Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.
Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.
I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.
At some point in our lives we will all be faced with becoming John Wesley Powell in one way or another.
I’ve always admired the famous explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). He was one of the first explorers to run the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
He was an explorer, geologist, professor and ethnographer. I admired him in many ways. However, he also had a darker side. I always wanted to emulate only his better qualities. But on March 22nd of this year, I’ve come to be like him in a way that I never intended to. And that terrifies me!
A river trip is one of the ultimate geographical journeys. A river trip through the Grand Canyon takes it to another level.
A journey down a river can be a symbol for or journey through life. Like rivers, our lives have a starting point (headwaters). Our lives, like rivers, often take sinuous paths through the landscape, passing through place after place only once until we reach the end of our route. Sometimes the water is calm and flows slowly. Other times, there are wild rides through big rapids. The destination may not be as significant as the journey.
I relate to Powell since we both had a penchant for exploring, although the world was much more wild at the time of his explorations than were mine. He spent four months walking across Wisconsin in 1855. I’ve spent at least that much time walking the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian Trail, and other long distance trails, but with the walks spread over many years. In 1856 he rowed the entire Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The following year, he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi. In contrast, my longest water trips were only one week; a 150 mile canoe trip down the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska, and one-week sea kayak trips through various fjords in Southeast Alaska. It seems he was much tougher than I was.
We did have a few other things in common. We both became college professors later in our lives; he in Geology and me in Geography. We both were fascinated with landforms; their patterns on the landscape and the processes which form them. We both care about conservation and land preservation for future generations. We both were interested in studying other cultures. But that is where our similarities end.
There was a darker side to Powell which I did not want to emulate. While he did publish an ethnography and classification of Indian languages, and studied the effects of acculturation on aboriginal peoples, he had a paternalistic view toward native people. It is no coincidence that the timing of his geologic expeditions overlapped with the time of imperialistic military ventures associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Powell advocated for resource exploitation and Native removal from their lands. This is where our outlook on the world bifurcates. Maybe we were both products of the times that we lived in.
There were other major differences between us. Powell was a veteran who fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. I have no military experience, as the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft were over just before I was of age to serve. Powell was shot in the right arm during the Battle of Shiloh and had most of his right arm amputated. Which means he did his epic 3 month river expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers with only one arm. I had two arms for my river and sea kayak expeditions.
That is, until this March 22nd. That was the day I became like John Wesley Powell in a way that I never wanted to.
While taking a short training ride on my bicycle for an upcoming trip, I slowed the bike down to get around a gate blocking the paved bike path. I could not get my foot loose from the toe clips and crashed and fell hard on my left side. Foolishly, I instinctively stuck out my left elbow to protect me from the fall. The sickening sound of my humerus bone shattering was an explosion in my ear, and I felt excruciating pain from my elbow to my shoulder. I lay on the ground writhing in pain while hoping that someone might be walking their dog or riding their bike to come by and help. Now I know how helpless a turtle flipped upside down on his shell feels. I wriggled on my back for more than 10 minutes. Finally, someone saw me, came over, and called the paramedics.
The injury was more severe than a simple broken bone. It was a compound fracture in five places, where the head of the humerus bone split in half. After a four and a half hour surgery, two metal plates and countless screws installed, I was sent home from the hospital on the fourth day. Over a month later my arm is still mostly useless. In the blink of an eye, I became a one-armed man like J.W. Powell. It could happen to any one of us.
Daily life is a challenge having only one arm. I wondered, “How did Mr. Powell pilot a raft down the mighty Colorado with only one arm?” He surely was a much tougher man than I will ever be!
Fears of what my life might look like from now on begin to consume me. What if I am never able to paddle my kayak again? Are my days of camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors gone forever? With just one functioning arm I can’t even tie my own shoes, let alone set up a tent. Forget about being able to cut a piece of meat at dinner. Other things one cannot do with just one arm include completely toweling off after a shower, practicing archery, folding clothes well, shucking corn, threading the belt loops on the pants you are wearing, uncorking a bottle of wine, trimming your fingernails, opening a lid on a jar, flossing, using loppers to trim bushes in your yard, signaling a touchdown in football, peeling potatoes, using a broom and a dustpan at the same time, popping a pimple, clapping in applause, serving in tennis, slicing a baguette, driving a stick shift, and cleaning the armpit of your good arm, among other things. Tie your own arm behind your back for one full day and I’m sure you will come up with many more examples. It is both humbling and scary when you realize just how fragile our existence really is. What it really does reveal is that no matter how independent you might think you are, we all depend on help from someone else from time to time.
All of this makes me appreciate John Wesley Powell even more. Not only did he lead the first government expedition down an uncharted dangerous river through lands where the natives were often hostile, but he made a couple more scientific expeditions down the Colorado. The 1869 trip proved the river could be run. That made him a national hero. The subsequent expeditions in 1871-72 were accompanied by photographers, artists, cartographers and other scientists. From riverside camps, Powell would often scale vertical cliffs with his one arm, to take rock samples and find perches for the artists to document the extent of the canyon country. What he could do with one arm was unbelievable.
But Powell made his first down the Colorado a full seven years after losing his arm. Maybe at first he was just as scared about his disability as I am about my own now. Maybe it took him a few years of living with his disability to adapt to it and overcome his fears. He certainly still did need help from others though. Somebody had to tie his shoes for him each morning before they got back in the boat. Somebody else was peeling the potatoes and cleaning the fish he was eating at camp.
Which makes me realize that we ALL have a disability in life to overcome or adapt to. You may have two good arms, but possibly have some other type of physical impairment. Or, your challenge might be psychological or economic. You might be handicapped by having to be a caretaker for someone in your family who would be lost without your help. Or you might be a minority living in a society dominated by a different culture. That doesn’t make you the disabled one, but it sure may handicap your ability for upward social mobility. Which is why John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Colorado should be on the top of our minds if we are to ever form a more perfect union in our country.
Historically, we are in the middle of a very big set of rapids on our downriver journey. Rising inflation, ongoing issues with global and domestic supply chains, disasters associated with climate change which increase in frequency as well as severity, vitriolic hate speech in our society combined with hyper-partisan rhetoric, scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, fear of global thermonuclear war, social and economic upheaval are all boiling up all around us. It seems that we may be smashed by any of these rocks amid the rapids. We’re desperately looking for a back eddy to find a safe haven and some calmer water. But even if we manage to find one which affords us a brief rest, we will still have to finish running the river. And we’ll need to channel our inner John Wesley Powell to do it.
But simply mustering up grit and courage from within is not sufficient enough. We’ll have to learn to rely on one another too. There are just some things we cannot accomplish by ourselves. We will have to be open to accepting the helping hand of others, while at the same time doing all we can to help ourselves AND each other. If we learn to take the best lessons from Powell while eschewing any similarities to the ethnocentric and imperialistic views that he held, we will again have hope for the future.
Although I only have one arm at the present time, unlike Powell I still have two hands. With a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, I still have hope of regaining most of the use of my arm. Even if I eventually do, I will remember the lessons from Mr. Powell and be more empathetic towards my one-armed fellow citizens. As long as they will strive to do the best that they can with their one good arm, I will be happy to tie their shoes for them. I will also happily shuck the ears of corn that we can dine on together.
Some locations are special because of the beautiful landscapes or the vibrant cultures found there. Other places are extra special due to the unforgettable people you met while visiting there. On rare occasions you can experience all of this together in one place. Namibia was one of those places.
When I think of Namibia, I can never just think about a sparsely inhabited desert country in the Southwest of Africa. Any time I think of Namibia I have to think about Portugal, The Netherlands, England, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Ireland, and even Zimbabwe. Why is that? Sure, some of those places had an influence on Namibia in the past, but the reason is much more than that. I happened to share my Namibia experience with a special group of people from those far away places.
As I sat in my hot tub on a mid-January day this year in Central Oregon, the temperature was an unseasonably warm 50F that afternoon. The snows of early January had already melted. I hiked 11 miles in the desert that day, through sage, juniper, rabbitbrush and bitterbrush. I saw no other human the whole time I was hiking. I can’t be in a desert without thinking about one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world, the desert country of Namibia. And then my thoughts drift to the people who shared that adventure with me.
That begs the question…..”Does experiencing a dramatic landscape bring out the best in people?”
“Or does being surrounded by a stellar group of people enhance the interpretation of the landscape you are experiencing?”
Thinking about one’s Namibia experience will make you want to dance with joy! Just look below to see what happened to our driver Floyd, who was so happy to not be in Namibia with that OTHER group!
Only in Namibia could you see an elephant walking across a sand dune, or herds of exotic species of ungulates roaming over dry, sandy lake beds. Besides stunning desert scenery and abundant wildlife, Namibia also boasts a rich cultural history, from pictographs and rock art from ancient cultures, to towns with German colonial architecture which hints that a piece of Bavaria was plucked out of Europe and placed in a desert landscape. Diamonds are mined here, and Namibia is the only place in the world where several plant and animal species can be found.
