Tuesday, September 28, 2021


 If you have only one hour to learn about the history of the United States, I recommend that you spend it with Betty Reid Soskin, National Park Service Ranger. 

I learned about Ranger Betty as many other people did, as the entire National Park Service -- which recently celebrated its own centennial -- celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion came to my attention in several different ways over a couple of days. The most fun, of course, was the item above from the impish creatives at NPS Lego Vignettes, from whom I literally learn something new every day.

She is a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California. Her personal history is so deeply entwined in the mission and purposes of the park that they have created an entire web page for this particular ranger. The Betty Reid Soskin page includes a schedule of the presentations she gives on site, a biography focused on her relationship to the park and most importantly, that one-hour video I reference in the opening lines above. 

She is shown sitting as I've seen many other rangers do, on a kitchen stool at the front of a small theater full of visitors. She introduces the park and the park's main documentary video. The hour spent with her includes about 20 minutes with that professionally produced film. It begins, however, with her presenting both a general introduction to the concept of urban national parks and her own connection to this one. After the film is when the real learning happens; in a series of firm but gentle steps, she guides listeners from a superficial understanding of what the home front was all about to a deeper understanding of how that reality was shaped by race and how that might be relevant today.

Spoiler alert: a key turning point in the life of Ranger Betty Soskin was the evacuation of her family from a flood that ravaged much of Louisiana. Most of us were not aware of it until after Katrina in 2005, though Randy Newman ... and later Aaron Neville ... told us all about it in Louisiana 1927, first released in 1974.


If you have more time to devote to learning about the Great Migration that is a big part of Ranger Betty Soskin's story, I highly recommend Isabelle Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. She focuses on the stories of three families in order to provide deep glimpses into the vast and complicated story in which millions of Americans moved over a period of half a century. For a link to the book and my own thoughts on it, please see my Warmth of Other Suns review on Goodreads.

I found the Ranger Betty video while I was looking for material about this book; I found it a bit after the fact. Wilkerson was featured on the TED Radio Hour, which includes a conversation with her and a link to her TED Talk.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP

Shortly after we arrived at BSU, a retirement gave me an opportunity to teach a course about Land Protection, while two outside events helped to shape the way I would teach it for the next two decades. One was the publication of Thoreau's Country and the other was the establishment of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

The namesakes of the park, courtesy of 
NPS Lego Vignettes

Each of these has shaped what we do in class, but more importantly they have given us places to go for the exploration of the interactions among forest ecology, land protection, and conservation. I teach the course every other year; the park in Vermont is a lot for a day trip, so I have only taken about half of those classes there. I have much more success getting the classes to Harvard Forest, which is managed by David Foster, the author of the book Thoreau's Country mentioned above.

Bothe places have extensive hiking trails that I have walked with local experts often enough that I can share some of the lessons to be learned among the trees. Both also have incredible indoor spaces that will not be part of our 2021 course as they remain closed to the public. When we return to normal -- and we will -- I highly recommend the Fisher Museum in Petersham and the mansion in Woodstock.

To learn more about the Marsh-Billings property from afar, I recommend the very cursory encyclopedia article I wrote in 2000 and copied onto my website, as well as A Place in the Land, which is a bit more interesting than its trailer suggests. It provides glimpses of some of the amazing artworks that were collected by the families who lived there and that are essential parts of the story of conservation in the United States.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Four Minutes on Fire

 By the title above, I mean both that this is literally a four-minute story about fire and figuratively that it is "on fire" in the sense that it conveys a lot of knowledge in a very short amount of time. Please give a listen:

Journalist Lauren Sommer and the experts she interviews convey not only the ecological importance of prescribed burns as part of long-term fire control but also the great variability in the legal and cultural context of these practices across the United States. 

Fortunately, land managers in dangerously fire-prone regions are starting to seek the expertise of those with long experience in controlled burns in other regions. Because the story also mentions the legal and financial considerations of burning on privately-held land, this is now required listening in my Land Protection class.

Controlled burn in Georgia. Photo: Morgan Varner

Thursday, August 19, 2021


Photo: David Grunfield for NOLA.com

A private home in New Orleans has an interesting geography and a problematic history, as it pays homage to a work that symbolizes the Lost Cause revisionist history of the U.S. Civil War.

