Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Self Gerrymandering

As I wrote in Article One almost two years ago, the first article of the United States constitution provided for the employment of generations of geographers, by stipulating that the citizenry be counted and mapped on a regular basis. The original purpose of the Census was to ensure that Congressional representatives be selected in proportion to the population of each state and district. As everyone by now knows, geographers have been employed almost since the beginning of the Republic to reverse that process: Gerrymandering allows representatives -- to some degree, at least -- to select their voters.

In recent years, the modeling of voter geography has become sufficiently sophisticated to allow incumbents to identify and select increasingly loyal groups of voters -- people who disdain Congress in general but are incredibly devoted to their individual members of that august body. The result, as most observers realize, has been an incredible polarization of the electorate, highlighting the red and blue in a country that is essentially purple (again, see my Article One post for details.

It is in this context that political journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts encourage readers to "Turn Off the Blowhards." They cite a recent and perspicacious article by David Carr, who observes that the media -- and readers/viewers -- are increasingly gerrymandered.

Twenty years ago, cartoonist Peter Steiner identified anonymity as one of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet. A related feature has been the incredible fragmentation of media that has been facilitated by the growth of the Web. It is increasingly easy -- and comfortable -- to become immersed in an echo chamber of those who will not challenge our assumptions, Gerrymandering ourselves into very small, very uniform districts of limited discourse. Anonymity allows forays into the intellectual turf of "others" to be limited to verbal volleys that range from snarky to abusive, but that do not resemble real discourse.

As the Robertses argue, the combination of polarized voting districts and polarized thinking districts is increased dysfunction, exemplified by ever more frequent paralysis. The reform of political districting is daunting and perhaps impossible; the reform of our own habits of mind, however, can start immediately.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Busmoor's Holiday

The term "busman's holiday" frequently comes to mind when I take any kind of a vacation, because the line between what I enjoy in my time off and what I do as a professional geographer is often blurred. It is far from a bad thing, though: if walking in the woods with with my family -- for example -- reminds me of something related to my work, I have chosen my work well, and am fortunate to have it.
My latest "Sombra" photo. I took the first first against a coffee backdrop in 2011,
when comparisons were made to the famous
"Shadow" statue of Sandino in Managua.
Twice in a fortnight, this precise example has played out. As with a walk on the Lexington rail trail two weeks ago, this morning's brief adventure in the Cape Cod moors reminded me of ongoing work I am doing with students, related to the development of the Nunckatassett portion of the Bay Circuit Trail. This weekend, the insights came as we walked through the Seabury Farm Conservation Area in Barnstable, at the recommendation of our hosts at the Lamb & Lion Inn. Equally inviting would have been the trails of an Audubon property directly behind the inn (and facing Cape Cod Bay, except that we had a canine companion with us, who is precluded by the Audubon management plan. The admissibility of dogs is an important consideration in any open-space management, and this area of Barnstable now has ample public land in both the dog and non-dog category.

When Pam and I -- and our doglet Perry -- stepped into the scene above, I exclaimed "The Moors!" as I was reminded of the upland grasslands of Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles (though our min-pin is neither a hound nor very Baskervillian). On further discussion, we found that we each had different definition of "moor," all of which were substantiated by quick Google searches and -- more importantly -- by the Oxford English Dictionary. We learned that it can mean a highland open space, especially if covered with heather, a swamp, or any uncultivated land. We also learned that "moor" in the ecological sense has an etymology that is completely separate from the word "Moor" relating to people of North Africa.

In some contexts, "moor" refers specifically to areas reserved for shooting (that is, hunting), which is the case on this property we were walking in Barnstable. In Massachusetts, hunting is allowed on public lands unless specifically prohibited, subject to certain set-backs in distance from roads and buildings. As we consider the development of trails through public lands in Bridgewater, this is an important subject to understand, as it is in any place experience rapid suburban sprawl. Newcomers are sometimes surprised to see hunters close to their homes, and long-timers are sometimes surprised to find that the places where they hunted in their youth are now off-limits. In this context, the signage used above can be a vital part of managing public trails. The photo includes another essential element of trail management, which is to identify the right level of vehicular access, and to find ways to achieve it that meet the various management objectives at a site.
I noticed this house as we were about to exit the property, along what is known as Aunt Hatch's Lane. This house was clearly in place before the recent designation of the surrounding land as public open space. In many similar situations -- I do not know whether this case is one of them -- public space becomes accessible only if access is provided across private lands. In such cases, tax benefits may accrue (a major topic in my course), along with a sense of serving the public good. It is also quite often the case that the value of this kind of property actually increases, despite the potential loss of privacy, because of its proximity to protected lands. In fact, some argue -- not without justification -- that land protection is often purused specifically as a way of protecting property values. It is certainly the case that many Massachusetts towns with a high proportion of public land also have extraordinarily high property values.

I named the photo above "buffer" because the value of the property is further enhanced by a thick growth of vegetation on a steep slope, separating it both visually and physically from the public way.