Before I sat in the hot tub on that night in January, I checked the weather in Windhoek and Swakopmund, two places in Namibia. Windhoek’s high was 84F and the low was 63F. Swakopmund had a high of 71F and a low of 69. Both places reported showers, which is the time of year that the Inter-tropical convergence zone dips briefly into those latitudes during their summer. Melbourne, Australia, which is also experiencing summer in January reported a high of 87F under clear skies. It was clear and 48 in Lisbon. Amsterdam, Dublin and London had showers, but higher than normal temps for the Northern Winter. Both Seoul, South Korea and Kiel, Germany had clear skies with the coldest temperatures—lows in the mid teens to mid twenties. These are the places where my fellow travelers on my Namibia trip presently live. Now that I gathered meteorological data on cities where my fellow travelers live, I am free to open the cover of the hot tub and dream of Namibia and reminisce on that special trip.
We started as a group of unrelated foreigners choosing a three-week group camping excursion starting in Cape Town, South Africa and traveling through Namibia to Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was the first African experience for most of us. We chose a group camping excursion mostly for economic reasons and most of us were unsure of how the group dynamics would turn out. Our tour company, Nomad Adventures, was a South African based company, and our driver and guide were Zimbabwean nationals. It took just a few hundred miles and a couple of shared experiences to bring such a diverse group of people closer together.
At one of our first stops in the northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), we participated in a Braai, a South African style barbecue. Afterwards, we sat in a circle around a fire and introduced ourselves to one another. Ages ranged from late teens, twenties, forties, to those in their fifties. Beth and I were the lone Americans and the oldest in our early sixties. It was quite a diverse group. Although English was not the first language of many in the group, everyone had enough fluency in English to communicate with one another.
On the long road journeys on the truck, we heard conversations in Dutch, Portuguese, German, and various dialects of English. Each of us had a locker for our personal items at the rear of the seating area of the truck, which had a capacity to carry 24 passengers. Tents and sleeping pads provided by the company were housed either at the rear of the truck or in an outside compartment on the right side of the vehicle. Kitchen stuff was stored in an outside compartment on the left side. All of us were expected to work together setting up and breaking down camp each day, as well as performing KP duty. This helped us bond together. Although we always sat with the same riding partner, each day we all rotated clockwise to the next seating position. Whoever was sitting in the last two seats every day ended up being responsible for keeping the inside of the truck clean and tidy. This not only spread the cleaning duty equally to each of us, but it also made each person more cognizant of their own contribution to a messy environment. We all started to kick the desert dust off of our shoes each time we entered back into the truck. It also allowed for everyone to experience different vantage points from which to view the passing landscape as we toured the area.
When we set up tents for the night, we pitched them right next to each other, like you would see in a refugee camp. In effect, we were refugees from four different continents all huddled together for safety in a land that was both wondrous and strange at the same time to all of us. On the banks of the Orange River on our last night in RSA, I got to know two of the German travelers whose tent was pitched next to hours. We gazed at the beautiful sunset setting over the mountains of southern Namibia across the river. The Orange River would be the last perennial stream we would see for a couple of weeks. When I close my eyes, I can immediately transport myself back to that exact moment in time.
Each travel day around lunchtime, our guides would find a nice area to stop by the roadside. Everyone pitched in for meal prep. Camaraderie was born out of this time of working together.
Once we prepped the meals, we formed a line for the buffet and then sat in a circle. After breaking bread together, we would chat with each other and then clean the dishes and stow away the gear and the food.
Working together and sharing meals was nice, but it was really the shared experiences that brought us closer together. Occasionally someone would opt out of a scheduled group excursion, but more often we did things together. I stayed behind one evening to wash clothes in camp and relax, while the rest of the group went on an evening drive. I enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of the desert, while they spotted groups of springbok and zebra. One other time I chose not to pay extra to go sand boarding down the dunes near Swakopmund, as I let the younger folk bond together.
But there were a few excursions we took together that really stand out as tightening our bond through shared experiences. I fondly remember an early morning hike on Dune 45 in Namib-Naukluft National Park. We woke up before dawn and boarded our truck and queued in line with trucks and vans from other companies at the gate to the national park. Dune 45 is one of the highest dunes in the park and the only one permitted for visitors to hike on. Our driver floored the gas pedal and we raced to be one of the first groups to arrive at the foot of the giant dune. We all cheered him on with race fever and felt like Mad Max being chased through the desert. Actually, Namibia was one of the filming locations for those post-apocalyptic desert wastelands in that movie series.
We took off our boots and shoes and trudged up the steep dune face in the early morning light. The sand was tarsal-chilling cold, but who cared? We made good time to the top as our hearts were beating as fast of a hummingbird’s due to the aerobic workout. From our perch atop the dune, we were free to survey the Mars-like landscape and then watch the sun rise over the Eastern horizon. As we slowly descended, the sun began to warm the sand. At the bottom, I glanced to my left to spot an ostrich streaking across the bottom of the dune. And the day was just getting started!
Later that day, we visited the Dead Vlei (the Dutch word for swamp) where shifting sand dunes cut off an ephemeral stream hundreds of years ago. The extremely arid environment has preserved the dead trees as if they were petrified. The scene is surreal, as if Salvador Dali himself would have created it. I saw another ostrich sprinting over the red sand, but by the time I readied the camera to document that moment, the bird had already disappeared.
One other moment that day brought me closer to my newfound friends. As the route to the Vlei was so sandy, the national park had to shuttle small numbers of tourists from the main road to the Vlei. Lines waiting for the shuttles were long. A group of Spanish tourists tried to cut in line and they pretended not to understand English, as our group scolded them. Since I used to live in Mexico, I started shouting at them in Spanish and shaming them for their bad behavior. Surprised by a foreigner scolding them in their native tongue, they hung their heads and finally moved to the end of the line.
From that incident, I immediately gained favor with two of the Portuguese ladies, as the two cultures who share the Iberian peninsula have tension between them. I apologized to the ladies that I did not also know their language, and admitted that Portuguese was not only a prettier language, but that the Portuguese people obviously had better manners. Of course they already knew that to be true.
We would spot wildlife while riding and staring out the windows of the truck. We developed signals and hand gestures to designate for each type of animal. One of my new favorite animals is the Oryx, also referred to as a Gemsbok. A member of the antelope family, the Oryx has striking black and white facial markings and extremely long, straight horns. The picture below shows the group using our signal that an Oryx has been spotted.
Another memorable moment from that trip was the stop at the Tropic of Capricorn to take some photos. A feeling of gratitude for latitude came over me and I put a lip lock on my wife of 25 years. The group hooted and hollered to see that two old people could still have sexual attraction for one another!
Early this February we broke a record for a high temperature for that time of year here in Oregon, with the mercury nearly hitting 70 degrees. I checked the weather in other parts of the world. It was only a few degrees warmer that day in Melbourne, where it is actually SUMMER. It was a frosty low of 4 degrees in Kiel, Germany. It was raining in the desert in Namibia, with Windhoek reporting a high of 79. “How are my trip companions doing?”, I wondered.
You really haven’t fully experienced how spectacular a sunset can be until you’ve seen some from the southern parts of Africa. Add those to an active group excursion paddling the Okavango delta in Botswana, and you will cherish a memory that will be with you until you draw your last breath!
Traveling by Mokoro through the Okavango was so magical that you wanted to do it again the next day. But be sure to stay in water shallow enough so that you won’t be surprised by an angry hippo surfacing below you boat!
Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is another must see place. It is hard to believe that such a bleak looking landscape with little vegetation can support such large numbers of wildlife.
You might even be lucky enough to spot a leopard close up. The shot below did not need a zoom lens, as the leopard walked right up to the truck we were in. We gently opened the window just enough to shoot the camera without opening it enough to have the leopard jump at us.
Traveling through the scrub forest of Acacia trees, we would see giraffe heads poking up out of the forest. It reminded us of the movie Jurassic Park, where Brontosaurus heads poked through forest canopies. We named this area of Etosha “Giraffic Park.”
The campgrounds in the park have chain link fences around them. Not only does this prevent campers from being eaten, but stadium seating on the human side of the fence allows for excellent viewing of wildlife around the water hole just outside of the camp. However, seeing an elephant getting an erection can really make a human feel quite inadequate! It was equally interesting to be near the waterhole at night listening to the animal sounds of all sorts of species.
