A Pandemic, A Geographer, and a Chestnut Tree

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.

American Chestnut Tree (photo:Asheville Citizen-Times)

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.

Roasted Chestnuts (photo:nuts.com)

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.

number of college majors in Academic disciplines in the U.S. (source:AAG)

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.

Earth from space, artwork. View of the Earth centred on 105 degrees East, showing the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula (far left), Asia (centre), Russia (upper centre) and Australia (lower right). North is at top and clouds are white. (picture” SceincePhotolibrary)

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!

6 thoughts on “A Pandemic, A Geographer, and a Chestnut Tree

  1. Retail workers have learned about geography during covid with all the supply chain issues, as have some affected consumers. Our institutions of higher education know how inter-related our world is and should focus on what is IMPORTANT to teach rather than what draws the most money.


    1. Agreed. While I can appreciate that they need to make money, my own institution did not replace my position and they have ONE part time person who teaches only what the institution deems as “profitable”. The graph on the post that showed the growth in cognate subjects have many classes that could be taught by a Geographer. Unfortunately, short sightedness in Academics can be as harmful as short sightedness in the business world.
      Maybe I should have you talk to them?


  2. I really thought there would be a greater appreciation for Geography as technology and things like Google Maps became more common in our everyday lives. Instead I think people have lost sight of how amazing those tools are for everyday people. Even on a small level, the reliance of people using their GPS kind of did the reverse and I think has made people just assume the tech will work without understanding their actual surroundings.
    It would be interesting to know if Geography is more valued in other parts of the world.


    1. Yes, it is! A good comparison is with Geography programs in the United Kingdom, which has robust enrollments and lots of Geography majors.Now, to answer your question, I will check on programs in other parts of the world.


  3. Well said, as you know I am a small town girl but worked hard to give my children a global perspective. We had 2 Brazilian exchange students and a German one who was with us a lot. I had 2 children study aboard and my daughter developed her own exchange program at Ga. Southern and gave seminars at school on how to make it work. Both of these guys were offered their first jobs because of their international experience. Academics need to know how important a global perspective is in the current job market.


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