Monday, May 28, 2018


Bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, on Alsek River
Rebounded from DDT, but now threatened by the Department of Interior itself
Aside from the Bill of Rights, the most valuable aspect of the U.S. Constitution is the balance of powers among the three branches of government, and the access ordinary citizens have to all three.

In the area of environmental protection, for example, Congress writes laws, executive departments (mainly EPA and Interior) promulgate regulations to implement those laws, and the courts ensure that the intent of the laws is reflected in the details of the regulations. Citizens can participate in public hearings on proposed regulations, and can file suits if the regulations do not seem to meet legislative intent.

The system is currently under stress, however, as secretaries of several executive departments were nominated primarily on the basis of their antipathy to the mission of their departments. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for example, is responsible for the protection of public lands, but is ideologically opposed to the very concept of public lands. (The exception is in his home state of Montana, a character flaw I explored in my Secretary NIMBY post last November.)

The Senate, of course, has the responsibility to confirm the nominations only of persons qualified to carry out their constitutionally-mandated duties. It would seem that open hostility to the purposes and programs of a department would be a disqualification, but the current Senate has not seen fit to carry out even that minimal level of oversight with respect to the departments of Interior, Environmental Protection, Education, and several others. In some cases a Senator of the President's party has risen to speak against a nominee, but none has voted accordingly, with the sole exception of the vote to confirm a CIA director with an ambiguous (at best) record on torture.

My course on environmental regulations will be a bit complicated in the fall. A wrecking ball has been taken to the relationships among law, regulation, and guidance documents. It will take lawyers and judges years to fix the paperwork damage, and some of the real-world damage will never be fixed. The implementation of regulations through law has always been subject to political wrangling, and particularly in many areas of environmental law in which the public good often has serious opponents with narrow economic interests. The 2018 version of this course will be the best opportunity I have had to explore the machinations that are always present to some degree.

A New Level of Obstruction

The failure of the Senate to fulfill its "advice and consent" responsibilities, however, has resulted in some situations that are different in kind, not just degree, from the manipulations of prior administrations. A recent example in Secretary Zinke's department is the directive to wildlife officials to Shut Up About Mandatory Endangered Species Permits.

As reported by journalist Mary Papenfuss, new wildlife regulations will allow applicants for Federal permits to make their own decisions about the applicability of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and to avoid adverse decisions by simply not including possible habitat-related takings in their application materials. This will be achieved by prohibiting wildlife staff from mentioning the requirement.

The order challenges the Act's requirements related to the non-deliberate loss of endangered plants and animals by means of habitat change. These have been critical to the effectiveness of the Act. Thy have also proven most bothersome to property developers who see themselves as gaining little from their share of the aggregate benefits of such protections while paying a high individual cost. This is an instance of Garrett Hardin's classic Tragedy of the Commons, which the Congress specifically set out to address.

In the 45 years that the Act has been in force, a couple of presidents and Interior Secretaries (most notably James Watt) have sought to weaken it, and of course many court challenges have been mounted. The current gag order is an effort quietly (silently, in fact) to give developers what they have been hoping for, without the open processes of Congress or the Courts.

Advocates for preservation, of course, will find their way to the courts, but in the process will reduce their ability to do actual environmental work or to contest the Administration's maneuvering in other areas of regulation. Forcing advocates to re-litigate an entire century of environmental law, of course, is part of the Administration's scorched-earth (that's not just a metaphor) policy.

Creeping Authoritarianism

The order imperils both the eagle and the freedoms it represents.

The order is also an infringement on the heretofore American values of free speech and due process. When a government entity orders its citizens -- even those who are government employees -- to shut up about that which they know or believe to be true, one cannot help but think of authoritarian regimes -- and of resistance to them.

The particular phrase "shut up" brings to mind the Portuguese equivalent, cale-se. It is a homophone of calice, or chalice. It is the title of Chico Buarque's song of resistance during the height of the 1964-1985 military rule in Brazil. I describe the song and its uses in two earlier blog posts, Creative Resistance and Overcoming Condor.

The short version of the story is that Buarque's song was on one level about the Last Supper and the Passion of Christ (chalice), while on another level it repeated and mocked what the regime was always telling resisters: shut up.

