A letter to my Physical Geography Students

It is nearly summer and the academic year and the term are almost over. It has been a tough year on all of us due to Covid. You all persevered and weathered the storm of coming to class, wearing masks, and social distancing, while working and studying. Although the focus of our class was to study landforms, much of what we learned can be applied as life lessons we can use everyday. This also may be the last time I teach this particular class, as I transition into semi-retirement. Our lives will bifurcate after this week, so I wanted to take this one last opportunity to share something important with you all. Here are some parting words of wisdom for each of you.

After your academic career is over, you will be going out into the world, the same world that we studied about landforms. In your life you will encounter obstacles that you will have to climb. Some of them might seem like the Himalayas to you. Others might seem less imposing, like the foothills of the Appalachians.

some obstacles seem really big

Sometimes, you will make it to the top of the mountain. If so, then congratulations! Enjoy the view if you are fortunate enough to make it there. Don’t get too cocky when you do get up there, for we are not meant to live there, but to use that experience to help us after we come back down and live among the people in the rest of the world. And yes, there is always another mountain to climb! But realize, that life is a journey and you might not make it to the top on your first attempt. That’s okay….just keep on trying!

Can you picture yourself here yet?

Like all of the rest of us, you will be facing many pressures in life. These come at you from all sides. Like metamorphic rock, these pressures may change you a little. But how you react to these pressures make all the difference. Remember, diamonds are made under pressure!

Diamonds are made under pressure!

People, like rocks, can react to the same pressures in different ways. Sometimes the pressure breaks the rocks apart. Sometimes they just fold a little. Learn to bend, but not break, like the folded rocks of the Appalachian Mountain ranges.

Whenever you get frustrated, angry and hot from all of the pressures in life, make sure to try and stay cool. Don’t blow your top like a composite volcano. It won’t solve the problem and will probably only tick off the people around you! Don’t shower others with your pyroclastics!

Try your best to stay out of really hot water. It might look pretty or even inviting at first, but it can scald you!

Make good decisions…avoid the real hot water!

Who you choose to surround yourself with will have a big effect on the choices that you make in life. Try to avoid tectonic relationships. Choose partners and friends wisely!

Pick someone who will be moving in the same direction that you are!

Remember that most Earth processes are slow processes. We studied the principle of uniformitarianism and learned that the present is the key to the past. Well, it is also the key to your future! Economic stability and social stability are processes that we all have to keep working towards the goal of every day. Live each day in the present while still keeping one eye on the future! Given enough time and all of us working together, it is achievable, albeit not overnight. Be in it for the long run!

Be like soil. Remember the formula of CL,O,R,P,T (Climate, Organic Material, Relief, Parent Material, and Time). Study the climate of the people around you (family, workplace, community, country, region) to determine what type of weathering you will experience. Make sure you get enough nutrients for both your body and soul to make a productive soil (Organics). Work on what type of parent material you would like to be made of. And give enough time for the soil to form…it is a slow process. Finally, remember that good soil is there to grow things to help not only yourself, but to benefit others too. Try to shoot for being a loam, a good mixture of both porosity and permeability. Hold onto just enough water to meet your needs, but let some of it infiltrate into deeper parts of the soil, so that you don’t end up being waterlogged.

While soil formation takes a long time, be on the watch for creep; that imperceptible slow deformation of soil, due to gravity and water logged clay. Overwork and not paying enough attention to the little things in life might end up taking a toll on you. We tend to protect against big events like landslides, but creep is the most costly and destructive of all mass wasting events. It’s something you don’t usually notice, until it’s too late. Take inventory on yourself often!

Remember the power of running water. Running water does three important things in landscape development. It erodes, transports sediment, and deposits sediment. Water is one of the most powerful forces in landscape development, yet it does this all without being haughty. Water seeks its lowest level. It gives life to everything along its route, and the silt that it deposits at the mouths of rivers are fertile areas for other humans to grow crops. Be like a river and seek out the low places. Those are the places that need your water! By doing so, you will not only bring life to those you come in contact with, but you will also slowly shape the world that you live in!

Rivers can also move laterally in response to changes in flow and sediment load. Be sure not to be too rigid, but shift in response to changes in your life’s load and flow. And if it leaves you with a small meander scar, remember that in time, that will fill in too….

Meander scrolls on a Midwest sinuous river

Be observant! When you see something that seems like it really doesn’t belong, it may not be a function of nature. Maybe mankind put it there!

What’s a rounded river gravel doing in a glacial landscape? Well, I put it there!

Like walking on glaciers, sometimes you will come to a crevasse. If it is too big to jump over, then just find a way around it. Sometimes the best route in life doesn’t take a straight line.

Just find a route around this!

And, if the crevasse is not that wide, then just jump over it…even if it is a little scary to do so.

Sometimes you have to take a small leap of faith

Remember the Equilibrium Theory which states that the shape of landforms remains static if the uplift is equal to the erosion. With that in mind, be like the Torres del Paine in Southern Chile. When life erodes you at the top, keep pushing upward to maintain the shape of who you are.

Torres del Paine, Southern Chile

Finally, remember some of Stan Schumm’s seven reasons for geologic uncertainty (Scale, Location, Convergence, Divergence, Singularity, Sensitivity, and Complexity. When something happens (either good or bad) in your life, remember to look at it at different time scales. A bad day seems more horrible when only looking at just that one day, but doesn’t seem so bad when you look at that same ONE day in the context of your whole life (Scale). Don’t be too quick to judge a landform (or other people) too quickly. Although they might have similarities with a group, people, like landforms are individuals too (concept of Singularity).

Be kind to others. What might seem like a small slight to you, could end up being something much larger to someone else. People, like landforms, have different sensitivities to stress. And, also like landforms, the study of people can be complex.

One last bit of advice. Keep studying Geography. The amount of stresses that a landform experiences is often a function of its location, whether that is in the headwaters of a drainage system or near the base level of a stream. Be mindful of the stresses that different peoples are experiencing due to their geographic location or zip code. Lots have folks have much greater challenges than you do, through no fault of their own!

Keep learning and growing! Thank you all for taking this class and I hope you can build on these concepts that you learned to become all you are capable of being. And best wishes in the future!


If anyone who reads this knows of someone who teaches or is a student in either Geography, Geology, or Earth Science, please feel free to pass this along to them!

8 thoughts on “A letter to my Physical Geography Students

    1. I would have commented on the Plains, but you should know that I’m afraid of WIDTHS! Have you read the book about the Children’s blizzard? It was about a deadly storm on the Great Plains in the 1880s…lots of life lessons about the Plains and also a good read.


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