Friday, November 17, 2006

The lay of the land

It is a common complaint that kids today have very little knowledge of geography. Each year we read more gloomy statistics about the number of children (or adults) who can't find X on a map. X might be their own hometown.

I'm not sure things are worse than they have ever been, but surely geography is a slighted part of the American curriculum.

There are many fabulous resources -- in print and on the internet -- for teaching world geography, but I can't think of anything more exciting that Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth. If I was a geography teacher I would have these tools at the heart of my lessons. Give me a big screen at the front of the class and off we go to Red Square, Baghdad, Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef, the South Pole. Homework? A good set of questions and access to a computer -- let the travels begin! Throw a dart at the globe and zero in. What do you see? Look at that picture of Cape Schmidt I posted yesterday: barrier island, tombolo, tundra, sea ice. What are those gray circular features and how are they formed? Why is the airport where it is? What is the direction of the prevailing wind? What is the season of the year? Why an air traffic control station in such a remote place?

But world geography is only half the equation. It is also important to know one's local landscape in a visceral, sensual, soles-of-the-feet sort of way. Microgeography. Bugs, dirt, sticks and stones. Bird song. Bedrock. Flowing water. In the Prologue to The Path I quoted the Canadian novelist Anne Michaels: "If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another."