Friday, February 03, 2023

Legislative Action


When I make memes about education, I usually put them in my own Aw, Professor format. I was moved to make my first Two Red Button meme, however, when I learned of the alacrity with which the Massachusetts General Court* moved to address the apparent paucity of venues for sports gambling in the Commonwealth*.

The news came as I have been struggling against geographic illiteracy, which seems to have become even more severe than it was before the pandemic.  If only the General Court had  ways of addressing both problems!

It turns out that it did, but chose not to. In 2011, following an EarthView visit to the historic State House, the only Representative with a geography degree helped us to file An Act Relative to Geography Education.

This was a relatively simple bill that called a symbolic geography day each year and for a commission to investigate the status of geography education in the Commonwealth. We garnered sponsors in both parties and both houses of the Legislature. With testimony from educators and students, we won a favorable report from the Joint Committee on Education -- again, with support from both houses and both parties. Even though this was explicitly a no-cost bill, the Senate Ways & Means Committee refused to advance the bill to a vote. In a subsequent session, we got through that committee, only to be thwarted by the Senate Committee on Bills in the Third Reading. That is an actual thing -- a very small group of legislators that party leaders can use to prevent anything they do not like from getting to a full vote.

This drama played out in the 187th Session of the General Court. It happened again, with small variations in the details, in the 188th, 189th, and 190th session. During those four sessions, my fellow geography educators and I met many legislators and their staff members. We even spoke about it on AM talk radio, though we were not welcomed on local public radio. 

We did not manage, by the way, to have any conversations with either of the governors who were in office during this time. Our one meeting with the first Massachusetts Secretary of Education took place the day before he took office, and he told us there was nothing he could do. Except draw a salary, apparently. He went on to be a "professor" at Harvard, which is infamously opposed to the study of geography.

We have never gotten a floor vote on the question of geographic literacy, and we have not tried in the past two sessions. I honestly think we would win such a vote, which is why someone in the bureaucracy has worked so hard against us. 

Maybe we need to work the word "casino" into the title of our next bill.

*Note to people living in the other 49 states: I just used the pilgrim-era terms that we still use for "legislature" and "state" around here, where tradition is a big deal.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Case for Trees

 more precisely: The Case for a Tree Committee

Early in the summer of 2022, local friends asked me to provide expert testimony (their phrase, not mine) as an environmental geographer regarding a question of local governance. Although I always resist the "expert" label, I was pleased to be asked. As I thought about the topic, I was also pleasantly surprised at the number of ways in which my experience did qualify me to speak to the question at hand.

Posing in the Amazon with a tree we
would definitely not find in Bridgewater.
Photo: Cara Reed (2003)
That question, as suggested above, was whether to establish a tree committee for our town in southeastern Massachusetts, between Boston and the Cape of Cod. Readers outside of New England might not be aware of this, but our towns have a lot of self-governance, and this includes a lot of committees that would never be contemplated elsewhere in the world.

It turns out that almost half of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts have tree committees, with varying kinds of authority, and Bridgewater itself used to have one. A major responsibility of a reconstituted committee -- and the impetus for this discussion -- would be to guide plantings on public property, especially those that are mandated as a condition of other land-use changes. That is, if another town board or committee authorizes some clearing of trees in town, this committee might be called upon to provide for compensatory plantings on town land.

As part of a regularly scheduled public meeting of our Town Council, several people addressed the question of whether to form the tree committee -- all of us in the affirmative. As an environmental geographer whose teaching and research has involve forest ecology and political ecology, forest soils, and forest hydrology, I spoke to the general benefits of trees and to the importance of choosing the correct trees for a particular situation. My friend Marilee Hunt -- who is our Town Clerk and has much deeper experience than I with town governance -- provided a rich history of our town's conscious promotion of trees


I started this blog post right after the public meeting in June, because I thought my friend's comments would be instructive for my students and other readers. A lot happened to distract me from completing this post, but I return in January 2023 for an unexpected reason: our words were apparently convincing, the Tree Committee was indeed formed, and I have now been asked to apply to serve on it. Even if my application is approved, however, I will eschew that "expert" label. I reserve that honorific for real experts like my late friend Dr. Alan Bolt.

I am at best a student of trees.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Jet Stream Science

Recent flooding on the Salinas River near Chualar, California
Photo: David McNew via AFP/Getty/NPR

The photo above is from one of many stories that we will continue to find on NPR and elsewhere, about the series of storms that are pummeling California. The damage is made more severe by the fact that the storms followed a period of drought and fire and the fact that they are arriving in such rapid succession that soil has no time to dry. Many lessons about physical geography are playing out in very real terms. 

Among those lessons are the importance of the jet stream -- that very fast, sinusoidal wind current in the upper atmosphere that contributes so much variability to weather patterns in the midlatitudes, even in "normal" times. In a recent conversation my favorite environmental journalist Steve Curwood, climate scientist Jennifer Francis explains the importance of the jet stream in general and the ways it is now driving extreme weather in particular.

Climate-change deniers have often cited the complexity of the problem as an excuse for their disbelief -- or more precisely for the disbelief they tried to cultivate among those who would not read the original literature. As evidence has grown that the climate is not only growing warmer but also growing more variable, skeptics (including professional doubt-sowers) have pretended that scientists were changing the narrative to fit changing circumstances.

These weak arguments ignored the changing circumstances themselves and the fact that increased variability was mentioned in some of the earliest literature on the problem. I discuss this in a bit more detail in my 2017 post Early Warning and in my 2016 Your Cheatin' Climate. My 2012 post Frosty Denial describes the basic process of global warming itself -- I have never seen an argument that addresses these basic processes.


The climate-denial business has indeed been a business, as Leonardo DiCaprio explains so well in Before the Flood. In fact, the petroleum industry has understood the science so well -- despite their support for Congress Critters who continue to deny the facts -- that ExxonMobil internal documents predicted change better than most published papers

Monday, January 09, 2023

Detroit: Roll City


Image: Zairé Talon Daniels via NPR

Shortly after concluding the latest session of my Detroit: Arts City honors colloquium, I heard this delightful story on NPR's Morning Edition. Journalist Naina Rao reports on Detroit style skating, whereby Motown music combines with exercise to help build community.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Alan Bolt: Heart of the Forest

For a dozen years in a row -- until the political crisis of April 2018 -- I led students on travel courses to study coffee in Nicaragua. For all but the first two of those journeys, I was the leader from the point of view of my university, but the real leaders were the excellent guides of Matagalpa Tours, a company named for the place whose coffeelands I have come to know best. 

Each January we would lead another group to Matagalpa and to a growing list of other points of interest throughout the country - eventually spending time in every region except the Caribbean coast (which remains a goal). Each February we would begin the discussion of the next visit, and so it was that we added the neighboring department of Jinotega to the list. 

My interest in this area was because of the work of the martyred civil engineer Benjamin Linder -- you can read many Ben Linder posts on this blog and our (so far denied) proposal for a café in his honor on my web site. As my friends and I discussed sites related to Ben Linder's work, we also talked about where to stay and what to do nearby. 

This led us eventually to the Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza -CEN (Center of Understanding with Nature), the fantastically interdisciplinary constellation of projects whose leader, heart, and soul was the inimitable Dr. Alan Bolt. Sadly, this post is inspired by his passing on Monday of this week, almost ten years to the day after our first meeting.

During our first meeting, we were captivated by Alan's wide-ranging discourse on ecology, hydrology, the human condition, and so much more. Even the way he talked fascinated me -- more fluent in his second or third language than most people are in their first, and imbued with a curiosity that drew us ever further into his lessons and inquiries. I later learned that he had been a great thespian, having taught a generation of theater teachers before turning his attention to restoring the forest in which we found him. 

A student present at that first meeting was so captivated that he returned on his own for several weeks the following summer, and with other family members a few times after that. We returned to CEN as often as we could, using it not only as a base for further exploration of the legacy of Ben Linder but as a place to learn deep lessons about forest ecology and its connections to communities.

One at least two of our visits, we arrived at CEN with a student who was feeling ill -- not uncommon for people traveling for the first time to a new environment. In each case, Alan would interview the student in detail about how they were feeling and what they might have eaten or drank recently. Then he would ask one of his partners to go into the forest for some particular leaves, barks, and herbs. "I'm going to make you a tea," he would say softly. "Drink it all, rest, and then drink another." And it worked. He is not the only Nicaraguan I have seen do this -- my friend Doña Elsa would do something similar with herbs she had on hand.

Alan and the community he has cultivated are connected deeply to indigenous knowledge, western medicine, hydrology, ecology, public health, sustainable agriculture, and much more. I continue to use what I have learned from them in my own teaching, although politics and the pandemic have kept us apart in recent years.