Although my first visit to Brazil was a decade after the end of the dictatorship, I have done a lot of reading and thinking both about the regime and about the resistance to it, so this song is also mentioned in several other posts, most importantly Wrestling the First Amendment. I am beginning to find unexpected relevance to the politics of resistance in my own country.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Masa No Más

One of the first things I ever posted on the web was an article about lyophilisation, better known as freeze-drying. It was for the Wornick Company, my employer at the time and one of the pioneers in the process. Even though we no longer produced freeze-dried products, they were part of our history and I was involved in some very nerdy financial machinations about freeze-dried fruit. I even took a bunch of the product with me on my first trip to the Amazon.

So I know something about freeze-drying, and about what it is good for.

To the ever-growing list of things I have learned from my wonderful alumni, we can add this: I just learned freeze-dried corn meal is a thing, that I have probably had it, and that it is not good.
Mexican food guru Diana Kennedy is not a fan.
Image by Eleanor Skrzat for Taste.
In The Tortilla Cartel, journalist Elizabeth Dunn describes the strange story of Maseca. This powder gives home cooks and even some restaurants the idea that they are making tortillas (or tamales, as I have done) from scratch, when in fact they are simply reconstituting the dough. She makes a comparison to instant Folger's coffee which, like NESCAFÉ, no es café. Just as these concoctions are not really coffee, Maseca is not really cornmeal.

I thought I had no illusions about industrial-scale cornmeal, but I was wrong. What is in those boxes and bags looks like cornmeal, but it really is not. I am now even more grateful that the traditional method does still exist in some places, and that one of those places is the home of the host family I visit every January in Nicaragua. Doña Elsa enjoys teaching my students and me how to form and cook tortillas, which she does by the dozen every morning without any utensils. Just as described in Dunn's article, she is using corn grown on her own property and ground in a communal stone mill at a neighboring house. This imparts one thing that Dunn's article does not mention: minerals from the grinding stones, now missing from the diets of millions in Latin America.

A real tortilla in my home-away-from-home in Nicaragua!
Because corn is essential to the agriculture and foodways of Latin America and because commodity corn has been such a problem in both the United States and Latin America, this blog includes quite a few additional posts, which readers of Dunn's article might find interesting.  These include The True Cost of Farm Subsidies (2010), Elevating Profits (2014),  Seed Saving (2017), and Rey de Maíz (2017).

All of these articles point to something I find missing from almost all discussions of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which tend to focus on food safety. As important as that is, the biggest threat posed by GMOs is that they accelerate the narrowing of the genetic diversity of our food supply.

Fortunately, Dunn's article points to some efforts to recover some of the diversity of maize. Unfortunately, for those who are not going to grow and process corn at home, the alternatives are so far limited to high-end grocery stores. Perhaps a way can be found to get real cornmeal back into neighborhood bodegas and restaurants.


Doing some minimal processing of corn for my beloved's birthday party.
Two days after I posted the foregoing, I had three personal encounters with maize. First, I had the honor of husking the corn for a family gathering. Second, my good friend Alfredo -- and the son of the tortilla expert mentioned above -- sent me photos of corn his family had just planted. (In the photo above, I am wearing a coffee necklace made for me by that very same young man.)
Third, my modest abilities in Spanish gave me the opportunity to chat with a man from El Salvador, who told me that he grew up farming both corn and coffee. It was a reminder that coffee in Central America is part of an agricultural landscape that includes basic grains that were being cultivated for many centuries before its arrival.

Good News Update

Not exactly news, but rather a connection I have only today made. Readers in New England can find real chips from Mi Nińa Tortilla in Newton, Massachusetts.

The company has been making Aztec-style tortillas from real corn since 2011. I just enjoyed some of these chips with guacamole from a brand new local company.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Animal Talk

This week, the president of the United States justified his calls for even tougher action on immigration by referring to those who cross illegally into the United States as "animals" and worse. With the recent appointment of an acknowledged torturer to one government agency (CIA) and the announcement of familial torture as a deterrent by another (ICE), the words could not be taken lightly.

Within a day, his administration was partially walking back the comment, insisting that it applied only to the Salvadoran-American gang MS-13. This is part of a broader strategy, of course, of using a small number of admittedly odious migrants as rhetorical cover for deporting dishwashers, shopkeepers, and thousands of other ordinary undocumented Americans.

