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Thursday, December 27, 2012

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

New Blog Hosting Site

To Readers of my Blog:

Alas, I have run out of space on this blog site so everything has been moved over to a new site for all future posts.  You can go there and find my old posts as well and enjoy the new look!

Find it at:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Family Names and Place

I am in the process of making an offer on a house.  This involves a house inspection, or course.   And who is recommended for that task?  Someone named Nico DiStefano.  Nico DiStefano??  What kind of name is that? Clearly this is not West Michigan or Pella, IA!  My combined 28 years in those places taught me to pronounce and spell names like DeVries, Van Klompenberg, Zandstra, and van Dijk. In fact, in Pella, if you divided the phone book in half, S-Z would make up the second half due to the many Vs and Zs amongst the Dutch-American population. Not a Curry to be found anywhere.   

I don't know when I started to play the game of guessing family geographic origins based on family names.  Whenever it was, as a geographer this has evolved into interpreting individual's place within the framework of the larger migration patterns in North America based on their names.

My sensitivity to names came early.  I grew up primarily in a town with Croatians who came to work in the factories and mines of central Illinois.  We knew the Petrovich sisters, and others with names like Tomlionovich, and Yerbic.  There were no Currys except us.

I went to college in Minnesota and had four David Johnsons in college with me. I had two roommates--an  Ostazeski and a Spence--they both married Johnsons.  And I knew a Carlson who married a Carlson.  And then there was Olof Olson.  I decided to take a Swedish language class and ended up being one of three out of a class of 30 who did not have a Swedish name. One had a Swedish mother and the other had had their name changed when they "got off the boat" from Sweden because their family was one of many, many Andersons onboard.  There were no Currys except me.

When I worked southern Louisiana I had to learn French names and spellings.  Boudreaux, Voisin, Billiot, Solet, and even Bourgeois, but no Currys there.

And now I am in Massachusetts where Irish, Italian, and English family names abound. But where do I find Curry except in the spice isle?


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Looking for Echoes of Myself

Half Brother of Ninth Great Grandfather
I have always looked for self understanding and identity in the landscapes and places out of which my family grew.  On a trip with my mother and grandmother in 1981, we went west from Minnesota, all the way to Oregon and Washington, visiting my mother's cousins who had been scattered along the route during the depression.  My mother had not seen many of them since she was a child, yet we found echos of her father's family in them--everything from their noses to musical ability and valuing education.  I didn't "know" them yet we were invited to stay and I saw echoes of who I was, in who they were.

I have found myself helping my daughters see themselves through travel.When my older daughter was in grade school, she was struggling with issues related to her father's family and her identity. My response was to take her on a trip to explore who she was.  We traveled from Iowa, where we lived, through Ames, Iowa where we looked for the brick with the name of my grandmother engraved on it in the Plaza of Heroines at the Catt Center at Iowa State University.  I had placed it there in honor of my grandmother who had come from Iowa and encouraged her daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters to be who they were.  We traveled on to southwest Minnesota, and met great aunts and uncles, visited cemeteries to see the names of my daughter's great grandparents and great great grandparents.  We knocked on the door of the house where my father grew up and where my family lived with my grandmother for a year when I was 6 years old.  The present owner let us wander through the house as I recalled what it was like at the time I lived there.  I wanted my daughter to understand and know that she came from somewhere and had deep roots and connections to both place and family.

This same daughter went with me to Scotland for a conference many years later.  We learned about lowland Scots culture--the origins of public education, the egalitarian culture that encouraged the establishment of local organization of different kinds, and other values that went on to shape American culture.  These values and the culture resonated with my family which has Scottish roots.  This side of the family came to Pennsylvania  with very limited resources.  They moved west with opportunity and valued education.  When they settled on the prairies of Minnesota in the 1860s they quickly established a public school and a church for example. And of course, in Scotland we saw red hair and freckles, just like my younger daughter.
On a beautiful fall Saturday recently I went looking for myself in the New England landscape.  This took me to Chelmsford, the town where the English side of my family settled in the 1650s.  A local resident, who descended from a common ancestor, met me there to show me around (so we might have been something like 9th cousins, or first cousins, 9 times removed?).

The Old Burying Ground in Chelmsford, Mass, is at the center of the settled, which has a traditional New England form.  A common or "green" is at the center with a church on one side and usually a meeting house or local government building on another.

The Green
Public Building

The cemetery was full of my ancestors' graves, but I struggled to find an echo of myself.   I heard about the power of established families.  And I saw last names that had been associated with a place for more than 350 years.  The descendents of these people were still here while my part of the family had moved west.  Probably my ancestors were relatively well educated and perhaps worked for the King.  They might have been in Jamestown or in the Caribbean before coming to Chelmsford.

It was interesting.  Maybe good material for a cocktail party.  But it didn't resonate with my identity.  I come from an egalitarian, westward moving family.  My grandmother cleaned houses to make money.

Why did Scotland resonate with me but not Chelmsford?  They are equidistant in the past. Why do some traits and identities get passed on across time and space, but not others?  If I was a believer in the Turner Thesis I would say that is was the experience of westward movement and its associated challenges that made the difference, but that still doesn't explain Scotland, but not Chelmsford.

In two weeks, my older daughter comes to visit.  We are going to visit Chelmsford.  I'm going to watch her reaction carefully.
Ninth Great Grandmother

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy 2

I am used to pretty wild storms.  After all, I have lived in the Midwest most of my life where storms can be violent.

I woke up to windier conditions telling me that Sandy was coming.  I needed to get out and do a few things this morning but it wasn't bad at all.  I decided to go look at the beach.  The waves were building.  In the harbor areas the boats had been pulled in and out of the water, leaving the area looking abandoned.

By the time I headed home after working in my office around noon, twigs and leaves were on the roads, but people were still out jogging.