As Mike Scott writes in The original Tara may be gone with the wind, but the look lives on in New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue, the house was built when Gone with the Wind was wildly popular despite its Lost Cause ideology. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Original Tree Huggers

The original tree huggers were also loggers.
~~ Dr. Hayes-Bohanan to many students

Chipko in Uttar Pradesh (now called Uttarakhand) in 1973.
India Times by way of Wikimedia.

That is -- as I acknowledge to those students -- a bit of an overstatement. But only a bit. 

The term treehuggers became known throughout the world because of the activism of women and men in northern India who were not exactly loggers, but nor were they opposed to cutting down trees.

Regular readers of this space will know that I like to learn about geography -- and everything else -- through biography. Years ago, this led me to start reading the works of John McPhee, which I continue to do. 

More recently, this has led me to the extraordinary journalism of BBC Witness History. As an educator, I try to learn something new every day. As a BBC listener, this often happens between 4:50 and 4:59 a.m. In just 9 minutes each morning, BBC journalists connect us to people who have been directly involved in important trends and events.

In this case, the story is told very well in the segment Chipko: India’s tree-hugging women, in which Viv Jones interviews chipko activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. Their conversation addresses the difference between timber mining and sustainable use of the forest. They use the term "timber mining" to describe the large-scale harvesting that was favored by the Indian government. Meanwhile, post-colonial restrictions sometimes precluded the use of the same forests for firewood, animal fodder, and medicinal uses.

The interview describes how this injustice led to creative and determined action -- first locally and then throughout the world. As with many environmental victories, though, past gains are now threatened by climate-related setbacks. I first realized this almost a decade ago, as I wrote in the 2012 post Cochabamba Continued and subsequent items on retreating glaciers.


This story reminded me of Julia Butterfly Hill, who famously occupied a redwood tree to protect a forest. It turns out that she was a guest on 2014 -- probably the only one I've met personally. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Paris Noir


As reported in the New York Times (really, it was), I met the love of my life in French class over 35 years ago. The reporter kindly glossed over the fact that I was a terrible student in that class, barely showing up often enough to have met anyone.

A silver lining to this pandemic period has been that I made the time to return to those French lessons, via the Duolingo phone app. That silly chouette verte has ... by insistence on daily lessons ... brought me to a reasonable level of ability over the past 462 consecutive days. 

Once a certain level of understanding is reached from the short, interactive lessons, Duolingo offers podcasts that allow for more sustained listening to native speakers. These are available in French and Spanish to learners who speak English, and in English to learners who speak Spanish or Portuguese.

These are like podcasts with training wheels -- in the French version, each story is introduced in English with enough intermittent commentary in English to keep a language learner listening. It is easy to repeat a passage or to read along in a transcript. The stories are told by a great variety of speakers from different parts of the francophone world, and I have found a lot of the stories quite engaging. 

Among these is Episode 43: Une visite guidée du Paris noir (A Tour of Black Paris), which has particular appeal to me as a geographer. It is in fact, the first podcast episode I have found here or anywhere that comes with its own Google map. I was happy to see this, since I create my own Google maps for blog posts, lectures, or even family vacations. 

The beauty of these maps is that they are dynamic -- while listening to the podcast, listeners can pan, zoom, use Street View or explore photos and web sites others have attached to the Paris Noir map. Each of the five featured locations includes the author's notations and a timestamp to find one's way back to the corresponding section of the audio.

This is a static image I grabbed from the map to help draw attention to this post and also to point out one bit of geographic nomenclature that is mentioned in the story but not explained. The Left Bank is a widely-heard term for an area of Paris that includes the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne, and all of the places mentioned in this tour. On any river, the left bank is the area that would be to the left of the river from the point of view of a vessel moving downstream, and the right bank is the opposite. From this one can surmise that the Seine flows from southeast to northwest across this particular scene; explore the dynamic map to follow it from its sources and to the sea.

The tour mentions a lot of interesting details about people and places in Paris itself, of course, and also draws attention to a couple of broader ideas. One is the idea of metropolitan France; in some contexts, the word "metropole" refers to any of the European places that were the seats of empires. It is essentially the opposite of colonies. But Métropole can refer more specifically to continental France, since many former colonies are today part of the Republic. Listeners to the Duolingo podcasts are introduced to many speakers who are from the areas of the Republic outside of the continent as well as former colonies that are fully independent but still connected by history, migration, and familial ties.