In this case, though, the rhetoric is different not only in degree, but in kind. It is not acceptable talk for a person occupying an office that was once called "leader of the free world" in a country whose national anthem still claims to celebrate "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Journalist Tanzina Vega discussed the precedents and dangers of this rhetorical shift with philosopher and author David Livingstone Smith on today's edition of The Takeaway. Smith is author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.


The MS-13 gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Its history is intertwined with U.S. policies in the northern triangle region of Central America during that period.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


NOTE: This post has grown over nearly a month of turmoil in my beloved Nicaragua.
The opinions expressed here are my own, and based on my best reading of the ever-changing situation. I welcome comments, especially from my friends throughout the country.

I was on my way to dinner with colleagues a month ago (the time since has passed very quickly for me) when I started to notice concerning posts from some of my friends in Nicaragua. At first I assumed there had been a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. I soon learned that the problem was much worse.

I usually manage to get through a meal without checking my phone, but as events in Nicaragua were unfolding, the outside media did not seem to be noticing, so I was checking frequently with my friends and sites inside the country. Throughout that evening and for several days thereafter, social media was the only way to track what was happening in a country that for several years has been the exception to the patterns of violence that become all-too familiar in several neighboring countries.

Worried about evidence that the government was beginning to isolate its citizens from the outside world, I checked my contacts constantly, and also checked frequently for Miami-Managua air traffic on Flight Aware, where both freight and commercial flights have continued throughout the crisis. Several television channels were shut down, though, and rumors that the internet might be shut down were frequent. Stories of police visiting people who had posted updates on social-media were even more ominous.

I was reminded of the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s, when attention -- witness -- from outside was the only hope of curbing abuses by many governments in the region. Unable to do much else in the short term, I did my best to share what news I could garner from Nicaragua, and to assure Nicaraguans that they have not been forgotten.
Courtesy of MapsOpenSource
What I was learning in the first hours and days of the turmoil was that students and others in the city of León had organized protests against draconian cost-cutting measures in the Nicaraguan equivalent of our Social Security system. Effective immediately -- and without an open political process -- workers and employers would be paying much higher taxes into the system and retirees would be receiving much lower pension payments.

This created a precipitating moment for a broad coalition that had begun to coalesce against a government that had become steadily more autocratic over the past decade. Speaking anonymously with Catholic News Service reporters, at least one priest was more direct: dictatorship is the underlying problem, he said.

The first demonstrations occurred in León, home of Nicaragua's first university and still an important intellectual hub. (It is, coincidentally, the location of the original Ben Linder Café, which inspired the on-going effort to create a social-justice-oriented café on my own campus.) Demonstrations soon spread to Masaya, Managua, and other cities.

On April 28, journalist Todd Zwilig dedicated 9 minutes of the PRI program The Takeaway to a cogent explanation of what had transpired over the previous ten days. He spoke with New York Times reporter Frances Robles and Brown University scholar Stephen Kinzer about the increasing gap between Ortega's rhetoric and the reality of his regime. The title of the piece is not quite right, in my opinion: the protests are a symptom of the regime's eroded authority, not its cause.
The web page to accompany the Mass Protests audio includes a vivid image of the cathedral where some of the protests have gathered, and which I visited with students just a few months ago. I later learned that the cathedral was used for shelter -- sanctuary in the traditional sense -- for 2,000 of the protestors.

Before delving into more of the details, I want to remind readers of why this is so important. Despite its harsh history and suffering at the hands of internal and external bad actors -- from the Samosas to Oliver North -- Nicaragua is a gem. Its people not only are beautiful, they appreciate beauty. This is conveyed in "Nicaragua Nicaraguita" by Carlos Mejía Godoy, a bit of poetry that is thought of as the quiet anthem of the country.

It is not just a celebration of Nicaragua, though. It was written in 1983, when the country was under attack by remnants of Samosa's regime and the United States. It calls both for peace and democracy.

