Geography As Destiny?


Wende says:

What interests me is how each of us has experienced and been affected by
place and geography?

What did we notice about the impact of the geography of
the places where we have lived?

What have we noticed about the societies, culture and norms
of each of the geographical areas in which we have lived?

Wende's delicious Question has me coursing the territory —indeed the Geography— of rabbit holes through 79 years of personal entanglement with specific bits of space and spatial knowledge and spatial engagement. So many things bubble to the surface, and it's difficult to know how to wrestle them into an efficient narrative order. Because I am an anthropologist whose interests have always been spatial, my library shelves fairly groan with books relevant to this Question, many of them New England-centric, but others relevant to many other Geographies I have interested myself in from time to time:

Professional concern with Regions as sociocultural entities and arenas has been a perennial centroid of study and teaching, and it's easy for me to consider regional identity as a "state of mind", especially when exploring my own identity as a New Englander. Colin Woodard's American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is an essential resource.


Geography is what surrounds you wherever you are plunked down; geography exercises determinative effects (and affects) upon anybody thus plunked. Where can one escape the effects and forces of geography? Pretty much nowhere. Which brings to mind the old saw

No matter where you go, there you are.

which I'm delighted to discover goes back at least as far as
Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471):

Wherever you go, you take yourself with you,
and you will always find yourself...
you cannot escape it, wherever you flee.

(And of course Jon Kabat-Zinn Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (2005) is significant for some of us.)


My first intuition is: look at Maps of territories of interest. Everywhere I've gone has led to acquisition of maps... atlases... books about Landscape and Topography... the empyrean view of satellite and remote sensing imagery which I read for what they can tell us about human organization and activity. This cartographic fascination goes back to very early memories of the National Geographic maps on the staircase of my childhood home at 42 Quincy Street in Cambridge. And the map of Cambridge (which I distributed from my Information stand on Cambridge Street)

... and various Sarawak maps that brought river systems and regions to salience ... and the map of Northeastern North America that pointed me to Nova Scotia in 1969, and the maps of Nova Scotia that pointed me to the Annapolis Valley, and thence to agriculture ... and the Delorme Atlas of Virginia that I brought along to my 1992 interview at Washington & Lee ... the panoply of state-by-state Appalachian Trail maps that defined 11 years of adventuring between Maine and Georgia ... These were all proxies for the process of learning about places and regions: doing the geography of wherever I was. To possess a map was to have a key to the mysteries of landscape.

On to Wende's specific questions:

  1. ...affected by place and geography
    * Cambridge was the Center of the Universe for about 60 years, surely Destiny at work in the first 10 years of my life on the Edges of Harvard, and then Harvard Square and its bookstores, music stores, camera stores, eateries. I was drawn back to Harvard Square all during the Nova Scotia years, and frequented constantly during the 1991-1992 Simmons years.

    The fact that Boston was my father's city prepared me to join (or at least appreciate and benefit from) that fraternity of echt Bostonians, though in fact I left that arena in 1965, and ever since have been only a vicarious and very occasional participant observer in that culture.

    * ...and deeply affected by the landscape at Horton Landing, the territory I was nominally studying. But I find that I was and remain ignorant about so many aspects. On the other hand, I know about but am not involved in any of the ongoing dramas of the locale (glad to hear about them from Kate's perspective, but I have no responsibilities or part to play). This will give you some idea of the surrounding area (at about 1:30 is Horton Landing, and 2:05 you'll see the Curry farm, which Kate's house is surrounded by):

    * Affected by Lexington VA? Not. I was incurious about the region around, but deeply involved with the Appalachian Trail, footfall after footfall (map by Kate, of course). My Lexington life was back and forth, house to library, away most weekends, hiking.

    * Affected by St. George? That's still deeply entangled with Alice and Wick, though that essentially concluded 3 years ago. I am bonded to the place via its roads (and trash, for the last 6 years), and Drift Inn and Marshall Point and maybe Clark Island, but not the actual water surrounding us...

  2. ...the impact of geography on the places where we have lived
    I'm not sure what Wende meant, but my answer would begin in physical geography and have to include Ice Ages and maybe back a billion years (stopping to commune with the Flower's Cove thrombolites for a few hours along the way), and then to the ephemeral sands of Drift Inn beach ... and a step sideways into the quarry era, about which I know far too little ... and the Big Question of how has the Midcoast thrived and foundered in the last 300 years (an oubliette into which I could easily be sucked).

    At Horton Landing it's the TIDE that's at the heart of the Grand Pre marsh ecosystem and ecology, as modified by dyking to keep the TIDE out, and then benefiting from the great fertility of Bay of Fundy alluvium, laid down over thousands of years...

  3. ...what have we noticed about the societies, culture, and norms of each of the geographical areas in which we have lived?
    An anthropologist is assumed to be a past master of this noticing. I'm often surprised to (re-)learn that I miss a lot ... and that I'm too inclined to fall back lazily on ragged characterizations of the great actual subtlety before me... What I discover again and again is how little I understand what people actually do and why <== which ought to be my professional stock in trade. Fortunately nothing depends on the ineptitude of my alleged professional role. Nobody's watching.

    What I've mostly noticed are *how much I don't notice and don't have the context to understand; and *things I would never do, exchanges I don't comprehend, activities I would avoid and abjure. These things limit the social interactions I'm able to enjoy, or just barely imagine tolerating. Trivia Night at the local dive bar? Town Meeting? I think not, too much that would be contentious. My "community participation" is limited to the trash pickup, an anti-social enactment of something slightly praiseworthy, if incomprehensible. I've been an outsider in each of the places we have lived, sheltering under a curious and somewhat hazy identity but being generally harmless and not annoyingly In the Way of anybody. Pretty good camouflage.

Geography ranges across scales from the terrestrial to the very local <== indeed, to the rocks and vegetation upon which we stand, and thus to the lithic geography, to which I've devoted a lot of photographic time in the last 5+ years. We have lifetimes of moving through space, and of valuing spaces that we think of as ours, and of gaining knowledge of spaces we inhabit and share with other beings.

How elaborated are the memories of the spaces we've inhabited? How often do you revisit them, and what do you find waiting when you do? What unknowns can you still discover? How have those spaces, that geography, FORMED you. Or perhaps that's not how it feels: perhaps other forces than space/geography are much more salient as formative influences. But for me, the spatial/geographic is a hyperconscious dimension of what I take to be Reality.

Physical or vicarious Return to significant geographies of the past is something we all do, but it's of variable importance. For me that spatial/geographical dimension has been and continues to be very important, indeed pretty central to who I am and have been, and every memorial rock I turn over has worlds of detail beneath it.

morning walk on the Horton Landing dykelands

A lot of who we are is rooted in where we are, and formed by where we have been. Our Destiny is a path that evolves, and not something foreordained by mischievous gods, or by rolls of genetic dice, or by Grand Narratives of which we are pawns. We make our own destinies by the choices we make and by interactions with myriad others. A cosmic pinball machine...



Three things on the Tuesday agenda, so far: