Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Not So Long Ago


The image above has been circulating online this year. If someone can tell me the original source, I would love to add a citation. I could spend the rest of this week commenting on it, because it relates to so much of what is wrong in the United States today. I will, in fact, no doubt be editing this post. 

But for now I am using it to refer to one of the many ways in which the "get over it" response to racial injustice is wrong: the practice of redlining. I have heard the term for many years, but learned only recently that maps were published with actual red lines on them. The importance of this practice is included in a PowerPoint file posted by Shane Wiegand for the Landmark Society.

More specifically, a digital atlas of such maps has been published as Mapping Inequality by the University of Richmond. This is a very important resource that details the practice and allows users to see how specific urban neighborhoods were characterized for the purpose of lending authorities during the 1930s. It is impossible to suppose that such stark definitions of desirable and undesirable neighborhoods could be without consequence today.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


On the eve of autumn -- just as the air crispened and my favorite librarian updated our living-room altar for the season -- I chanced upon this image of the 2020 edition of the #FightEvilReadBooks t-shirt. Yes, it apparently is a series, one of many nifty items for bibliophiles offered by Out of Print.

The design serves as an important reminder -- and in these benighted times we need these often -- that the best antidote to ignorance and bias is simply to read well and read broadly. National hero Rep. John Lewis (taken from us this summer, a week before the loss of my own mother) put it well when receiving the National Book Award: Just Read (please listen to his words, even if you are already convinced).

Reading is also the most reliable pathway to good writing, as I detail on my Writing Tips page.

For more specific advice on reading in an ecosystem designed to thwart genuine learning, I recommend the lessons from top journalists that I describe in my 2017 Emotional Skepticism post.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Fire Resistance

Forests have evolved with fire. Humans entered forested landscapes very late in those complicated relationships, with results that have ranged from problematic to catastrophic. In California, for example, more land burned this week in early September than in all of last year. 

Fires have been. getting more dangerous, expensive, and common. This story gives the best quick overview of how this situation has come about, why it cannot be solved easily, and which human factors can be addressed. 

Five minutes is not enough time to thoroughly explain all of this, but sharp NPR reporters found the right experts to introduce the problem and some remedies.

To learn more, please explore some of the other forest fire posts on this blog or take my Land Protection class (GEOG 332) in Fall 2021 to learn more. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Acknowledging Lands

I have lived in many parts of Turtle Island:

  • Pauquunaukit (Wampanoag)
  • Carrizo/Comecrudo & Coahuiltecan
  • Hohokam, O'odham, Sobaipuri, Tohono O'odham (Papago)
  • Adena, Hopewell, Miami, Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Piscataway
  • Kaw (Kansa), Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Očeti Sakówin (Sioux), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage)
  • Manahoac
  • Nacotchtank (Anacostan), Piscataway

These are the original inhabitants of all of the places I have resided in the United States, known by their current names (in reverse order of my time residing in each):

  • Bridgewater and Fairhaven, Massachusetts
  • Pharr, Texas
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Oxford, Ohio
  • Catonsville and Annapolis, Maryland
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Nokesville, Chantilly, and Herndon, Virginia
  • Washington, District.of Columbia
I highlighted in blue the names that were familiar to me at the time I lived in some of the places. As a non-indigenous resident of Massachusetts, Ohio, and Arizona, I have been aware of some but not all of the indigenous people of those places. In Arizona, I had occasional indirect contact with Tohono O'odham people during ceremonies, including one to which the public was invited on their reservation land and another that was an ecumenical service at my church there. In Massachusetts, I have had the privilege of much more direct contact and friendship with Wampanoag neighbors and colleagues. 
Sachem Rock in what is now West Bridgewater, Massachusetts

In Ohio, the university I attended and the lake where I did my master's thesis were named for the Miami people, but the people themselves had long ago been forcibly removed to Florida (not to the part where the relatively new city by that name is located) and then to reservations elsewhere. To its shame, the university used a slur for its team names, and alumni who will not accept the new Redhawks name can still find the old logo in online stores. 