The episode also explores blackness and négritude as identities that listeners in the United States might -- and do -- confuse with African American identity. An important chapter in the history of 20th century black identity, of course, is the role of Paris as a refuge for black artists and intellectuals from the United States, such as Duke Ellington and James Baldwin. As the Coffee Maven, I cannot help but notice the central role of cafés in this part of the story. 

Silver lining: Because of the global pandemic, our plans to visit Paris in 2020 were postponed and then canceled. But I've been working on the language, and the European tour we planned around a family wedding is going to happen. As disappointed as I am about the delay, I am glad I learned about this tour before we eventually go. We will definitely take Kevi Donat's full tour, and meanwhile I will follow him on Instagram

When I go, I especially look forward to Café Tournon. Even though Duke Ellington was born in the same hospital as I was, though he and I were not on the same floor. We were separated both by decades and by Jim Crow. In Café Tournon and the rest of Paris, he was free to sit wherever he cared to.


I recommend this whole series of podcasts to anybody who understands a little French, even if they do not need the language practice. Another recent favorite is Changer du Camp (Switching Sides), the story of a young man from Cameroon who studied geography and used it to make a real difference for the world's palm forests. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Whose Air

Weekend Edition Sunday recently included a conversation between journalist extraordinaire Lulu Garcia-Navarro and filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman. His 2020 film Chuj Boys of Summer explores the experiences of several high-school friends who had moved to Telluride from Guatemala. They discuss how the film emerged from those friendships.

The short film is almost entirely in Chuj, the language spoken in Guatemala and now in Colorado. The film captures the increasingly common experience of migrants who are linguistically two steps removed from the communities they are entering. Even those who are attempting to welcome them are sometimes oblivious to the fact that they do not speak Spanish.

More profoundly, the film addresses the notion of belonging: to whom do the hills and the air of a place blong? Are we willing to divide people -- not only from each other but from their very personhood -- in the interest of reducing the price of work?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Coffee Jeopardy

As soon as I learned about Jeopardy Labs from a colleague, I started working on a game to share with students and the public. The site was developed by a programmer when he was an undergraduate at Washington State University. 

The subject of my first Jeopardy game, of course, is coffee.

For complete game functionality, click below:

Coffee Geographies @ Jeopardy Labs

I look forward to using this in my coffee seminar next spring -- until then it is available for individuals to test their knowledge of coffee alone or perhaps in Zoom calls with friends and family.

Stay tuned: I will probably make a climate-change game next.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Symphonic Spring

 As I listen to the symphony of birds this late-spring morning, I am grateful to Rachel Carson, who shares a birthday today with my favorite librarian. We have both been influenced greatly by Rachel and owe her a debt of gratitude for her courage. 

Her work on Silent Spring was inspired by a letter that came from just about 10 miles east of where we sit -- a woman concerned that the protected bird habitat near her home had fallen silent because of indiscriminate spraying of pesticides. That letter was to inspire the rest of her life's work, and much of ours. Please see the important messages below from A Mighty Girl, as well as more on Rachel Carson from this blog and from Pamela's library blog.

Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Protecting Land: A Geography Course

This post is an invitation to Bridgewater State University students to consider signing up for a course on Land Protection that I am offering in the fall 2021 semester, as I have about once every two years -- always in autumn semesters -- since 1999.

For those readers who are not BSU students, I offer this post as a glimpse into the way I connect environmental geography to public policy in my teaching.

When I arrived at Bridgewater in 1997, the same course was called Management and Preservation of the Natural Environment. If that sounds like a name arrived at by a committee, it is because it probably was. The course served not only students in geography, but also students in environmental management (which is no longer on the books), biology, and anthropology.

I was pleased that such a course existed, and though I have made it my own, it does follow some of the themes established by Professor Emeritus Reed Stewart over the years he taught it. Students who come to this course from varied backgrounds learn about conservation easements and other tools useful for the long-term management of land. Many examples are from New England, but the rest of the U.S. and some international cases are also studied. We also learn from each other, as this course attracts students with a variety of environmental interests and background.

The shorter title conveys, I hope, all of these outcomes more succinctly.
Since I began teaching this course in 2000, field trips have been an important part of the experience. We have been fortunate to visit properties that are of both historic and scientific interest that are directly connected to the course readings. This year we are fortunate to be adding two local field trips for the first time.

