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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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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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This week I am putting together a new introductory lecture on Glacial Geomorphology for my re-organised Glaciers module. What might one say right at the start of a series of lectures on glacial geomorphology? I thought I might say something like this:

For many of us one big reason for getting interested in Physical Geography has been an interest in the physical environment around us. Our most immediate and direct contact with the rest of the universe is through the small part of it that we can see and touch and walk around.  We can experience and witness the wonders of the universe, at least in a small way, through the wonders of our own planet.

The world is an amazing place, and many of us became geographers because we wanted to experience, know about, and work in the world’s great landscapes: mountains, deserts, volcanoes, glaciers… There are many elements to a landscape, from the underlying rocks to the plants that grow on them and the structures that people build, but if we strip away everything that is superficial the underlying framework of a landscape is its topography, its shape, its morphology. That is one reason why many people put geomorphology at the heart of Physical Geography.

One of the reasons that some of us have been drawn especially to the geomorphology of harsh wilderness environments such as deserts, high mountains and glacial areas is that in these environments the superficial elements are swept away. Vegetation is limited. Human structures are few. The basics of the landscape, its bones, are clearly exposed. The underlying framework becomes prominent in these environments.

Image

Glacial landscape in West Greenland

The most valuable experience in my professional life has been to spend extended periods of time in these remote places. It has been worthwhile not only for their intrinsic interest but also because having seen landscapes with the superficial elements removed now allows me to recognise the same basic structural elements when I see them in other environments where they are largely obscured by superficial clutter. It’s easy to be amazed and say “wow” at a huge meltwater channel cutting through the frozen tundra, but very difficult even to recognise that spectacular channel when it is covered in woodland and urban development where it cuts through Stoke-on-Trent.

So the first great joy of glacial geomorphology is the opportunity to see geomorphology with a special clarity in modern glacial environments where processes and landforms are very prominent in the landscape. The second great joy of glacial geomorphology is being able to transfer the clarity of vision gained in  modern glacial environments to the study of ancient glacial environments such as those in the UK where the evidence is often less prominent.

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I have been working with an artist. She describes her work as being the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing. The paying heed of things overlooked. Exploring contemporary notions of where “wilderness” might now reside when the last bit of the world has been mapped, she has put together, amongst other things, a carefully curated collection of lost buttons, found on the street, the location and date of the discovery of each one carefully recorded. We are looking at the small moments that make up landscapes. Trying to help people to notice. To see more. For me, as a teacher, that is the coal face of my work.

Link: Miriam Burke’s website

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