Thursday, March 26, 2020

COVID-19 Hope from Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall in the Gombe Reserve, 1965
I have given too much thought, perhaps, to the assertion by Henry Mitchell that "all anybody needs to know about prizes is that Mozart never won one." This started because I must have heard the quote not long before the only time (so far) I was in a room with Jane Goodall.

My one chance at a photo -
dim but magical!
I was in my hometown (Washington, DC) in the historic Wardman Park Hotel, where my brother, father, and both grandfathers had worked in various capacities. We had brought our EarthView globe for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers.

While we were there, we learned that she would be speaking as the first recipient of the Atlas Award,: a new prize that professional geographers in North America were to begin bestowing on people from outside the profession who had made a profound lifetime contribution to our discipline.

As hundreds of geographers sat in rapt attention as she spoke to us so eloquently about the planet we study, I realized that she was doing us a favor by coming to receive this award, not the other way around. As I look at her Wikipedia page a decade later, I see that the Atlas Award is not even included among her prizes (I'm trying to fix that). Unlike Mozart, her good work has been recognized with gratitude and admiration in her lifetime.

So it was once again with rapt attention that I listened to her March 20, 2020 message about the crisis currently gripping our planet. Her hope is not a glib or shallow one -- she does not hesitate to point out how dire the Coronavirus pandemic has become. But she is clear about what we must do now and highlights the lessons those who survive this must take forward.


I was also fortunate to be in a room in New York City when Dr. Mary Robinson became the second recipient in 2012. In that case, the acceptance speech -- a video of which is still on my blog -- served not only as my introduction to the concept of climate justice, but as the essential outline of an honors course I was to offer several times in succeeding years. I have not been present for any of the subsequent ceremonies, though Noam Chomsky did speak at my church once. Inexplicably, the AAG web page lists at least some of these awards with the wrong dates.

April 26 update: some good news...

During the blessing of the animals service (online) at my church today, I learned that Jane Goodall's main web page is simply a channel for encouragement. Have a look at her Good for All News for a bit of hope every day.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Cabo = Cape Verde

Having read earlier today that Cabo Verde had not yet reported any Coronavirus cases, I was saddened and surprised to see it marked on the definitive Global Cases map from ESRI and Johns Hopkins, which as of this writing (10pm EDT) indicated 305,234 cases worldwide, up by five thousand from when I checked earlier today.

When I zoomed in, I noticed two dots where Cabo Verde should be. Clicking on each in turn, I noticed the problem:

The country has 4 active cases, reported under the new and old names of the country. A former Portuguese colony that became independent in 1975, it has been called Cabo Verde for centuries, Cape Verde in English.

It has also represented incorrectly on maps in many ways over the years. I completed my doctorate in geography without being quite sure where or what these islands were, because I saw so many contradictions on maps -- some of them suggesting they were still part of Portugal, others indicating that the name referred both to the islands and to a point of land (a cape) in Senegal.

In 2013, the United Nations ceased using the name "Cape Verde" at all, insisting that Cabo Verde should be used, even in an English context. In southeastern Massachusetts -- home of the biggest Cape Verdean / Cabo Verdean / Kabuverdianu community outside the country itself -- I often read and hear both of these versions of the name, and a couple more.

 Geographer Tanya Basu reported on the name change for National Geographic at the time, and explained the bit about Senegal in the process.

The Johns Hopkins map synthesized databases from at least six organizations: Esri, WHO, HERE, GARMIN, NOAA, and USGS (all of these employ geographers, by the way). It appears that at least one of these is using the old name. I will of course be contacting some of these agencies to report the error while the numbers are still small.


For general information about the geography of Cabo Verde, see my 2018 Basics post. For the story of another mistake I noticed in an online map of the country, see my 2013 Google In, Google Out post.

For the story and photos of my 2006 travel course, see my Cabo Verde - Cape Verde
Geography of Sustainable Development - Geografia do desenvolimento sustenavel web page. Since then, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the country, and to give a presentation at a Cabo Verde conference at my own university. I have also begun to study Kriolu (one of the two national languages, similar to but distinct from Portuguese) and to help develop a minor in Cape Verdean Studies at Bridgewater State University. I will eventually be offering a Fogo version of my Geography of Coffee travel course as my own contribution to that academic minor.


