Archive for April, 2011

I’ve been doing some very local geography lately. Partly just because I find my interests going that way and partly because I’m doing “research” for my “Total Geography” project. Of course doing hyper local micro-geography is nothing new, but it’s new to me. Today I was out with my i-phone, close to the building where I work, looking for the 53rd parallel. Yes, I know I could have looked it up on a map but that’s not the point. Yes I know that “real” geographers will tell me it’s sacrilege to use a phone for serious navigation, but this wasn’t all that serious. Part of the fun, in fact the whole point, was that this would be my 53-degrees north. I didn’t want to tame it and bag it and pin it down, I just wanted to go and find it, watch it for a bit, and then leave it alone. I know it’s already marked on the map so it’s not much of a discovery, but the one on the map isn’t mine, it’s the Ordnance Survey’s. I needed to find my own. Yes, the GPS found it for me really, but by combining the GPS and the map, and using a fairly dodgy GPS and a fairly small-scale map I kept any real certainty out of the picture and felt as if I was exploring for myself and discovering, over the space of a few minutes, an actual in-the-flesh example of an elusive geographical concept. A whole-number line stretching off around the world in both directions, separating everything to the north from everything to the south.  And so I sat for a while with my own little bit of the 53rd parallel. If I go and look for it in the same place tomorrow I hope it will have moved at least a little.  For a moment I considered (since it runs through the University Campus where I teach)  that I could mark it with some posts and a line carved in the ground, like the meridian at Greenwich or the equator at, well, at lots of places in fact. But then what would be the point of anyone trying to find it. Part of the fun of geography is exploration. At a global scale that is quite hard. But at a local scale it isn’t hard at all unless somebody has already labelled everything in big letters. Hence the growth in popularity of activities like geocaching, and the relevance of projects such as Mission Explore. For most of my professional life my Geography has either been at a grand scale (ice sheets, and epic landforms created in extreme environments) or has been couched within a framework of global systems. In a lot of “science” physical geography you can only get funding if you demonstrate that your project will address some global concern or relate to a massive international project concerning the history of the planet and the global impact of some hugely significant process . I don’t think I’ll get NERC funding to go and sit with the 53rd parallel for half an hour. But it’s Geography. And I enjoyed it a lot. If you have a little time to spare one afternoon you could do a lot worse than look at a map to find out what your nearest nice-sounding line of latitude or longitude is, then just go out and try to find it. Don’t disturb it. Just sit with it quietly for a while then leave it alone where nobody will pay it much attention. But next time you pass, you’ll know it’s around there somewhere. My 53-degrees North was on a stone bench at the end of the terrace walk overlooking the old walled garden at Keele. When I last saw it the line stretched off into the distance to the west across open country, and to the east it dived into dark woodland. Next week I might go and see if I can find 52-degrees and 59-minutes north.


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When I explain my approach to Geography I keep finding myself returning to a small set of quotations and examples that illustrate where I am coming from.

T.S.Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

from “Little Gidding”

I often say that this is the whole point of studying Geography. We explore, we learn about places, we discover new things about the world, we have experiences. And then we apply all of that experience to our own viewpoint, to what we see out of our own window. And by seeing our own place in the light of all these other things that we have discovered and explored, we can see it clearly, and know it properly, for the first time. How we understand the places with which we are familiar changes as we explore new places with which we can compare them.

But what does that exploration and discovery involve?

Marcel Proust wrote:

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe through the eyes of another, one hundred others – in seeing the hundred universes that each of them sees.

from “In Search of Lost Time”

The aim of Geography is to see more, and one way to see more is to see through different people’s eyes, to take on board their experiences, their attitudes, their viewpoints. Our aim as Geographers is to be able to see in the landscape the things that a variety of other different types of people see, and to absorb their perspectives into our own. Then, recalling Eliot, we can come back from all that exploring and better know our own place, and ourselves.

Rudyard Kipling wrote:

…what should they know of England who only England know?

from “The English Flag”

If we know only one thing, have only one opinion, see from only one point of view, how can we judge that? In class with my students I use a simple analogy to explain this point. I hold up my whiteboard marker pen: “Look at this fat pen. But how do I know to call it a fat pen if this is the only pen I’ve seen?” I take a regular biro from my pocket. “Ah, yes, that one was a fat pen.” Only when I have something to compare with can I make my evaluation. If I know only one thing, I can know nothing about it. What can I know of this pen, if this pen is the only pen I know?

So we can’t judge something without context; without comparison. We can’t evaluate our own view of the world without placing it in the context of other views. I can’t really know my own “place” until, with Eliot, I have explored others and returned. And, with Proust, my journey of discovery is an exploration not only of places, but of other points of view.

As a Geographer, then, as I set out to explore and discover (or, as we say nowadays, to “engage with”) the world around me, what is it exactly that I need to do? How do I do Total Geography? I’ll consider that in future “Total Geography” posts.

