Thursday, June 30, 2011

Geography, the joy of place

Garden of Eden, by Thomas Cole
An offbeat definition: Geography is more than an academic discipline. A geographic presence of mind disciplines you to live in the present, and to know and enjoy the place where you are. It is thus the source of happiness -- hence the notion of geography instilling the "joy of place." This awareness of place, this awakening to place, is very Buddhist. To be alive to place is the source of great happiness.

Humans have the primordial urge to return to Eden, so they try to see glimpses of Paradise everywhere they are. Beautiful landscapes are a vestibule of the Heaven that awaits them. They thus sanctify place and redeem time. The discipline of geography is a way of "finding" God, not in place, but through place. This primordial urge to return to Eden, to our original home, is very Jewish. To see unexpected beauty in a place -- for example, in a brilliant sunset -- is another source of happiness.

There is often the desire to strike out into the unknown, yet with the confidence that, if we follow the rules of the road, it will lead to a better place, one we've not been to before. Fixing our compass on a better place in the future is a very Christian aspiration. This hope in a better place in the future is another source of happiness.

I. Journeying ... and the joy of geography
A great tradition of literature of travel, sojourneying, combines the joy of geography with the joy of words: Homer's Odyssey, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dante's Divine Comedy, Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways)

Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (pp. 1-2):

"We are in an area of the Central Plains ... heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago.... I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that.
Tensions disappear along old roads like this.... Chris and I are traveling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately
indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes."

II. Geographical awareness heightens one's sense of irony, and irony can be a source of joy, producing a wry smile. Geographic irony includes:

Mouth of a river emptying into the Indian Ocean in Mkambati Nature Reserve, Pondoland, South Africa

1. The notion of the "mouth" of a river. It is a bad analogy to the human mouth because it gets it all backwards. We usually associate the mouth with the nourishment that is taken in. But the mouth of a river relentlessly discharges its watery nourishment from its "alimentary canal" -- its system of tributaries -- to an estuary that feeds land and marine life.
The Father of Cool: Willis Haviland Carrier
2. Modern air conditioning. Coolness was invented in the Northeast. Yet it made possible the flight from the region of its birth to the South and West. Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio -- these megalopolises would never have grown so large without the New Yorker's invention. The modern air conditioning system that Willis Haviland Carrier (November 26, 1876 – October 7, 1950) invented in Buffalo, New York, on July 17, 1902, in response to a quality problem experienced at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company of Brooklyn, marked the birth of air conditioning because of the addition of humidity control, which led to the recognition by authorities in the field that air conditioning must perform four basic functions: (1) control temperature, (2) control humidity, (3) control air circulation and ventilation, and (4) cleanse the air.

The United States in the 1860s, during the Civil War
3. The "West" was not so west prior to and during the Civil War. Culturally it was loaded with meaning that had been imported from the North and South. Remarkably, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born in the western state of Kentucky, less than 50 miles from one another. Missouri had the third most battles of any state involved in the Civil War (after Virginia and Tennessee). Farther west still, Bleeding Kansas was the dress rehearsal for America's bloodiest war. The Civil War was entangled in the question over the expansion of slavery into the West much more than many Americans realize.

American geography combines with American history and politics to equip our minds to deal with complexity, and untangling complexity can be a source of joy:

The joy of complexity: Illinois
 So many places are more complex and interesting than we’ve been taught in school. We take it for granted that a state like California is diverse physically and culturally. But Illinois? It is called the “Prairie State,” whose landscape is often regarded as boring by people zipping across I-80. It is anything but. Waterfalls in the cliffs and rock outcrops above the Illinois River; high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi; hummocky karst landscape around Carbondale -- a little digging and you discover that Illinois is much more than a prairie. True, the Illini prairie peninsula intrudes from the west. But the diverse botany of the state inspired a University of Chicago scholar, Henry Cowles, to pioneer the development of ecology in the 1890s with his studies of plant succession.
  • Geologically, the state's foundation rocks vary from those of the Great Lakes Basin to those of the Gulf Coastal Plain.
  • Geomorphologically, glaciated in the northeast, with moraines, but unglaciated in the northwest, in the driftless area.
  • Ecologically, oak-hickory forests in the north, bald cypress in the south.
  • These physical southern connections are reinforced by a host of other southern links.  LaSalle unites the area to Louisiana in the contest for empire.
  • The Mason-Dixon Line splits the state in two – the line is just five miles south of the state capitol building in Springfield.
  • Illinois is regarded, properly, as a northern state. It was a free state that remained in the Union during the Civil War. After all, it is the “Land of Lincoln,” and Ulysses Grant called it home. Yet the southern third of the state has a southern feel and people speak with a southern accent because immigrants came in from Kentucky, across the Ohio River to the east. 
  • Illinois -- considered "western" in the early 1860s -- was important as a Civil War staging area at Fort Defiance
  • Chicago (big, new, modern) and Cahokia (relatively big, ancient, extinct) and places in between that cling to existence, places like Cairo (whose hopes have been dashed, but see the SIU proposal).

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