The field trips have always required a bit of extra planning, and in this "unprecedented" year the planning is a bit more complicated because of the uncertainty of re-opening plans. As of late May, I am optimistic, but nothing is certain just yet. For this reason, I am making the syllabus available and am including details both about the field trips and about the considerations related to Covid-19. Please see the GEOG 332 course syllabus for details now and throughout the summer ... and let me know if you have any questions about the course.

How does a wall get built in a forest? Short answer: it doesn't.
Students who complete this course can give a much more
thorough (and Thoreau!) answer and explain why it matters.
(Photo was taken during a Harvard Forest field trip in this class.)


I am very pleased that for the first time we will be including a local farm (the Maribett Farm) in the course -- either in person or virtually (see Covid-19 details in syllabus). The farm is connected to some of the land-protection and conservation practices I employ at my home in Bridgewater. The farm itself was established using some of the provisions we discuss throughout the course, by which a property seller can influence future land-management decisions. In this case, the family whose land was to become the farm was the family of Dr. Reed Stewart -- the emeritus professor who created this class! It will be an honor to learn how his family's vision helped to shape what continues to be a model of environmental stewardship.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Break It All

My initial interest in Latin America was the problem of deforestation in the Amazon. I lived in Mexico and in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for a number of years before living in Rondônia for three months for my dissertation research in 1996. Thanks to people I met during that stay, I started to learn something about the music of Latin America. 

I took more interest in the music around me during our last year living in southmost Texas, and I started to do a bit of research on the cultural geography of the music of the entire region. A decade later, I did a small tour of Massachusetts college campuses, discussing the topic as a MaCIE Lecturer -- complete with a wheeled suitcase full of CDs so I could play examples for my audiences.

The eclectic music I have found -- much of which I have also played for a lot of my classes -- has included rock music, and some of that rock has exhibited interesting connections with traditional musical forms. So I was excited to learn that the growing catalog of original international programming from Netflix would include a six-part series on Latin rock. 

My favorite librarian (and fellow Latin Americanist) and I have now watched the first and second episodes, and almost everything we have seen and heard is new to us. In other words, the world of Latin rock music is much bigger than we realized, and the coverage of Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America is thorough.

The second installment -- "La Represión -- is particularly poignant, as it focuses on a period in which young musicians and their fans found themselves at odds with increasingly repressive governments, most of which were closely allied with -- or even installed by -- the United States. Weaving together archival video from the first half of the 1970s and interviews with many of the musicians themselves, we learn about varying degrees of repression in Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.

Young voters and rock music were part of Salvador Allende's political success,
and he recognized their importance. He is shown here praising Victor Jara,
a musician whose assassination followed his own by just a few days.

One chilling detail is the bonfire in which Chilean soldiers burned rock music albums during the 1973 U.S.-backed coup. It reminds me of the glee with which religious extremists in the United States were destroying albums just a few years later. I witness the breaking-not-burning version at indoor rallies of Kansas City Youth for Christ. I was never tempted to go that far in my "devotion" but nor did I understand the real implications of such frenzy until reading F451 years later. It was also at KC-YFC that I first heard the name of Guatemala's dictator Ríos Montt -- whose religiosity was admired by the group.

Allende's attitude toward youth and music was in sharp contrast to those of the dictators who followed him in Chile and elsewhere. In Argentina, for example, Jorge Alberto Fraga was both a military dictator and the secretary of social welfare. When asked for his opinion of the origin of drug addiction, he did not hesitate to equate social pathologies with the very act of thinking. More work and less studying were needed, in a view echoed by anti-intellectuals to this day.

Lagniappe: Brazil

So far, the series makes very little mention of Brazil, perhaps because the producers speak Spanish but not Portuguese (I'm speculating). This episode brings to mind three Brazilian artists -- two musicians and one visual artist -- whose stories I do know and share with my students. One of them is Chico Buarque de Holanda, whose ongoing performance of the song "Calice" was a remarkably brave act of defiance during that country's dictatorship. 

Another is Sergio Mendes, who spent much of his career in the United States after being forced to flee. When he eventually went home, he named his next album simply Brasileiro, meaning Brazilian. The Grammy-winning album bursts open with 100 samba drums recorded in Rio -- where these things are decided -- and continues as a musical declaration of this refugee's right to return.

