Friday, December 24, 2021

Post-Post Soviet: 30 Years On

Thirty years ago this Christmas, AP journalists Alan Cooperman and Liu Heung Shing were hurriedly invited to a conference room below ground at the Kremlin for what turned out to be an extraordinary historical moment. 

In an interview exactly 30 years later, Cooperman describes the exact moment when the Soviet Union was disbanded. The interview begins with the drama of that evening and then explains how those events relate to the current crisis in Ukraine that has proven increasingly intractable for three U.S. presidents (so far).

Closing the books on the Soviet Union.
Forbidden image by Liu Heung Shing

I was fortunate enough to have been taking a course entitled Geography of the Soviet Union during the fall semester of 1991. I had been the student representative on the committee that hired a young economic geographer who was a leading expert on the region, so I decided to take her course as an elective. 

Among other things, the course was designed to show us the complexity and inherent inefficiency of Soviet governance. As the semester progressed, she would often start class with a map or article and say, "this is how it was in September" when the course began. And then she would explain what was already changing as Gorbachev implemented various reforms.

Although I never studied the region in depth after that semester, the in-depth survey helped me to understand much of what I have read and heard in the ensuing three decades. Most notably, it is clear that no U.S. president can take much credit for the collapse, even though excessive military spending in the U.S. did probably bring it about just a bit more quickly by justifying the same errant behavior in the USSR.

That professor, by the way, was soon named editor of a journal called Soviet Geography, which soon changed its name to Post-Soviet Geography. I recently learned that even that name became passé, and the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economy

Map: Britannica article detailing the Soviet collapse 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Ozone Interactions

The ozone layer has no ozone anymore
and you're gonna leave me for the guy next door
I'm Sick of You
~~ Lou Reed

I use the song "Sick of You" from the 1989 New York album to introduce the concept of ozone depletion in my environmental geography classes. The song is a quick catalog of the absurd environmental and political debacles of the Reagan years, but includes the charming couplet and refrain cited above. 

My point? Geography is the study of the real world.  

It was during the 1980s that climate change was just beginning to gain some attention as a problem for the far-off future and that the depletion of stratospheric ozone -- globally but especially around Antarctica -- was emerging as a more urgent concern. The science was debated and for some time actively denied -- as inconvenient science sometimes is. But as people realized that the problem could be addressed without serious inconvenience to them personally, the denial melted away and in 1987 the Montreal Protocol was signed.

For some time in the 90s and aughts, both global warming and ozone depletion were being discussed and debated. Since geography education is rare in the United States, much of that discussion took place in the absence of a basic understanding of the structure of the atmosphere, the reasons for geographic variations in climate, or indeed the basic relationships between the earth and the sun. 

Folks who do not know what the tropopause is nonetheless had strong opinions about problems taking place above and below it. Well-meaning people who want to protect the planet often have no better understanding of climate change, ozone depletion, or the difference between the two than do those who actively deny the science.

Enter this environmental geographer, seeking to clarify things for students who have heard about both problems -- but only vaguely. 

In order to focus on climate change, I begin many of my courses with an exercise that is focused on drawing a distinguishing it from ozone depletion. I start with a simple pre-test that asks students to identify distinctions, and a post-test that highlights those distinctions in some detail. I then spend one session on the details of ozone depletion, not returning to it much for the rest of the course. 

All of this is prelude to some emerging science that is cause both for concern and for confusion. All I have said about distinctions between tropospheric and stratospheric processes remains true, but there is now a serious caveat. 

I learned of the problem from the EuroNews Green newsletter, in a September 2021 article by journalist Rafael Cereceda with the earnest title "The Antarctic ozone hole is among the largest on record, how does it affect me?" The opening line of the article reflects what has been the broad consensus I have been teaching: "What happens in the stratosphere stays in the stratosphere?" The question mark, of course, suggests that the rest of the article is likely to disrupt that consensus. 

(Note: as of this writing, the article includes one grammatical (it's for its) and one arithmetic (square meters for square kilometers) error; I have contacted the publisher about both. The author uses Hadley Cell and other complicated concepts correctly, though, so I consider the errors isolated.)

The article does cite some fairly long-standing work that has been an exception to the general consensus: since the 1990s there ha been some inconclusive work on possible connections between ozone depletion and circulation changes in the mid-southern latitudes.

The article was. published at the time of year we expect news about ozone depletion. During the southern winter, it gets very cold in Antarctica. VERY cold. So cold that the normal rules about atmospheric heating and cooling do not apply, and the lower stratosphere experiences cooling that in turn creates clouds (in the dark) at altitudes they usually cannot be formed. When the first light of spring -- which coincides with Northern Hemisphere autumn -- reactions take place in those clouds that catalyze ozone depletion. 

