Some geographers love to learn about places by following transects. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I would sometimes go start at the Inner Harbor and follow any major street, a couple dozen of which radiate from that central location, through the city, to the suburbs, and beyond. It was the start of a habit that I have continued, most recently by eschewing the high speed of the New York State Thruway in favor of the U.S. 20 on a drive from Bridgewater to Albany, a brief transect that I would love to extend in both directions. When we followed this short transect in July, Newport, Oregon was a couple thousand miles to our backs. When we got off Route 20 in Albany in favor of a faster route home, Boston was still a couple hundred miles ahead.
Author William Least Heat-Moon describes an unusual transect from New York City to Astoria, Washington in his book River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America. In it, he describes what seems at first an impossible transect — crossing the United States on fresh water in a 22-foot boat. Better known for his book Blue Highways, in River Horse he finds a way of crossing the country that avoids not only the major highways, but the minor ones as well. Most houses and businesses face a road, with a “front” maintained for visitors and passersby to see. By crossing the country on rivers and canals, Heat-Moon experiences the cultural landscape from behind the usual lines.
It is, of course, not physically possible to cross the United States entirely on fresh water, as several drainage divides must be crossed. Heat-Moon minimized the inevitable portages by carefully mapping his route, by having friends occasionally swap a canoe for the main expedition craft, and by pushing each boat to the limits of its hull draft.
My wife Pamela (librarian, blogger, and honorary geographer) and I are planning a major transect of our own, assuming that the passenger automobile is still in use when we near retirement. To celebrate our 66th year, we are going to make a transect “from Chicago to L.A., more than two thousand miles all the way. ” That is, we are planning a transect along the old Route 66, which predates the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System by a generation. In many places, the original roadbed has been obliterated by the new system, but in others, it runs parallel — or it runs into the trees and fields. In many cases, travel facilities or entire small towns that served the original highway passengers have been abandoned.
I was put in mind of these various transects when I heard recently about a most unusual transect that geologist Robert Thorson and his wife Kristine followed in the summer of 2009. The transect is unusual in that they proceeded in an orderly fashion from east to west, but rather than following lines or curves, they followed a discontinuous collection of points on the landscape: the kettle ponds left by the receding ice of the Pleistocene glaciations. Their journey is documented in his book Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds and on his blog, Walden to Wobegon. The blog title refers to two kettle ponds made famous by literature: Thoreua’s very real Walden Pond and Garrison Keilor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. I learned about both the book and the blog from Robin Young’s delightful interview with Professor Thorson on WBUR’s Here and Now radio program.
Thorson provides insights regarding limnology, the ponds and lakes themselves, and the history of recreation on fresh water. In moving across the inverted archipelago at the southern fringes of continental glaciation, however, he also tells tales of the land and the people in the vast spaces between those most intriguing bodies of water.
A final example of a transect comes from WBUR, one of several public radio stations in Boston, Massachusetts. Traveling west from Boston along Route 9, WBUR produced programs in each of five cities and towns over the course of a week. On topics ranging from immigration to higher-education funding and arts-centered economic development, the series — aired as Finding a Way Along Route 9 — provides an excellent sampling of the current state of the economy and society in Massachusetts. Although the series does not cover the entire state, it makes a conscious effort to overcome a pervasive tendency to associate Boston — the primate city of Massachusetts — with the state as a whole.
Discussion / Activity
1. What are some examples of transects you have read about or encountered in radio, film, or other media? What did the traveler or travelers involved learn from their experience?
2. What is a transect that you could take in a single day, close to home, in order to learn something about your region? What mode of transportation would you choose, and what are its advantages and limitations? How would you record your learning along this transect? (This question can be treated either as a thought experiment or as an actual class assignment, in which each student plans a transect, follows it, and reports back. A group of students could be sent on transects that cover different “slices” of the same region.)
3. What is a transect that you would like to follow elsewhere in the world, if time and money were unlimited? What would you expect to learn?
This year, my family has been recognizing the anniversary of each state’s admission to the United States in a project known as Celebrating the States. For each state, our celebration includes watching one film that relates to the state. Of course, thousands of films have been produced in California, so we chose a title that tells a particular story about California. Given our great interest in the geography of food, we selected an independent, documentary film called The Garden.
The film describes a community garden that was located on 14 acres occupying two city blocks to the north of 41st Street, between Long Beach Avenue and Alameda Street, in an area of South Los Angeles known as South Central LA. The farm was funded by the city of Los Angeles as part of a multi-faceted approach to healing the city after the deadly 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The garden became the largest community garden in the United States — part of a continent-wide movement that encourages members of a community to grow some of their food on shared land. Connecting people to the land helped connect them to each other.
The film describes how the garden came to be destroyed, despite its many benefits to to the South Central community. The land on which the garden was created had been purchased by the city using imminent domain, which is a legal method of forcing the sale of property at a current fair-market price to a government for a public purpose. In this case, the man who originally sold the land to the City of Los Angeles was able to purchase it back, years later, for the same price. Once he did that, he exerted his private property rights over the land, including the right to evict the gardeners.
