Monday, September 24, 2012

The "Terra Incognitae" of Scale

The following blog is a reaction paper I recently wrote for my Geographic Thought class, but as I am interested in the social and human interactions with the environment, I thought it best to share. I have tried to include links to some of the names and works you may not know.
       With the wealth of knowledge available to us today, including thousands of years of human exploration of the planet, satellite images to fine resolutions of some of the most remote areas, and the availability of a wide-array of information on the internet, the idea of Terra Incognitae seems to note exist. This is merely at first glance, though, as John K. Wright argues, “if we look close enough…the entire earth appears as an immense patchwork of miniature terra incognitae.” Our world has been explored, dissected, explained, and re-explained; yet Wright argues that to the finest scales there are still miniature-unexplored areas in our own back yard. Yes, it is true that when viewed from space there are not many unexplored areas of our world and human settlements have spread out from the initial occupation of Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent to dot the landscapes around the globe, but I must agree with Wright’s examination that there are still areas yet to be explored…even if in our own backyards.
            Yi-FuTuan presents another compelling argument to support Wright’s observations as he discusses our sense of place and what constitutes a “place.” He describes place as the “center of meaning constructed by experience,” and that “to know a place full means both to understand it in an abstract way and to know it as one person knows another.” The idea of place is all around us…different areas hold different meanings for nations, cultures, all the way down to the tiniest infant. To a newborn baby, their mother’s arms and their cribs are one of the most important places that exist. Their worldview is so much smaller, yet they know the cradle of her elbows better than anyone else. This is the place that they feel safe, a place that has meaning and can define who they are. In Tuan’s words, this is Home, or a “nurturing shelter.” We see places, unexplored in our own worlds, all around us. While it may seem that we know what is over the next ridge top or around the bend in the highway, we never really can grasp it as place is constantly changing. While we believe that we can quantify all the qualities that describe a place, D.W. Meinig, in their work “Geography as an Art,” counters (and correctly so) that we cannot accurately describe place in a quantifiable way, but we need to look towards to arts to best describe these places. How does science quantify the look and smell of a place but by assigning it to a number, which can be analyzed, while to an individual these convey entirely different meanings and bring about different reactions. We are reminded of Carl Sauer’s call to go “beyond science” and towards a descriptive, qualitative, sense of place.
            As geographers, we tend to write to other geographers and, in this, we lose the meaning of an area. The best descriptions of these terra incognitae can be viewed in the realm of literature. Just because Thoreau described Walden Pond vividly does not mean it is not unknown to us. While we have an image of what New England may look like in the fall, ultimately it does not (in my opinion) become a place until we have experienced it for ourselves, until we have explored the world around us and developed our own meanings and feelings towards the plants, animals, sights, smells, tastes, and feel of each individual square foot of a place. Place cannot be quantified, but only explained in a descriptive manner in an attempt to convey our own meaning, hoping to instill a desire for our listener/reader to visit and form their own sense of place. Each place is different for each person. As a twin, my mother’s arms were a completely different experience to me than they were for my twin, even though we regularly experienced them in the same temporal construct.
            In my mind, it is a simple call (at least for the human branch of geography) to turn from a quantitative style back to our qualitative roots. We need to be able to accurately describe an area and instill a desire to visit before we can begin to qualify and “solve” the issues we believe the area to be facing. Place is unique, place is different, and each place reacts to the same stimuli in different ways. For example, my current research interests are looking at the sociopolitical and human impacts from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, specifically examining agriculture farmsteads. Each community, each farm, and each individual member of the farm family will react to this industry in different ways. It is my hypothesis that this industry has altered the original “sense of place” of the family farm and, in some cases, erased a sense of place. A farm that has been in the family for a century, yet is now riddled with the well-pads, roads, and other drilling infrastructure, may not hold the same intrinsic value to a family (or individual in that family) that it used to. It may have lost its status as a meaningful place to now be viewed as a negative place (such as we would a jail and similar places).
            It was interesting to note Tuan consider the family farmstead in his analysis of “place.”  In his words, “farmsteads are places, centers of meaning to those who live in them. “He states that, “sparsely settled farmlands are somehow more meaningful that cities, and wilderness areas ore meaningful than farmlands.” We fight “place,” a sense of meaning” from these rural areas. He goes so far as to state that, “to people of urban backgrounds, farms…are aesthetic and religious objects.” More commonly, cities hold meaning because of the amount of occupiers, but farms (and even the intrinsic value and ideals placed on these farms from those who may never visit them) hold immense value as well to those who consider a rural existence their lifestyle. Will I ever visit every farm in the state? No. Will I climb every mountaintop in Colorado to examine the splendor of our planet? No. There is, however, the intrinsic value of knowing these places exist, that they are safe and protected, and that they provide a glimpse into “how life was meant to be.” This gets into a whole different argument of conservation lands and the intrinsic values behind them, but simply stated we can put a place value on locales we have never, nor may ever, step foot in.
            There are unexplored areas, terra incognitae, all around us. We can look in our own backyards, re-explore an area, and infer different meaning each time. Each of these areas, whether explored or not, can hold a place value in our society just by knowing they are there and through their continued existence. Sometimes the not knowing what is around the river bend can be more exciting than finding out and being disappointed. As a geographer, I love to explore and know what is out there, but sometimes also revel in the “not knowing.” Terra incognitae can have immense value and relief in sometimes not knowing the unexplored.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Romanticism of the Small Farmer

Recently, I read Tamar Haspel's article in the Huffington Post, "Don't Romanticize Small Farmers---Some Are Jerks." This was a very interested take on the role of small and sustainable agriculture in our food system today. Granted, I should preface by saying that I will buy local and sustainable above large factory farms at all costs, but it's still interesting to note small farms from a social science standpoint. Books like Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and movies such as "Food, Inc." do a great job in bashing large scale farming, which I totally agree with, and romanticizing the small-scale farmer. Haspel presents an interesting view of the small-farmer and I feel they align with my own viewpoints to an extent.