This September, the news was that the size of the "hole" created by this process had been larger than normal. The article explains the significance in some detail: the 2019 ozone hole had been the smallest on record (because measurements were not made until the problem had been growing for a couple of decades). This had led to an unwarranted level of optimism among many analysts. 

Ozone "hole" upside down and backwards.
Image: Yan Xia

The article is also an occasion to share even more unusual news: in March 2020 a significant ozone "hole" was observed over the Arctic Ocean. The timing is consistent with previous observations: March is the north-pole vernal equinox, just as September is the vernal equinox at the south pole. What makes this story unique is that the north pole does not get nearly as cold as the south pole -- especially in recent years. Cereceda provides a link to a press release that summarizes an article explaining the dynamics of the 2020 northern ozone hole, in terms of a modified polar vortex.


The album includes one cetacean offering -- Last Great American Whale -- an allegory in which Professor Reed (as I often call him) disparages the state of environmental consciousness in his decade. For the past decade I have taken a great interest in whales and whaleboats. See my Rowing and Rocket ScienceWhaleboat History; and Finity posts for some of the better examples.

We Cannot Negotiate With Nature

The physics of climate change are not interested in the opinions of humans. 

This is what Danish Climate and Energy Minister Dan Jørgensen had in mind when he made the statement I use as a title above. In an interview with the BBC, he was explaining the very bold policies his country is employing in order to reduce its greenhouse emissions. Some of these approaches also have economic benefits, but he makes it clear that they will operate some utilities at a financial loss if necessary.

Image: Maersk

The interview included both the political leader of Denmark and the CEO of its largest company, the shipping giant Maersk, which moves one fifth of the world's trade. He described how the company is planning to make all of that transportation carbon-neutral by 2050, and how it has already begun to accelerate those plans. The first carbon-neutral cargo ship will be on the water in 2023, with eight already on order.

The finances are negotiable; the atmosphere is not.

Their sense of responsibility is in sharp contrast to that of investment bankster Roberto de Guardiola, whose $10,000,000 yacht Highlander was berthed for a couple of months recently near my club's much more modest vessels in New Bedford

I was reminded of this yacht -- called a super yacht because of its size and cost -- when listening to another person in the same BBC program -- Selina Leem of the Marshall Islands, which is the country where this yacht happens to be registered. 

The yacht called Highlander is registered in Bikini, M.I. Perhaps de Guardiola chose that port in part because he enjoys the excuse to have a name that sounds sexy painted in huge letters on the stern of an otherwise unadorned vessel. If he is aware of the calamities inflicted on the small archipelago by the United States, it does not stop him from claiming the name. Nuclear testing erased some islands and left others with a legacy of poison. None of this matters, of course, since the islands were chosen strictly for the "convenience" of lower fees and looser regulations that the super-rich often prefer. 

Selina Leem is an activist and one of just 60,000 residents of her country, which is found entirely on low-lying islands and atolls. I have written about the vulnerability of similar archipelagos in Climate Attack and other posts, but her first-person account of the multiple perils of rising seas is well worth hearing, as is her conversation with the program host about the reasons she would rather combat climate change than abandon her country. 

This conversation was just a sample of many events that were taking place in and around Glasgow in the days leading up to the most recent global climate negotiations. As I posted in Delaying Justice, the main negotiations offered some progress on some of the unmet goals (read: unkept promises) of the previous round of negotiations in Paris. It is of some use to have heads of state make commitments to future targets, but it is increasingly clear that Greta Thunberg and others are correct in insisting that we need much bolder action than COP26 could provide.

The participants in the BBC interview cited above (which I recommend taking the time to hear in its entirety) were in Glasgow at the invitation of TED as part of an ongoing effort called COUNTDOWN that is putting into action exactly the idea suggested above. Never has the adage of to think globally and act locally been more important. We can press our political leaders to do the right thing at a global scale, but we must also do the right things ourselves countless ways that will never be part of the COP proceedings.


The world desired by the Guardiolas of the world and the politicians they rent:

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Language Matters

Both education and training are important, but they are not the same thing. The distinction is rapidly being eroded by the managerial layers (of which there are many) in education who use the words "customer" and "workforce" in place of "student" and "thinker" when describing the people we serve. 

The result is a growing emphasis on teaching only that which can be clearly tied to a specific job, at the expense of teaching that which expands the capacity of the mind to understand nuance and to create new ideas.