In late February we finally had a cold winter’s day in Oregon. That night it snowed and the temps dropped down to the single digits (in Fahrenheit!) Only my colleague from Seoul had a colder night than I had. Besides researching meteorological data around the world, I focused on current events. Covid case counts are finally on the decline here in the USA. Russia is amassing troops on their border with Ukraine. They also had troops staged in Belarus. Europe was concerned, but nothing had happened yet. My thoughts drifted southward to Namibia and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The first day of Spring brought cold temps and some rain here. I had just changed the water in the hot tub and wanted to soak, but had to stay inside. I’m thinking of Namibia again. But when thinking about my travel buddies around the world, I am now thinking about more than the weather they are experiencing. While the cases of the Omicron variant are on the decline here and mask mandates are being relaxed, other parts of the world have rising case numbers. Namibia and most all Sub-Saharan countries have appallingly low vaccination rates. South Africa was just beginning to reopen to tourism after being shut down for much of the Covid surge. The last year must have been hard economically for the guides on our trip. More concerning than that is the worry of the horrible war in Ukraine spreading to other parts of Europe. Putin’s war is on the doorstep of my friends in other parts of that continent. Refugees from that war are relocating throughout Europe. Fuel costs and inflation are very high there due to Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. How will the loss of Ukranian wheat harvests affect food scarcity in Sub-Saharan Africa? When thinking of Namibia now, these thoughts come to mind.
Our Portuguese friends left the tour in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. We still retained the bulk of our group for the remainder of the trip through Botswana and onto Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Other tourists occupied their seats on the truck, but in no way could they replace them. We still had many memorable experiences together, such as hiking with warthogs near Victoria Falls, and walking past a hippo grazing outside of our restaurant in downtown Vic Falls. Beth and I walked across the friendship bridge with three of our fellow Dutch travelers to film them bungee jumping from the high bridge. They were grateful to have someone to film their daring dives and we were glad to be able to live vicariously through them and not have to jump ourselves!
I had two questions at the beginning of this story. To respond to them, I think that any Namibia experience would be worthwhile, even if you did it alone. I also think that a trip anywhere with this same group would be a success. That still doesn’t answer the question as to which is more important…..the people or the land.
Let’s assume that there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Stunningly beautiful unique landscapes may bring out the best in people. And sharing an experience with beautiful people may enhance your perception of a landscape. Also, being with people of different cultures allow one to see the experience from a multitude of perspectives. When you have all of that at the same time, you are indeed fortunate to have made such an unforgettable experience.
Maybe our Namibia experience could serve as a model for the United Nations. Maybe that global organization should reconsider holding their meetings in a building on the east side of Manhattan in New York City. Instead, have them all take a group camping trip together through Namibia. Have them share a unique experience together where they help each other set up tents; where they prep meals together; where they feel joy together. I wonder what the world might look like after that.
At the very least, I will try to comport myself on any future trip with the Namibia experience as my guide, and hope to become part of a community wherever I go.
What can you do when a fire ravages a beautiful forest? Some people might think of salvage logging. One locale with visionary thinkers and artistic talent saw it as an opportunity for an art project and a chance to rebuild community.
High in the mountains near El Bolson, Argentina, lies El Bosque Tallado (the sculptured forest).
Located south of El Bolson, on the slopes of Cerro Piltriquitron, lies the sculptured forest at an altitude of 1400 meters above sea level. Following a devastating wildfire in the late 20th century, local sculptor Marcelo Lopez came up with the idea to give new life to this burned forest. In 1998 a group of artists made the trip on horseback. It took them just 8 days to create the first 13 sculptures. They returned again in 1999 and 2003 to create more.
The artists had three goals. They wanted to give new life to burnt trees neglected by humans, to promote an interchange of creative experiences for the whole community, and to enrich the artistic heritage and culture of the region.
The project has continued to grow over the years. There are now over 50 wooden statues. Admission was free when I went years ago, but now there is a small entrance fee. From the town of El Bolson you can take a taxi part of the way half way up the mountain. From there you will have a 2 hour hike up a steep, rocky road to get to the sculptured forest. However, if you have a rental car, you can drive up the steep road to the car park at the end. Then you will only have about a 1 km hike to the entrance. There is a small kiosk on site for drinks and snacks.
The November day that I visited brought some rain which later turned to snow. Fittingly, the statue seems to be shaking his fists at God to complain about the weather.
With the acceleration of global climate change, many more communities around the world will face environmental challenges. The last several years have brought devastating wildfires to the western USA.
With so many communities in the Western U.S. being affected by recent wildfires, couldn’t the Bosque Tallado serve as a role model to bring artists, foresters, economic development managers and community members together to re-shape a sense of place in locations devoted by wildfire? Various sculptured forests would each have their own unique identity and serve to put these communities on the radar screen of tourists. Even if the economic impact would be minimal, they could serve as a vehicle to bring various parts of a broken community together, and serve as a beacon to create beauty and civic pride from the ashes.
Yesterday I virtually attended a “Teach In” on climate change. Several professors from the college where I work part time gave brief presentations on climate change from different perspectives of their various disciplines. Members of various organizations in our community also participated. Attendees of the conference heard perspectives from the disciplines of Ecology, Conservation Psychology, Microbiology, Sociology, Public Health, Geology, and even from the Visual Arts. Besides stressing the importance of scientific literacy, the concept of community came out over and over.
There are many definitions of what is meant by the word community, which might be geographic or cultural in nature. The presenter at the teach-in related it to other alliterative C words. Words like Connections, Compromise, and Caring for one another. One could also add Communication and Cooperation, or Coexistence.
Groups of people working together for a common good was exemplified by the community members of El Bolson, Argentina. My hope is that you, dear readers, will spread their ideas to communities that might benefit from similar types of projects.
With the situation in Ukraine being foremost in the mind of most of the world these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief background on the region to help better understand the conflict from a geographical perspective.
Full disclosure….although I have been a Geography professor, I have never personally been to Ukraine. But through showing you some maps and graphs with some brief explanations, I hope you will gain a new perspective on this region, which will lead you to further research on your own.
Many people remark about how simple their two color flag is. The flag itself gives you a lens into what the ecology of the region is like. The southern Steppe region has very fertile soils and it a major producer of wheat. Hence, a flag of a blue sky above with yellow wheat fields below. The picture below mirrors the colors of the flag, and is looking at the Black Sea, which is a pretty blue!
Climate is part of the reason for where certain types of ecosystems are found. Under the Koppen classification system, much of Ukraine is classified as a D climate, while other parts are more arid B climates.
The BSk climate in southern Ukraine has hot dry summers and cold moist winters. My hometown of Bend, Oregon has the same type of climate. The northern and western parts of Ukraine have a humid continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. Prevailing winds are westerly at that latitude, and because they are so far inland from the Atlantic Ocean, temperature ranges are much more extreme than coastal areas like France, which are moderated by the proximity to a large water body. See the map below which gives you an analogy as to where you might find locations with similar climates.
But climate alone is not the only reason for ecosystems being located where they are. Ukraine has a thick layer of very fertile soils. This is also a result of the melting of continental ice sheets from the last ice age melting in the north and the runoff from them depositing silt in the south. The main river flowing through the country, the Dnieper (pronounced NEE’ per) has its headwaters in Russia. The river flows through Belarus into Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea in the south.
The map below shows the Physical Geography of Ukraine, much of which is a flat plain, with notable exceptions in the far west of the country. Besides being good for agriculture, the flat plains have made it easy for advancing armies to invade throughout history.
When looking at the region through the lens of history, it is important to realize that the present day borders of what we call Ukraine have changed many times over the last millennium. A lot of history can be explained by understanding Geography. The location of Ukraine has allowed it to be influenced over two millennia by Greece, the Mongol Invasion, the Vikings coming down the Dnieper from Novgorod, the Austria-Hungary empire, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union to name a few. Its location on the north shore of the Black Sea gave it proximity to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as well as the rise of Islam and the Ottoman Empires. It is at the crossroads between East and West. I am currently reading Serhii Plokhy’s book, “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.” If your library has it, I would recommend you read this for a comprehensive history of the region.
Take a look at the You tube map below to see how the borders of Europe have changed over the last 1000 years.
The map below shows present day population densities. The two darkest spots are the urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv. You will also see concentrations in the East and South of the country. The Crimean peninsula in the south was annexed by Russia in 2014. That was when Russian separatists in the East of the country shot down a Malaysian jet liner. I was flying over that region on that same July day on my way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Had my plane left on time from Germany and not been delayed, it could have been me that was shot down. You can see how important the control of the two major cities would be for each side.
The map below shows where the Russians have advanced as of 3/9/22. They are trying to first take all of the land along the Sea of Azov to connect Crimea to the Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is a multi-ethnic society, with much of one’s cultural identity based in language. Both Russian and Ukrainian are Balto-Slavic languages with some similarities in origin, but different enough to base one’s identity around. The map below roughly shows where each language is predominant and helps to explain which areas are either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian nationalist.
Now compare the above linguistic map with the election map of 2010. Much of the voting mirrors the predominant language spoken. Yanukovych was a puppet of Putin. There were mass protests against his corrupt regime, leading to his ouster. The pro-Europe party talked in early 2014 about joining the EU. That precipitated Putin’s invasion and seizure of the Crimean peninsula later that year.
Finally, the graph below can give you an effect on how war affects migration rates. Look at the negative crude migration rate in 2014. Since the seizure of Crimea did not lead to full scale war at the time, many people moved back. However, the present day humanitarian crisis and horrible situation for the Ukrainian people will make this graph pale in comparison to today’s catastrophe.