About 15 hours after I contacted the Johns Hopkins team, the error was corrected. It appears the total incidence as of this writing is 3. I do not know if they are on more than one of the islands or all on the same island.
1:30 p.m. EDT, March 22, 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Trail Protection

In alternate autumn semesters, I enjoy a class we call Land Protection. When I started teaching it, I used a more cumbersome name that I inherited from the professor who first developed it. I think the name had been put together by a committee, and I was glad I was able to find a simpler way to describe what he and I have both endeavored to do with the course -- over what has now become something like four decades.

I took the name from a book that I continue to use each time I teach the course: Protecting the Land: Conservation Easements Past, Present, and Future, an edited collection published by Island Press in 2000. The book includes case studies about the efforts to protect land in many parts of the United States. In this case, "protect" means to put restrict the development of the land  through various legal and financial arrangements, so that it remains as open space -- fields, forests and the like -- or agricultural land. The cases include a lot of different organizations and strategies, as well as land being protected for different reasons. I really do enjoy it, and I think my students do, too.

One of the cases is of particular interest to me as a geographer, because the spatial arrangement of the case raises so many unusual considerations. The development of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail involved nonprofit organizations and several levels of government, and a linear trail raises all kinds of questions about scale, finance and property rights. Such a trail also makes accessible wild (or somewhat wild) lands available to a large number of people who might otherwise not get to visit such places.

Finally, in this particular case, the places include sites that reveal the fascinating (to me) geomorphology of glaciers. They have not been in Wisconsin for over 20,000 years, but they have shaped almost every acre of the Badger State. And even the part they missed (the Driftless Area) is fascinating to those who care about such things. In fact, when driving across Wisconsin (one of my favorite states) with my favorite librarian (who is also my spouse despite suffering through my graduate work in geomorphology), I once got way too excited when I realized I was in the Driftless Area for the first time.

All of this came to mind in recent weeks as I found a couple of interesting stories about other trails. The first was Supreme Court Pipeline Fight Could Disrupt How The Appalachian Trail Is Run, a radio story by radio journalist Becky Sullivan. I look forward to listening to it with my Land Protection students, because this is the most famous of U.S. trails, and like the Ice Age Trail, its management includes a complex mix of federal and other entities. By the time I offer the class again, the Supreme Court will have ruled on this case, and we will have plenty to discuss about both the practical questions of how pipelines cross protected areas and the technical questions of jurisdiction.
The second trail story to come to my attention is America's First Coast-To-Coast Bike Path Is Over Halfway Finished, posted in August 2019 by blogger Ryan Ford. In describing progress on the trail, he explains some of the strategies for making such long-distance connections as this ambitious, 3,700-mile path, and some of the obstacles to do so. Many partners are needed for such efforts, but the lead organization in this case is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The name itself is a strong hint about one of the key strategies: use abandoned railroad rights-of-way wherever possible. In the middle of the 19th century, the United States made it ridiculously lucrative to build railroads. The result was a half century of building tracks parallel to each other all over the continent. Eventually, the redundant tracks started to be removed, and active rail mileage has declined ever since its peak in 1910. This left long, narrow strips of land that had been selected and modified to be a level as possible, often not useful for any practical development, and running continuously through land that would otherwise be costly to buy. As a result, securing the rights to use this land for walking and biking has been a priority of conservation and recreation groups for generations.

All of these issues are relevant to the Bay Circuit Trail, a very long-term project much closer to home. In fact, part of it runs within sight of our classroom (though not along the active train tracks we can see from our window), and students in the class a few years ago actually did some work to help develop local legs of the trail known as the Nunckatessett Greenway.


The other book I have used since the first time I taught the course is even older by one year. David Foster's book Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape was published in 1999 and draws on journals written by Henry David Thoreau a century and a half before that. It is an excellent discussion of how and why the landscape of New England has changed from mostly forested to mostly deforested to mostly forested again, with plenty of suggestions about what this means for managing land in this region, where most of my students have been raised and are likely to stay. (Because as expensive and often dysfunctional as it is, New England is beautiful and diverse and fascinating.)

 I frequently consider alternatives and have sometimes added a third book (several different titles) to the mix, but these remain the constants, as long as they remain available. The combination prepares people well for paid or volunteer work in land trusts or conservation commissions -- two types of organizations that I have worked with and that are very integral to resilience and sustainability efforts at the regional or community level.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Oil: Costs and Prices

The price of the benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil has fallen by more than half since the beginning of the year. So many other things are out of kilter in the world that many folks have hardly noticed. To the question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, the answer is: it depends.

