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No Holy Grails Here…

January 31, 2011

Painting by: Sea Hyun Lee

When people ask me what geography is I almost always give them a pretty well canned definition. It’s hard not to unless you are interested in getting into a long, drawn out discussion. What I usually tell them is that we study what other people study—social, physical, economic, historic, enter-your-chosen-field-of-study-here, phenomena and try to look at that in a spatial context. I spout the definition that I have been taught and the usual line about how the discipline has become so much more than just learning toponyms and earth sciences. I tell people all about how what we do is exactly was the word means “to describe or write about the earth.” And all that I tell them is true, but honestly, I am sick of everything that I say to people when they ask. Sick to death of it—of pre-prepared definitions, and catch phrases. Sure, it helps people understand but it just simply doesn’t do the field any justice. Geography deserves more from me than that. I think a big part of this blog for me is to formulate a method to help myself form my own meaning of the word, and a way to describe to people what it is that I am choosing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on and years of my life devoted to.

Any attempt to define geography is going to meet with difficulty. It’s not an easy word to get to the root of, and the cloud of ambiguity surrounding it is thick and difficult to navigate.  For each person attempting to do so, there is a different path, a different way through the fog, and, as a result, a myriad of definitions for one thing. In other words, it is a very personal experience and each person’s path towards an answer directly reflects who they are.

That process is really just beginning for me, so if you really want an expert’s definition of the field, I urge you to go to them, because I am most definitely not an expert. Nor am I particularly interested in being one at this point; what I am interested in is sharing with you my journey to the heart of the word, in conveying how I describe the world and everything that lies in it. And what that is about for me is definitely not a something, but more of a somehow—not something you see directly but a lens through which you can see the subtle complexities and connections that our world is accruing exponentially.

For some of us, place resonates. For others it is time or people or words or experiences that strikes a chord, but for those of us who feel that resonance in a spatial rather than a temporal or experiential context seek to explore why a particular place lingers with us.  The people that I know who study geography all have an obsession with their surroundings, but that obsession almost always takes the form of an extreme association and connection with a particular locality, and that connection is by its very definition indescribable. I think that is where my fascination with geography begins—in that place in between words and feelings—in pursuit of describing a place whose significance in my life is beyond description.

So…where does this ruminating leave us? Honestly, not too far from where we started, but that’s ok. Geography is a journey, not a destination. There is no finish line here—no reward but knowledge, no endgame except understanding our world and our place in it just a little bit better. No Holy Grail—just maps…and pictures, and words, and synthesis, and poetry, and science, and fun, and beauty, and silliness, and understanding, and insight, and being totally lost, and expression, and food, beers over discussion, and love of writing utensils, and books, and stories, and friends, and education, and place….place most of all. This is where it starts, where we take the first steps, and I, for one, am fucking excited.

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