I notice two things about the geography of the indigenous land uses. First, 

I found the names of indigenous people associated with each of my homes by sending the common names by text to 907-312-5085. More information, caveats, and a Facebook Messenger option are posted on the Land Acknowledgement page established by Code for Anchorage (Dena'ina Elnena).

Monday, August 31, 2020

Plantation Discourses

The story of Dutch podcast partners Peggy Bouva and Maartje Duin began with an awkward conversation about the connections between their families. Both live in Holland, but Duin -- a journalist -- discovered that they were connected by a plantation in the former Dutch colony of Suriname.

They discuss their podcast, their friendship, and their travels together in a recent appearance with Joanna Kakissis on NPR's Morning Edition. (Careful listeners will notice that "slaves" is used as a noun in the introduction to the conversation, though "enslaved persons" is used in the conversation itself. This reflects a growing recognition that it is dehumanizing to identify people solely by the bad circumstances or crimes that have affected them.)

Although the podcast itself appears to be available only in Dutch at the moment, Google Translate offers some sense of the summary of each episode of The Plantation of Our Ancestors in other languages, and includes links to other resources, some of which are available in English. These include Mapping Slavery NL, which portrays historical places relating to slavery on the map of the Dutch colonial empire.

The description of the mapping project highlights on advantage Dutch and some other European folks have over those of us in the United States: they know that their countries were part of the metropol, that is, at the centers of global empires. Denial of its imperial nature is a treasured myth in my country, even though no empire has ever been bigger.

As pro-slavery statues are toppled by vote, by edict, or by protestors, some decry the loss of history. In most cases, however, the history remains to be uncovered, whatever happens to icons of bronze men on bronze horses. As we finally grapple seriously with the ongoing implications of slavery, conversations such as those between these Bouva and Duin are essential. 


Even at my seemingly far remove, I have derived a benefit from the ill-gotten glories of Holland's trafficking in humans. Among the artists supported by that immense wealth are both Rembrandt and Vermeer. My answer to the Getty Art Challenge of 2020 was a recreation of Vermeer's The Geographer

My entry in the Getty Art Challenge, special edition for Pride Week.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Angola's Singer, Sprinter ... and Geographer


Bonga Kueda: His beard is no simple matter

Harry Graham's 2018 interview with Angolan musician Bonga Kueda is a half hour very well spent. It is an engaging conversation with an artist whose life traces the arc of modern Angolan history. He describes his journey from music to running and back to music, all while telling Angola's colonial and post-colonial story. The stories of independence in Angola, Cabo Verde, and other Lusophone nations are intertwined with the 1975 fall of Salazar in Portugal itself. 

These events are much more recent than many of our contemporaries seem to think; it is almost to soon to talk about post-colonialism.

The conversation is presented for an English-speaking audience, but Bantu, Portuguese, and French are heard in the background throughout. Despite the deep pain Portugal has caused for his country, the main interview takes place by phone from a barber shop in Lisbon.

I add the label "geographer" to his story even though it is not cited in the interview. Growing up in colonial schools, Bonga had to learn the rivers of Portugal, but his own country was not part of the curriculum. At a young age, he taught himself the geography of his own country and took "Bonga" as a way of rejecting the name given him at birth as the subject of an empire. It is therefore quite ironic that he conducts the interview quite in the seat of that empire.


When looking for the music of Bonga online, I found a recording of Sodade that he made with Cabo Verde's national treasure Cesária Evora.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Shifting Wheels


Biking in Chicago (a city I now visit regularly)
Image: David Schaper, NPR

As people start to move about a little more -- perhaps too much more -- many of us are doing so differently than we did before. Until a vaccine is found -- and taken widely -- transportation patterns are shifting. In a brief radio piece, Journalist David Schaper explores the shifting patterns that are already noticeable. He then discusses which of these patterns might become permanent, and the degree to which some of the changes fit with long-term goals of city planners.