Many small-scale farmers are law-abiding citizens, but as with any industry you will have those who "cook the books," tax evasion, animal cruelty, etc. Which brings an interesting thought to mind...why not eat food from the farmers we know. If you search hard enough through the contacts in your iPhone or the 1,300 friends on your Facebook, you're sure to find someone who in engaged in some sort of agriculture. Step out of line at your local grocery store and buy what you can from them. I frequent farmers markets, my girlfriends parents have a small farm with fresh dairy & produce, and my parents have a huge garden that produces a ton. So while not all of my food comes from sources I know, a lot of it does. At a farmers market, you have a chance to sit down and discuss with the farmer about their practices, their beliefs, etc. You can gain a great insight into where your food comes from and the hands that harvested it, instead of the label at your local Giant Eagle that says "Produced Locally." As a geographer, I have to wonder what their scale of local is. I would say 25 miles or less from the store. What if their 25 miles is from their headquarters, not the individual store. See brings about a lot of other interesting questions.

Crazy, I agree, but in today's society we have become so detached from the land around us. I once read an article (which I cannot think of the name) where kids could not point out a carrot in front of them because it wasn't shaved and shaped like the baby carrots they get at school and did not understand how carrots and vegetables grow. It's sad, but as cities grow and small towns shrink, we begin to lose that connection with our food system and our natural world. Yes, it is unreasonable to think that every family could know where every bit of their food comes from, but isn't it worth exploring it a little more? Efforts such as The Slow Food Movement are trying to slow down how we get our food so that more people can gain an awareness of where their food comes from. Whether a nugget from McDonald's or a  freshly killed chicken from Joel Salatin's "Polyface Farm," it was once still a chicken that lived, was killed, and brought to your table. Why not change the way you eat it, know where it comes from, how it was processed (heck, even go to the farm and help process it), and learn about our food system.

So, I can agree with Haspel's argument that we don't know the source of food from all local farms, but I can pretty much generalize that all factory-farms are not going to have the care you'll find at a small-scale farm. We need to support our local agriculture, learn about where our food comes from, learn about the systems that make up a farm and how they all interplay together, and witness a revival in the food system in America. Yes, even I am guilty of eating the occasional fast food when I'm on the go and, yes, my parents do own Subway sandwich restaurants in our small town, but on the whole we like to have an idea where a lot of our food comes from. We co-op with others and buy a whole cow's worth of meat from a neighborhood farm, get pork and other things from friend's farms, catch our own fish, grow our own vegetables, and (a favorite pastime of my brother and I) scour the woods of western Pennsylvania for wild Leeks (or Ramp, depending on where you're from). Again, I admit I don't always pick up a shovel and plant or play a key role in a lot of this at this point in my life, but I still like to be involved in the process and know where it all comes from. We need to support our local agriculture before we lose it. We need to be subsidizing small-scale farmers and decreasing the monoculture of corn or soybeans that we see developing across the Midwest, and we need to know where our food comes from.

As I always say, we are part of a river system. Everything comes from somewhere and when we are done with it, goes somewhere else and affects someone else. We are all upstream and downstream from everything else.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Protecting The Great Lakes

Today we have, what I consider to be, one of the biggest environmental strides that I have seen as of recent. The United States and Canada have re-devoted themselves to the continued protection of the Great Lakes resources, according to "Agreement To Protect Great Lakes Signed By Canada, U.S." of Bloomberg.
Map of the Great Lakes Basin

The Great Lakes Basin is one of the largest watersheds in our nation, affecting millions of people and holding roughly six quadrillion gallons of water . By affecting, I mean supplying fresh water, fish, recreation, shipping, and more. Those are the positives...but it can supply negative effects too if we are not careful. Polluted waters, invasive species, and other similar threats are growing throughout the Great Lakes Region. Anyone who has been near one of the lakes has surely seen signs about stopping aquatic invaders, such as the Zebra Mussel or Gobi. We are also threatened from within our own boundaries, as Southern cities and states, such as Atlanta, have been vying for water resources from the Great Lakes to combat the drought problems plaguing the country, according to The Daily Green.

Even if you don't live within the Great Lakes Basin yet live in one of the surrounding states, I can almost assure you that the Great Lakes have affected you in some way. For me, it was countless trips to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA and fishing charters around the islands near Put-In-Bay, Ohio that helped instill a conservation ethic in me. Reading through this blog, you have probably read of a number of things that have instilled this ethic in me, and yes, it's true that it is hard to pinpoint. It is a collaboration of all of my time spent outdoors growing up...on the Great Lakes, skiing all over the country, traveling throughout the west and New England, exploring my own backyard, and hunting/fishing trips with my dad. So while I didn't live in the GL Basin (growing up in Pittsburgh), I was still affected by the lakes immensely. They're a source of pleasure, whether I use them daily or not. They have an intrinsic value, simplistically, they have value just because they exist. The plants, animals, microbes, and thousands of other moving parts make up a diverse and exciting ecosystem that I am proud to see will continue to be supported in the future by both the U.S. and Canada. It should be a great stride forward in protecting more international resources and will hopefully be an example to other nations about international conservation efforts. (It isn't the first time the U.S. and Canada have collaborated. See the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park in Montana, US and Alberta, CA).

As we move away from thinking within our boundaries and more towards ecosystem thinking, these international conservation treaties will become even more valuable to protecting the natural resources of our world. Remember, every river has an upstream and every river has a downstream. We all affect everyone else.

Let me know your thoughts by emailing me here!