I am ending this post with an obituary that has been circulating among those who knew Alan. It is in Spanish, of course, and it flows like poetry. Following that is my own translation, which lacks some of the nuance but I hope does justice to the intent of the writers. 

From a very brief video of Alan talking about the
importance of water. Even if you do not speak Spanish, 
this is a great example of his spirit as a teacher.

Alan Bolt González 

Nació el 8 de Mayo de 1951, hijo de Pinita González y Guillermo Bolt, el quinto de 9 hermanos, en la segunda mitad de los 60 se ganó una beca para estudiar física nuclear en Alemania, asunto que lo llevo al medio oriente, el teatro, la lucha de los palestinos, a su regreso formo el TEU Teatro Universitario en León, trabajo con Omar Cabezas, desde entonces vinculado a la lucha guerrillera, al triunfo fue vice ministro de Cultura, a su regreso a Matagalpa a inicios de los 80ś fundo El Grupo de Teatro Nixtayolero. 

Después del Huracán Mitch 1998 fundo lo que es conocido hoy como CEN "Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza" al pie del Macizo de Peñas Blancas, donde su pasión por el saber a educar sobre el cuido de las abejas como acción vital para salvar la polinización de las plantas, y con ello la selva y el planeta tierra. Un científico ávido, un ser espiritual, sensible y dotado de comprensión y sabiduría.

Datos biográficos cortesía de Alfredo González quien compartió con el gran parte de tiempo, se nos fue un gran Matagalpa, gran ser humano que impulso con éxito todo lo que hizo...

Dr. Alan Bolt

Alan Bolt González was born May 8, 1951, son of Pinita González and Guillermo Bolt, the fifth of nine siblings. In the second half of the 1960s he earned a scholarship to study nuclear physics in Germany, which connected him to the Middle East, to the theater, and to the fight for the Palestinians. On his return he formed the TEU Theatrical University in León (Nicaragua) and worked with Omar Cabezas, through whom he was connected to the guerilla uprising. At the triumph (of the revolution in 1979) he became Minister of Culture. On his return to Matagalpa at the beginning of the 1980s, he founded the Nixtayolero (indigenous) Theater Group.

After Hurricane Mitch in 1998 he founded what is now known as CEN (“Center for Understanding with Nature”) at the foot of the Peñas Blancas Massif, where his passion and knowledge and education about the care of bees inspired vital action to save plant pollination and with this the cloud forest and planet earth. He was an avid scientist, a spiritual and sensitive being with gifts of knowledge and wisdom. 

Biographical data courtesy of Alfredo González. 

A great Matagalpan has left those who shared part of his time – a great human being who pushed for excellence in all he did. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Returning to the Ernestina

December 28, 2022 EDIT 

Greetings from State Pier in New Bedford, where my son Harvey took this
nice photo on December 27, 2023 -- a couple weeks after the
Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey returned to its permanent home.

When I posted this photo on Facebook and Instagram, I promised to post comments with some details related to this boat and my teaching. I then realized I had a lot to say, so the comments will point to this post (which will probably evolve in coming days).

In the original post, I mentioned undergraduate research I have been mentoring and two courses I will be teaching in 2023. None of these will be on board the Ernestina, but all of them relate to the ship's incredible legacy that connects New Bedford to the wider world. 

This post will be edited as I have time to add some of those connections. For now, the three teaching connections I mentioned originally: 

First, I had the great privilege of mentoring a Bridgewater State University who has completed a fascinating museum exhibit on the connections between Cape Verde and Cape Cod. The project was funded by WHOI Sea Grant and is described by my colleague Brian Benson in the article Cape Connection. Carolyn King's research for this project is complete, and the installation is currently is progress. I will be posting details for in-person and virtual access in coming weeks.

Second is Coffee & Volcanoes: Travel Course in Cabo Verde. The course will take place in Cabo Verde in May 2023. Application deadline is February 24, 2023. This is available for undergraduate credit, graduate credit, or non-credit participation. The credits easily transfer to other universities.

Third is my domestic travel course GEOG 296/520 New Bedford: Maritime City, which I will offer July 17-28, 2023. I originally offered this as New Bedford Fortnight but eventually concluded that not enough people know that "fortnight" simply means "two weeks," which is the duration of the course. I named it in contrast with an earlier summer course, Coffee Week. I have offered the New Bedford Course a few times, but have never gotten enough students to allow it to run. We came close in 2022, so I am trying again. I have not posted details yet but my course blog gives a pretty good sense of what we will be doing for those two weeks of three-hour classes.

