Tuesday, September 28, 2021


 If you have only one hour to learn about the history of the United States, I recommend that you spend it with Betty Reid Soskin, National Park Service Ranger. 

I learned about Ranger Betty as many other people did, as the entire National Park Service -- which recently celebrated its own centennial -- celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion came to my attention in several different ways over a couple of days. The most fun, of course, was the item above from the impish creatives at NPS Lego Vignettes, from whom I literally learn something new every day.

She is a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California. Her personal history is so deeply entwined in the mission and purposes of the park that they have created an entire web page for this particular ranger. The Betty Reid Soskin page includes a schedule of the presentations she gives on site, a biography focused on her relationship to the park and most importantly, that one-hour video I reference in the opening lines above. 

She is shown sitting as I've seen many other rangers do, on a kitchen stool at the front of a small theater full of visitors. She introduces the park and the park's main documentary video. The hour spent with her includes about 20 minutes with that professionally produced film. It begins, however, with her presenting both a general introduction to the concept of urban national parks and her own connection to this one. After the film is when the real learning happens; in a series of firm but gentle steps, she guides listeners from a superficial understanding of what the home front was all about to a deeper understanding of how that reality was shaped by race and how that might be relevant today.

Spoiler alert: a key turning point in the life of Ranger Betty Soskin was the evacuation of her family from a flood that ravaged much of Louisiana. Most of us were not aware of it until after Katrina in 2005, though Randy Newman ... and later Aaron Neville ... told us all about it in Louisiana 1927, first released in 1974.


If you have more time to devote to learning about the Great Migration that is a big part of Ranger Betty Soskin's story, I highly recommend Isabelle Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. She focuses on the stories of three families in order to provide deep glimpses into the vast and complicated story in which millions of Americans moved over a period of half a century. For a link to the book and my own thoughts on it, please see my Warmth of Other Suns review on Goodreads.

I found the Ranger Betty video while I was looking for material about this book; I found it a bit after the fact. Wilkerson was featured on the TED Radio Hour, which includes a conversation with her and a link to her TED Talk.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP

Shortly after we arrived at BSU, a retirement gave me an opportunity to teach a course about Land Protection, while two outside events helped to shape the way I would teach it for the next two decades. One was the publication of Thoreau's Country and the other was the establishment of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

The namesakes of the park, courtesy of 
NPS Lego Vignettes

Each of these has shaped what we do in class, but more importantly they have given us places to go for the exploration of the interactions among forest ecology, land protection, and conservation. I teach the course every other year; the park in Vermont is a lot for a day trip, so I have only taken about half of those classes there. I have much more success getting the classes to Harvard Forest, which is managed by David Foster, the author of the book Thoreau's Country mentioned above.

Bothe places have extensive hiking trails that I have walked with local experts often enough that I can share some of the lessons to be learned among the trees. Both also have incredible indoor spaces that will not be part of our 2021 course as they remain closed to the public. When we return to normal -- and we will -- I highly recommend the Fisher Museum in Petersham and the mansion in Woodstock.

To learn more about the Marsh-Billings property from afar, I recommend the very cursory encyclopedia article I wrote in 2000 and copied onto my website, as well as A Place in the Land, which is a bit more interesting than its trailer suggests. It provides glimpses of some of the amazing artworks that were collected by the families who lived there and that are essential parts of the story of conservation in the United States.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Four Minutes on Fire

 By the title above, I mean both that this is literally a four-minute story about fire and figuratively that it is "on fire" in the sense that it conveys a lot of knowledge in a very short amount of time. Please give a listen:

Journalist Lauren Sommer and the experts she interviews convey not only the ecological importance of prescribed burns as part of long-term fire control but also the great variability in the legal and cultural context of these practices across the United States. 

Fortunately, land managers in dangerously fire-prone regions are starting to seek the expertise of those with long experience in controlled burns in other regions. Because the story also mentions the legal and financial considerations of burning on privately-held land, this is now required listening in my Land Protection class.

Controlled burn in Georgia. Photo: Morgan Varner

Thursday, August 19, 2021


Photo: David Grunfield for NOLA.com

A private home in New Orleans has an interesting geography and a problematic history, as it pays homage to a work that symbolizes the Lost Cause revisionist history of the U.S. Civil War.

As Mike Scott writes in The original Tara may be gone with the wind, but the look lives on in New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue, the house was built when Gone with the Wind was wildly popular despite its Lost Cause ideology. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Original Tree Huggers

The original tree huggers were also loggers.
~~ Dr. Hayes-Bohanan to many students

Chipko in Uttar Pradesh (now called Uttarakhand) in 1973.
India Times by way of Wikimedia.

That is -- as I acknowledge to those students -- a bit of an overstatement. But only a bit. 

