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Module 3 • Natural Resources: Tundra Farming
Student Page 3-5a
the desire to conquer and control the land is And it is not simply ironic. The paradox is dark.
the desire to sojourn in it, to sail up and down To be succinct: the politics and advertising that
Pamlico Sound, to paddle a canoe through seek a national audience must project a national
Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, to walk on the geography; to be broadly useful that geography
desert of the Great Salt Lake, to camp in the must, inevitably, be generalized and it is often
stony hardwood valleys of Vermont. romantic. It is therefore frequently misleading
and imprecise. The same holds true with the
To do this well, to really come to an understanding
entertainment industry, but here the problem
of a specific American geography, requires not
might be clearer. The same films, magazines,
only time but a kind of local expertise, an inti-
and television features that honor an imaginary
macy with place few of us ever develop. There
American landscape also tout the worth of the
is no way around the former requirement: if you
anonymous men and women who interpret it.
want to know you must take the time. It is not
Their affinity for the land is lauded, their local
in books. A specific geographical understanding,
allegiance admired. But the rigor of their local
however, can be sought out and borrowed. It
geographies, taken as a whole, contradicts a
resides with men and women more or less sworn
patriotic, national vision of unspoiled, untrou-
to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for
bled land. These men and women are ultimately
the soil and history, for the turn of leaves and
forgotten, along with the details of the land-
night sounds. Often they are glad to take the
scapes they speak for, in the face of more press-
outlander in tow.
ing national matters. It is the chilling nature
These local geniuses of American landscape, in
of modern society to find an ignorance of
my experience, are people in whom geography
geography, local or national, as excusable as an
thrives. They are the antithesis of geographical
ignorance of hand tools; and to find the com-
ignorance. Rarely known outside their own com-
mitment of people to their home places only
munities, they often seem, at the first encoun-
momentarily entertaining. And finally naïve.
ter, unremarkable and anonymous. They may
If one were to pass time among Basawara peo-
not be able to recall the name of a particular
ple in the Kalahari Desert, or with Tikuna on the
wildflower—or they may have given it a name
upper Amazon, or with Pitjantjatjara Aborigines
known only to them. They might have forgot-
in Australia, the most salient impression they
ten the precise circumstances of a local historical
might leave is of an absolutely stunning knowl-
event. Or they can’t say for certain when the
edge of their local geography—geology, hydrol-
last of the Canada geese passed through in the
ogy, biology, and weather. In short, the exten-
fall, or can’t differentiate between two kinds of
sive particulars of their intercourse with it.
trout in the same creek. Like all of us, they have
fallen prey to the fallacies of memory and are In forty thousand years of human history, it has
burdened with ignorance; but they are nearly only been in the last few hundred years or so
flawless in the respect they bear these places that a people could afford to ignore their local
they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather geographies as completely as we do and still
than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily survive. Technological innovations from refriger-
scholarly. It rings with the concrete details of ated trucks to artificial fertilizers, from sophis-
experience. ticated cost accounting to mass air transporta-
tion, have utterly changed concepts of season,
America, I believe, teems with such people. The
distance, soil productivity, and the real cost of
paradox here, between a faulty grasp of geo-
drawing sustenance from the land. It is now pos-
graphical knowledge for which Americans are
sible for a resident of Kansas City to bite into a
indicted and the intimate, apparently contradic-
fresh mango in the dead of winter; for someone
tory familiarity of a group of largely anonymous
in San Francisco to travel to Atlanta in a few
people, is not solely a matter of confused scale.
hours with no worry of how formidable might
(The local landscape is easier to know than a
be crossings of the Great Basin Desert or the
national landscape—and many local geogra-
Mississippi River; for an absentee farmer to gain
phers, of course, are relatively ignorant of a
a tax advantage from a farm that leaches poisons
national geography.)
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