Aside from good exercise, a major reason to spend time in the out-of-doors is to appreciate its aesthetic beauty, and I was fortunate that Pam noticed the above "still life" along the trail's edge. It is good always to have an eye open for such encounters.

I look forward to hiking this property again, when I'm prepared for a longer exploration of the "Amazon Trail" just to the south of the area we explored. I am intrigued by its name, since it was the Amazon that got me into geography in the first place!

View Larger Map

Back to that Audubon property: we got no farther than the train tracks, which of course we know not to walk along, tempting though it be. The night before our walk, we noticed the Cape Cod Dinner Train, which we had enjoyed riding last year. This section of track is near the one low overpass along Route 6A, a quaint -- if treacherous -- crossing that I have admired since my first visit to the Cape many years ago.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Behind the Citgo Sign

One benefit of the extreme traffic delays caused by Winter Storm Saturn on a Friday back in March was that I had a lot of time to listen to the radio in our own trusty Saturn as I alternately slid, slogged, and sat between our home and our daughter's school. I now write in October, as I discover this article in my "draft" folder. I was prompted to look for it as I read an excellent student paper on Venezuela. It is a coincidence that world attention will soon be on a stadium that sits just below the Citgo sign in Boston!

In addition to a lovely story about the Iditarod, I heard this thought-provoking piece about the recently departed and scarcely mourned president of Venezuela.

Whenever I think about Venezuela, my first thought is of a friend we had in college, with whom my future wife Pam was able to visit the country in 1986, when its economy was prospering and its politics were of no great interest. Unlike many of its neighbors, Venezuela had tilted neither very far left nor very far right at that time, so I actually knew very little about it at the time. I often wonder what our friend's middle-class family thinks of all the changes since Chavez came to power in 1999, and whether they are even still in Venezuela.

My second thought about Venezuela is always of Jimmy Stewart mispronouncing its name in the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. As he thumbs through a stack of notices for possible adventures abroad, he mentions Ven-zuh-WHALE-uh oil fields.

A Boston Icon, based
in Caracas
Pam's visit to Venezuela came four decades after this cinematic nugget, and we hardly even noticed the country's purchase of a 50-percent stake in Citgo that year. In between, Venezuela had helped to found OPEC as a way to gain some influence over the rate at which oil was being exploited, and thereby increase its share of the wealth in the core that was being built by the depletion of oil in the periphery. Its purchase of a retail network allowed for vertical integration to capture an even greater portion of the wealth generated by its oil. In  2000, one of the first achievements of the newly elected Chavez was to purchase the remaining shares of Citgo, making a familiar U.S. brand part of Venezuela's national patrimony.

This January, I was in Nicaragua in the days leading up to Chavez' latest inauguration, and speculation about his longevity -- including the possibility that he was already dead -- intensified. It was during this time that Julia Sweig wrote a cogent analysis of the Chavez period for The Atlantic, in which she observes that:
The 14 years of his tenure coincided with a consensus across the continent favoring socially inclusive economic growth, democratic representation, and independence from the U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities of the previous century. 
In the United States, opposition to Chavez at the highest levels of government was thoroughly bipartisan, further evidence that in their acceptance of the status quo in the world economic order that was established at a hotel in New Hampshire so long ago.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Spring Clean for the May Queen

"April showers have wrought May bouquets. Purple-blossomed beach peas now line the sand path to the beach. Shadbush, Beach Plum, and Wax Myrtle blooms paint the higher marsh and the wild, scruffy yards around our cottages in luxuriant broad-brushed whites, perfuming the almost-warm air. Around the marsh edges, I try not to alarm the fiddler crabs that bustle around their burrows as they spring-clean for the May Queen."

So begins the "May" chapter of Carl Safina's masterpiece, The View from Lazy Point, about which I have posted several times. The naturalist and MacArthur Genius takes readers on a year-long journey around the planet that is beautiful, inspiring, and terrifying all at once.

This particular passage is the transition from his "April" discourse on the pressures exerted by a growing population to his "May" examination of the value of fishing as a mode of learning, and of his own transition from fishing into graduate school and ornithology. In describing a small but significant observation at the verymost edge of the sea, he evokes a bit of Baby Boomer nostalgia.

See the Stairway post by blogger Rock Legend for lyrics and some insight into the emotional pull of this song, which I looked up just in case some of my students -- who are reading Safina with me -- might miss the reference. As he (?) suggests, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard this song, over thirty years ago. Coincidentally, just after looking this up, NPR aired a story about the longevity of popular songs.

Incidentally, most of my students recognized the song, though very few had heard this rendition by Heart. None of them thought of the song when reading the passage above. I recommended that they give the Heart version another listen -- every day!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lexington Trail

A few years ago, I noticed that an extraordinary agglomeration of coffee shops was to be found in the center of the town of Lexington (that place west of Boston where the set-to with the British started). Service-oriented businesses of this kind are very interesting; although Christaller's Central Place Theory would normally suggest just one of each kind of service in a small center, it sometimes occurs that a positive effect arises from the agglomeration of several, seemingly competing, businesses.

