Tag Archives: geography

Field notes and stadia rods

When I was in Istanbul last October, I discovered They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science kids’ album. Yes, let’s just get it out there that I was in Istanbul and instead of wandering the night market in Kadıköy I actually spent an evening watching an animated DVD about science. I want to say it was raining, but even if it hadn’t been, this album was worth it. I’ve never really been a TMBG fan, but their series of kids’ albums is pretty catchy. See, for instance, “I’m a Paleontologist” below. (The subject matter seemed most fitting—and I can’t resist the idea of paleontologists as rock stars, or for that matter, that pun—but I also highly recommend the aptly named, “Science is Real.”)

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m taking geomorphology this semester, and it’s the first physical science class I’ve taken in at least a year. The best part of it is that our labs never involve geeky safety goggles or white coats. Oh no, we take our learning to the field, and you better believe my geologist classmates come dressed in flannel. These kids aren’t hipsters, just dedicated observers of aeolian dunes and river deltas.

When people ask me what I study, I usually just tell them geography. For one thing, geography needs every cheerleader it can get. And for another, most people in America don’t really know what geography as an academic discipline entails, and they’re usually confused enough that it spares us both the awkwardness of them trying to start a conversation about it, unlike when I mention my other major, history. (“Oh yeah? I went to a museum once.”) But if they’re curious and ask me what that means, I often struggle to explain that it straddles both physical science and social science, that its like a cross between geology and anthropology, but with its own set of methodologies and attention to spatiality. (“Oh yeah? I memorized all the state capitals once.”)

I prefer the human side of geography and have done most of my coursework on that end of the spectrum, but I am thoroughly geeked by the physical science I do learn. Lectures about fluvial processes and block-faulted terrain make my heart sing, and the trappings of field research—the stadia rods, rock hammers and weather-proof notebooks—are seductive indeed. Especially seductive, since this is such a pun-able topic, if you know anything about plate tectonics. Ha! Sorry, I’m no geneticist, but I think my sense of humor runs in the family.


P(art)y in the USA!

I’m currently taking my second GIS course at Calvin, and it’s finally becoming a little more intuitive. (For those not in the know, GIS stands for geographic information systems and it’s one of the more applied branches of geography. It’s also totally hip.) I’ve started to mess around with making maps that are aesthetic rather than useful, and while I wouldn’t denigrate the name by calling it art, I hope to get there someday. Below is one of my first tries. I should also mention that these are pretty much maps I made in a lab for Advanced GIS; all I did was colorize them unusually, so my level of creative input is still pretty low. But I’ll get there.

This is a color-filled contour derived from rainfall data from July 1997. Well, it’s actually a statistical measure of the reliability of the Kriging method of interpolation I applied to the rainfall data, but the color ramp I applied pretty much distorts it too much for it to actually communicate that anyway. I used green for no other reason than that it was St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, and I celebrated by writing papers in the library.

The second one is pretty much the same map, but in raster form instead of vectorized contour form. If that tech talk didn’t make any sense to you, you should probably sign up for Introduction to GIS next fall. You’ll instantly become cooler, trust me.

P.S. The punctuation of the title comes from a friend’s recently launched blog. I don’t know if she came up with it, but I do know I can’t take credit for it.

Plans for vacation, from Bland Rapids

Wrote this for Chimes with a little help from one Mr. Oregon.

This spring break, I want Togo on a trip around the world, starting in West Africa. It’s kind of a short time for such a long trip, but what are you Ghana do? Skip class? I’ve Benin school long enough to know that’s a bad idea. The thing is, I need someone to Sierre Leone me some cash for plane tickets. Kenya do me the favor? We Congo together if you like; I know you want to shake Djibouti in clubs around the world! Qatar your other plans? They can’t possibly be as cool. Oman, this is Syria-sly going to be a good spring break.

From the Mediterranean, we can rent a car to drive through southern Asia. If we have car trouble, just Bangladesh board until it runs again, and if the roads are Laos-y, we’ll distract ourselves with singing. I just love listening to John Denver on road trips, but I guess I Singapore rendition of “Country Roads,” so maybe we should pack some CDs instead. What Japan-ing to bring in terms of music?