These are uncertain times for all of us. I hope and pray for an acceptable resolution to the present conflict. I encourage you all to continue learning all you can about this region by reading peer reviewed documents. I also hope we can see some parallels with the cultural and political strains that Ukraine has with your own countries and work to find solutions to problems before they explode and get out of hand.
Flying low over the Arctic Ocean on our way to Herschel Island, we spot a pod of beluga whales on a collision course with a couple of kayakers. Herschel Island, Yukon Territory is located in the Arctic Wilderness, in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of the Yukon, in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone drive hundreds of miles to the north on dirt and gravel roads through desolate Arctic tundra as far as you can go by road, and then continue to fly north on a bush plane to reach an abandoned whaling station on an island in the Arctic Ocean? Well….if you have to ask that question, then you have never visited Herschel Island!
Maybe it is an itch you didn’t know you had to scratch. For me, I had this itch for a long time. You may know people who have visited several oceans such as the Pacific, Atlantic and maybe even the Indian Ocean. But few have ventured far enough north to experience the Arctic Ocean, which the Beaufort Sea is connected to. It was important enough for me at the time to block out a week during the high season of kayak guiding in Southeast Alaska, and head for the Arctic. In retrospect, the trade of a week of lost income for the adventure was well worth it!
A six hour ferry ride from Juneau, put us in Skagway, Alaska, at the end of the Inside Passage. From here, we would drive to the Canada Border just a dozen miles uphill. The drive would take us through Carcross, British Columbia and into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. After that, we headed up to Dawson City to reminisce about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. At Dawson City, the second largest city of the Yukon (pop. 900), we stocked up on supplies before heading out on the lonely Dempster Highway. The 456 mile journey on the Dempster would culminate at the town of Inuvik, NWT, situated near the delta of the mighty Mackenzie River.
Beth flew up from Oregon to meet me in Juneau for this epic road trip. All we needed was our camping gear, a cooler full of food and drinks, a full tank of gas, and a sense of adventure! This would be Beth’s first trip above the Arctic Circle.
The Dempster Highway is a bucket list road trip of 740 km, which starts in Dawson City, Yukon and terminates in the town of Inuvik, NWT in the Mackenzie Delta. The well graded gravel road crosses the continental divide three times and passes through both the Ogilvie Mountain range and the Richardson range. One can see a variety of wildlife species along the route, like this lone caribou we saw walking along the road. In the summer, lone caribou look for windy places to avoid the hordes of mosquitos and flies. So also do human campers. The big caribou migrations occur in the Spring and Fall, so if you are trying to catch a large herd migrating, September might be a better time. The swarms of bugs are less at that time. Always check ahead on road conditions or travel restrictions before you head away from Dawson City. As of this writing, the road is closed at the NWT border to all non-essential travel due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Prior to 2017, Inuvik was as far as you could go by driving in the summer, due to thawing permafrost and boggy conditions which made road building difficult. It was possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk in the Winter, after the Mackenzie River froze solid enough to drive on. However, a new road (the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road) was opened in late Fall of 2017 which opens up another 147 km of road to allow drivers to navigate all the way to the Arctic Ocean by vehicle. However, our trip was prior to 2017, so we ended the land journey in Inuvik.
While still in the Yukon portion of the road, we passed by a purple and pink field of fireweed in bloom. It is called fireweed because you will often see it after a disturbance on the land. The seeds are wind blown and are excellent colonizers to areas where there is little competition for sunlight.
Down the road, we came to the Peel River crossing. We had to camp on the south side of the river to wait for the ferry to run in the morning. We pitched a tent on a hill overlooking the river and sipped tea inside the tent as we watched the arctic sun set and then rise again twenty minutes later. The wind calmed. Hordes of mosquitos clung to the outside of the tent. The buzzing sounded like we were camped under an electrical transformer! Poor Beth drank too much tea and had to go outside to pee….After coming back into the tent, we spent the next half hour swatting mosquitos who followed her in.
Heading further North after the ferry, one should stop at Eagle Plains for gas and food and a vehicle check before continuing further. It is an oasis of civilization in the Arctic wilderness. Just past Eagle Plains, YT, you will cross the Arctic Circle
Once you cross into the Northwest Territories you may see an Inukshuk on the side of the road like the one in the picture below. Inukshuk is an extension of the Inuit word “Inuk”, which means “a human being.” They are piled stones in the shape of a human for either communication purposes, as navigational aids, or as a message center. It also symbolizes a spiritual connection with the land. The flag of the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut has an Inukshuk on its flag.
The city at the end of our road was Inuvik. From there, we took a bush plane across the Mackenzie Delta towards the Arctic Ocean and Herschel Island. The pictures below are from our plane ride. The Mackenzie River has a myriad of channels, lakes and backwaters at its delta. The soils are underlain with permafrost and are poorly drained. It is hard to build a road here. The river gets its name from Alexander Mackenzie, one of the partners of the Montreal based Northwest Trading Company. Mackenzie explored the river in 1789.
In the past, there would be no overland road travel in the summer, but when the river froze up, one could drive on the river once it froze up. The seasonal freezing and thawing of the top layers of the permafrost results in a unique landform called “patterned ground.” Larger stones are moved and “sorted” by this freeze-thaw action which forms wedged polygons. They are not as visible while standing on the ground, but really pop out when you see them from the air. The patterns resemble a tortoise shell.
The road to Tuktoyaktuk was not completed when we visited here, but nowadays you can go overland to see another Arctic landform called a pingo. The picture below is of this rare periglacial landform, created by the freeze-thaw expansion of water. From afar, it resembles a volcanic cinder cone, but it is not volcanic in nature.
When we reached the Arctic Ocean by air, we headed west along the coast towards Herschel Island, just off the northern coast of the Yukon Territory. Once the bush plane landed, we had a few hours to explore the island on foot. As it was summer, the hordes of mosquitos rivaled the biblical plagues of Egypt.
The island was used by native Inuit peoples in the past, and historically was the location of Eskimo trading. Modern activity on the island surged after the appearance of the first commercial whaling ships arrived in 1889. Some of them were forced to winter over in Pauline Cove on the east side of the island. Similarly to how the fur trade was driven by the demand for raw materials for the European hat making industry, the demand for whale bone was partially driven due to the use of whalebone in the manufacturing of corsets at that time.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a post in 1903 on the island, mostly to be able to collect customs and duties from whalers. The early 1900s saw the height of commercial activity there, but over-hunting saw the decline of human activity on the island. The Hudson Bay company, who had a fur trading post established in 1915, abandoned their post in 1937. For a more in-depth history of this region, I recommend reading Ken Coates “The Northern Yukon-A History”, written in 1979.
As we hiked across the Arctic Tundra towards the buildings at Pauline Cove, we encountered tracks of Muskox, caribou, and wolves. The closer we got to the Cove, the more we encountered the bleached ribs of old whale bones scattered through the tundra.
While walking near ridge tops, we could remove our headdresses. Thankfully, the wind was strong enough to momentarily knock the hordes of mosquitos down.
A sojourn on the island is a field trip into natural and human history. We did see some Muskox off in the distance, but were reticent to approach them. They are big, strong, and known to have bad attitudes.
Time to hike back to the plane and leave the island. On the way back to Inuvik, we flew low over the Arctic Ocean and spotted a pod of beluga whales. Soon we would wave to a group of kayakers who were paddling on a collision course toward the pod. How I wanted to be in the water paddling with them! I’ve paddled with Humpback Whales many times, and a few times with a Gray or Minke Whale, but never with a Beluga.
The trip was far from over though. Retracing our route back down the Dempster Highway, we camped by the roadside and experienced a strong thunderstorm that nearly took our tent down. Further down the road the next day, we met a road crew who were getting ready to close the road off, due to half of it being washed away by the raging torrents from the previous nights’ rain. We were the last car to pass through that day. The truck was caked in mud from the drive south (see picture below).
After a very long drive, we pulled into Haines, Alaska and got a hotel and cleaned up. We planned to take the ferry the next day back to Juneau. Haines, population just over 3,000, seemed like a megalopolis to us after where we had just been. Haines is almost 350 road miles from the town of Skagway, which lies only 17 miles away by boat. We drove the extra miles because there were no slots available on the ferry from Skagway to Juneau. Lots of RVers get their only taste of ferry riding on the Inside Passage from Skagway to Haines. A few slots opened up on the Haines to Juneau leg. Since Mick had to get back into town for an upcoming kayak expedition, it was prudent to drive the extra distance.
Four and a half hours later on the ferry, and we were back in Auke Bay, ready for the 30 minute drive home to North Douglas Island. Back in Alaska’s “Banana Belt” that night, we dreamed of Muskox, Beluga Whales, Pingos, Caribou….
Years later, we still cherish our adventure to the Arctic Ocean!
Ironically, I sat in my hot tub most January nights, dreaming of hiking the low desert section of the PCT in Southern California. While walking section E, all I could think of was about sitting in my hot tub back home.