I will be sharing this story with students in my urban geography and global thinking courses. Those who wish to explore the topic further might also enjoy the free CitiesX course I am taking online at Harvard.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Brockton Honors

In the Fall 2020 semester, I will be teaching a First-Year Seminar entitled Discovering Brockton, which I first offered under the title Geography of Brockton in 2008, when the First-Year Seminar requirement at Bridgewater State University was new. To date, I have taught the course five or six times, most recently as a Commonwealth Honors course.

GEOG 199: Whether a student is a life-long resident or a newcomer to the area, this provides a deep introduction both to the City of Brockton and the academic discipline of geography. The city’s rich heritage of innovation and its many layers of cultural identity are the background for examining challenges ranging from water supply to economic development. The course meets only once per week so that students have the opportunity to visit – in a university vehicle – the city’s people, cultural landscape, and key institutions through direct visits. Students are responsible for significant writing and research between weekly class meetings, so that each meeting can maximize time in the City of Champions.  
Each student in the class will explore the boundary between the City of Brockton and
one of the eight towns it borders. Contrasts between cities and towns - whether tangible
or intangible - are hugely important to understanding the
 geographies of Massachusetts.

The Bridge
: years ago, a young person I met at a conference helped me to find a metaphor for my teaching that has proven helpful ever since. (I have tried in vain to find her again to express my thanks, but it has not been possible; that is another story.) Rather than mastering content that I deliver to students, I endeavor to connect them to ideas and to other people from whom they (and I) can learn. This course has been a perfect example -- I do have some insights and theoretical perspectives to share directly, and also some places I can take students where they can develop some of their own ideas. But in this course, I am often just that bridge (or chauffeur) connecting them to some real expertise. Quite a few people have helped with this course in the past, and I will be calling on some of them -- and some new connections -- this year.

FALL 2020: I am offering this course fully online, because required social-distancing standards cannot reasonably be met. This means that the popular van rides in and around the city will not be possible. I will be recording some of the walking and "windshield survey" mini-tours on my own, realizing that they will not be quite the same. Likewise, I am asking some of the people with whom I normally would arrange for in-person meetings to provide connections in other ways, whether it be Zoom meetings, pre-recorded presentations, or reference to online materials about their organizations or projects.

The class is scheduled 1:50 to 4:30 on Wednesdays. I will use some of that time for my own presentations. To provide for breaks and to simplify the scheduling of guests, I will endeavor to have guest speakers at 2:00 and 3:00, for up to 50 minutes. Some group guests might occupy both slots on a given day.

It is in fact for these potential collaborators that I created this blog post, by way of providing context for the favors I am asking of them.


A brief note about the FYS and SYS series of courses: FYS Geography of Brockton was one of a small group of pilot courses before the requirement as finalized. Before teaching the course, I even joined several Bridgewater State College (as we were known then) colleagues at a conference in Tucson organized by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience. I also piloted the Secret Life of Coffee as a Second-Year seminar the following year, and have taught about 20 sections of that course.

Students enrolled at Bridgewater State University during their first or second year (by credit count, not calendar) are required to take First- and Second-Year Seminars, respectively. Our advising program specifies the exceptions for students arriving with transfer credits, but for most students, these courses are integral to our Core Curriculum. The seminars allow students to practice writing or speaking skills in the context of a particular topic that is of special interest to the faculty member who is leading the course. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Supporting Agualí

As many of you know, Nicaragua is near and dear to my heart. In January 2006, I intended to take students there just once. One of those students returned the following year, and I took a total of more than 100 students and colleagues and my own family members over the next decade. Many of those students have returned with me or on their own, and many more of them tell me that their visit was one of the most important experiences of their life. It is my home away from home, and I am in contact with one or more friends in Nicaragua every single day.

Things went seriously awry there in April 2018, so I have not been back -- though one of my Nicaraguan friends co-led my January 2020 travel course in Costa Rica. In fact it is that friend -- Ernesto Ocampo -- with whom I have been working most directly on a new project to help the people of northern Nicaragua. By "working with" him, I mean that he and others in Matagalpa have been doing terrific work to help their community, and I've been consulting with him on how to share that work with potential supporters in North America and Europe.