Languages and mathematics and the arts are well worth learning, for example, even if none of these are strictly required for a particular job one might pursue. As jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes said, the "mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension."

Lera Boroditsky illustrates this in a popular TED Talk, whose main message is the importance of preserving linguistic diversity.

This talk is itself an illustration of what Holmes was claiming: I have studied languages and linguistics quite a bit, and yet will never think of them in quite the same way after hearing her examples.

An important implication of her work is that language learning is valuable exercise for the mind -- it has value in both training and education. 


I have been tilting at this particular windmill for a long time. My 2009 Small World page was part of a concerted -- and failed -- effort to keep languages as part of the core curriculum at my university.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Monarch Glimmer

Naturalists in the Californias (Baja and the one north of the border) have some rare good news about an imperiled species: the glorious monarch butterfly.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via WBUR

The Butterflies Are Back! is a recent report on NPR that describes a small rebound in the west-coast population of the migratory insect. The enthusiasm of those who monitor the annual migration reminds me of the thrill I had when observing the migration at my former home in Pharr, Texas. There we could observe the migration of the east-coast monarchs without even trying. At times they would simply waft past us in their thousands. 

The report concludes with an important word of caution: the modest rebound is a cause for optimism but not for complacency. We are in the midst of a century of human population growth that biologist E.O. Wilson describes as The Bottleneck, which I described in some detail in my 2016 post Good News from Gorongosa.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Tremé Hopes

I have been teaching an honors colloquium about New Orleans for the past several spring semesters. It has been a chance to learn from afar about a city I have known -- so far -- only through books, music, radio stories, and of course maps.

It was only recently, however, that we learned about the 2010-2013 dramatic series dramatic series Treme and the Tremé neighborhood in which it takes place. I learned 

The series is immersed in the political ecology of Katrina on the one hand and the cultural geography of the city's food and music on the other. In fact, many New Orleans musicians (and a few visitors) appear as themselves throughout the series. A professor played by John Goodman delivers a brilliant soliloquy that captures the paradox in just 92 seconds; HBO elaborates on Tremé as cause for celebration on the program's web site.

Our Tremé immersion has coincided with the ongoing saga of (pathetic) Congressional wrangling over infrastructure spending. For those reading this after 2021 -- or for those not following the (pathetic) saga, Congress has spent most of the calendar year debating two bills on infrastructure, and in November finally got the first "easy" one signed into law. 

We learned about a longstanding problem in the Tremé neighborhood because of hopes it would be addressed as part of the $1,700,000,000,000 of roads-and-bridges spending that had finally been approved. Hopes were raised, according to NY Times journalist Audra D.S. Burch, by $20,000,000,000 that had been included to address the racially imbalanced impact of the Eisenhower-era construction of interstate highways.

As the map of the neighborhood makes clear, Tremé suffered a common fate of African-American communities. Highway construction tended to connect prosperous places without disrupting them, and to do the opposite to less powerful people living in less expensive locations. Because of the legacy of redlining, highways divided neighborhoods that would have been left intact if the properties were more expensive or the residents better connected. In the case of Tremé, Interstate 10 rumbles through the 442-acre neighborhood, separating the legendary Congo Square -- the point of origin of African music in North America -- from its neighbors.

The details, sadly, are far less hopeful than the headline. Congress removed 95 percent of what the Biden administration had requested for such projects nationally, leaving just $1 billion to address a problem that cost $20 billion to address (through the notorious Big Dig) in the city of Boston alone.


At the top of this post, I mention having only recently learned of Treme the show and Tremé the neighborhood. I learned of them from journalist Melissa Harris Perry's recent interview with Wendell Pierce, a star of both The Wire and Treme who is a native of New Orleans as they discussed his response (in both thoughts and deeds) to Hurricane Ida, which had befallen his beloved city the week before. 

Wendell Pierce as Antoine Baptiste (Image: HBO)

And finally, when I do get to New Orleans, I will be visiting the Tremé Coffee House and lodging at La Belle Esplanade, both in the neighborhood. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

NOLA Woes & Glories

 As Professor Creighton Bernette, John Goodman reads the 1880 work of Lafcadio Hearn about the miseries and glories of New Orleans near the end of the first season of Treme

In this scene, Goodman's character references Lafcadio Hearn -- also known as Koizumi Yakumo -- was himself an enigma and a bit of a NOLA legend. I look forward to learning more about him.

Though it aired a decade ago, my favorite librarian only recently began watching Treme. The 2010-2013 series explores New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, the hurricane that had devastated the city in 2005. 