Ask most PCT thru-hikers what their favorite section was and responses will vary. Many pick a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Others choose northern Washington as their favorite section. But when you ask what was their LEAST favorite part of the trail, more than 75% would list the low desert in section E from Agua Dulce to Tehachapi as their least favorite.
Thru-hikers usually arrive at this section in May, when blistering heat, and lack of water or shade sap their energy and crush their spirits. This is why I chose to attempt this section hike in late January and early February instead of May. A winter hike here has the advantage of avoiding the scorching temperatures of May, along with not having to deal with snakes this time of year. Having to carry less water due to lower temps is also a plus for a Winter hike. The downside included very long, cold nights, and no one else on the trail.
I made the long drive from home, taking advantage of snow free roads, and arrived at the Cottonwood Creek bridge at the California Aqueduct to start the middle of this section. Since I had no support, I would have to use my car as a base camp and do small sections at a time. While this would require doubling the mileage on the hike, it would negate having to hitchhike back to the car during a pandemic. To complete this 108 mile section, I would have to walk 216 miles.
The first few days crossed through the dry Antelope Valley, passing through the massive Tejon ranch on private lands. The temperatures were a comfortable 60 in the daytime, but below freezing at night. I started the hike in the middle of the ubiquitous wind farms. The trail alternated walking over the paved aqueduct or following lonely dirt roads, and unexciting walk. It took two days to walk 34 miles which resulted in only 17 miles of new trail gained. With the completion of the section between Cottonwood Canyon and highway 138, I now had passed the 1,800 mile mark, with only about 850 miles to complete the whole PCT that I have been chipping away at for almost 20 years.
Near the Aqueduct, I came across some large, freshly made Cougar tracks. Needless to say, I kept looking back every few hundred yards.
With two days of windy, boring hiking under my belt, I decided to move to a different part of Section E, up into the Liebre Mountain section, where roads crossed the trail every 7 miles or so. This way, I could “slack pack” the trails in small sections. Slack packing only requires a light pack with water, snacks and a few clothes. I could day hike 7 miles to the next road and then return to the car to camp. The following day, I could then move the car to the next spot and continue on. No need to carry a heavy pack with all of my gear.
The first morning started off with a beautiful sunrise, usually a good omen. However, hiking was another story. The trail was in very bad shape. Blown down trees, bad erosion in places and no tread-way on side-hill slopes were par for the course for the sections that I walked. Much of the forest had been destroyed by fire in recent years. Covid had prevented any trail work being done for the past couple of years. I saw no one while hiking, but could hear the loud sound of dirt bikes on the nearby forest roads.
The trail paralleled a forest road, so when I intersected the road after several miles, I decided to walk the road back to the car. On the way back, I removed several large rocks, so that I could safely move my car to the next spot to resume my hike.
Another day of brutal roads to reposition the car and more miles of eroded trail and I had enough of this middle section of Liebre Mountain for the time being. So, I moved to the north end of Section E to walk the 8 miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Highway 58. This section had well maintained trail and again began in a Wind Farm.
A few miles in, I ran into a fellow from Bakersfield who was trimming brush on the side of the trail. We chatted for a while and I told him how much I appreciated his work. This section was the first pleasant walking I had in days on Section E. He was the only human I encountered on this section of trail.
After crossing Cameron Ridge, the trail descends rapidly to Cameron Road, where the trail joins the road’s shoulder for a couple of miles to Highway 58.
Now, to make the return trip back to the car. 16 miles of hiking to gain just 8 miles of new trail. The sound of spinning turbines and choking on desert dust have me again dreaming of sitting in my hot tub at home. Finally, I reach the car. Tomorrow I will begin a real “backpack” and tackle the Tehachapi Mountains.
There are 22 trail miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Cottonwood Creek, where I previously parked the car to hike the Aqueduct. I planned to backpack in 11 miles and camp, and then turn around and hike back to the car. I would do the same from the other end to complete this section. The picture below shows the difference in pack size between slack packing and backpacking. There is no water on this section, so I carry a gallon and a half for the two days to complete half of this section.
The trail rises abruptly from the valley floor, following the property line of the wind farm. Very soon, there is a big erosion gully to cross.
A few miles further, I find it has hard to distinguish where the trail is, due to the amount of damage done by dirt bikes.
Even though PCT signs are every few hundred yards apart warning that it is illegal for motorized vehicles to use the trail, it is evident that the Proud Boys have willingly disregarded these rules and exercised their “freedoms” of tearing up the trail, even though their designated trails were close by. This is not what I signed up for on a PCT hike! Not exactly a National Scenic Trail in this section….
My friend Larry used to say that it was a sexual thing with motor bikers on the trail. He said that the only time these folks felt power between their legs was when they were on their bikes and raping Mother Earth. I used to think his sentiment was a bit extreme, but after several miles of walking on eroded dirt bike trails and sometimes losing where the actual PCT was, I was beginning to come around to his way of thinking.
The wind was blowing hard and I was not feeling well, so I stopped short of my goal of reaching mile 547, which was the halfway point of the Tehachapi Mountains hike. I made a makeshift camp on a knoll protected from the wind by a few downed trees. My lungs ached badly and I could not take a deep breath without pain. I wondered if somehow I had contracted Covid. The last place I had gassed up had few people masked inside, which made me wonder. I had no energy. I laid down with the ever present sound of humming wind turbines in the distance.
After a fitful night of sleep, I decided to leave my stuff at camp and walk ahead with only water and snacks. I still felt sick, but trudged on anyway. At least it was easier walking with a light pack. However, walking on an eroded motorcycle path while in pain was not my idea of fun.
Finally, at mile 549 of the PCT, I saw something positive about this section. Trail angels had set up a cache of food and water. I stopped and took a granola bar from the cache, sat down and relaxed for a moment.
Still feeling puny, I decided to head back short of the 547 mile marker. I just wanted to get back to the car, and possibly a hotel to recover. Even though most of the trip was downhill, my lungs ached. My calves ached. I had no energy left. I picked up a huge pine cone the size of a loaf of bread on the way back down. If I lived through this hike, I would gift it to my sister.
Just before I reached the car, I spotted a group of horses grazing beneath the windmills.
My body needed some rest, so I drove to Tehachapi and recovered in a motel for a couple of days. After a couple of days of bed rest, my lungs had improved to the bit where I felt I could at least slack pack some more, if not being able to tackle the other half of the Tehachapi mountains just yet. I think the lung infection was a result of dust getting into my bronchial tubes.
I drove to the south end of Section E at Agua Dulce, but first stopped at Vasquez Rocks a few miles south of town. Technically, it is part of section D of the PCT. Vasquez Rocks is the site of many Hollywood films, with some old Star Trek episodes filmed there.
I followed the PCT a bit to the south, and saw where it would run under the Hwy 14 freeway. Then I drove into “downtown” Agua Dulce and parked the car. I saw that the PCT actually required walking on the shoulder of a paved road for the first few miles out of town. Not being interested in that, I drove ahead to scout where other roads intersected the PCT.
From what I could see, the trail undulated up and down over barren, windswept ridges. I was beginning to wonder why I wanted to hike this section. Was it just to complete more mileage? At some point, recreation has to be more than just checking boxes and accumulating mileage. With the wind blowing hard and dust blowing across the road, I made the decision to bag it. It wasn’t just my physical weakness at the moment. I just didn’t want to do any more of this section. All I could think about was being home in a comfortable bed and soaking in my hot tub. Like so many other hikers before me, Section E ended my dream of ever completing the whole trail.
But I’m okay with that. I still dream of completing some other parts of the PCT.
As I drove north on the way back home, I stopped by the Mojave Air and Space port to see the boneyard of old DC-10 jets. Fittingly, old jets go to die on this spot near Section E of the PCT.
At midday, I continued north in time to reach the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine while it was still daylight. From there, I got to see the sun set over Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Finally, something to get excited about!
The night was cold, but I awoke in time to catch the first glimpse of morning light illuminating the top of the Sierras. I fired up the stove and mixed some instant coffee and hot chocolate to make a poor man’s mocha, while I watched the rest of the majestic mountain range being lit up by the morning sun. This morning beat any day I had on Section E of the PCT.
It dawned on me (both literally and figuratively), that I had not yet hiked the PCT in this portion of the Sierras, even though I had climbed Mt. Whitney twice before. Now that is a section of trail to get excited about!
When one dream dies, it allows others to be born to take its place. I started thinking of South Georgia island in the Antarctic, and the deposit I just made on a trip there this coming November. I thought about an upcoming road trip across the country to the Southeast USA this Spring. I no longer HAD to hike all of the PCT. Now I was free to pick a few of the best sections I really wanted to experience and leave the rest to someone else. Disappointment melted into a feeling of freedom!
A fairly long day of driving brought me across the border into southern Oregon. Not wanting to drive the roads on a Friday night, I chose to camp on the deserted shores of Lake Abert, on Hwy 395. The sunset was gorgeous. In one more night, I would be back home in my hot tub, looking at stars and virtually traveling to new places.
