Monday, January 18, 2016


Getty Image, via Huffington Post
Illustration from a 1956 Dutch edition of Moby Dick
I usually have the privilege of taking students to the coffeelands of Nicaragua each January, and I was disappointed not to be able to do so this year. I plan to continue those annual trips, and so for now I consider being home the first weekend of January to be an anomaly.

My disappointment was assuaged not only by the opportunity to spend some extra time with friends and family, but also by the privilege of participating in a special literary event in New Bedford near our new second home (speaking of privilege).

We enjoy quite a few connections to New Bedford, such as the amazing Zeiterion Theater where we are members and have seen a great variety of great performers. Most of our other connections, though, have something or other to do with the whaling heritage of the city and my active membership in Whaling City Rowing, which has been mentioned in a variety of contexts on this blog. The image above shows what we do on a regular basis in the harbor, though without whales and without harpoons, and without quite as much froth on the seas!

The privilege to which I refer in the title of this post was the opportunity to participate in an event at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which we joined when we purchased our home nearby (and where I hosted a geography conference about 15 years ago).

The museum hosts a marathon reading of Moby Dick each January, and we knew that it was kind of a big deal. This year, knowing we'd both be in the area -- with a place to sleep nearby -- we decided to sign up, and learned just what a big deal it is. When the event is announced in November, 150 opportunities to read 10-minute passages are taken within the first hour. So we were not able to get on the main stage.

But the 20th anniversary read included something new and even more special -- an abridged reading in Portuguese. Sponsored by the museum and by the Portuguese Consul, a special edition of the novel was prepared by Pedro Alves to be read in just four hours. Members of the community -- especially among the many of Azorean descent or birth -- were invited to read the abridged version in five-minute increments The idea was to recognize not only the whaling heritage of the region, but the role of Azorean and Cape Verdean mariners in that heritage.

Although Portuguese speakers are common in greater New Bedford, relatively few have studied it formally, and few of them were aware of the opportunity to read this new edition. For these reasons, I was able to secure a spot among the 48 readers for this first-ever Portuguese mini-marathon reading. The organizers told me my time slot and how to estimate my place in the book. I practiced reading several chapters aloud, but focused on "O Pulpito" ("The Pulpit"), which is a vivid description of the setting for the sermon Ishmael would hear before embarking on his voyage. Seaman's Bethel -- across the street from the Whaling Museum -- inspired the chapter, and its pulpit was later altered to look like the ship's prow described by Melville. 

So when we gathered beneath the half-scale model whaleship for the reading, I read along intently as the first dozen readers -- including the Consul himself -- took five-minute turns reading. I wanted to be sure that I would be on the right page when my turn -- number 13 -- came around. I was also grateful for the introduction, from which I learned that I was not the only nervous member of this crew. Others might stumble here and there -- and a couple did -- because the purpose was not flawless delivery, but rather a celebration of the Portuguese language.

I was pleased that when my turn came, we were in exactly the spot for which I was most prepared, and I read O Pulpito with aplomb, if not perfection. I was inspired by the whole experience to re-read the entire novel, this time in Portuguese. I am starting with the abridged version (of which I had read only the first 1/4) and will then tackle the full version, which the organizers generously made available to us.

In subsequent days, I was not surprised to find news of the event on local Facebook pages, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see it covered by Huffington Post, and to see my own face -- along with Pam's -- in the background of a photo in the coverage by O Jornal of Fall River.
State Rep. António F.D. Cabral, at left, and Portuguese Consul Pedro Carneiro in New Bedford
 with his sons sitting in the audience.
Image: O Jornal

Friday, January 08, 2016

Surfacing Water

When teaching about groundwater, I begin with Once in a Lifetime because of the "water flowing underground" refrain and because, well, because David Byrne. (April 2020 update: for more fun, watch Angelique Kidjo's fantastic version; I had the great privilege of hearing her perform this in Providence a few weeks before the world shut down.)

I usually next read McElligot's Pool to my students, even though it was written for people about 1/3 their age. I read this work from Dr. Seuss because it perpetuates the widespread misconception that water flows underground in open streams, a misconception that is reinforced by the dubious practice of searching for water with divining rods.