The final example is an artist I met personally -- and whose work is on the wall in front of me as I type this: Anká. My encounter with him and his art is described in the third entry of my Folha da Fronteira newsletter, written just after I visited his Amazon hermitage in 1996. I explain that he would not tell me his full name nor the place of his birth -- and I thought he was kidding when he said that these were "details for the police." It was almost 20 years later that I realized he was not kidding at all, and that it was no coincidence that a Brazilian man of a certain age without a phone, a legal name, or even a street address would also be an artist. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Whale Cultures

Tuning in to WBUR today, I thought I was listening to an interview with writer Carl Safina, the only MacArthur genius I have ever met in person. The author of The View from Lazy Point is on my mind because I have been reading essays by my honors students connecting that book to a recent LOE segment.

The subject of today's interview on Here & Now was not Safina, nor was he speaking of climate change, as Safina does in Lazy Point. Rather, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry reminded me of Safina because he was speaking about the culture of whales in much the same way that Safina does in his most recent book: Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn Who They Are.

An orca in New Zealand. (National Geographic for Disney+/Kina Scollay)

Both Skerry and Safina speak in surprisingly human terms about the families and cultures of animals. Safina has written persuasively about the distinct cultures of macaws, apes, and whales. Skerry's focus is on the whales, which are the subject of the new docuseries Secrets of Whales, which is being carried on Disney Plus.

Bonus: Living On Earth, the excellent radio program mentioned above, has also recently interviewed Brian Skerry about his whale project. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Admissions Racket

SPOILER ALERT: This story was in the news and this blog post mentions a few surprising details.

Operation Varsity Blues is a compelling drama that focuses on one real-life criminal -- coolly played by Matthew Modine -- while uncovering layers of scandal that have come to define higher education in the United States.

Not to be confused with the 1999 Jon Voight film with a similar name (which I have not seen), this 2021 film -- subtitled The College Admissions Scandal -- is a dramatized documentary that tells a contemporary story with many onion-like layers of wrongdoing.

The focus of the story is Rick Singer, a college-admissions consultant who provides a "side door" for college admissions to wealthy parents who do not trust the front door of normal admissions processes and cannot quite afford the back door of 7-figure donations. Singer uses a combination of bribes, donations, and falsified records -- mainly athletic -- to help the children of his clients get admitted to colleges that might have been out of reach.

Many of the young people involved were to varying degrees unaware of what was being done on their behalf. They were even less aware of the low regard in which their parents held them. Singer has as much contempt for his co-conspirators. As the film reveals, this racketeering investigation worked in the opposite direction from most: once the head of the conspiracy was identified, he quickly cooperated to give up all the others. Each engaged in less criminality than Singer (who sang like a canary) but they were much better known than he. This may have been attractive to prosecutors.

Soon after watching this, I listened to the Radio Open Source Back to School episode, which explores some of what I see as much more important problems surrounding the Varsity Blues case. The film and widespread media coverage identify some of the villains: parents and school officials playing games with high-stakes admissions decisions.

As someone who has been in public higher education for four decades, I have met hundreds of educators and thousands of students. I would not argue that there is no difference among institutions, but I would argue that the variations within a student body are greater than the variations among them. Education is what students and faculty make of it, full stop. 


Looking back on this film, I wish I had counted the number of times the words "teaching" or "learning" are used. These are not the values that motivate the people involved in this scandal. Increasingly, they are no longer the values -- if ever they were -- that motivate those who govern (external boards) or manage (internal administrations) education at any level. 

Sadly, however, the value of education for its own sake is increasingly ignored in policy circles, even within universities. 

In a recent issue of the online magazine Truthout, for example, journalist Eleanor Bader writes that Colleges Are Using COVID as a Pretext to Make Draconian Cuts to the Humanities. The destruction of teaching and learning is presented as a fiscal necessity, but is in reality a shift in values that uses the codeword "workforce" to suggest that learning is valuable only if it can be monetized. 

That attitude is a far greater threat to education than are all of the Felicity Huffmans of the world.


I admit that my scorn for the parents is enhanced by the fact that I am a geographer in a country whose well-known ignorance of geography can be attributed in part to some of our most "elite" institutions. The tale is too strange to be plausible fiction; I tell it in my 2016 post Geo Veritas.

And a bit more, from the trial ...

On September 17, WGBH journalists Sean Corcoran and Kirk Carapezza discussed the opening of the case as it finally enters the trial phase in Boston. The audacity of the defendants is astounding, as is the depth of the poor parenting involved. Education is not a genuine concern of any of these people.