The following additional stories provide further information on the crisis:

May 11, Miami Herald. Lawmakers call on Trump to investigate Nicaraguan government in deaths of protesters. It is good to see bipartisan interest in addressing this crisis, though it is not appropriate for the United States to take the lead in any investigation, for myriad reasons. One small but telling detail is the Congresswoman who refers to Ortega as a socialist in the article. It is neither relevant nor accurate, and suggests that a U.S.-led inquiry would be distracted quickly. Still, there may be a U.S. role as part of a regional coalition. On May 16, the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua called for both a cessation of violence and an opening to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I am pleased to see that Ambassador Laura Dugo is a career diplomat with experience in the region -- a rarity in the State Department these days.

May 13, Al-Jazeera: Ortega to allow inquiry into protest deaths. Many have been unconvinced by these and other conciliatory words, especially as protesters continue to be assaulted and killed in some locations.

The international commission identified causes of the 76 deaths
during the first month of the unrest. Not included are even
more disappearances and injuries. At least one person was killed
simply for displaying the national flag in his car window.
On May 16, Nicaraguan bishops convened open dialogs among government, youth, and other sectors. (See more on the dialogs at BBC Mundo. (Google "Nicaragua diálogo or Nicaragua dialogue for much more about recent developments.)

This should have provided some encouragement that a peaceful resolution might be forthcoming, but government forces continue to attack demonstrators, at least in the areas of the north where I have the closest contacts. Wednesday through Friday, May 16-18, were particularly violent, but a parade was nonetheless planned in the city of Jinotega today (Sunday, May 20), with appropriate permits.

This morning, one of these friends sent a video that was posted on Friday and shared thousands of times since. I do not know anybody in the video, but it captures the beauty, determination, poetry, and decency of the people I do know in Nicaragua. I was asked to share it widely, to let everyone know that Nicaraguans are dedicated to their liberty.
This reminds me of the Vietnam-era protestors who put flowers in the barrels of guns. They believed -- as does the person behind this painted hand -- in the deep patriotism and basic humanity of most of the troops who find themselves on the front lines against their own people. This is a still from the video mentioned above. Please watch and share it.
Also from a church source, on May 11 the Latin American Jesuit organization CPAL Social posted La insurrección de la conciencia, a step-by-step explanation of how the country got to its current political impasse.

The evolution Ortega's dictatorship is very difficult for many in the United States to understand, in my opinion. Those on the far right and the far left still believe that Ortega is a socialist, both because he says so and because of nostalgia for the ideological battles of the original FSLN era. (For the former, see Belen Fernandez' analysis "Nicaraguan Spring or imperial spring cleaning?" I see a lot of the latter (that is, left-wing nostalgia for the old FSLN) on the social networks of the U.S. ex-pat community (sandalistas, by which I mean no disrespect).

My travels to Nicaragua began shortly before his return to power. During my 2009 visit, I met U.S. investors who were concerned about a possible shift to the left (after an interregnum of relatively centrist presidencies) and who were in the country to make that clear to him. In the decade since, I have seen that they had little to fear: Daniel's rhetoric has remained to the left, but his real alliances have been with elites who have concentrated economic power to a degree that rivals Samosa's empire. One silver lining -- again, just in my opinion -- is that these capitalists rely on stability, and they might be able to offer Ortega a way out of this crisis. By this I mean, of course, a plane ride to a nice villa elsewhere.

May 28 Update: Writing for the New York Post, retired diplomat Otto Reich argues that Nicaragua is following Venezuela toward the rocks. Within this short article, he presents a cogent description of the regime's ideological shift and growing corruption that jibes with my understanding of its recent history. In fact, even as I am writing this, friends in the country are sending me private messages making the Venezuela comparison. I further agree with Reich that a multinational coalition must join the broadening internal coalition that is urging the Ortega to stand aside. I do differ with Reich on the role that the United States can or should play; for a whole host of reasons, U.S. participation needs to be in support of an effort led by others in the region.

BRIDGEWATER NOTES: The U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua continues to advise against travel by U.S. citizens to Nicaragua, and is operating its own missions on a reduced basis. For this reason, plans for the January 2019 travel course are on hold. For reasons cited above, it is important for U.S., European, and other outside visitors to keep attention focused on Nicaragua. But a travel course might not be an appropriate way to do so just yet. Those interested in the course, please keep reading advisories from the embassy and stay in contact with me through the summer.

