Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why I am a geographer

I don’t think anybody plans on being a geographer. When you’re a kid, you don’t go around saying “I want to be a geographer when I grow up, I can name the capitol cities of every country in the world.” Please, if you run into someone like that, don't let them call themselves a geographer; that's toponymy, not geography.

So, I wanted to be a biologist when I grew up. Specifically, a marine biologist. I had visions of swimming with dolphins and discovering how to communicate with them. In reality, my first job as a biologist was collecting mouse urine and analyzing it. My second one wasn’t much better: collecting gypsy moth caterpillars and dissecting their infected, decaying remains. I just couldn’t see doing stuff like this for the rest of my life.

Fortunately, during one of my biology classes, a professor had the good sense to mention a computer system called a “GIS” that was the latest technology for natural resource management and forestry and a host of other planning applications. I’d already decided at this point that I preferred working with computers than with microscopes, so I signed up for a GIS class to fill one of my last electives my senior year in college. I loved it. “GIS” stands for Geographic Information Systems, and in it’s most basic form it is making and manipulating computerized maps, but it is so much more than that, too – spatial modeling and analysis of everything from hydrological networks to wildlife habitat to finding the best locations for new Starbucks franchises.

So I asked my advisor, what do I need to do to get qualified for a job as a GIS analyst? Turns out (at least back then) it meant I would have to go back to school for a Master’s in Geography.
Geography? I groaned. Good grief. All I knew about geography was the agony of memorizing state capitols in fifth grade. But, I did like maps. (So did J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings. One of my favorite quotes is from him: “I wisely started with a map”.)

I’d just come back from a cross-country road trip with a college friend – we hit just about every National Park west of the Mississippi – and I’d had my nose stuck inside our road atlas for most of that 12,000 mile journey. I was experienced folding quite a few National Park trail maps, too. A nice bonus was when I discovered that one of the top Geography departments in the country was right in my backyard – at the State University of New York at Buffalo. So I signed up for a couple geography classes (without even applying for grad school, at that point).

I quickly discovered that I loved the interdisciplinary nature of geography. Why limit yourself to marine biology, when you can dabble in areas as diverse as wildlife management, sociology, climatology, and archaeology – all areas that I’ve used GIS as a framework for analysis.

To shamelessly quote from Wikipedia, geography is the study of the Earth and its lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena. A literal translation would be "to describe or write about the Earth". Modern geography is an all-encompassing discipline that foremost seeks to understand the Earth and all of its human and natural complexities-- not merely where objects are, but how they have changed and come to be. Geography has been called "the bridge between the human and physical sciences”. Geographers study the spatial temporal distribution of phenomena, processes and feature as well as the interaction of humans and their environment. As space and place affect a variety of topics such as economics, health, climate, plants and animals, geography is highly interdisciplinary.

A quote from William Hughes (1863): "...mere names of places...are not geography...knowing 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... of the natural and of the political 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 influences upon man. This is 'a description of the world'—that is Geography. In a word Geography is a Science—a thing not of mere names but of argument and reason, of cause and effect."

After almost 20 years now in this field, I can shamelessly admit to being a geography geek of the highest order. Framed historical maps adorn the walls of my house. I frequently consult my world atlas when I hear about new places on the news, or on nature shows - because I like to see where places are, and how they relate to other places. I've used my GIS software to map and analyze good trails for riding our horses in the National Forest behind our house. (By the way, GIS is NOT the same thing as GPS. GPS just collects raw data on locations. GIS is used to analyze GPS data).

No comments:

Post a Comment