Water flowing underground in open streams is a  misconception, I tell them, except in karst landscapes. Where limestone is overlaid by harder rocks, the resulting caves and pits are sometimes connected by waterways that can be traced over long distances with inks or even fishing floats.

From the ever-fascinating Atlas Obscura comes a fascinating story about another kind of exception, and of some intensive geographic research with tangible benefits. Sarah Laskow reports on Eymund Diegel's research into the underground waterways of Brooklyn, New York.

He became aware that one of the earliest buildings in Brooklyn was along a brook that is no longer present, fed by an entire stream network that disappeared as the street grid was built up. Combining his expertise as a cartographer with his curiosity and some creative field work, Diegel has been able to identify water courses and to advocate for their restoration. In many cases, streams had been routed into pipelines, but after several centuries, many of those pipelines have failed and water has sometimes found its way to its pre-urban pathways.

It is neither feasible nor desirable to bring all of the surface waters back to the surface, but it turns out that careful mapping of these waterways can lead to better solutions to all kinds of problems, such as sustaining tree plantings to reducing the flooding of basements and subway tunnels. The more that is known about the fine details of the watershed, in other words, the more environmental resilience it will have.


A similar story has unfolded a few miles to the north, where the Saw Mill River had long been forgotten beneath the heavily industrialized downtown. Bringing this tributary back to the surface has been the proud achievement of Daylight Yonkers, which has shown the many ecological, social, and economic benefits of creating an urban waterfront park where there had once been only sewer pipe. I had the privilege of visiting this park when using the nearby Yonkers train station, and can attest to its aesthetic as well as ecological success.

Image: Daylight Yonkers

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Regional Thinking

Geographers think a lot about regions, as they help us to answer the fundamental questions of our discipline:
Where is it?
Why is it there?
So what?
In other words, identifying regions can be a useful step in describing spatial patterns, explaining them, and applying that understanding to important (or merely interesting) problems.

Regions can be defined in a variety of ways, such as political boundaries, physical features, or transportation patterns. If we define a region based on common characteristics, we call it a formal region, though some geographers now use that term for "official" regions. If we define a region based on patterns of interaction -- such as a market area or a river basin -- we call it a functional region. Of course, higher degrees of interaction within a functional region might cause it to develop common characteristics of a formal region.

All of this comes to mind as we consider author Colin Woodward's book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, recently excerpted by Business Insider. It is introduced by Matthew Speiser, who fails to credit Joel Garreau's 1982 book The Nine Nations of North America, of which the more recent title is certainly derivative, and who describes it as a book about the United States, which is only partly correct.

Still -- although the author uses "history" in his title instead of "geography" -- this is a nice example of defining a region in cultural terms. Woodward focuses on predominant settlers (European only) and over-emphasizes political philosophy, while revealing his own. But this is appearing in the Politics section of the BI site, so that emphasis is understandable.

It rings true to a certain degree, and like any good regionalization, it serves as a good thought experiment. Do the regions make sense? How might they be adjusted if other factors were considered? How relevant are they to questions of political or economic differences?

Most interesting to me is the question of degree. I agree with some of the characterizations Woodward makes. I have visited all of the regions defined and I have lived in half of them, so I agree that the United States varies quite a lot from place to place, and many of those differences are reflected in politics. But I also think that the variations within these regions are more substantial than Woodward allows, and that we are much closer to a purple nation than to a collection of red and blue places.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Pink Flamingos Have a Geography, Too

Because of the John Waters 1972 film -- and because of my own experience dodging the things in my years as a landscaper -- I always associate plastic pink flamingos with my adopted home city of Baltimore.

But thanks to Atlas Obscura, I have learned that Phoenicopteridae plasticus originated much closer to my other adopted home in Massachusetts. Specifically, it emerged from the mill town of Leominster (pronounced LEMM-inster), and that the story of its invention has roots in the city's history as Comb City, with a pivotal role played by the dancer Irene Castle.
Image: Atlas Obscura

Readers interested in my writings on the mythical creature known as a free market can view the pink unicorn articles on this blog.

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