We know that those who have traveled from Bridgewater to Nicaragua want to help. One of our coffee-course alumni and I have been working with friends on the ground in Nicaragua to organize a small project that will enable us to raise both awareness and funds. Please visit the #SOSnicaragua page to buy a shirt and make a contribution.

Before I close this rather rambling post, I have to share something that was sent by a close friend about a week into these events. It is a coffee connection that captures the political moment perfectly. Some of the public's ire at the regime focused on the illuminated steel trees that line many of the boulevards of Managua.

On the one hand, these are perhaps a laudable example of public art. On the other, the circumstances of their proliferation came to symbolize the nepotism and increasing detachment of the regime. The contrast between ample funding for electrified fake trees and inadequate protection of actual trees had become deeply problematic, and some have been destroyed in response to recent repression.

That all of this is captured in the foam of a single cup of coffee is a reminder that  coffee shops -- since their invention over 1,000 years ago --are key locations for political foment.

On May 21, the day after I posted most of what is in this article, I noticed this fascinating photo, posted by a friend in Nicaragua. It is a flag of Nicaragua, taken for the first time to the summit of Mt. Everest by a Californian who has made Nicaragua his home. His video message is one of great pride and support for the people of his adopted home. PLEASE WATCH. In the first 10 hours after he posted it, this video was shared on Facebook more than 10,000 times. This signifies that people worldwide are following the events in Nicaragua with care.

I am closing this post with a positive note. In the midst of this crisis, friends in Matagalpa -- the place where my Nicaragua experiences began and that I now consider a home -- shared yet another video. This one promotes a project of which they -- and I -- are very proud. It integrates cultural and environmental education in a beautiful setting they have created just on the edge of the city.

I will be going to Casa Coibríes on my next visit.

July 11, 2018

I am going to leave the positive item above, but for now I cannot end this post on a positive note. The violence has continued now for almost 3 months, and 300 people have been killed, mostly by government agents and their sympathizers. Many international and religious leaders have advocated for peace, and many peaceful protests have been held. But the FSLN is determined to hang on to power, and we do not really see an end soon.

For example, just two days ago, church leaders -- including the Cardinal of Nicaragua were attacked as they tried to shield regime opponents in the town of Diriamba, south of Managua. A Washington Post editorial compares the situation to the fall of Venezuela, and calls for regional cooperation to put pressure on the regime.

Also see Amnesty International's report on repression in Nicaragua, posted June 22. Nothing has improved since then.

July 23, 2018

One small item: I have noticed the expression "¡Que se rinda tu madre!" ("Let your mother surrender!") on the social-media profiles of many in Nicaragua, and have been confused about its meaning. I found an academic article about the phrase, used by Sandinistas in their early days, and more recently used as a rebuke against FSLN leaders who have kept power but not the ideals of the revolution. Interestingly, the article was published in 2012 -- this rift has been growing for some while. An abstract of the article by Hilary Francis is available from Taylor & Francis publishers; I am currently waiting for a digital copy of the full article. Consult your local library if interested.


Cabo Verde Basics

I first became aware of the country of Cape Verde some time during my college-level study of geography. Throughout my studies -- including two graduate programs -- I would occasionally notice it on a map or in an article, and I always had difficulty figuring out its exact location.

Part of my confusion arises from the name -- whether pronounced Cabo Verde, Cabo Verd, Cape Verd, or Cape Verde, the implication is some kind of peninsula or point of land, a cape. It is neither a cape nor is most of it green.
Its existence as a country was also somewhat unclear, as cartographers were slow to note its 1975 independence from Portugal. Others showed it as including both the Cape Verde Islands and a point of land several hundred miles to the east, in what is now Senegal. That is the cape, apparently, from which the name originally derived. One explanation I heard was the they were the islands west of that cape. Cartographic confusion has continued at least as late as 2013, when I tried in vain to alert Google Maps to labeling errors within the country.

(NOTE from 2023: Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I also alerted the data scientist at Johns Hopkins University of a problem with its Covid-19 map, which quickly became the most important resource on the geographic patterns of the disease. It indicated one case in Cape Verde and one case in Cabo Verde. I pointed out that this meant two cases in Cabo Verde. They corrected the map and fortunately only identified 7 more cases over the ensuing course of the pandemic. Unrelated to this is another serious error on the map that was beyond the ability of the Johns Hopkins team to report. Nicaragua acknowledged only 43 cases and no deaths. This is absolutely false, and the government's denial lead to many deaths.)