I learned of the series when journalist Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed actor Wendell Pierce on WNYC's The Takeaway in September. (Terry Gross also interviewed Pierce for Fresh Air back in 2010.)

These paradoxes make New Orleans an ideal topic for geographic exploration. In my one-credit colloquium New Orleans: Global City, I meet just one hour each week with students in BSU's Commonwealth Honors program, most of whom are not geography majors. We explore the rich human geography and precarious physical geography of the city as a group before each student delves into a particular facet for their own research.


See the Tremé Hopes post I wrote a couple weeks after this one, with much more on the geography of the neighborhood for which the series is named.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Delaying Justice


"Australians want action on climate change, and so do I. But ..." said Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Glasgow,  going on to say that Australians "will not be lectured."

There could not be a greater contrast between P.M. Morrison and his counterpart Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, who implored Glasgow COP26 recognize the trivial contribution of Bangladesh to global greenhouse emissions in the context of the huge costs it bears. The NPR program On Point chose Bangladesh as one focus of its in-depth discussion of climate reparations at the beginning of the second week of the conference. Journalist Riton Quiah explains how sea-level rise interacts with increased storm activity to compound the vulnerability of Bangladesh and similar places.

In the same discussion, author David Wallace explains the temporal and spatial imbalances of climate change with great clarity. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Representation for 51 and 52

This week I heard two stories that highlight the need for statehood to provide the full protections of federal representation for U.S. citizens in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. I was born in the former and have visited the latter just once. Sometimes calls for D.C. statehood are dismissed with "What about Puerto Rico?" and vice-versa. Both are further dismissed as attempts to grab political power -- as if denying statehood were not itself a political hustle.

The first story I heard was about the plight of Robert Davis, whose release from parole in Washington, D.C. was badly mismanaged because local parole cases are managed by a federal commission with no local accountability. The second story was about the ongoing power outages in Puerto Rico, four years after Hurricane Maria.

In both cases, citizenship without representation is equivalent to no citizenship at all. 


Legislation that would grant statehood to Washington would also change the meaning of "D.C." to Douglass Commonwealth, honoring a champion of freedom rather than an agent of conquest. 

The #legoparkranger version of Frederick Douglass
at his historic site in Washington

Thursday, October 28, 2021

São Tomé and Long Roads


L-R: Director Guenny Pires and BSU attendees Magaly Ponce,
  Angelo Barbosa, and James Hayes-Bohanan. 

One week ago today, I had the privilege of watching the 2010 film Contract Docudrama in the company of its director Guenny Pires and a room filled with scholars and students of Cabo Verde and and the places to which it is most closely connected.  The event was sponsored in part by the Pedro Pires Institute for Cape Verdean Studies at BSU, in conjunction with a similar center at UMass-Dartmouth, where the event was held. 

I look forward to bringing the film to BSU along with more recent work from this thoughtful director.  Meanwhile, the eight-minute trailer on IMDb is a thorough summary that includes spoilers. If you might have a chance to watch the film soon, you might prefer the three-minute trailer on YouTube, which does not include the spoilers. 

When studying kriolu  (Cape Verdean creole) last year, I learned something of the story behind the famous ballad Sodade, made famous by Cesaria Evora. I highly recommend listening to the song in the live Paris version, which has recently been made available with English/kriolu subtitles. In the live version, notice where the "Barefoot Diva" stands. Her contracts stipulated that she would stand on Cape Verdean soil, no matter where in the world she performed.

I thought of this song throughout the Contract film, and near the end I heard someone whisper, "now I understand that song" and i knew exactly what she meant. Stories of migration and loss run deep in Cabo Verde, and they run to many corners of the world.


In addition to São Tomé, many migrant stories also include Angola, which is why a popular Cape Verdean restaurant in Brockton, Massachusetts is called Luanda. The story of Angolan musician and sprinter (yes, he is both) Bonga Kueda is an engaging introduction to the contemporary realities of Angola.

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 have usually been part of the course, though our most recent visits have been outdoors-only. 

I highly recommend the Fisher Museum in Petersham and the mansion in Woodstock. The Fisher Museum web page now provides high-resolution images of its famous dioramas and information about very recent exhibits that honor indigenous stewardship of the land.  The National Park Service provides virtual access to much of the collection at Marsh-Billings via virtual exhibits.

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

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. 

2023 Update

As a newly-minted member of my town's Tree Committee, I decided to read the delightful little book It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown to mark the day of my first meeting. I am sharing both my review of that book and this blog post with my fellow committee members.

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

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