I will add a few more things here about the ship itself -- meanwhile, please visit the Ernestina web site.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Bittle Groun'

The title of this post -- Bittle Groun' -- means (more or less) "food land" in the Gullah Geechee language. I claim no competence in the language, but I am thankful for the Gullah Words glossary for allowing me at least to recognize the language. It is hosted on the Gullah Tours web site and draws on the work of Ambrose E. Gonzales and Alphonso Brown.


The St. Helena Island restaurant shown above is far more than a restaurant. It is the hub of one of several communities along the South Carolina coast that Padma Lashki visits in the Gullah Geechee episode (s1e4) of her magnificent Taste the Nation series on Hulu. She is herself a migrant and the series focuses on communities in which the foodways of communities (either migrant or indigenous) contribute to a local sense of place. 

Here is a trailer for the episode in which she explores the Gullah Geechee nation through the foods grown, cooked, and taught by the descendants of people brought in bondage to this area from the Rice Coast of West Africa, specifically because of their expertise in cultivating rice in coastal lowlands.
The first person she interviews, for example, is  writer Michael W. Twitty, a food scholar who identifies as an Africulinarian and knows that his family was taken from what is now Sierra Leone. Tragically, they were marginalized and abused by people who relied on both their labor and their expertise to build fortunes in plantation agriculture.
Gullah Geechee homes on Sapelo Island.
Photo: Richard Burkhart via CSM

Whether or not you are able to access the show through Hulu, I recommend several recent articles about Gullah Geechee in particular and the restoration of African American connections to land in general (in addition to the links sprinkled throughout this post). 

The first of these was recommended by my favorite librarian. "In Georgia’s Hogg Hummock, a fight for a people, a culture, and the land" was recently published on Christian Science Monitor.  For a broader discussion, see "Foraging, Farming, Hunting, and Storytelling: How Black Creators Are Growing Emancipated Spaces" posted to kitchnn by Kayla Stewart in recognition of Juneteenth this year. Steward mentions the tremendous work of Alexis Nicole, who brings humor and brilliance to this topic on TED Radio Hour, her Black Forager channel, and many other venues.

NOTE: This post is the basis for a lesson in my environmental geography course. A federal judge recently issued a ruling protecting this kind of teaching from government interference. The governor of Florida had recently attempted to block all teaching of this kind in his state's universities.  I am lucky to live in a state that would not elect such a person as governor; more importantly, though, I live in a country with a First Amendment. Even in Massachusetts we have ongoing threats to academic freedom, but not of this ideological sort.


I am overdue for a return to the Charleston area, which I visited in 1990, 2000, and 2010. Each visit was for a different purpose, but each time included a visit with friends we had made in Puebla, Mexico in 1989. We had no such agenda in 2020 (and would probably have canceled it anyway), and did not become aware of Gullah Geechee culture until very recently. So I hope to return to the area soon to revisit those friends while we are all still young -- this time spending some time with Gullah Tours, Gullah Grub, and the rest of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor. 

Monday, November 21, 2022



Although I my employment has been primarily academic for most of the past 35 years, I did have two extended brushes with professional employment outside of the so-called Ivory Tower (where I have encountered very little ivory and very few towers, by the way). The second of these -- at the end of my doctoral program -- was in various roles at The Wornick Company, which was then (and probably still is) the largest purveyor of combat and humanitarian rations. 

I learned quite a lot at Wornick that I still use in my teaching, but I learned even more at Dames & Moore, where I worked just prior to starting my doctoral courses. It was a civil engineering firm with offices worldwide, which had recently (I believe) started to develop expertise in environmental regulatory compliance. I worked in Cincinnati, as part of a team of about 10 "regulatory analysts" within an office of about 80 employees. We were mostly geographers, with the rest of the group mostly engineers and a few geologists, graphic artists, and clerical staff. 

I remember my first day on that job; I started on a day when several of the people I would normally work with were gone. So I was left -- almost like a substitute teacher -- with some simple tasks so that I could be at least somewhat productive. Proctor & Gamble had recently bought Fisher Nuts, and I was to make some phone calls about a particular packaging facility in Kentucky. 