My education about the geography of Cabo Verde (now its official name in any language) began shortly after moving to southeastern Massachusetts in 1997. Many of the students and employees of my college (now university) are Cape Verdeans, whether they be first, second, or up to fifth generation.

The connection between Cape Verde and this area is a great example of chain migration: people tend to move to places where they already have some connection. Connections that began with whale hunting continued as workers were needed in shoe manufacturing, cranberry harvesting, or other industries. They continue today, not for any single industry, but because of a whole series of connections, many related to education. I remember asking a first-generation student when she had moved to the United States, and she replied that she came at age 13 specifically to attend Brockton High School.

I was fortunate enough to see the commitment to education first-hand when I made my first visit to Cabo Verde in 2006 with a group of students, alumni and employees. From high school students through the president of the country, we found many people with a great reverence for teachers and the value of learning -- sentiments we could use a bit more of in my country.

All of this is by way of prelude to a nice introduction I found recently by Barby, an online educator who narrates Geography Now. (Note: the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is mispronounced and misspelled in the video. Barby makes up for this by correctly identifying Macaronesia, which I have mistakenly been calling Macronesia.)

With this video as an introduction, the Wikipedia History of Cape Verde provides a bit more depth.


Historian Richard Lobban describes Cape Verde as the westernmost part of Africa and the southernmost part of Europe, as Barby does in the video, and he also calls it the easternmost part of the Americas. Cape Verde played an indirect role in the definition of Latin America itself, as the Treaty of Tordesillas defined the Spanish/Portuguese line of demarcation as a distance west of the islands.

The connections that led him to this conclusion certainly include music.

I first started learning about the music of Cabo Verde the first time I taught the geography of Latin America, in which I play a lot of music from that region. A student in the class suggested I would enjoy the music of Cesária Évora because of some similarities he noticed, and he was correct. Revered by any Cape Verdean I have met, she was still performing in Boston in those days, until her death in 2011.

I describe my 2006 visit as my "first" rather than my only because I hope to return to Cabo Verde in the future. I have recently become more involved with the BSU Pedro Pires Institute for Cape Verdean Studies, and my lovely wife Pamela and I have been taking classes in Cape Verdean Creole (Kriuliu) with its director.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Aw, Professor

1,000th POST

I began this blog -- which I sometimes call my "main blog" -- in 2008. At the time, I had just started using the center of my faculty home page to highlight examples of environmental geography as I see it. Those examples are still there, but the new platform of blogging seemed a more effective way to add many kinds of examples, and emerging social media platforms made it easy to share those examples with a wide readership.

I recently realized that I was approaching my 1,000th published post (quite a few more remain as yet-to-be-published drafts), and I decided to celebrate with something fun. Coincidentally, I recently started making my own "Aw, Professor" memes, which friends and followers on Facebook really seem to appreciate. These are tongue-in-cheek words of unsolicited advice that echo themes found on the Not-the-13th Grade section of my faculty site. It seems fitting to gather all of them on this post, to which I will add any more that I end up creating.

In honor of the hundreds of students who have tolerated the group assignment
 in my Secret Life of Coffee course.
In honor of professors who try to apply what we teach in our classes
 to what we experience in our bureaucracies.
In honor of teachers who manage to teach despite the over-management of teachers.
In honor of Georgia Senator John Lewis
In honor of poet Tom Wayman.
Thanks to all of the students, colleagues, and randomly-encountered readers who have encouraged my blogging. If you want even more, see for links to my other blog projects, several of which I share with my lovely wife and favorite librarian, Pamela.

278,872 page views, and counting!
Below are memes in this series created after the initial May 9, 2018 post.
In honor of spellcheck and autocorrect, without which this blog itself -- and
even this meme -- would be impossible.
In honor, of course, of the farmers.

In honor of dynamic classrooms, where I can learn from students every day.
In honor of professional soccer, for placing faith in the unity of a continent that our country's president is doing his best to divide.
After a bit of a hiatus, the meme is back. I hear earnest-sounding public officials
using this technical term, most recently in the science-free zone of North Carolina.
Lagniappe-squared: the memes keep coming...
In honor of students in my African geography course, for whom this was
my actual answer to an actual question before a quiz!
(They did not say "Aw, Professor" though.)

