Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sounds of a Lone Tree Standing

If a tree stood alone in a forest -- a tree so big that it is the entire forest -- would it make a sound without falling? The answer is, not surprisingly: YES!

From Science Friday comes the remarkable story -- absolutely perfect for radio -- of the sounds of Pando, the world's largest tree. This image is not a group of trees; rather, it is one small part of Pando, a highland aspen with many thousands of "branches" that resemble tree trunks but that are joined underground as one vast organism.

Please listen as Ira Flatow discusses this remarkable tree with ecologist Lance Oditt and sound artist Jeff Rice. They share a lot of insights about trees, sound, and the scientific endeavor in general. This is a terrific story of what is often called "STEM to STEAM" or the intersection of science and the arts.

Bonus: Jeff Rice is employed in a very special capacity in a library, where his work with sound intersects deeply with geography. His work is part of the Acoustic Atlas at the Montana State University LibraryAs a geographer, I think that the Acoustic Atlas Story Map is the best introduction to its work, though the main project site points to many additional resources. 

Saturday, May 06, 2023


We have been visiting Chicago fairly regularly since our son moved here (I'm writing from Chicago at the moment) to attend a most excellent art school (because he is a most excellent artist) in 2016. It was in 2018 that we combined a visit with an academic conference that was held at the Holiday Inn on the Chicago River. It was somewhat nicer than most Holiday Inns, and in a much better location than most. It is in the same place today, of course, but the location is not quite what it was five years ago. The building itself has changed in some interesting ways as well.

Holiday Inn from Chicago River - taken May 5, 2023
The bottom of the photo shows the tops of our fellow
architecture tourists.

First the location. I took this photo yesterday as part of an architecture river tour (If you are visiting Chicago, this is not an option: it is a requirement. Thank me later.) The Holiday Inn is at the center. Zoom in to see the green logo sign on top of it. If the building looks like it is jostled between its neighbors, this is because it is. The building in the foreground were under construction at the time of our visit, but was just a hole in the ground. 

When we first arrived back in 2018, a friend had noticed online that I was in Chicago, and suggested I take an architecture boat tour. At that moment, a well-marked tour boat went right under our window -- that is when I realized just how close to the river we were.  I took this as a double recommendation and made my way to a tour while Pamela was in a conference session.

Later, we ate in the hotel restaurant about 2/3 of the way up (on the wider level of windows in the photo above) and found an even better view -- the confluence of the river's two main branches:

Chicago River from Holiday Inn Restaurant, August 2, 2018

I have not investigated thoroughly, but the view from the river yesterday suggests that there still is a view of the river, but it cannot be this expansive. This would not be the first case of skyscraper one-upmanship and it will not be the last.

And second, I did not forget that I would be mentioning something about the Holiday Inn itself. The hotel occupies only the upper 9 floors or so -- aside from the taller level of the main lobby, these are the narrow bands at the top of the building. When we were staying there, the entire facade below the hotel was entirely granite. NO WINDOWS for about a dozen floors. 

This oddity was explained on my 2018 boat tour. The building's other occupant was a company that worked with fabric dyes at a very sophisticated level. They wanted full control over the light in their office, in order to maintain the colors precisely. So they took out a long-term lease on a tower built with NO WINDOWS on the floors they rented. 

And then they vacated, ending the lease. The guide on my 2018 tour explained that windows were being cut into the facade, and I think the process might already have started. As my 2023 photo reveals, the process is complete. Just in time for new tenants to enjoy an obstructed view of the river.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023


The blue dots that are overlayed on this map of the United States represent one of the most vulnerable countries on earth. 

I created this image using the web site, which I often use to make size comparisons among countries and/or U.S. states. The site is especially useful for illustrating the misperceptions that arise from our overuse of the Mercator projection, but it is also just a convenient way to make comparisons among all kinds of landmasses. The results can be especially surprising when archipelagos are examined.

To create the image, I cleared the map and then entered "Kiribati" in the search box. This highlighted all of the islands of this Pacific archipelago, which I carefully clicked and dragged toward the continental United States. I positioned it so that the bulk of the islands were superimposed on California. This would result in several islands being in New Mexico and Texas, with others as far away as Indiana and Florida. Kiribati, is spread over an area more than half the stze of the "lower 48" states. 

The blue does exaggerate its landmass, however, as each outlines an island that would be invisible at the scale of this map. The total size of all of the islands of Kiribati is only 313 square miles -- less than one-third the size of Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

This word is an unusual spelling of "Gilbert" and is pronounced "Kiribahs." I have written about its vulnerability as a low-lying island nation, most notably in my 2015 post Climate Attack.

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Music and Resistance

In today's session of my Latin American geography course, we are discussing a few aspects of the military period in Brazil -- and artistic resistance to it. The discussion will include my 1996 visit with the artist Anka, which is detailed in the Folha da Fronteira newsletter I sent to friends at the time. In that account, I mention a small joke he shared. It was more than 20 years later that I realized he was not joking, and that the obscurity of his existence was almost certainly connected to the precarious position artists had been in only a few years before I visited his hermitage.

We will also explore the unbelievable but true story of Calice, a song title whose two meanings provide deep insight into artistic resistance. The story of musical resistance throughout the region is told in more detail in the 2020 Netflix limited series Break it All

But we will begin today's class with something a bit more relaxed -- former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil performing Rio Eu Te Amo (Rio I Love You). I had the great privilege of hearing an entire evening of such work when he visited the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford in 2007. He is the only performer I have seen there who was traveling with a Secret Service detail, because the concert was during a break in his attendance of the U.N. General Assembly. 

I have spoken of that encounter often -- even with these students -- without realizing the true importance of his career. Fortunately, this morning's installment of BBC Forum was a deep exploration of Tropicalia -- his two-person group that had a profound impact on the military regime.

We also discussed the 1985 British farce Brazil, which makes no direct mention of the country, but is clearly all about the regime.

We rounded out class with three vocabulary words: jeito, palanca, and mordida!

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, but I am pleased and proud to serve.


I was approved, validated, certified, and sworn in, I look forward to faithfully executing the duties of the Tree Committee with my friends and neighbors. 

For the swearing in at Town Hall, I held my copy of It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown 
while wearing my Amazon, Earth's Breath necktie.

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.

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