When one dream dies, it leaves room for endless possibilities to fill the void. It also brings back fonder memories of another desert trip, the deserts of Namibia. That desert trip was magical for many reasons, mostly because of the people I traveled through that desert with. I also did not have to backpack through it. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the “United Nations of Namibia”. While we’re at it, “Where else would you like for geographicaljourneys.com to take you to?”
These three things seem unrelated at first glance. Upon further inspection, you may see that they are actually tightly woven together.
The mighty American Chestnut tree was once the dominant canopy species in the forests of Eastern North America. That is, until a blight from China in 1904 entered our country in the port of New York. Within a couple of decades, the dominant Chestnut was completely knocked out of the forest canopy. Today, the Chestnut tree still survives in the under-story, but the blight usually will kill it before it reaches full maturity.
The blight killed the equivalent of several million trees and was a disaster to the many industries that relied on the American Chestnut, which included lumber, tannin, fiberboard and tree nuts. The blight spread to areas outside of the range of the American Chestnut, including trees planted in the Midwest and the Mountain West. American Chestnut sprouts still occur throughout our Eastern forests, and some live long enough to gain tree size before they are killed by the blight. It is no coincidence that the Great Depression coincided with the decline of the American Chestnut. Although it was not the cause of the Great Depression, it certainly was a contributing factor.
Two years after the beginning of the Covid-19, pandemic, our economy and society are reeling from this latest pandemic. Supply chain issues, school and business closures and societal upheaval are the results. Although both of these blights originated in China, that is not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the blight that is affecting the third item in the title of this blog. I am referring to the blight affecting the teaching of Geography in our country.
The blight on Geography did not come from China….it is a homegrown blight. Geography departments are similar to the American Chestnut Forests of Eastern North America a hundred years ago. Geography used to be in the “canopy” of academic disciplines. But somewhere in the past few decades, our society has become even more ethnocentric than ever before. Although that might not be the cause of the decline of Geography teaching in this country, there certainly is a correlation.
It is remarkable that a people who have such an interdependence on resources and supply chains from other countries, have become so geographically illiterate. Geography departments have been closing in some universities over the past few decades. The number of Geography majors in higher education declined by 7% in the six years prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the two years since, institutions under financial pressures have accelerated program cuts.
The above graph shows the inequality of majors chosen by college students. You might ask, “Why is that”? Some might opine that technology negates a reason to study Geography. “Isn’t there an APP for that?”, many would say. Most folks might not understand the importance of a “spacial” perspective in the popular fields of Psychology and the Biological Sciences, but there certainly is one. Well there is an APP to calculate mathematical problems, but nobody would claim that replaces the teaching of Math in higher education. Similarly, just because you have a spell checker doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have to take a writing class.
But like the immature Chestnut tree that survives in the under-story, the graph below gives us a glimmer of hope. Without writing tomes discussing what Geography really is or isn’t, it really is the glue that binds all other subjects together. It is about understanding the world we live in and our place in it. The graph outlines many other areas of study that require at least a fundamental background in Geography. This growth in areas that are close cognates of Geography necessitates the need to keep a Geographer on staff to augment in the teaching of these disciplines.
There is no magical vaccination for the blight affecting the American Chestnut Tree. We do have a vaccination for Covid-19, but there are still breakthrough cases, especially with the Omicron variant. As for the remedy for the pandemic affecting Geographical awareness in this country, there is no vaccine at the moment. However, there are preventative measures to mitigate the disease. They don’t include masking or social distancing. On the contrary, removing oneself from tribal isolationism and engaging with the world outside of your cultural bubble is a good start.
Look at the picture of the globe from space. What happens in ________ doesn’t stay in ___________. (fill in the blanks) Picture yourself as a citizen of planet earth as well as a citizen of whatever country or community you are a part of.
Also, try tracing the supply chains of the products that you use. Learn another language. Travel the world via Google Earth. Work across academic disciplines when teaching or learning. And try to educate the “Educational” administrators of your K-12 school districts on the importance of Geography in the 21st century. Geographic training without Geographers is like getting medical advice from your lawyer. Maybe with some hard work and some luck, we might find a treatment or a therapeutic for the present blight and someday see Geography in the canopy of our educational forest!
Mongolia….Just that place name evokes special feelings: dreams of adventure, mysterious landscapes, and exotic cultures. It is said that whatever you are searching for in life, you can find it somewhere in Mongolia. I’ve been searching for the essence of Mongolia my whole life. I’ve found parts of it in other places in the world, but I’ve never actually been there yet. It is such a vast land, and which parts would you go to in order to find what you’re searching for? And, when should you go there?
Actually, the best time to have experienced it might have been millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic era. What is now the Gobi desert, was once a landscape of freshwater lakes and vast valleys, which made it a paradise for dinosaurs. My personal favorite, the Ankylosaurus, roamed freely here along with Velociraptors.
Ankylosaurus was a plant eater who carnivores didn’t mess with much. They had armor plating and a large bony protrusion on their tail that would devastate the leg of any predator. Today, you would have to visit the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag Park to see fossils of their remains. This area of the Gobi desert remains one of the largest dinosaur reservoirs of the world. Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who did research here, was the inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones of Hollywood fame.
We tend to look at a map of where things are and think that they had always been in the same place. But looking through the lens of geologic time, and with our recent understanding of plate tectonic theory, we realize that land masses can change their geographic positions, albeit slowly. When the Indian subcontinent smashed into the Eurasian plate, the Himalaya Mountains started their slow uplift near the end of the Triassic Period. As the Himalayan Orogeny grew in stature, the mountains blocked off any moisture from the nearby oceans, resulting in Central Asia becoming a much drier place. The warm, wet areas where dinosaurs once roamed slowly transitioned into the deserts and steppes that we encounter today.
Long after the dinosaurs died out, mankind arrived on the scene. To survive in this inhospitable environment, you needed to be nomadic to keep finding the resources to live. People lived in gers (yurts) and became pastoralists. You needed to find fresh grass and forage for your animal herds, which you survived on. Maybe what you are searching for is a life of living off of the land, your herd of animals, and being nomadic.
You’d better like to eat cheese and milk if you are a nomad living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Mongolia that you were searching for was found in the short grasses of the Steppes. Your life depended on your animals for survival. And your animals depended on the availability of fresh forage. Bitterly cold winters dipping below -40 and lack of moisture, means you have to move often. They don’t call Mongolia “The Land of the Blue Sky” for nothing. In fact, to really get to know what it is like, read native author Galan Tschinag’s novel “Blue Sky”. You will know what it is like to live in a Ger and herd animals after reading it.
You will likely drink Suteytsai (Mongolian Tea-Milk) every day. Made with 8 parts of boiled brick tea mixed with one part of milk, with some butter and salt thrown in, it is the ubiquitous drink of choice among nomadic herders. There is always a pot on, in case someone stops by. It is part of the culture to offer food and drink to strangers and guests. When offered to you, make sure to drink it all and not be perceived as being rude.
You have to be tough to live out here. The climate has a high annual temperature range, with blistering hot summers and brutally cold winters. Annual precipitation is scant. Grasslands and deserts are the dominant ecosystems. Besides being a skilled pastoralist, one should also be a great hunter of wild game. Being the first to develop and master new technological advances with the bow and arrow, along with mastering superior skills in horseback riding, allowed for more than just success in hunting wild game. Those skills transferred well into battles with other human societies that were encountered in the search for resources.
Founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongol Empire spread rapidly. At the height of its influence, the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Danube River in Europe. It holds the record for the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Their skill in horsemanship and the development of the compound bow made Mongol warriors uniquely suited to conquer areas that were open plains or flat areas. Each soldier had several horses and their armies were so much more mobile than that of their adversaries. It is said that the Mongol horse was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of the 13th century.
That was then. Maybe what you are searching for is to feel a connection to the history of that once powerful empire. Today, Mongolia is a landlocked nation in Asia that has been dominated by its more powerful Communist neighbors of Russia and China. Whatever part of Mongolia you want to go to, you are most likely to start your journey in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaan Bataar, or U.B as it is known, is the primate city of the country as well as being the capital. One can see the Soviet influence in the blocky architectural style of the buildings, with gers being located on the outskirts of the city. Whether you are arranging a tour or getting last minute supplies before heading into the hinterlands, U.B. will be the place to get it all done.
Look at the map of ecosystems of Mongolia below and choose what type of ecosystem you would like your adventure to be in. If what you are searching for is in the Gobi desert, there are many things you can choose from in addition to dinosaur fossils.
Try riding a camel in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National park. To really discover the essence of the Gobi Desert, I recommend reading Helen Thayer’s classic book, “Walking the Gobi.” She and her husband traveled over 1,600 miles across the Gobi with their two rented camels, Tom and Jerry. Thanks to that book, I feel like I’ve already been there.
