interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Things Geographers Know

Williams, Will. Geography in Bite-Sized Chunks. Metro Books, 2017.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

What comes to mind when someone says “geography”? I immediately think of the hard red plastic pencil case with the map of the United States embossed on the top in scratchy white outlines, and the little wheels on either side that turned to reveal the names of all the states (on one side) and the names of all the capitals (on the other). A second grader on a long car trip could quiz her parents on the state capitals for a long time.

Pencil case

Or those horrible blank maps some teacher used to give us in sixth grade that always looked like the bodies of water were the land and the land was a body of water.

Will Williams is out to combat those automatic responses with Geography in Bite-Sized Chunks, which aims to show, in a short space with few words, that geography is a fascinating and complex subject that integrates understanding of the physical world, and human interactions with it, to yield insights into the solution of all kinds of practical human problems. Who knew? Geographers, presumably.

Cover of Geography in Bite-Sized Chunks, featuring old maps

For instance, did you know that climate and weather is a geographical concern? It makes sense, once Williams discusses it. It has to do with the physical world, the water, the landforms, the seasons. And it relates to “geography” in the old-fashioned sense: giant deserts, for instance, or rain forests. But now, after reading Williams’s discussion of meteorology, I know that “what causes rainfall” is ”one of the easiest questions to answer: ‘air rising.’ It really is that simple” (80). So now, when it rains in southern Indiana, I say to myself “Oh, right, because it was warmer yesterday …” and according to Williams’s “mantra of meteorology:”

  • warm air rises
  • as it rises it cools
  • as it cools, its ability to hold water as vapor (the gaseous state of water, of course) reduces
  • if relative humidity reaches 100 percent, condensation will occur
  • clouds form
  • precipitation may result (79).

I look at our local river a little differently, too, after having read the opening chapter on rivers and learned how much more there is to rivers than just where the bridges are. They have shapes and “move load” and speed up and slow down in interesting places. They flood – predictably, actually, related to the rising of warm air and other factors that geographers can explain, and depending on where people are, with more or less devastating effects.

Williams devotes less space to that “human world,” but it’s surprising space for someone, like me, who hadn’t given much thought to things geographical before now. For instance, the fact that population has to be distributed across physical space makes population and its movement and its size and its composition something geographers think about. The fact that things like homes and factories and fields have to be located in physical space makes the characteristic patterns of cities and towns and villages and their distances from one another something geographers think about. The fact that things like roads and cell phone towers have to be built in physical space makes patterns of communication and economic interaction between clusters of population something geographers think about and try to explain.

Who knew? Geographers, presumably.

Ultimately, as Williams points out, “Modern geography is about understanding the interlinkages both within and between the natural and human worlds. In addition, the subject is about using techniqus such as geographical information systems (GIS) to help explain the complex in simple terms” (182).

Geographers, it turns out, have a “holistic” vision of how things connect with one another. When they are not literally studying how events “upstream” connect with events “downstream,” they are natural users of that metaphor, and other geographically derived metaphors, to conceptualize the notion that, wherever we are in the world, it’s connected to rather than separated from every other part of that world. Getting a glimpse of that vision feels enlightening.

I tend to live in my head, which has its own geography. Reading Williams short and engaging book, however, has sparked new interest in the contours of the physical space of the world outside my head, along with new respect for the people who study it and try to understand it and how it shapes human life in various places.

Plus now, whenever it rains, I think to myself “ah … rising air,” and I get to feel like I’ve learned something.

red line embellished

interior of a hollow tower of stacked books
Continuing education.

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