The term treehuggers became known throughout the world because of the activism of women and men in northern India who were not exactly loggers, but nor were they opposed to cutting down trees.

Regular readers of this space will know that I like to learn about geography -- and everything else -- through biography. Years ago, this led me to start reading the works of John McPhee, which I continue to do. 

More recently, this has led me to the extraordinary journalism of BBC Witness History. As an educator, I try to learn something new every day. As a BBC listener, this often happens between 4:50 and 4:59 a.m. In just 9 minutes each morning, BBC journalists connect us to people who have been directly involved in important trends and events.

In this case, the story is told very well in the segment Chipko: India’s tree-hugging women, in which Viv Jones interviews chipko activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. Their conversation addresses the difference between timber mining and sustainable use of the forest. They use the term "timber mining" to describe the large-scale harvesting that was favored by the Indian government. Meanwhile, post-colonial restrictions sometimes precluded the use of the same forests for firewood, animal fodder, and medicinal uses.

The interview describes how this injustice led to creative and determined action -- first locally and then throughout the world. As with many environmental victories, though, past gains are now threatened by climate-related setbacks. I first realized this almost a decade ago, as I wrote in the 2012 post Cochabamba Continued and subsequent items on retreating glaciers.


This story reminded me of Julia Butterfly Hill, who famously occupied a redwood tree to protect a forest. It turns out that she was a guest on 2014 -- probably the only one I've met personally. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Paris Noir


As reported in the New York Times (really, it was), I met the love of my life in French class over 35 years ago. The reporter kindly glossed over the fact that I was a terrible student in that class, barely showing up often enough to have met anyone.

A silver lining to this pandemic period has been that I made the time to return to those French lessons, via the Duolingo phone app. That silly chouette verte has ... by insistence on daily lessons ... brought me to a reasonable level of ability over the past 462 consecutive days. 

Once a certain level of understanding is reached from the short, interactive lessons, Duolingo offers podcasts that allow for more sustained listening to native speakers. These are available in French and Spanish to learners who speak English, and in English to learners who speak Spanish or Portuguese.

These are like podcasts with training wheels -- in the French version, each story is introduced in English with enough intermittent commentary in English to keep a language learner listening. It is easy to repeat a passage or to read along in a transcript. The stories are told by a great variety of speakers from different parts of the francophone world, and I have found a lot of the stories quite engaging. 

Among these is Episode 43: Une visite guidée du Paris noir (A Tour of Black Paris), which has particular appeal to me as a geographer. It is in fact, the first podcast episode I have found here or anywhere that comes with its own Google map. I was happy to see this, since I create my own Google maps for blog posts, lectures, or even family vacations. 

The beauty of these maps is that they are dynamic -- while listening to the podcast, listeners can pan, zoom, use Street View or explore photos and web sites others have attached to the Paris Noir map. Each of the five featured locations includes the author's notations and a timestamp to find one's way back to the corresponding section of the audio.

This is a static image I grabbed from the map to help draw attention to this post and also to point out one bit of geographic nomenclature that is mentioned in the story but not explained. The Left Bank is a widely-heard term for an area of Paris that includes the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne, and all of the places mentioned in this tour. On any river, the left bank is the area that would be to the left of the river from the point of view of a vessel moving downstream, and the right bank is the opposite. From this one can surmise that the Seine flows from southeast to northwest across this particular scene; explore the dynamic map to follow it from its sources and to the sea.

The tour mentions a lot of interesting details about people and places in Paris itself, of course, and also draws attention to a couple of broader ideas. One is the idea of metropolitan France; in some contexts, the word "metropole" refers to any of the European places that were the seats of empires. It is essentially the opposite of colonies. But Métropole can refer more specifically to continental France, since many former colonies are today part of the Republic. Listeners to the Duolingo podcasts are introduced to many speakers who are from the areas of the Republic outside of the continent as well as former colonies that are fully independent but still connected by history, migration, and familial ties.

The episode also explores blackness and négritude as identities that listeners in the United States might -- and do -- confuse with African American identity. An important chapter in the history of 20th century black identity, of course, is the role of Paris as a refuge for black artists and intellectuals from the United States, such as Duke Ellington and James Baldwin. As the Coffee Maven, I cannot help but notice the central role of cafés in this part of the story. 

Silver lining: Because of the global pandemic, our plans to visit Paris in 2020 were postponed and then canceled. But I've been working on the language, and the European tour we planned around a family wedding is going to happen. As disappointed as I am about the delay, I am glad I learned about this tour before we eventually go. We will definitely take Kevi Donat's full tour, and meanwhile I will follow him on Instagram

When I go, I especially look forward to Café Tournon. Even though Duke Ellington was born in the same hospital as I was, though he and I were not on the same floor. We were separated both by decades and by Jim Crow. In Café Tournon and the rest of Paris, he was free to sit wherever he cared to.


