What Geography is to Me
by Casey D. Allen, PhD
Add some travel, a pinch of my teaching philosophy, and a smidgen of important historical figures, and you get...
My Belief of Geography
“Mere place names are not geography. To know by heart a whole gazetteer full of them would not, in itself, constitute anyone a geographer. Geography has higher aims than this: it seeks to classify phenomena (alike of the natural and of the political world insofar as it treats of the latter) to compare, to generalize, to ascend from effects to causes and in doing so to trace out the great laws of nature and to mark their influence upon man. In a word, geography is a science, a thing not of mere names, but of argument and reason, of cause and effect” (William Hughes in his 1863 address to students at King’s College, London).
For much of my life I’ve been a Geographer, although it took until my third year in university to discover the fact. I guess I should have realized it in third grade when I bought my first book, Fabulous Facts about the 50 States, but because the book was mainly states and capitals interspersed with trivia, I never did. That book, however, started my quest for knowledge, causing me to create a checklist of every book in our elementary school library, ticking each one off the list as I read it, finishing “The Mystery of the Missing Mermaid” (a Three Investigators book) – the last book on my checklist – in fifth grade, just before moving on to middle school. I was a big fan of The Mad Scientist Club and Three Investigators series when I was in elementary school. Consequently, after that and until my second year in college, I only read reference/non-fiction publications – dictionaries, encyclopedias, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, National Geographic, etc. – which kept my brain going and set the stage for what was coming...
I believe exploration remains an important part of geography, and throughout the years I have been fortunate to explore extensively for both personal and educational purposes – formally and informally, in groups and solo. These endeavors, along with my education, have trained me (in sometimes serendipitous ways) to be a keen observer of the world’s landscapes, places, and life – in short, what I call a “Traditional” or “Romantic” Geographer. As an example, a great Traditional Geographer is Alexander von Humboldt, the great polymath, who actually trained as a Geographer in one of the first formal schools of geography.
Traditional/Romantic Geographers view all things as having space and place (spatiality), and by etymology, “describe the earth”. Their method rests in how they describe it: i.e., which tools are used to describe, synthesize, and/or analyze spatiality (e.g., landforms, climate, vegetation, relief, language, migration, politics, fashion, etc., or a combination). Geography, taken in this vein allows me to study a myriad of Earth-related phenomena.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, a Geographer in his own right, said, “I treat [Geography] not with the completeness and philosophical exactitude in each part, which is a matter for physics and natural history, but with the rational curiosity of a traveler who collates his collection of observations, and reflects on its design.” A couple of centuries later, Abler, et al. (1992) noted that the “typical geographic exercise,” or field trip, is where Geographers can thrive. And one of the greatest minds, Yi-Fu Tuan (2013), noted that the Romantic Geographer of yore was an explorer who often crossed vast distances to explore a landscape. All three descriptions share “the field”, as in fieldwork. And, like so many Romantic Geographers in the past, I too love “the field”. Fieldwork remains paramount to traditional geography. Indeed, how can you describe anything without experiencing it? I share sentiments with Hart (1982) of getting lost wherever I am – wandering through fields, finding the ultimate vantage point from which to view a landscape – and find great joy travelling and exploring, wandering and wondering, observing and reflecting.
As I continue to travel and explore the world, bringing it into the classroom and making it come alive for people, I become even more convinced that exploration remains necessary for our continued survival as a species. Through experience in the field, collating observations and reflecting on them, the world becomes a wide-open learning space. And understanding and appreciating what we see can help us better understand our world and help us prepare for the future. Many times I have seen exploration transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, expose people to things beyond the “four walls” of formal education, and foster a powerful growth in the understanding of landscapes, places, and people. That remains geography’s crux after all – traditional, romantic, or otherwise: understanding the world.
And everyone uses Geography everyday: whether we look out our window, surf the internet, round-up cattle on the range, or order a pizza. An intriguing element of Geography is that we seldom realize its principles constantly surround us. As a discipline it is, due to spatialness (i.e., space and place), omnipresent. Your house is spatially arranged: that’s Geography. You move that dying plant closer to the window so it can get more sunlight and (hopefully) continue to grow: that’s Geography. Even the simplest of tasks, say, tying your shoe, is Geography. Geography is all around us. It encompasses us. And whether we realize it or not, it is us.
References for further reading:
Hart, J.F., 1982. The Highest Form of the Geographer’s Art. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 72(1): 1-29.
Abler, R., Marcus, M.G. and Olson, J.M., 1992. Geography's Inner Worlds: Pervasive Themes in Contemporary American Geography. Rutgers University Press.
Tuan, Y.F., 2013. Romantic Geography: in Search of the Sublime Landscape. University of Wisconsin Press.