If what you are searching for in Mongolia is a link to its culture and past, you might try visiting during the Naadam festival. This year it is held from July 9-21. Naadam is a celebration of Mongolia’s nomadic heritage and it features competition in three many sports; wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Tours from adventure outfitters such as Blue Silk Travel offer packages which include Naadam festival activities and excursion to the Gobi, and the ancient capital city of Karakorum.
You also might want to visit the Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) complex.
Maybe what you are searching for is a remote and beautiful location where time has stood still for centuries. A place so isolated, such as the Tuvan province in the Northwest of the country in the high Altai Mountains where you could come in contact with the Tuvan throat singers practicing their unique culture. There is NO other place on this planet where you could experience such an unequaled type of singing voice. While there, you could also travel by horseback or Yak and attempt to climb Khuiten Peak, Mongolia’s highest mountain, which part of the Tavan Bogd massif.
Modern day Mongolia is at a crossroads and facing rapid change. Recently, there have been a lot of discoveries of oil and gas. Mongolia lacks the infrastructure to bring much of it to market. Multinationals, mostly from Russia and China are building this infrastructure to take Mongolia’s resources to their markets. Traditional ways of life are changing fast…too fast for some of the traditional peoples of that land. In their book, “The Changing World of Mongolia’s Nomads”, authors Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall outline the challenges of many of these indigenous peoples. The Mongolian people have already adapted to changes brought about by living under the Soviet system for decades. Besides the political upheavals, economic change, climate change and Covid all present challenges in their own right. All of these changes together are resulting in the Mongolian people now searching for the essence of Mongolia themselves. Time will tell if they will be able to find it!
Learning the Language of the LAND just might help us to achieve a sustainable future. The previous post called for all of us to be Citizen Geographers. While many of us understand the citizen part, we may feel less confident about our expertise in Geography. Here are some strategies to help you interpret the language of the LAND, so that you can grow in your geographical expertise and become a more focused Citizen Geographer, which in turn may lead us toward a more sustainable future.
The LAND is multilingual when it speaks to us. It is important to gain at least a basic working knowledge of several different languages to understand what the LAND is saying to us. *****We Capitalize LAND when speaking about it, not to shout, but to show respect for it and all it does for us.
To understand the language of the LAND, you should know a little bit about a lot of different disciplines (Biology, History, Geology, Anthropology, Foreign Language, and Geography). Geography, by its nature, is a multi-disciplinary subject. You don’t necessarily need to be totally fluent in the language of all of those disciplines to understand the language of the LAND, but a little bit of understanding of each of them will go a long way. Most of all, you need to be still, observe and LISTEN!
The LAND not only consists of the Physical Landscape, but includes the Biological Landscape, including humans. Humans make their imprint on the LAND as to how they use it and interact with it. What that looks like is what we call the Cultural Landscape. How humans express their relationship with the LAND is through the development of an oral and sometimes written language. This is influenced by historical movement of people, both via voluntary migration and/or the expansion of empires. Each culture may look at the same LAND and see different possibilities.
The PHYSICAL LANDSCAPE
The landscape in the picture above is of the uplifted St. Elias mountain range in Alaska. It is the most abrupt rise of mountains from the sea in the world (over 18,000 feet high right next to the coast). The tectonically uplifted landscape has been reworked by glacial movement, and recent glacial retreat is exposing new landscapes that were previously under ice.
The Physical Landscape is shaped by the geology (supply of material) and atmospheric processes which denude the landscape through erosion (wind, water, ice, etc.) Once you fall in love with a beautiful landscape, you will naturally be drawn to the natural history of that landscape. We humans spend such a short time on this planet. Our appreciation of landscape development has to span over eons of geologic time. By recognizing this fact, one should be just as much in awe of an alluvial plain as they are with a newly uplifted mountain range. In our whole lifetime, we will see just one or two picture frames of an entire full length feature film. A brief review of landform development and natural history will provide one, a perspective on the story of the whole movie.
The picture below is also from Alaska, but this one is of the McBride Glacier in Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. The former advancing glacier pushed up the debris behind our tents, which shielded us from the cold wind blowing off of the glacier. The bay was totally under ice just a century ago. The tides are high in this part of the world (up to 24 feet), and the receding tide is leaving berg bits on the beach, which we will use to keep our fresh food from spoiling. Keeping track of moon phases and reading lines of seaweed and flotsam on the beach will help you from pitching your tent in the wrong place and being possibly flooded by an incoming tide.
Look closely at the LAND and you will likely see patterns emerging. Different patterns tell you something about the LAND. The picture below was taken from the window of a jet at nearly 30,000 feet from the ground below. The pattern is one of a dendritic stream drainage system, which resembles the branches of a tree. The smaller “branches” are first order streams, which have less water, but are steepest of all of the streams in the system. This is where the most erosion occurs, as the streams erode head-ward into the landscape. This type of pattern is found where the underlying sedimentary geology is uniform in nature. When rocks have different hardness and the geology is not uniform, other types of patterns will emerge. There is a lot of art in nature!
Most Earth shaping processes are very slow, and happen over geologic time. However, there are a few exceptions. Take a look at the picture below, of Providence Canyon in SW Georgia. How many millennia do you think it took to create this wonder?
Actually, Providence Canyon probably set a speed record for one of the fastest times to create a canyon of this size. It is an example of anthropogenic accelerated erosion, resulting from poor land use management. The multi-colored layers of sediment are those of poorly consolidated sedimentary rocks from the Tertiary and Cretaceous Periods which were protected from erosion by a resistant cap rock which overlaid the substrate. I assisted Dr. Francis Magilligan in his study of this area in the late 1980s. Removal of the forests in the area to plant cotton broke through the thin layer of resistant cap rock and exposed the easily erodible strata below. This region experiences a lot of rainfall. The loss of vegetation also resulted in a doubling of stream peak discharge, which exacerbated the erosiveness of the stream. The whole canyon was carved out since the early 1800s. The research for this study was published in the article “Historical Land Cover Changes and Hydrogeomorphic Adjustment in a Small Georgia Watershed“, which appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, volume 87, #4 December 1997, pages 614-635.
But, the Physical Landscape is only part of the equation. Even though man can change the Physical Environment through his actions, the Language of the LAND also includes reading the Cultural Landscape; those things which show the imprint of mankind on the landscape via the built environment.
The CULTURAL LANDSCAPE
The cultural landscape is everything that you see that was built and shaped by the hand of man. Man sometimes works with nature; other times he tries to dominate it. What type of imprint man makes on the natural landscape will tell you a lot about the culture that you find yourself in and what VALUES that culture has. Look to see what you can learn from a culture that sees the world differently than your culture does. People express their values by the things that they build. Seek to understand WHY the built environment looks the way it does!
The picture above is of the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The word Registan means “Sandy Place” in both Persian and Turkic languages. It was built by Amir Timur (1336-1405), the leader of the Timurid Empire, who was known as “The Sword of Islam” for all of the blood spilled in the expansion of his empire. Amir Timur’s empire rivaled that of the earlier Mongol empire. At its height, it stretched from Russia to India and from the Mediterranean to Mongolia. It was alleged that he was a descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. Also referred to as “Tamerlane”, Amir Timur wanted to make Samarkand the first city of the Islamic world. His motto was “If you doubt our power, look at our buildings.”
When reading the Cultural Landscape, you may see examples of cultural appropriation by a dominant culture whose ideal is to subjugate a prior culture. Referring to Uzbekistan, one would have to look very hard to find evidences of prior Zoroastrian architecture in the current built environment.
THE BIOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE
Then we have “The BIOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE“, which consists of what types of animals and plants exist, and why they exist where they do. A BIOME is a recognizable assemblage of plants and animals in function interaction with their ecosystem. Think of where you might find deserts, tundra, or deciduous forests. Where they are located are functions of latitude, proximity to bodies of water, location in reference to mountain ranges and the orientation of landforms in relation to wind direction. Study a map of global ecosystems and you will see some patterns emerging.
The picture above shows a former client gathering some bull kelp (Nereocystis) during a sea kayak trip in Southeast Alaska. Bull kelp grows near rocky shorelines– in geographic areas of cold, nutrient-rich waters. You will usually find them where there is also a moderate tidal current.
The picture above is what he kelp forest looks like from below. Bull kelp forests provide habitats for bait fish to spawn, sea otters to rest, and provides kayakers a place to rest from the currents as well as a harvest to make a base for a nutritious homemade salsa. Understanding where each type of ecosystem is located, as well as how they work, is a whole other branch of Geography which will help you comprehend the Language of the LAND.
LANGUAGES OF HUMANS IN RELATION TO THE LAND
The way that humans communicate with each other through sounds and gestures is another way that the language of the LAND is expressed. As humans move about the planet, they bring their cultures with them wherever they go. Therefore, their geographies are not only a reflection of their cultures, but are also modified by them. This means that you, dear readers, interact with your surroundings so that you can modify them at the same time as they are influencing you. What is special and unique about the language used in the part of the world you live in? How does it reflect either the ecosystem where you are or the history that your place has experienced?