In honor of colleagues at a campus-wide conference many years ago,
who were struggling with the question of how to make our teaching relevant
in the so-called Real World.
"In geography," I told them, "the Real World is a big part of what we do."
And yet education bureaucracies continue to ignore it assiduously! 
In honor of middle-class people who believe wealthy politicians who tell them
to watch out for immigrants, refugees, and other disadvantaged people
 while rigging the world's financial and taxation systems
against the poor and the middle class.

Organizing Africa

Africa is not a country!
When, as I often do, I have students gathered in front of the Africa side of our EarthView globe, I ask them to repeat the phrase, "Africa is not a country!" For a brief time during the month when I was born, however, it was a possibility under serious discussion.

I learned this from BBC Witness, a nine-minute radio program that followers of this blog will recognize as one that has become a favorite of mine. It was through the author John McPhee that I developed an appreciation for biography as a great way to learn geography and history, and Witness gives me such lessons in a small doses. The whole series is available online, but I often plan my morning coffee routine around its local airing on 90.9 WBUR. I have to get the hand grinding done before 4:50 so that I can hear the whole program.

The most recent episode to capture my attention was a rebroadcast that I actually heard in my car, as I drove to early-morning rowing. (My dog, my wife, coffee, and rowing have made me a morning person, though blogging keeps me an evening person as well.)

Africa United is an interview with the Eritrean scholar Bereket Habte Selassie, who now teaches at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, but who was present at the first continent-wide gathering of African leaders. Following successful independence movements throughout the continent, leaders of 32 countries gathered to discuss options for a common way forward. Although some advocated strongly for a federation similar to the United States, the final outcome was to create the Organisation of African Unity.

The organization grew over the next several decades until it was replaced by the African Union in 2002.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Whaleboat History

June 2014: Delivering a boat to the Open Water Challenge so that the racing crew would be fresh for the 3.75-mile race.
I have since had the chance to be in the race a couple of times, and lucky enough to be on a winning crew in 2017.
As I wrote in my November 2012 post Harbor Learning, I first learned of whaleboat clubs from a Boston Globe article about the activity (hurray, journalists!), and within a few weeks found myself on the water. I continue to enjoy the physical exercise, the company of new friends, and the learning that always happens in these boats.

On the learning front, I was pleased to be able to give back in a small way on the learning front. One of my whaleboat clubs (I'm a member of two now) sponsors an annual skills contest called the Wicked Whaleboat Challenge. Circling Crow's Island, crews compete not on speed or endurance, but rather on fairly complicated maneuvers.

I helped to design the original challenge (on a cocktail napkin, truth be told) and have competed a couple of times. This year, I provided the coffee and an essay on whaleboat history for the event's program booklet. (Caveat: I am a geographer, so this is not really a history.)

Now that the event has passed, I am posting that essay here for any who might be interested. Fortunately, the event coordinator (more like mastermind) is also an excellent graphic designer, so he gave me a word limit; otherwise I would have followed tangents for days in writing the essay. I kept it brief and focused on New Bedford; I included a couple of key links for those wishing to learn more.


The Wicked Whaleboat Challenge is a time for fun on the water and tests of skills and athleticism, but it is much more.  For nearly two centuries, the skills on display today have been practiced and honed on these very waters. In this remarkable harbor between New Bedford and Fairhaven, the Yankee whaleboat was perfected and thousands of crewmembers were trained to row them on all of the world’s oceans. 

The boats used in today’s event are fiberglass replicas of the wooden whaleboats that were designed by *Carl (or Charles) Beetle, the best known of many builders who supplied the New Bedford fleet during the peak of its prominence in the world-wide hunt for whales and their oil. His design was successful on the water and also in the workshop, where its simplicity allowed for quick production, averaging one hand-built boat per week for two decades during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Each ship carried aboard up to a half dozen of the boats, all high in the stern and bow. Everything about them – from the high double-bow to the carefully-chosen set of tools on board – was calculated to make them effective tools for the pursuit of whales. Though equipped with both oars and sails, the rowing was the more important during the hunt. 