Of course, that is always the answer when prices change, but it is a far more appropriate answer than usual in this case. At a minimum, the answer depends upon:
  • what country is being considered
  • what sector of the economy within that country
  • what time frame is of interest
  • whether economic or environmental factors are being considered
  • whether the environmental factor is climate change or water quality
  • whether one is considering solar or wind alternatives, or oil itself
  • whether you believe in climate change
Just kidding about climate change: this has climate implications whether people believe it or not.

Credit for these factors goes to two excellent reports on the recent slide, which is generally attributed to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. That is, between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Vladimir Putin -- two people who have rather unusual relationships with the current U.S. president. If this is a price war, it is no ordinary one, as each of these actors sees benefits in the geopolitical and economic consequences that are unfolding in the short term.

Rather than elaborate some of the tradeoffs to which my small list alludes, I refer readers to those excellent reports, which I am assigning to students in my Advanced Global Thinking class because there are so many complex geographical questions raised here.

I would start with the March 9 New York Times article Saudi Oil Price Cut Is a Market Shock With Wide Tremors by Clifford Krauss and then listen -- at least twice -- to Cheap Oil and the Climate, a discussion between Steve Curwood of Living on Earth (LOE) and Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International.

The transcript of the LOE discussion includes this aerial photograph of Jonah Field in Wyoming. One can easily imagine the dozens of wells reaching into this deposit, like straws in a giant scorpion bowl. It is an excellent example of the relationships among price, scarcity, and technology in the extraction of any mineral. Whether this is an oil deposit is a question of how much oil is present but also of what the price of oil is. It appears and disappears with price fluctuations. 

Tom and the Volcano

Just a few weeks ago, a hiker on Mauna Loa found this bomb. More precisely, they re-found it, leading to a retelling of its remarkable story.
Rocks that fall from the ejecta of a volcano are called bombs, but this was a bomb dropped deliberately into the volcano 85 years earlier.

The photo was not taken by the hiker; it was taken as part of a 1977 study of the bombing, which had taken place in late 1935. It was one of 40 bombs dropped in the volcano to protect the water supply of Hilo.

The rediscovery of the bomb led to the retelling of the story by the staff of the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory, the agency whose founder had organized the bombing. Their account -- in blog posts dated March 5 and March 12 -- provides insight into volcanology as a descriptive and occasionally prescriptive discipline.

The red icon on this map of the Island of Hawai'i marks the Wailuku River, which reaches the sea at nearby Hilo. In late 1935, lava flowing from Mauna Loa was approaching the city. If the flow reached the Wailuku River just upstream of the city, its water supply could be interrupted.

Volcanologist Thomas Jaggar asked the Army Air Corps to bomb the flow, and this succeeded in stopping it. Better put: forty bombs were dropped, the flow slowed, and the river was spared. The volcanologist claimed victory, but even the pilots were skeptical -- presumably because they could see the scale of the flow relative to the magnitude of the munitions they used.

The story reminds me of one of the first environmental geography books I read: The Control of Nature by John McPhee, a Princeton professor of English, now emeritus, who is one of the best geography writers I know. Among the three stories he tells is one of an effort to divert a lava flow in Iceland. Rather than dropping bombs, the citizenry confronted the volcano in that story with water hoses. Read McPhee's engaging account to learn why that was not as crazy as it sounds.

Lagniappe: The Gap Band

This MTV classic has been running in my mind since I first read the story. Welcome to my earworm.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Beyond Translation

My wife Pamela and I famously met in French class, and though her French is much better than mine (because she regularly went to that class and then several more), neither of us speak it well. We did manage to put together enough phrases to navigate a weekend in rural Quebec about a decade ago, and if the current COVID-19 crisis abates in time, we'll brave a couple of days in France while passing between places where we speak the local languages more effectively -- Great Britain (sort of), Spain, and Portugal. Fingers crossed for that.

Meanwhile, I'm intrigued by a nice little story about learning French in order better to enjoy the rich cultural tapestry of the United States itself. The more one knows French, the more they can enjoy the food, music, and people of New Orleans. I know Rosetta Stone as language-learning software, but it also sponsors travel courses and a blog about language learning.
Louisiana parishes
Credit: Ian Young, Rosetta Stone
One tag used on the blog is words beyond translation, which points to articles that deeply explore just a few examples of words like ojalá (Spanish) and retrouvailles (French) that are exactly that: words for which the dictionary will provide an English equivalent, but which it is. worth learning the language to understand more fully. The Portuguese word saudades would be another great entry in this series. It can be translated as "longing" or "missing" but means so much more. I explored the word in my newsletter Folha da Frontera during my first visit to Brazil in 1996.

