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.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Is the red marker on land or in the water?
Image: captured from Google Maps, May 2017
Click to pan, zoom, and compare in future
The short answer is: yes.

This area south of New Orleans is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, and is a stark reminder of the fragility of coastal margins. The marker indicates the community of Terrebonne Bay, which has always been closely associated with the water, but whose very existence is now threatened by it.

In just four minutes, journalist Larry Yeoman paints a compelling word picture of this community, and explains the complex causes of its vulnerability to climate change. Local food production is becoming impossible, and both the diet and the fabric of a local community is being disrupted by forces both local and global.

This is, unfortunately, an example of what Dr. Mary Robinson -- former president of Ireland and now crusader for climate justice and honorary geographer -- describes as the geography of vulnerability.

Lagniappe (a Louisiana tradition that I often honor in this blog)

Terrebonne Bay is south not only of New Orleans (not shown), but also of Thibodaux (tib-uh-DOH), made famous by Hank Williams, The Carpenters, and my own Male Bonding Band in the song Jambalaya.

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