Nicaragua faces a triple crisis: the global pandemic and economic recession are compounded by the political repression that I have described in some detail elsewhere on this blog. Ernesto and others are responding with a comprehensive approach that integrates community development, environmental education, and English-language education. It is best described by our mutual friend Sage from Chicago -- please keep reading Sage's excellent description of this exciting work, and please join us and other friends of Nicaragua in sharing the project and pledging financial support.

Note that the sponsorships being suggested could be shared as part of a project for a class, club, or religious organization, or simply a group of friends wishing to make the world a better place!

Read all about it at Agualí
Sage writes:

Please consider sponsoring a student for Estación Biológica Agualí's new and exciting project investing in a new generation of environmental leaders in Nicaragua.

Here's an overview from program materials:

"The Agualí Biological Station has created a one-a-half year program for 25 young people that facilitates high-quality education, using English-learning as a tool to acquire new skills in environmental education and multiple other skills."
"In order to carry on with this project, we need people who will be willing to sponsor as many students as possible, the cost for the whole program is worth twice than requested; however, we ask for a contribution of USD 40 per month for each student, and other costs will be covered by the Biological Station and Matagalpa Tours."

There are different sponsorship opportunities that you can explore at this link:

Sponsorship keeps the program 100% free for students, keeping people afloat during these difficult times - in particular in economies that rely on tourism. Agualí's educational model is holistic - not just English language education, but also a base in subjects from permaculture to trail building to theater - the skills to create a graduating cohort of professional naturalists and environmental educators.

You can commit to a one-time donation or recurring sponsorship for a part or all of the program. For example, I have committed to sponsor one students at $40/month for 12 months. You also have the option to be put in contact with the student you are sponsoring and have a more intimate look into the program and the amazing work that is happening at Estación Biológica Agualí.

Head to to check out the other work Agualí is doing, and send me a message to access a comprehensive overview of the program through email - I hope that you will consider supporting the amazing work of Ernesto Ocampo and the Agualí team!

James again:

Feel free to contact me with any questions. I would also be happy to set up a video chat with Ernesto, myself and any potential supporters.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mitigating Flood

Scholars Jacob Bradt and Carolyn Kousky recently analyzed the most recent data on flood insurance claims in the United States in studies published by the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School. Claims vary considerably from year to year (they call the data "spikey"), but claims have been increasing. Moreover, the average value of each claim is increasing dramatically. As with any good business-school presentation, this graph of claim values is already adjusted for inflation. That is to say: more damage is being done by floods in real terms.

I learned of this study from the notes published to complement the following radio segment, which I recommend highly. In just four minutes, NPR journalist Rebecca Herscher conveys the implications of this trend in both personal and policy terms.

As her reporting illustrates, the rising cost of claims is putting increasing pressure on the mitigation efforts of the federal government. For decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sought to reduce flood damage through mitigation: simply purchasing properties considered particularly vulnerable to flooding.

As the number and value of properties actually damaged by flooding increases, so too does the cost of meaningful mitigation. The focus of the story is on the increasing importance of funding of flood mitigation by state governments, as they realize that FEMA funding is not keeping up with the increase in damage resulting from land-use patterns and climate change. As I wrote in Climate Foxholes back in 2013, climate denial is not an option for those with real-world responsibilities such as planning and insurance.

Much of my writing on this topic has been inspired by the painful experiences of flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, a charming mill town just a few miles from the campus where I became a geographer. My 2018 post Not in the Cards post includes the most direct explanation of the changing math of assessing flood risk; my more recent Dam Shame post includes links to each of my Ellicott City posts and a link to the recovery efforts of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.


Herscher reports from two states where I have lived -- Virginia and Texas. The water official she interviews in Texas has both a great Texas accent and a fun aptronym.

Career tip: if all of this mitigation work sounds like a job for geographers, that is because it is. A few years ago a student enrolled in our department because of her background in public safety and her  interest in emergency preparedness. She is now one of many geographers working for FEMA. As the NPR story suggests, there will be increasing need for geographers in similar agencies at the state and local level.

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