In the end, the garden was defeated, but not the gardeners. The landowner demanded millions of dollars to avoid the eviction, but demolished the garden even after they raised the full amount from foundations and other donors. The South Central Farmers continue to farm, on a more extensive piece of land in California’s Central Valley, and to truck the produce into the city. The new location is a better fit with the neoclassic von Thünen model, which posits that vegetable crops will be found at a modest distance from an urban place, rather than in the city itself.
This film relates in several ways to No Impact Man, a film about which I blogged in connection with our New York commemoration. As Colin Beavin and his family showed in that film, growing food close to urban populations can greatly reduce the human impact on environmental systems, as the distance food has to travel can be greatly reduced.
Another story of a garden in peril is that of the historic research garden of the Valivov Institute of Plant Industry, however, where the ultimate fate of the garden is not yet known. As with the South Central Farmers garden, this very special garden is threatened by real estate development, in this case residential development associated with suburban sprawl in its suburban location south of St. Petersburg.
As with South Central, the Valivov garden has became a cause célèbre, drawing supporters from throughout the world. The garden is considered a critical reserve of the internal biodiversity of several crop and botanical plants. The site itself is of interest for historic reasons as well, because of the extremes to which scientists at the time went to protect rare food strains during the siege of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then known) during World War II. Then as now, scientists protecting this garden understood the importance of genetic diversity within food crops as a necessary component of food security. Modern agriculture has dramatically reduced genetic variability within crops; ironically, perhaps, modern crop science requires access to genetic stocks that offer a great deal of variety. The scientists in St. Petersburg also understand that subtle differences in soil chemistry and soil organisms are important, so that transplanting the cultivars to another location would not fully preserve the biodiversity that has been developed at the site.
In both the Los Angeles and St. Petersburg cases, the gardens were under threat because proximity to urban places resulted in land values that are quite high, relative to the value ascribed to their use as gardens. The tendency of land values to increase with greater proximity to urban areas is known as a rent cone. The conversion of farmland to commercial, industrial, or residential use is — to a great degree — influenced by the expansion of rent cones, which set price expectations (otherwise known as land rent) that are difficult to meet with agricultural land uses. And as von Thünen would have predicted, even with government or charitable subsidies, only the highest-value, intensive agricultural activities are likely to persist close to cities. Extensive uses such as grain or grazing would simply be out of the question, as they yield very low land rents per unit of land.
Discussion questions for viewers of The Garden:
Aside from the provision of food, what benefits were provided by the South Central community garden?
How do the relationships between public and private spaces change over the course of this film?
Are you aware of any community gardens in your city or region? If so, how do they compare with the community garden in the film?
For the student of Geography music and movies are often times the most economical and efficient way to see examples of the concepts, places, regions, and environments they are studying. Recent posts have looked at music playlists for Natural Disasters and we wanted to know what other Geography topics lend themselves to using music or movies to teach the content.
We asked Carolyn Coulter of Atlantic Cape CC how she would go about using music and movies to help teach the concept and theories of Geographies of Development to students and she shared with us some suggestions:
Movie: Slumdog Millionaire
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running Time: 121 minutes
Main Characters: Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), Salim Malik (Madhur Mittal), Latika (Freida Pinto)
Jamal Malik spent his entire childhood living and working throughout the slums of India. As a young adult he suddenly finds himself a contestant on the wildly popular game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. His impoverished life as an orphan on the streets of India is recalled through vignettes from his childhood and these memories parallel the questions that are asked of him on the game show. This film is a testament to the abject poverty that is experienced by hundreds of thousands of Jamal Malik’s all over the world.
[Scene 1] Salim and Jamal are operating a business in which they charge money to patrons to use an outhouse that deposits directly into marshland. A movie celebrity flies into the area via helicopter while Jamal is using the outhouse that is intended for customers. His brother Salim seeks revenge on Jamal for lost wages due to Jamal using the outhouse by locking him in upon the arrival of the celebrity. Jamal only has one exit and he makes the decision to jump into the marshland that contains the deposits from the outhouse so that he can get an autograph from the celebrity.
[Scene 2] A bus full of young children are dropped off under a highway overpass and told “get to work” by Salim. Many of the children do not have shoes and it is unclear what exactly they will be doing for work. This is until Salim happens upon a baby and gives the baby to Latika and remarks “babies earn double”. The children scatter and spend the day on the streets of Mumbai begging for money. This is especially apparent when a young girl pantomime’s feeding herself in an attempt to get money from people in cars.
[Scene 3] Salim and Jamal are sitting atop a semi-constructed high building that overlooks the dharavi slums of Mumbai in which they grew up. The city looks much different now; Salim and Jamal are young adults now and the city itself has changed remarkably. Salim reflects and this as he points to the location that used to house the slums in which he and Jamal lived and worked as children.
- How does the fact that Jamal and Salim work in an outhouse in Scene 1 indicate differing global levels of development?
- What is happening in Scene 2 that might not happen in More Developed Countries? Why not?
- How and why has Mumbai changed in terms of development in Scene 3?
- How does Scene 3 make an argument for World-Systems Theory?
Song Title: Why? (2:06)
Artist: Tracy Chapman
Album: Tracy Chapman
To view the lyrics click here. Or you can go to iTunes to download the song.
- What does the line “Why do the babies starve when there’s enough food to feed the world” indicate to you?
- What might the singer mean when she says, “Why is a woman still not safe when she’s in her home”?
What movies or music would you add to this list?