It is interesting to see how the use of a certain word or a voice inflection can shine a light on where someone comes from. When I meet a Spanish speaker for the first time, I avoid the question “Where are you from?”, which might be interpreted as rude. Instead I can ask a few questions in Spanish using words or phrases that are only used in a few select locations. When someone doesn’t understand the word “Soroche”, which means altitude sickness, I know that they don’t come from one of the high altitude Andean nations, where that word is commonly used. I might also use the plural term for “you all” conjugating the verb in the “vosotros” form. If they respond, I know that they are probably from Spain. If they laugh, I know that most likely they are from Latin America, where they perceive it to be words from a Victorian era. Then a conversation opens up about geography and our place in it, and the ice is broken.
Tomes have been written about the evolution of languages, so I’ll be succinct and point you to a few maps for further cogitation. Language Families come from a common ancestral language. There may be several languages in each family, but often those languages have similar grammatical rules. I can’t speak French, but I can make out the gist of most things on a menu or a newspaper in French because it is in the same branch (Romance) of the Indo-European family of languages. A study of this map will help you understand history and migration, as well as physical geography and climate.
The map below, which shows where English is an official language, may be perplexing to some, until you study the effects of colonization by the British Empire. Most folks are surprised to find out that English is the official language of Belize (British Honduras) and Guyana. That is probably why Jim Jones founded Jonestown in Guyana instead of neighboring Suriname (Dutch), or Venezuela (Spanish).
Geographic isolation may mean that your language doesn’t change much over time. The sign below is in the Islenska language, the national language of Iceland. Iceland had no native peoples inhabiting it when Leif Erickson discovered in more than a millennium ago. Old Norse became the language, and has remained almost unchanged since that time. Norwegian, however, has been influenced greatly, due to its proximity and relations with its European neighbors. So much so, that while in Boston waiting to board a flight to Reykjavik, I overheard what I thought to be two Icelandic men talking to one another. They seemed to be struggling with their communication. A moment later, one of them spoke in English with a heavy accent.
“Screw it!. Let’s just speak English to one another”, he said. It turns out that one guy was from Iceland and the other was Norwegian. The Norwegian language had changed so much in the past 1000 years, that it little resembled the old Norse tongue that was introduced to Iceland and changed little since then. To keep their language from changing in modern times, Icelanders resist taking on new words when new technology is introduced. They will recycle a long forgotten word and attach it to any new technology to keep their language pure.
Whether you are multi-lingual or monolingual, when traveling to another region where a different language of speech is used, it is always valuable to know how to thank someone in their own language. Some examples of thank yous in other languages include the following…..
Danke (German), Hvala (Slovenian, Serbian, and Montenegrin), Raxmad (Uzbek, Turkish), Shukran (Arabic), Merci (French), Takk (Icelandic and Norwegian), Taname (Estonian), Mahalo (Hawaiian), Asante Sana (Swahili), Arigato (Japanese), Obrigado (Portuguese), Kiitos (Finnish), Gracias (Spanish), Aciu (Lithuanian), Spasibo (Russian), Salamat (Filipino), and Gracies (Catalan). One of my favorites is Lithuanian, which is pronounced Ah-CHOO, which could be mistaken for a sneeze in English. Either way, just speaking one or two words of the native tongue can put you in good graces with the locals.
The feeling of a “Place” and what that is telling you, is important to help you to know how to speak the language. Incorporate a little bit of “language” from all disciplines, which a Geographer would have to know enough of to travel safely through the land of many “tribes”, but never totally fluent in ONE of those languages.
Be STILL…OBSERVE AND LISTEN
Most of all, be present in the moment and keep your eyes and ears open. Keep a journal and take pictures even if you don’t know what you are shooting. Then go study about it in a library, preferably using peer-reviewed sources. This will help you to become more fluent in the Language of the LAND.
In the first post in this three part series, we talked about teaching and understanding about PLACE, about the concept of Nowhere, the value of Nowhere places, and how to make a more sustainable world. Walking the Road to Nowhere…. to Get Somewhere The more you learn about the world, the more you realize that everywhere is a somewhere. You will be surprised at how many connections you have with far away, previously unknown places.
In the second part of the series we discussed the pressing need for all of us to become citizen Geographers. In that post we talked about what responsibilities we all have as a citizen and how we need to be more attentive and document what is happening in the world around us. A call for Citizen Geographers! The more you learn about other places and other peoples, the more likely you are to become a citizen of Planet Earth as well as a citizen of your home country.
Hopefully, this last post in the series will help start you on your journey to learning the language of the LAND. In doing so, you will not only have a better understanding of your place in the world, but you may have empathy for other peoples around the world and the conditions that they live in. In doing so, you will turn a former Nowhere into a Somewhere, and become a better citizen in the process.
Once you become semi-fluent in the language of the LAND, you will interact with it more. You may end up falling in love with it. And it will change you. Finally, share it with someone else. And when we share our perspectives of what we know about the LAND with each other, we just might be on the road to a more tolerable and sustainable world!
In my previous post, I discussed how walking the road to nowhere can lead to enlightenment and actually end up leading us to a somewhere. Walking the Road to Nowhere…. to Get Somewhere My lamentations about the decline of Geography awareness in our society was where that post left off. This post is a call to you, dear readers, to become citizen Geographers.
“But what does that term ‘Citizen Geographer’ mean?”, you ask yourselves. It is similar to the term “Citizen Scientist” only with an emphasis on spatial awareness. Citizen Science is the voluntary involvement of the public in gathering data for scientific research, and helps professionals solve real-world problems.
The picture below is of a Citizen Scientist paddling the estuaries around the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. While enjoying a day exploring a coastal paddle trail, this person is making observations and gathering data on the flora and fauna of the area to share with the scientific community. More data to analyze = better science.
The website citizenscience.org has a list of many projects that communities can get involved in. One suggests community members take snow depth measurements as they recreate in the winter. That data is analyzed and the results are shared back to the community.
You may also ask yourself, “Is it in my power to become a Citizen Geographer?” “What training would I need to become one?” Let’s first discuss the meaning of each term and how they might fit together.
Acitizen is a person who, by place of birth, nationality of one or both parents, or naturalization is granted full rights and responsibilities as a member of a nation or political community. Many people who are citizens are concerned mostly with their rights of citizenry. But, remember that the definition of a citizen refers to responsibilities as well as rights.
A geographer is “an expert in the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these”. The expert part comes slowly, but grows with the amount of study that you put in. By study, I mean just being aware of, and documenting your surroundings.
Geographers study the earth at many different scales: local, regional, and global. You might be a citizen of a country, state, city, or local community. Or, you might consider yourself to be a citizen of planet earth. All data is collected at the local level, but may be analyzed at any scale. You, dear reader, do not have to have a degree in Geography to make observations about the places that you live in or travel to. You just have to observe and document what you are experiencing through your five senses.
Another example of Citizen Science that would also be the work of a Citizen Geographer is the annual Christmas Bird Count by the Audubon Society. Each year, people count the location, number and species of birds observed. The count takes place between December 14 and January 5 annually.
Volunteers communicate their observations to the national organization. Geographers at the national organization then draw maps. Data is collected for each one of the circles in the map below. This information is used to protect birds and the places that they need to survive. Imagine if you were a neotropical migrant who nested in the Arctic in the summer and flew to Central America to winter over. Every location along your route is important to your survival. Using the citizen science and geography together can help in identifying where to allocate limited resources to meet challenges to habitat. We’ve noticed an inordinate number of Robins in Central Oregon this December, partly due to the warm weather. Loss of habitat from fires in other parts of the state this summer is also a factor.
A Citizen Geographer will do much more than participate in an annual event though. We need to better understand the communities that we live in, if we are to make improvements in them. And rather than just driving through, we need to walk and bike through our neighborhoods with our eyes and ears open. Take pictures. Make notes. Be sure to write down the date and time of your observations. By doing so, you will have a snapshot of what your community was like at a given time. The world around us is changing so rapidly. Many of us fall victim to the malady of “Landscape Amnesia”, which is forgetting what a place USED to look like. Comparing change over time in a location is a fundamental concept of the discipline of Geography. Geographers conceptualize space as the product of interrelations of humans with each other and the environments where they live. It is dynamic in nature and not static.
My own hometown of Bend, Oregon could be the “Poster Child” of cities going through rapid change. If we had an army of Citizen Geographers documenting this change over time, with better understanding of the issue we might be better able to deal with the impacts of rapid change in our community: increasing crime, homelessness, rising housing costs, overburdened infrastructure. And, we might have a reason to adequately fund our Geography departments so that we could have those folks to analyze and map the data.
Once you start documenting things in your neck of the woods, your skills as a geographer will grow and you will be able to “read” the landscape better. The last post in this series will be about “the Language of the LAND”. In it we will provide you with a few tips to understand more about what the landscape has to say to you.
Besides that last post in the series, we will resume posts on specific places in the coming year, including Arctic Canada, Mongolia, Estonia, and Namibia, among others….We hope to have you join us on one or more of those adventures.
Have a wonderful holiday season….whether that be Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Festivus.