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How about this for an idea? I’ve written previously about “blackout poetry”, inspired by the work of Austin Kleon. (Here’s that previous post)  The idea is that you make a poem by blacking out most of the words on a printed page of a newspaper, leaving just a few words behind. Previously, I tried it with the first page of a Geography text-book as a way of teaching. Now I’ve had an idea… rather than just doing odd pages, how about doing a whole book? Blackout Kerouac. Blackout Hemingway. I could do a separate little poem for each page of the book, or perhaps they could be tied together into a blackout poetry epic stretching through page after page. As with my idea for using blackouts to help students find deeper meanings in text-book pages, I could make the blackouts into a book-within-a-book, telling a deeper story, or a counterpoint story to the one originally printed. So… what book to use as a starting point? I’m thinking something from classic literature like Moby Dick or Anna Karenina. But, then, that would be a mammoth task. Perhaps I want something smaller. Heart of Darkness? Death in Venice? Yes, there’s an idea. Watch this space but, as ever, don’t hold your breath.

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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.

I have been working on ideas for some exhibitions focusing around the idea of collecting things that are not quite present. The first exhibition started life under the title “Spaces” and was intended to be a collection of scenes captured at the moment when the important subject had just moved away. Rooms photographed just after the person in whom the photographer was interested had left. Branches just after the bird that a photographer had been stalking has flown out of frame. Moments just after the important moment, which are then redefined to become important themselves. These are the moments immediately after most people have looked away. These are the points where the period of noticing has just ended, and a different period is just beginning. With practice, we can extend our period of noticing and learn to capture these moments. Otherwise they may as well never have existed. We can learn to be not only in the moment, but in the moment after. We can learn to keep noticing.

As that idea evolved it became clear that what I was trying to capture were not just spaces, but moments, and so the working title for that first exhibition became “The moment after”. It was important that these were not images simply of things left behind. I did not want the detritus after the flood, or the circle on the grass after the circus. I was not looking for after-effects, or signs, or evidence. I was looking specifically for absence, rather than for any indication of former presence. Without an accompanying caption or story it would not be apparent what had just been missed, but once the absence was known, the moment after would acquire some significance.

As the idea of “The moment after” moved forward I found myself struggling to capture the notion that these were moments other than, but close to, the important moment. There was always the trap, the danger, of capturing the moment itself, or some shadow of it, rather than the blankness of the moment after. The moments I wanted were obviously not “the President making a speech”; they were not even “the room where the President had made the speech”. Also I didn’t want simply to capture a relic such as “the podium at which the President had stood”. What I wanted was specifically a moment when the president was not there; the speech was no longer being made; nobody was paying attention. These were moments that had escaped and may almost as well never have occurred. They were moments that did not matter other than in that they were adjacent to moments which had. And that idea of adjacency drew my back to my geographical roots, setting me on the path to a new idea: the idea of locations adjacent to, but absolutely other than, important or well-known locations. Here would be an image not of the room where a famous event had occurred, but a room in a building across the street. A room in the unremarkable apartment upstairs from the famous apartment where the event had occurred. These were peripheral locations. Locations to which everybody had their backs turned at the important moment. These locations were simply nearby, which gave me the title for the exhibition: “Nearby”.

“The moment after” and “Nearby” drew attention to moments and places that were close to, but other than, the moments and places that everybody noticed. In trying to identify items for inclusion in those collections I found myself discounting and discarding objects that were neither moments nor locations but nevertheless fell into that same category of “nearly but not quite the thing to which everybody would pay attention”. Hence the origin of my third exhibition: an exhibition of objects that were nearly, but not quite. I would include, for example, a sheet of parchment from the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci. But it would be a blank sheet that he had never used. Had he done so, it could have been as famous as any work of art, and perhaps the sheet that was above it in the pile in the studio is now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. But this sheet is one on which Da Vinci never drew. And here is a roll of unexposed film found amongst the effects of a famous photographer: had he lived longer, this would have been the roll he used next. Here is a type writer that Hemingway did not use, but would have done if things had been different that year. Here is the car that James Dean did not drive. Here is a piece of fabric from one of the flags that they did not raise that day on Iwo Jima. The title of this third exhibition: “Almost”.

Nowadays, everyone is a curator. I shall curate these moments, places and objects that are not quite. But they may be hard to find. They may be difficult to notice.

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.

As is true for most people, I suspect, whether they realise it or not, my understanding of most things is pretty hazy. Most technical terms seem to be in one way or another controversial or uncertain. People use the same term in different ways, for different things. And even when you find a term with which you are comfortable, or a concept in which you are confident, that confidence is shaken when somebody declares, with even greater confidence than your own, that most people (probably, you infer, including yourself) have a completely misjudged understanding of what is, they claim, a much more complex idea than most people realise. Entropy is one of those terms. In the old days when I used occasionally to look up its meaning or have conversations about it with colleagues, students or friends (as one did in those days), it was rare indeed for the conversation to pass or for the source to be consulted without there being some reference to the fact that most people got the wrong end of the stick when trying to talk about entropy. Such terms then take on a permanent shimmer of incertitude. Rather like the word “incertitude” one uses the notion of entropy with a deep and unshakable feeling that you may well be using it incorrectly. It is with that feeling, therefore, that I tell myself today how much my blogs, tweets, web pages, facebook groups, Virtual Learning Environment sections and other online presences are tending towards… I hesitate to say it… entropy. After a certain point, unless there was a clear design underpinning the original conception, the management of an expanding web empire becomes a battle to retrieve lost structure or instil some form of order into an increasingly disordered mass. Perhaps if left to its own devices the mass would mutate into some naturally ordered form, like a crystal emerging from a liquid. In my case I see no sign of that. And so I am getting out the shears and having another prune, another hack, and lopping off more or less random extensions of the crumbling, rotting empire. I am turning loose to the barbarians, releasing to the sea, leaving behind in the desert, and allowing to dissolve into the ether a whole wing, a whole battalion, a whole region of the empire. Letting the jungle burst back up through the concrete. Letting the termites do their thing. If ever you knew that there was such a thing as physicalgeography.org.uk that knowledge is redundant now. It’s gone. It’s toast. It’s history. Or, at least it will be soon. Dead domain walking…  For a few minutes my world will feel just a little more simple and a little less disordered.

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.

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.”