Defendant as trial begins
Image: WGBH

Friday, April 16, 2021

Cien Años

 My favorite librarian has her first master's degree in Spanish literature, so she has read Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Márquez more than once. I have always been vaguely aware of it, but it was not until I heard this discussion of the work on the BBC Forum that I was motivated to read it soon, rather than eventually.

Image: Detail of mural by Oscar Gonzalez & Andrew Pisacane
Raul Arboleda via Getty & BBC

While we were listening to the discussion, Pamela ordered the Audible version of the Rabassa translation for us to read together (she knows my Spanish level). I will be updating this post when we have finished, and may be assigning this to geography students in the near future. I will at least be assigning this conversation, as the scholars explain so much about the human geography of the entire Latin American realm in just 39 minutes.

The seven-generation family saga that some of these scholars consider a veritable bible of Latin America takes place in the fictional coastal village of Macondo. As they detail in their discussion, it is based very directly on the arrival of modernity in the author's real home village of Aracataca -- which is much more fun to pronounce.

Because BBC often sunsets its digital content, I have downloaded this discussion for use in my class, and I am copying its description below, because it includes the names of all the speakers. 

Released On: 15 Apr 2021

Considered to be one of literature’s supreme achievements, One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is reported to be the most popular work of Spanish-language fiction since Don Quixote in the 17th century. Written in 1967, it tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch is the founder of a fictional Colombian village called Macondo. But why is it said this novel – which fuses the fantastical and the real – tells the story of Latin America and has given an entire continent its voice?

Joining Bridget Kendall are Ilan Stavans, Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in the United States, and the biographer of Gabriel García Márquez; María del Pilar Blanco, Associate Professor in Spanish American literature at Oxford University, and Parvati Nair, Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration studies at Queen Mary, University of London.

Produced: Anne Khazam

Monday, February 22, 2021

Acid Rain History


Forests, buildings, and lakes can be severely damaged by rain that is acidified by 
pollutants from hundreds of miles away. Image: BBC

Today's installment of BBC Witness History is the story of the Swedish scientists who identified the acid-rain problem. Their story is emblematic of many such discoveries. Denial was strongest among those most responsible for the problem. When proven wrong, the deniers switched from "it's not happening" to "it is not worth solving." 

This story included a special gem for me: the graduate student being sent by his professor to share findings at a hostile conference. Reminds me of the (rhetorical) rotten tomatoes thrown at the stage when I spoke at a conference of lake managers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Oro de Madre

Unusual optics make these gold mines appear golden from the 
International Space Station. Image: NASA via CNN

A colleague just shared a CNN article about gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, which opens with a surreal image of glittery gold mines. That is an optical illusion: spent ore does not look like gold. 

The focus of the article is on mining in a heretofore fairly pristine corner of the Peruvian Amazon, about 500 river miles upstream of Porto Velho, where I did my dissertation research and to which I returned most recently in late 2019. It is also just to the east of Cuzco, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2014. About half of the Amazon basin is in Brazil, with smaller parts in each of several neighboring countries upstream.

CNN journalist Jack Guy describes the problems associated with these glittering mines, but he begins by framing the situation in an odd way. Near the beginning he writes "Independent gold mining supports tens of thousands of people in the Madre de Dios region..." 

He goes on to mention some very salient details: the mining is unregistered, settlement is in temporary boom towns, and the practice is contributing to deforestation. So the use of the word "support" is problematic, and the article could more appropriately begin: "Illegal gold mining draws tens of thousands of people into the fragile Madre de Dios region for short-term employment."

The tendency of illicit mining (known in Brazil as garimpo)  to bring unsustainable settlement and social dislocation is described in the 1997 book Rainforest Cities.  


The trade-off between short-term employment and long-term jobs is not limited to the Amazon basin, of course. The global economy demands resources from remote areas where other high-paying jobs are scarce. Extraction of minerals -- including petroleum, tar sands, natural gas, and precious metals -- does provide employment, but often at social and environmental costs that are not fully acknowledged. Moreover, the "boomtown" scenario provides those jobs to people who were not local before the rush and who will not be afterwards. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Exceptional Qualifications

Mario was the beloved custodian of our church when we lived in Tucson in the 1980s. His previous employment had been as a school principal. Both are honest and honorable positions, but it is reasonable to suppose that something went awry that prevented him from working in his chosen profession. That something was an international move, in his case from El Salvador to the United States. I do not know the details of Mario's crossing, but as I wrote in my 2009 Just Like Arlo post, our congregation has long been involved in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and other migrants, including many who were fleeing El Salvador in the 1980s.

