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I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.

Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus.  Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”.  “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific.  I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?

While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”

One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.

For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.

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If you exceed the word limit…

If the dissertation handbook says “write no more than 11,000 words and provide a word count” and you put “word count 11,673” on your submission, you should not only fail your dissertation but fail your entire degree, and all your work should be publicly burned. That is, of course, my personal opinion and not that of my employer.

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Alain de Botton recently published a list of “ten commandments for atheists”, and I thought it might be fun to try and think what the ten commandments for Geographers might be! It might also make a good teaching exercise, getting students to come up with their own versions of such a list. Here’s a first attempt from me:

Ten Commandments for Geographers

1. Thou shalt be curious about the world around you.

2. Thou shalt make detailed, accurate and thoughtful observations of the world.

3. Thou shalt communicate effectively the observations that you make and the implications thereof.

4. Thou shalt strive always to see the big picture as well as the fine detail.

5. Thou shalt explore.

Phew… that’s enough for now. I’ll try to think of 5 more for a for a follow-up post. Suggestions please! You could always give these first five to your students and let them come up with the rest.

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Haiku, again

Starting another round of trying to get students to try writing Haiku as a way of honing their observation and reporting skills, I looked back here to see whether I had said anything about this exercise previously. The entries are quite well hidden, so I thought I’d re-post some of the text here so it would be together in one place… in case any of the students seek it out!

“One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.”

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I tell my students that Geography is all around them, even in the small everyday places that we take for granted. “The truths,” I say “are not out there, they are in here with us; quietly behind that upturned box or in between our tea time and our evening walk.”

Some of the time I believe what I say. I believe that we can find Geography even in the small places. But sometimes I think: no, that’s just not right.  Geography is in the mountains and the oceans, in the desert and the sky. Geography is in the hearts of explorers and in our stories of far-flung islands. Geography is the giant constellation in which we are the tiny points of light.

But just as when our fathers taught us that there are three ways to melt ice, although we know now that they were wrong, when our time comes to teach our sons and daughters we teach them the same three ways.

We tell them what we must. There is no point in teaching them our truths. They have to learn their own.

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This week I have been putting together material for a book chapter about glaciers in literature, film and music. I was looking for an example to start the chapter to show how glaciers are often used as metaphors in art. I went with this one.

Ned Selfe is a musician who grew up in the deep south of the USA and is now based in Hawaii. His main instrument is the Steel Guitar. In 1995, when he produced his first album, he chose the title “Glaciers Come, Glaciers Go”. It didn’t seem an obvious choice of title for a rock-jazz new age album by a Hawaii-Southerner with tracks called Castaway, Wavelength and Ocean Avenue, so I wrote to ask him why. He explained that he wanted an image that would allude to the transitory nature of human consciousness: we all tend to inflate our current problem or obsession into a giant megalith that seems forever unchanging and all consuming, when in fact it will soon melt and fade into the next thing that will occupy our thoughts.

Selfe told me that the idea of using the glacier for that metaphor came from  his reading of M. Scott Peck’s book “The Road Less Travelled”. Writing about how we choose a map for our life, Peck wrote: “… the biggest problem of map-making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate we have to continually revise them.  The world itself is constantly changing.  Glaciers come, glaciers go.  Cultures come, cultures go.  …the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing… we must continually revise our maps.”

You can say a lot using glaciers as a metaphor. Even if you say it from Hawaii with a steel guitar.

In 2000 the film maker Ruth Meyer made a short dance film “Breath Crystal” in memory of her grandparents who died in Auschwitz. It was a choreographic interpretation of the Paul Celan poem “Weggebeist” from Celan’s volume of poetry Atemkristall (Breathcrystal) written in commemoration of the victims of the holocaust. The film’s message about our fragility and yet our ability to overcome is delivered through a dancer’s journey across the ice of the Turtmann Glacier, Switzerland, and the glass objects that he encounters while Celan’s voice intones the lines of the poem over the soundtrack.

People have used glaciers to say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways.

 

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One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.

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