by Meaghen Brown
Ok, here’s a question: what exactly is Geography?
I’m sure you probably studied some version of it in primary school; memorized names on a map, and maybe, if you were lucky, learned how a compass works. Some of you might have even thought I was asking about Geology, but no. That’s rocks. I’m talking about Geography which Webster’s somewhat ambiguously defines as, “a science that deals with the description, distribution, and interaction of the diverse physical, biological, and cultural features of the earth’s surface,” and the Greeks called γεωγραφία. But Geography isn’t really a science, or an art, or even quite a subject, so much as a way of telling the story of a place. Michael Ondaatje once wrote that, “We die, containing the richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” He goes on, wishing for these things to be marked on his body when he is gone. Believing in such cartography- marked by nature, not just labeled on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings, but as “communal histories and communal books. Not owned or monogamous in our taste and experience.” This definition understands Geography as a discipline of questions and answers and meditations and nostalgia. It seeks to explain why we fight, and fall in love, and look for oil in the grasslands of the midwest, and why we build cities next to oceans. This Geography knows why spiders were the first species to return to Krakataua, and why the smell of baking bread reminds us of home, and why some people will never leave New York. John Steinbeck knew this. Steinbeck, who spoke of Monterey’s Cannery Row as “a poem, stink, a grating noise, a quality of light…” So did John McPhee, when he wrote in Annals of a Former World, “When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” And Here is New York, that timeless ode to the streets of Manhattan by the perspicacious E.B. White? “It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so no matter where you sit in New York, you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.” That too is Geography. There are geographies of emotion, and geographies of people, and geographies of time. But in the end, everything comes back to a point on a map.
Because that’s what it means, after all. “Geo—graphy” - Writing the earth. The story of place.
Welcome to your first lesson.