That kind of investigation for property transfer became a large part of my work during what turned out to be year full of learning experiences. I also worked on applications for permit applications -- I remember power-line routing, sediment remediation, and hazardous-waste treatment -- but most of my work was what we called Phase I Site Assessments. Whenever a client (or a client's client) was buying a company,  we would be given addresses of specific properties that were included; in some cases -- as with Fisher Nut -- this would mean several of us dividing a list and spreading out to different jurisdictions. In most cases, though, we just had 1-3 addresses in the same area and a very short turn-around to conduct that Phase I.

As soon as I got such an assignment, I would immediately schedule a visit, buy plane tickets, and book a rental car and hotel. I would do the client a favor of doing the visit on a Friday or Monday if possible, so that I could include a Saturday-night stay. Back then, the economics of flying was such that a short-notice reservation was much shorter if it included weekend travel -- so much cheaper that this would more than pay for my extra day. As a geographer and insatiable explorer, I almost always did this -- and still have fond memories of exploring on my own. In Charleston, this meant dinner with a friend I had met in Mexico and in Texas it meant knowing my way around the Rio Grande Valley before we ended up moving there a few years later. In fact, because these trips usually involved a visit to local libraries, I had actually been in the reference department of a library where my spouse would later become head of reference. 

The visits were always scheduled quickly, because our work would take place only after a sale (or a loan or an insurance policy) was imminent. We also had to be very careful about asking questions, because in many cases we had news of a sale that could be considered insider trading -- and none of us expected to be treated as well as Martha Stewart if we went to jail. (I mention Fisher Nut freely, because this was over 30 years ago. 

I would then prepare FOIA requests for every public agency that might have information about the property or its neighbors. This was part of helping the client -- who was usually a buyer  due diligence, 


Insomniacs might enjoy scrolling through my Fun Jobs List, where I list all of my jobs, including those mentioned above and many others of a more fleeting and often less rewarding nature. 

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Fashionable Reckoning

Just as the first book I purchased on Amazon the online store was about Amazon the forest, the most recent video I purchased on the site is about Amazon the river. Specifically, it is the second episode of the first season of Rivers of Life, recommended by a fellow geographer and available on PBS and Amazon Prime.

But this post is not about the Amazon -- it is about the Nile, because my favorite librarian and I decided to watch the series in order, and it begins with what is commonly thought of as the longest river, followed by the other top contenders: the Amazon and the Mississippi. It so happens that we watched the Nile episode on the same day that our EarthView team had been showing our giant floor map of Africa to some delightful second graders. I had been spending quite a bit of the morning looking at the Nile and its tributaries -- especially when the last group decided that they would ALL use their feet to measure the river!

This geographer on our Africa map, sans second graders.

While looking at the big print map, I remember looking at various headwaters areas, and noticed for the first time that one of the tributaries near Lake Albert is called the Albert Nile. I learned a lot of geographic details from the PBS program that I wish I had known to share with the kids, and that I hope I remember next time! Two of these are that the Nile stretches from the equator to more than 30°N and that Lake Victoria is the world's largest tropical lake. The program and I both point out that the Nile -- like virtually all rivers -- has more than one source. 

I recommend watching the show as I did -- with a laptop handy, open to Google Maps. I will be doing this for all of the remaining episodes. Among the most interesting things I learned this way is that some of the river's major tributaries pass through areas that are either so narrow (rocky gorges) or so broad (marshy wetlands) that they really do not appear as rivers on satellite imagery. 

All of this was in mind -- especially some questions I had about Lake Albert and the Albert Nile -- when I heard a story about a project of post-colonial reckoning at a London museum. More specifically, the Victoria and Albert Museum -- named for two leaders in the colonial subjugation of the continent -- has launched an exhibit that highlights post-colonial African fashions. As the museum web site describes the exhibit, "Africa Fashion explores the vitality and global impact of a fashion scene as dynamic and varied as the continent itself."

At right, from the exhibit: 

Alchemy collection, Thebe Magugu, Autumn/Winter 2021, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photography: Tatenda Chidora , Styling + Set: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, Model: Sio

On the western side of the continent, by the way, I told a couple of stories about the brilliant and fabulous singer Angélique Kidjo. I showed them her home country of Benin and described her anthem Afrika (which I heard her perform in Providence in early 2020) and the ballad Iemanja, which was my introduction to her beautiful and multilingual body of work. 


African leaders on our Africa map: the Bridgewater State University 2022 class of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program.

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