By that point in the week, we’ll be Russian right over to Europe. But be careful sightseeing, because if Ukraine your neck too bad through the Carpathian mountains, we’ll have to find a doctor to Czech out your injury. I’ll pack sandwiches, Slovenia get Hungary you’ll have something to eat, but if there’s Moldova the bread, we should throw them out and buy Greece-y street food instead. I can’t decide where to go next, but Vatican say for sure is that there’s Norway I’m going farther north than the Elbe — not unless you Sweden the deal somehow. And/orra, we can split up for a day or two if it’s not too big of a Spain.

We’ll end the week in the Americas. Maybe we can pick up a Paraguays to go dancing with, or perhaps we’ll Peru-se some books in the homelands of García Márquez and Allende. By that time, I Belize we’ll have to head home — but with an itinerary like this, Jamaican me think we’ll never want spring break to end! And when we do get back to school, Canada-y go by when we don’t wish we were travelling? I guess that’s just life in good old Bland Rapids.

Insider on the outside looking in (or: topophilia)

I came to Central Europe to learn about Central Europe, so it makes sense that three of my four classes here are about, well, Central Europe. But I also need to graduate (which I will do, eventually), which means getting at least one course here to count for geography credit. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim at our partner universities, so I’m taking, for elective credit, a sort of history-geography hybrid class on American regions.

As an American, I find it a little weird to study American regions while I’m in Hungary. Parts of it have been reviews of things I’ve studied from childhood, but it’s also been fun and enlightening. First of all, I’m constantly impressed by my Hungarian and Polish classmates’ knowledge of American history and culture. I wish I could say the same of my knowledge of their countries, and it’s a testament to them as much as it is a poor reflection on me that I don’t.

Second, I think I love America. This is the more surprising bit. I’m hesitant to call it patriotism (even though I do consider myself a patriot), because it has nothing to do with government or ‘the nation.’ It’s just that I love American landscapes and the things that fill them: road trips across Montana on Highway 2, snow falling fast in Massachusetts, hot apple cider on an October day in Michigan, the Great Lakes, NPR, Oberon.

The cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan called this sentiment topophilia, love of place. I’ve only read Tuan in excerpts, so I don’t know too much about his thinking, but I’m awfully familiar with topophilia as an experienced emotion. It hits me every Tuesday in class. It’s a good thing though, not hard like homesickness, and Tuesday nights I feel full of gladness.

It makes me think that for all the traveling I’ve done and enjoyed doing, I really belong in the States. I could go on studying American history, live in a U.S. city, and keep up on U.S. news for the rest of my life, and I’m sure I would be happy. But what about global understanding, ‘world citizenship’ and all that, the ideals of my youth?! How could I possibly consider becoming an Americanist? (It probably just shows that I’m not so much out of my youth that all this causes me so much angst.) I’m sure there’s a third way—and a fourth and fifth—and that I don’t have to choose between love for America and knowledge of the world.

At any rate, I do like America, but I would appreciate it, Calvin College Student News, if your lecture announcements would stop reminding me that I’m missing out on apple cider season and free drinks at campus events. And on Tuesday nights, I’ll think fondly of the Michigan fall I’m missing.

Then, I’ll probably go out for some mulled wine and pogasca and get a little topophiliac about Budapest.

Topography as tonic

I hate flying. The more I travel, the worse it gets, and I was reminded of this yesterday on my way back from a week in Istanbul (I’ll have lots to say about the trip after my laundry’s clean). Mostly, it’s fear. I know the statistics, and I know it’s ridiculous, but especially after that rash of plane crashes last summer, I get nervous on every take-off and every landing and every pitch of the plane in the clouds. But it’s also guilt at the vast amounts of carbon my travel is spewing high into the atmosphere. I’ve vowed—frequently, and always in vain—to take trains and buses whenever possible, but I still end up on trips like this last one: 45 minute flight from Budapest to Vienna, 2 hour flight from Vienna to Istanbul, and just as much carbon on the way back.

So, plagued by guilt and racked by fear, I sit in my seat sipping weak coffee and munching on pretzels, and I pray for it all to end quickly (but not too quickly). On this trip, however, as we made our descent into Vienna, I realized that there’s a solution: topography. My geography student’s pure, simple curiosity about the shape of the land below, about how fields are plowed and neighborhoods built, about mountains in the distance and rivers running through, is enough to distract me and to calm me, and as long as I’ve got a window seat, I can make it just fine.

The carbon question is still significant, and I should probably channel my fear into better transportation habits, but now, if I’ve got to fly, at least the stress of it won’t send me to an early grave. Just another way being a geography major has changed my life for the better.