Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spots of Time on Spots of the Map

"I also became the river by knowing how it was made."- Norman Maclean
      Now every good Montanan knows that Norman Maclean was full of unforgettable quotes. We've all seen the movie, and hopefully more have read both his books. But of all the gold nuggets Maclean gave us, his most overlooked and perhaps meaningful sentence stresses the intertwined relationship between geography and history.
      We must never separate a location on the map, from the events that have occurred there in the past. In present day America our young people (and our old), are geographically decrepit. Ever since 1983, when University of Miami Geography Professor, David Helgren, gave his senior geography students a pop quiz on basic world geography which they failed miserably, it's been clear. (Half couldn't locate Chicago) Helgren shared the results with his colleagues, who shared with the media, and Helgren was canned. Numerous studies since this have verified that American students are cartographically clueless.
       Geography is important for a multitude of reasons, and we can work to fix present day ignorance. We must require students to display geographic knowledge, we need to spend more time on geography, but more importantly, we need to make geography interesting.  One way to do this, is to never speak in strictly geographic terms. To far too many people, geography is reduced to uninteresting questions. "What is the capitol of....."
       Whenever teaching about a place, always incorporate the most meaningful past events that have happened there. Extend to multiple levels. Describe a location not only by its position on the graticule, but also present events and their relationship with modern history. Go back to prehistory, and even geologic history. Help students learn by relationship.
     Take Maclean's example. To someone who didn't know where they were or what had happened there, the river is just water flowing downhill. But to Maclean it was geologic history and the "Earth's Great Flood". It was Hydrology, snowmelt from the western side of the Continental Divide. It was economics, logging camps and dude ranches. It was personal history, fish he'd caught with people he loved.
     Often I play a game with myself. A geographic historical 10 x 10... Where are you? What happened there ten years ago? How about one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, and so on. Any number works.
     So this weekend when I climbed the hills above Belmont Creek, above the Big Blackfoot, I wasn't thinking only about elk antlers on the ground.  I thought about the great Montana story teller Howard Copenhaver, and the hunting yarns he's told that take place there. I am sitting with Norman Maclean, 80 years ago. He wrote about it: "On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us." These Ponderosa are still there, and you can go sit under them too. I look northwest into the drainage of the West Fork of Gold Creek, where 250 years ago Native Americans summered, escaping the heat and mosquitoes. The grove of old growth trees where they camped are still there. I daydream back 12,000 years, to ice sheets a mile thick, right on top of where I am sitting. In my head I create the place 600 million years ago, where migrating inland seas laid sediment down, stacking it over and over again, creating the belt rock that make up this mountain and the stone I am sitting on. Prior to that, I am back in time 2 billion years, imagining this mountain gone. I am in an ancient sea filled with cyanobacteria, photoshynthesizing, creating the oxygen we all breathe, billions of years later.
     All of this from a rock on a hill without a name. Geography isn't just maps. It's what the map represents, it's what the map was, it's before the map. By knowing a place you become it. And it works anywhere you are.

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