I am teaching honors colloquia about New Orleans this year, specifically because I find the city interesting but have never had a chance to go. Music has been a big part of the class and we have also discussed the importance of education in the French language there. Exploring the Big Easy from afar with my honors students, I am looking forward to our eventual visit. We will brush up on our French before we go, and we will stay at La Belle Esplanade, a tiny hotel whose main purpose is to immerse people in the culture of the "real" New Orleans.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Mary or Joseph?

BSU rallies with PRIDE / February 2012
Facebook recently reminded me of the anniversary of this photograph, taken by a friend and former student, unbeknownst to me at the time. It comes as several relevant stories have come to my attention. Our campus had rallied around a student who had been assaulted for their gender identity -- whoever was carrying the flag during the walk across campus asked me to hold it while they went to the podium here in front of our main administration building.

The moment is a reminder both of the progress we have made and the very real dangers that remain for GLBTQ people in our country and abroad. This was taken at a time when I was supporting only my students and neighbors and friends -- I did not know at the time that this would later become something I do for my family.

Young Reilly Horan
Photo: The Moth
I think of this when I contemplate a father in Columbus who attempts to censor a book about gender identity because he thinks his daughter is too young to learn that gender identity is not always what it appears to be. He publicly fights to keep that information from all of the young people in his city, amplifying his own ignorance of gender in the process (he calls transgender people "cross-dressers" for example). The very public stand he is taking while his child is young assumes that she will never need him as an ally. This could prove to be a tragic miscalculation.

A more positive story I heard around the same time was that of Reilly Horan, which she tells as part of an episode of The Moth Radio Hour entitled It's the Little Things. She was serving food at a family restaurant on Martha's Vineyard when a child's question about her khakis helped her to process a lifetime of questions about gender. It is as thoughtful an exploration of gender identity as I have heard.

I recommend the entire episode, but can also suggest skipping to 34:20 for the start of Reilly's moving reflections.

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen via NPR
Driveway moments are familiar to regular listeners of public radio. They occur when we are listening to a story while running errands, and when we stop the car, we decide to sit with the radio on because a story has so captivated us. The story of musician Katie Pruitt's debut album led to just such a moment for me, though it was in a parking lot rather than my driveway, and I have to admit that tears were involved.

What began as a typical story about the music of a young singer-songwriter turned out to be the story of her coming out as a lesbian. And then it became the story of a parent's coming to terms with her child's sexual orientation.

Please have a listen, and maybe grab a tissue first. Jennifer Pruitt has words every parent should hear.


What does all of this have to do with geography?

Everything. Have a look at the blog of the AAG Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group for examples of spatial perspectives on sexual orientation and gender identity. I must admit I liked our previous name better: Sexuality and Space.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

COVID-19 Clears the Air (in one sense)

Nitrous oxide pollution in Wuhan, 2019 (top) and 2020 (bottom). Chinese New Year is responsible for the temporary decline shown on the top line. The quarantine associated with COVID-19 is responsible for the deeper and more persistent reduction this year. The coverage by the Independent correctly attributes the reduction of smog-forming NOx to the extensive quarantines in the region. It also mentions the concomitant reduction in greenhouse gases, but can leave readers with the incorrect impression that the maps depict the presence or absence of carbon dioxide.

The situation in China is reminiscent of the clearing of the air in Mexico City in 1985. At the time, 14 million people lived in the high-altitude (thin-air) bowl of the Valley of Mexico, kicking up fine-particle dust from the bed of Lake Tenochtitlan and more importantly contributing the exhaust of millions of tailpipes. Two successive earthquakes essentially stopped traffic and the air cleared. Many residents saw Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl for the first time in their lives. These icons of the city had not been visible from the city for decades -- nor have they been visible since. Despite many efforts to clear the air of Mexico City, an active population now numbering 22 million has not taken a long enough rest to do so as effectively as the enforced vacation of an earthquake or epidemic would do.

These phenomena are reminders that the air pollution we experience in and around many of the world's great cities is directly related to the choices we have made about work and transportation in those cities, and how we regulate emissions. Unfortunately, the clean air correlates not only with illness but also with economic dislocation, as illustrated by plummeting stock prices near the end of the same period (see below). That is to say, despite some successes at the margins, pollution remains tightly linked to economic progress.

Geographic Information Systems experts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are providing constant updates to the distribution map. This is a graduated-circle map, in which a place is represented by a circle whose diameter is proportional to the square root of the phenomenon associated with that place. This is the March 1 map; click the link in the caption for updates.

As of 3/1/2020, 6:23:02 PM
Current map: JHU-CSSE

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