View Larger Map
In the case of Lexington, both coffee shops and bicycle shops (and one combined coffee/bicycle shop!) enjoy the benefits of being a destination that attracts more than the expected number of customers.

Many factors may contribute to a thriving downtown, and the general prosperity of the region certainly contributes. Lexington is one of several contiguous communities with the highest incomes and housing prices in Massachusetts, which in turn is among the highest states on both measures. Massachusetts also has an exceptionally heterogeneous landscape, though, with field, forest, water, and built environments closely intermingled. In this context, the carefully configured confluence of transportation systems is vitally important.

As my own town -- with some help from some of my geography students -- works toward the improvement of local trail networks, I am sharing a few observations from a short walk in Lexington yesterday, with my favorite librarian and our somewhat crazy dog. This is not so much a photoessay as an Instagram assortment, but it does have a few lessons for anyone thinking about trails in their own neighborhood.

The Lexington Depot houses the Lexington Historical Society.
It is also a convenient place to stow bikes, under a nice canopy.
Because the railroad went through the station, so does
the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway.
These old sidings are a reminder that the main trail is formed in the old rail bed. The United States reached a peak of railroad miles around 1910, with a steady decrease ever since. This means that throughout the country are many miles of potential paths, already graded for easy riding, and with ownership or easements that facilitate connections that would cost a fortune to make through new land purchases. As the Minuteman Trail makes clear, these paths are also wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles.
One reason that trail projects can be successful is that while they combine recreation, the enjoyment of natural and historic areas, they also have economic benefits. Hit and Run Sports and Games is an excellent example of a business well-suited to bicycle-oriented development. Accessible from both the street and the trail -- with a hand-made sign listing some of its wares -- this is youth-oriented business is ideally situated. 
ACROSS Lexington uses both the commuter path and other lines of connectivity to bring together the entire town, as the long version of its name implies: Accessing Conservation land, Recreation areas, Open space, Schools and Streets in Lexington. We found this marker just off the rail trail -- it helps residents and visitors alike to know and appreciate what is in this community.
Here Pam and our microdog head toward the one thing that every town should have: a public visitor's center. Easily reached by foot, bike, car, and bus, this center provides rest rooms, respite, and information -- a low-cost investment in civility and marketing that benefits residents, visitors, and local businesses alike.

Repela Tomate

This still life -- in our kitchen in Bridgewater, Massachusetts -- reminded me of the coffee repela (gleaning) we witness in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. As with tomatoes, specialty coffee is harvested when red-ripe. But at the end of the season, it is all harvested, with the ripe fruit (coffee is a fruit) sent on for processing and export, and the rest kept to ripen for home use.
Both photographs relate to climate change. In the case of Matagalpa, I have taken students to the same area almost every year since 2006, and only learned about this "gleaning" practice a few years ago, as the timing of the harvest at a given elevation shifted steadily earlier. Where we once were making the third or four regular pass through a stand of coffee trees, we are now making the fifth, final pass.

As for the tomatoes at home, Pam planted the tomatoes in the summer, as she always does, starting with seedlings on our sunny porch. But odd timing of wet, dry, cool, and hot periods resulted in very low yields, with the bulk of the crop growing very late in the season, when there was not enough sunlight to ripen them. She harvested these mostly green tomatoes when it became clear that no more ripening would occur, but frost very well might.

We will bag-ripen some of these, but stay tuned to Nueva Receta for news of some fried green creations!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Their Therapy, Our Nation

Today's Boston Globe carries two articles about two billionaires who are trying to work out some deep internal conflicts. Unfortunately, they are working them out on the rest of us, using MIT as a base and the whole country as their therapy couch.

First is PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who is offering antischolarships -- $100,000 awards to bright young people, as long as they commit to stay out of school. He has his reasons, but mostly he is working out his own internal tensions between the fact that higher education made him what he is and the feeling that he wishes that were not so. Rather than work this out on a therapist's couch, he is grabbing a lot of attention (and he got mine, unfortunately), by paying a few people to opt out. If in the process he encourages many more to do the same -- but without his money -- what kind of safety nets would he support for them?

Second is Tea Party co-founder David Koch, who dropped $20,000,000 on a day-care center because the plight of MIT lab assistants without good day care brought a tear to his eye. I join Joan Vennochi in applauding his generosity, but in seriously objecting to his desire to strip away social safety nets from people who are not directly connected to him.

The cognitive dissonance that Vennochi identifies is also a moral lapse. Koch is simultaneously generous and miserly. In a supposedly pragmatic country, his is a contradiction that is steadfastly supported by a vocal minority whose objection is on purely theoretical grounds. Generosity is great, they argue, but it should all be individual and voluntary, rather than communal.

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