. More specifically, it was for medicinal, delousing shampoo. Tax incentives meant to stimulate the Puerto Rican economy have made Puerto Rico an important enclave for Big Pharma. Research and development done in the 50 states (a lot of it in New Jersey, as was the case with our client) while the manufacturing is done in Puerto Rico.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Inevitably, the Geography of Tea

For the past ten years, I have become increasingly interested in coffee. Far from being an expert, I have been able to learn quite a lot, and I enjoy bringing what I've learned to my students and to general audiences at libraries, civic organizations, and online. Sometimes, people would ask why I do not teach about tea, and I would reply that it is because I do not know anything about it.

That is now beginning to change. Thanks to a new book contract, I am starting to learn more than I ever thought possible about the geography of tea, and I will be learning even more over the next couple of years. As I did with coffee, I am starting with a very modest little web site about tea, which I expect will grow over time, as I learn more and wish to share it.

The whole experience just reinforces one key idea: everything has a geography!