Once a whaleship got close to a whale, a crew would be lowered quickly to the water and the chase would immediately be on. An officer would steer the boat from the stern with a long oar, commanding the rowers to adjust their port or starboard speed to complement his actions. The crew would advance steadily on a speeding whale, and once within reach, that same officer would move to leading bow to harpoon the whale. The panicked leviathan would often pull the boat in what came to be known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride, and eventually the exhausted animal would be dispatched by lances carried in the boat.

The names of the boats in today’s race are significant. The Skylark is named in honor of the first boat ever to win a whaleboat race in this harbor, an 1857 jaunt of just under three miles in just over 25 minutes. The Flying Fish honors the winner of an 1859 Independence Day race, and the Herman Melville honors the author whose work introduced the reading public to the workings of whaleships.

In the early 20th century, demand for the boats declined as petroleum began to replace whale oil. Members of the Beetle family continued to apply their expertise in the mass production of wooden boats by turning their attention to recreational boats, most notably the Beetle Cat, which the company continues to produce in nearby Wareham.

The continuity of the Beetle workshop proved to be a boon to maritime heritage when, in 2014, the company was called upon to produce a new whaleboat for the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan. The restoration of America’s oldest commercial ship required that it be outfitted with new whaleboats of the original Beetle design. The fact that one of these boats could be produced in a Beetle workshop added poignancy to the first whaleship voyage under sail in 90 years.

Since the Morgan’s New England tour, that “genuine replica” has been part of the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Whaling City Rowing is proud to collaborate with the Museum by operating that boat on a seasonal basis in the very harbor where the design of the Yankee whaleboat was perfected nearly two centuries ago.

Sources:,, and


The learning will also continue in my geography classes. This spring I created an assignment for our senior seminar, in which students used maps and forecasts to make hypothetical plans for outings in the harbor. I also plan to use much of what I have learned about whaleboats in a two-week summer class I call New Bedford Fortnight.

*Possible correction: The South Coast being a small place with myriad social connections, one of our rowing-club members recently learned that a friend of hers is related to this boat-building family, and that the inventor's name is Carl; it was Charles in the sources I consulted for this post. 

Monday, May 07, 2018

Climate Insecurity

Because of ideology, resilience innovations such as this double-decker pier can only be installed as replacements, not as part of long-term planning.
"Ignorance of geography is a threat to our national security."

The great geographer Harm de Blij made this assertion during one of his visits to our campus, and it is one I have often repeated. Dr. de Blij (duh-BLAY) made this statement mainly in reference to human geography, because of the tendency of superpowers to involve themselves in conflicts that could have been avoided with a bit better understanding of the geographies of politics, economies, religion, and language.

The statement is equally applicable to environmental geography, however, and specifically to the geographies of vulnerability to climate change. Excellent reporting by Nicholas Kusnetz reveals that with regard to climate change, ignorance is sometimes a conscious choice. Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It was jointly published last October by Inside Climate News and The Weather Channel. It is a succinct explanation of the problems posed by sea-level rise for military installations in general and those of southeastern Virginia in particular. It is also a well-documented account of the steps that have been taken to address the problem, and the ideologically-driven abandonment of sensible planning for rising seas.

In many bureaucracies, when those at the top make mistakes, those with day-to-day responsibilities find work-arounds. The double-decker pier shown above is a good example. Prudent officers know that they can be part of a mitigation plan, but they are not allowed to plan for mitigation. They have built a few with short-term repair money, but they cannot access long-term capital funding to develop this kind of resilience.


As I have written in several posts -- including Climate Foxholes and Covering the Climate Bet -- professionals with long-term responsibilities in such areas as infrastructure, agriculture, and insurance cannot afford climate denial. As we have known since the very first academic paper on climate change, the fluidity of the atmosphere and oceans means that the consequences of climate change are quite variable across time and by location. And as Dr. Mary Robinson continues to teach us, the consequences vary considerably along socioeconomic lines.

Fortunately, many municipal governments in the United States are responding to the complex interactions among climate change and human systems by creating resilience offices. Even more fortunate, geographers already have the skills of integrative systems thinking that is necessary to do resilience-related work. My own department -- BSU Geography -- has recently submitted for approval a new degree program, Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sustainability and Climate Resilience. Once approved, several of my courses will be part of it. Many of our alumni already have similar qualifications.

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