I recommend this whole series of podcasts to anybody who understands a little French, even if they do not need the language practice. Another recent favorite is Changer du Camp (Switching Sides), the story of a young man from Cameroon who studied geography and used it to make a real difference for the world's palm forests. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Whose Air

Weekend Edition Sunday recently included a conversation between journalist extraordinaire Lulu Garcia-Navarro and filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman. His 2020 film Chuj Boys of Summer explores the experiences of several high-school friends who had moved to Telluride from Guatemala. They discuss how the film emerged from those friendships.

The short film is almost entirely in Chuj, the language spoken in Guatemala and now in Colorado. The film captures the increasingly common experience of migrants who are linguistically two steps removed from the communities they are entering. Even those who are attempting to welcome them are sometimes oblivious to the fact that they do not speak Spanish.

More profoundly, the film addresses the notion of belonging: to whom do the hills and the air of a place blong? Are we willing to divide people -- not only from each other but from their very personhood -- in the interest of reducing the price of work?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Coffee Jeopardy

As soon as I learned about Jeopardy Labs from a colleague, I started working on a game to share with students and the public. The site was developed by a programmer when he was an undergraduate at Washington State University. 

The subject of my first Jeopardy game, of course, is coffee.

For complete game functionality, click below:

Coffee Geographies @ Jeopardy Labs

I look forward to using this in my coffee seminar next spring -- until then it is available for individuals to test their knowledge of coffee alone or perhaps in Zoom calls with friends and family.

Stay tuned: I will probably make a climate-change game next.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Symphonic Spring

 As I listen to the symphony of birds this late-spring morning, I am grateful to Rachel Carson, who shares a birthday today with my favorite librarian. We have both been influenced greatly by Rachel and owe her a debt of gratitude for her courage. 

Her work on Silent Spring was inspired by a letter that came from just about 10 miles east of where we sit -- a woman concerned that the protected bird habitat near her home had fallen silent because of indiscriminate spraying of pesticides. That letter was to inspire the rest of her life's work, and much of ours. Please see the important messages below from A Mighty Girl, as well as more on Rachel Carson from this blog and from Pamela's library blog.

Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Protecting Land: A Geography Course

This post is an invitation to Bridgewater State University students to consider signing up for a course on Land Protection that I am offering in the fall 2021 semester, as I have about once every two years -- always in autumn semesters -- since 1999.

For those readers who are not BSU students, I offer this post as a glimpse into the way I connect environmental geography to public policy in my teaching.

When I arrived at Bridgewater in 1997, the same course was called Management and Preservation of the Natural Environment. If that sounds like a name arrived at by a committee, it is because it probably was. The course served not only students in geography, but also students in environmental management (which is no longer on the books), biology, and anthropology.

I was pleased that such a course existed, and though I have made it my own, it does follow some of the themes established by Professor Emeritus Reed Stewart over the years he taught it. Students who come to this course from varied backgrounds learn about conservation easements and other tools useful for the long-term management of land. Many examples are from New England, but the rest of the U.S. and some international cases are also studied. We also learn from each other, as this course attracts students with a variety of environmental interests and background.

The shorter title conveys, I hope, all of these outcomes more succinctly.
Since I began teaching this course in 2000, field trips have been an important part of the experience. We have been fortunate to visit properties that are of both historic and scientific interest that are directly connected to the course readings. This year we are fortunate to be adding two local field trips for the first time.

The field trips have always required a bit of extra planning, and in this "unprecedented" year the planning is a bit more complicated because of the uncertainty of re-opening plans. As of late May, I am optimistic, but nothing is certain just yet. For this reason, I am making the syllabus available and am including details both about the field trips and about the considerations related to Covid-19. Please see the GEOG 332 course syllabus for details now and throughout the summer ... and let me know if you have any questions about the course.

How does a wall get built in a forest? Short answer: it doesn't.
Students who complete this course can give a much more
thorough (and Thoreau!) answer and explain why it matters.
(Photo was taken during a Harvard Forest field trip in this class.)


I am very pleased that for the first time we will be including a local farm (the Maribett Farm) in the course -- either in person or virtually (see Covid-19 details in syllabus). The farm is connected to some of the land-protection and conservation practices I employ at my home in Bridgewater. The farm itself was established using some of the provisions we discuss throughout the course, by which a property seller can influence future land-management decisions. In this case, the family whose land was to become the farm was the family of Dr. Reed Stewart -- the emeritus professor who created this class! It will be an honor to learn how his family's vision helped to shape what continues to be a model of environmental stewardship.

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