The Language of the LAND

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.


Reflection of Mt. St. Elias in Icy Bay, AK

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.

Camp at McBride Glacier, Alaska in 1987

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!

Dendritic drainage pattern

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?

The Grand Canyon of the Chattahoochee

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 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 Registan- Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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.”

Map of the Timurid Empire

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.


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.

paddling through the canopy of a bull kelp forest in SE Alaska

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.

A bull kelp forest (photo: NPS)

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.


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.

Language branches of the Indo-European family

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).

The LANDS where English is used

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.


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!


4 thoughts on “The Language of the LAND

  1. Informative. I was most intrigued by Timur’s comment about the size of buildings reflecting the level of power. Are ideas equating physical size of some elements of the objective world (ie buildings, cars, boats, etc) with dominance universal? If so, we’ll need to consult Chomsky, a linguist, or biological anthropologists to get at why?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been waiting until I had proper time to read this one and I am so glad it did. Fantastic read as always! This all makes me wonder how much healthier our society would be if we were all Citizen Geographers. I feel it makes for a much better perspectives of the planet and its inhabitants.


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