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Over the last few months I have been putting together some ideas about something that I have been calling, in my own mind, “Total Geography”.  It is an approach to Geography that I have been working on for a long time and I think it’s about time for it to start showing its face in public a little, if only informally,  before I throw it into the deep end of formal publication in a little while.

More than probably any other subject Geography is characterised, in fact nowadays it is actually defined, by its split personality. One of the first ideas with which 1st-year geography undergraduates have to grapple is the notion of Geography as a “plural and contested discipline”. Some students don’t even engage with “Geography” at all but slip at the start of their degrees into either a “Physical Geography” or a “Human Geography” route. These specialisms, and the sub-specialisms within them, are very important. I have spent decades describing myself as a Physical Geographer, a geomorphologist and a glaciologist. But for me it is beginning to seem, after nearly 40 years of consciously defining myself as a Geographer of one sort or another, that I am losing something important if I look at the world through a small fragment of the lens, rather than using the whole of the glass.  One of the strengths of the discipline is that it can take a wide view of the big picture, as well as focusing down on the little details when they become important. Increasingly I feel that it is the contextualising wide view that defines the spirit of Geography.

And so, over the last few years, I have started to look for ways of rediscovering this wide view. Geography is about engaging with the world around me; exploring details to understand aspects of the whole. But my training has led me slowly into deep lines of specialist exploration: trained me to drill into my view of the world like a microscope. I know an awful lot about a few grains of sand and a few ice crystals. There’s more to Geography than that. We need to remember to keep looking up and looking around. Essentially, what I have therefore been playing with, both in my own geographical practice (let’s not call it research) and in the work I have been doing with students (and let’s not call that teaching), is a way of seeing more when I look at the world. A way of taking a wider point of view as well as appreciating those important details.

“Total Geography” sounds a little grand, but it has stuck in my head so it is the term I will continue to use. I’ll elaborate upon it in future posts tagged with that label, and I will try to collate the posts on my website at http://www.petergknight.com/totalgeography

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I started a major new project this week: a new book called “Glacier” that has been commissioned by Reaktion Books. “Started” might not be quite the right word, as I put together the proposal last summer and signed the contracts over six months ago, but I like to start every big project with a period of doing nothing: just letting the task sit quietly at the back of my mind for a while. Settling in.

Looking at the proposal yesterday after a six-month cooling-off period it had become sufficiently distant and unfamiliar that I could see it as a new reader would see it. It was interesting how, after six months, new ideas and new connections jumped up at me crying out to be included in the plan. That’s what happens in the six months of doing nothing: everything that you do on other work gets subconsciously filtered, analysed and stored up ready to be released when the project is reawakened.

Some of the new ideas come from new things that I have discovered and explored in the intervening time. For example the proposal includes a short list of different ways of looking at glaciers: as part of a physical system; as an inspiration for artists and scientists; as a victim of human environmental impact; etc. Looking at that list today it seems obvious to me that I should have put it in the context of the “Beholding Eye” work of geographer D.W.Meinig, because over the last six months I have been learning about Meinig’s work, and each new thing we learn shuffles itself into a position in our grand view of everything. “Ah!” I say, “that needs to go in the book”. (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I have an entry about Meinig and “The Beholding Eye” here in my “Deep Geography” pages).

Other links and connections come not from things I’ve discovered, but from ideas I’ve been developing in parallel projects. I’m not sure if it shows clear-minded focus or narrow-minded shallowness on my part that as I brushed the dust off the Glacier proposal I realised that it fitted nicely into the framework of a “new” project that I’ve been starting to work on over the last couple of months. I had actually forgotten completely that I had included a whole chapter in the Glacier proposal called “Beyond Physical Geography”, which expands upon the idea that Physical Geography connects us to something beyond ourselves: “a way of seeing more, beyond the obvious, through the boundary between vision and imagination”. Although I had forgotten that section, and was mightily impressed yesterday with what I’d written about glaciers and unicorns (yes, really… you’ll need to read the book!), it illustrated again how leaving the project to rest for half a year allows ideas to come together. For the last few months I’ve been working on an idea that I call “Total Geography” about which  I’ll say more in a following post. I realised for the first time yesterday that my Total Geography project and my Beyond Physical Geography chapter were aspects of the same big idea.

And so clearly the time for doing nothing has run its natural course. Ideas have started to converge. I’ve cleared the decks of all distraction (for the first time ever, I think, I don’t have a single e-mail awaiting attention in my inbox right now).  It’s time to begin. Ironic, then, that instead of getting started I’m writing a blog post about getting started, and I have an appointment this week to meet with my co-author on another project to sign another book contract. Appropriately, that book is to be called “Big Ideas in Physical Geography”, and the meeting is to sign the contract, eat cake, and celebrate the start of doing nothing for a year on “Big Ideas” while I get started on “Glacier”. Here we go!

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