I was reminded of Mario by the latest episode of BBC Witness History, in which Dr. Cecilia Anim describes a career in nursing that began in Ghana and continued in England. Unlike Mario, she migrated freely rather than as a refugee. But like Mario, the move resulted in a de-credentialing. I recommend this 9-minute history lesson for those tempted to make assumptions about their neighbors who have migrated from afar. I also recommend the more recent story of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Nigerian-born doctor who helped to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

Before I thought of Mario, however, I thought of the nurses who cared for my mother in her final days, which spent last July in a nursing home in Annapolis. Many members of the staff were originally from Nigeria, Ghana, Haiti or other countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Among these men and women -- who are often derisively called "the Africans" in online reviews of the facility -- was a nurse from Nigeria who went to my mother's room just a few minutes after seeing me leave for the last time. It was in Nigeria -- almost next door to Ghana -- that she began to prepare for the care she provided to my family.


The deflation of professional credentials across borders is not limited to migrations from the global South to North. I have seen the credentials of education professionals from western Europe dismissed in the United States, and those from one state not accepted in another. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Thalweg Travelers

My January 2020 Geography of Coffee travel course in Costa Rica included a bonus country: Panama.

Bribrí community houses. Image: Stribrawpa
These houses are in Costa Rica, but the photographer
may have been standing in Panama (see below).

Without any paperwork, immigration officers, customs declarations -- or even a sign indicating we had done so -- we visited a country that was not listed on our itinerary and for which we have no passport stamps. This was possible because of several aspects of the human and physical geography of the Bribrí community with which we enjoyed an overnight visit.

Specifically, we were visiting the Stibrawpa cooperative in Yorkin, which is one of more than a dozen Bribrí villages in the Talamanca Bribrí Indigenous Territory, which in turn is part of La Amistad (Friendhip) International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The most accessible (by road) of the Bribrí settlements include one known as Bambú, where our group was greeted by a community leader who took us to the two dugout canoes that awaited us. Each was cut by hand from a single tree trunk, equipped with a small but powerful outboard motor, and driven by a captain in the stern and an expert first mate with a pole in the bow. That mate watched for obstacles, fended off rocks with his long pole, and occasionally used the same pole for propulsion, adding his muscle power to what the engine could provide in shallow waters. It being a bit of a low-water day, there was a lot of heroic digging.
This wave to a passing boat might be across an international border.

Our journey took us just three miles or so, first down the Telire River and then up the Yorkin to a settlement of the same name. 

The current was against us for most of that distance; more importantly the rocky, meandering stream required constant vigilance on the part of the crew, who needed to follow the thalweg carefully from side to side. Everyone knows that rivers move water, but they also move rock and soil slowly but inevitably toward the sea (in this case the Caribbean).

Typically, deposits form on alternating inside curves of a river and it is scoured from alternating outside curves. The thalweg is the deepest part of the river, which sways from side to side, extenuating the already sinuous path that one would follow down the center. The point bars are generally impassable and often mainly above water; near the cutbanks water is deep enough for passage but the deep part may be narrow and can be quite swift. In the short straight stretches between bends, riffles (or rapids) may present uniformly shallow water from bank to bank.
Typical geometry of a meandering stream. Thanks to River Bum for the
diagram. Stream geometry is important for people who boat, who fish,
and who are interested in political geography.

Where a river forms a boundary between states or countries -- as the Yorkin does between Panama and Costa Rica in this area -- that boundary is most commonly defined as the centerline of the river. 


I indicated that borders "most commonly" follow the centerline because I was remembering that between Ohio and Kentucky, the boundary is on one bank. I could not remember which bank; checking the map indicates that it is the right bank and also that the river has moved since that boundary was established. 
Detail from Google map of downtown Cincinnati/Covington.
Note that during the days of the Underground Railroad, enslaved
persons needed to cross the river completely to escape the South.

Family Geography Night: In April 2021, my colleague Dr. Vernon Domingo and I shared many more river stories during a special online version of Family Geography Night, an annual tradition at North Andover Middle School.

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