Now, at 3 p.m., it is getting crazy.  The leaves are being blown off the trees and my windows are covered with water blown against it the wind whistles like the winds of a big winter storm.  And I just got the message that one of the dormitories at Gordon has to be evacuated due to high winds and risk of falling limbs.  Students are being moved to another dormitory.

There is a clash between the two weather systems over the state of Massachusetts.  Temperatures remain quite warm meaning lots of energy.  So though we aren't near the middle of the hurricane, it is now 1500 miles across.  Gusts almost 70 miles.  And more to come. Another dorm has just been evacuated.   I think I get to add to my life list of natural events.




Late morning--blowing trees

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

I am prepared.  I have found my flashlight and my candles.  I have been to the store and gotten food and filled up my gas tank.  I will fill up some pots and pans with water later today.  As I went down the road today, bags of leaves were along the road, being picked up by municipal trucks.  Instructions are to try to have your gutters cleaned out and limbs trimmed from your trees away from the power lines.  And don't park your vehicles under trees.

And I have gone to the beach to experience the sea before the storm--all was calm.  But we are under a state of emergency. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Subsidiatiry and Being Place-based

It is the political season and I find myself turning off the news and withdrawing from conversations.  I remain frustrated by the lack of fiscal restraint, the elevation of either the market or the government, and the lack of focus on what really works on the ground.  The rhetoric at both political ends remains at a level that is far detached from the scale at which communities are built and maintained.

In the midst of my discouragement, it was refreshing to recently attend a lecture at Gordon College by Michael Gerson, a conservative, nationally-syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.  He was a speech-writer for President George W. Bush, but also works with Bono, serving as a Senior Advisor to ONE, a bipartisan organization that works to combat extreme poverty and preventable diseases.  Rather than mirroring the rhetoric that we hear in the public sphere, he reminded me of two concepts that have profoundly shaped my thinking—subsidiarity and mediating institutions—and how these two concepts and perspectives have the promise of moving American politics beyond the present political gridlock.

The concept of subsidiarity is a principle for societal design that calls for the movement of decisions affecting people's lives to the lowest scale of capable social organization.   Under the subsidiarity principle, the higher authority has the burden of proof about the need to centralize.  And the higher authority has an obligation to strengthen the capacity of the lower level institutions to manage responsibilities.  It is about capacity-building at the lowest levels wherever possible (Curry 2002:  Community on Land).

The obligation to build capacity—rather than to take control—leads to the strengthening of what are called “mediating structures, ” the institution that exist between the individual and the state.  Mediating institutions include everything from non-profits, to the church, to community groups.  In my book Community on Land, I argue that the strengthening of these mediating structures is essential for ecological and social health because they exist and work at the scale of many problems, and their solutions are often more sustainable—it is the scale at which results are monitored and observed.  Mediating institutions also emphasize local knowledge and context and build trust across political differences because they reflect a common shared commitment to a place.

I recently spent time conversing with people about these issues and their story of public response to a recent incident when I visited the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand.  On October 5, 2011, the cargo ship, the Rena, a Liberia-flagged 235m vessel, heading toward Tauranga, New Zealand crashed into the Astrolabe Reef, twelve kilometers off shore and within view of the harbor.  The cargo ship was carrying 1900 tons of fuel and 1386 containers (11 of which contained hazardous substances).  Of course, Liberian-flagged ships are common—I think you could argue that the free market leads to a tendency toward the migration of registration toward the countries with the least regulation and cost for registration for cargo ships. 

After the crash, Maritime New Zealand, the government agency responsible for responding to such incidents, attempted to identify the owner and begin to address the potential problems.  In the meantime the anxiety and concern of the local people in Tauranga increased—it was their beach that was threatened.  Soon a slick was seen, stretching like a narrow ribbon.  Dispersants were used but quickly proved ineffective in rough seas.  Four dead birds are found in the water near the ship so a bird cleaning and rehabilitation center was established.  By the third day, heavy oil began to spill into the sea.  The anxiety of locals increases with the arrival of a little blue penguin in trouble on local beaches.  Unease increased as a storm approached with little action to empty the ship. 

The arrival of heavy seas made action impossible and by the sixth day, globules of oil were found on the beaches and foul fumes were in the air.  Many locals were speechless and a local Maori leader cursed official over their lack of action. 

Local people, grieving and upset over the lack of government action to protect their local environment, began to wander onto the beach, ignoring the warnings to stay away. Out of desperation and a need to respond, they scraped up contaminated sand, leaving little plastic bags of the stuff dotted on beaches.  Local lifeguards took upon themselves the responsibility of keeping people off the beach, but soon realized that it was affecting their relationships with their communities.   

Al Fleming from Forest and Bird spelled out what is at stake. 10,000 grey-faced petrels, thousands of diving petrels, white-faced storm petrels and fluttering shearwaters breeding on nearby islands, several thousand gannets, 200 to 300 little blue penguins.  Shorebirds such as endangered New Zealand dotterels, and oystercatchers and white-fronted terns were starting to nest on sandy beaches just above the high tide mark.  There was also danger to finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, filter feeders and other seafloor life.

About the 7th day, Environment Minister Nick Smith told a crowd in Tauranga that oil has been pouring out and would continue to do so for weeks.  The locals asked:  Why have we not been allowed to be involved?  While they talked, a wandering albatross was found dead, so covered in oil it could barely be identified. Two hundred birds had died and more than 1000 would succumb to the effects of the oil.  Debris was strewn far and wide, including thousands of meat patties scattered on one beach.

Maritime New Zealand

Maritime New Zealand
 Finally, Maritime New Zealand began to engage with the public as a partner, coordinated through the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.  An information network was established, volunteers were trained, and community action and engagement was finally allowed to be funneled into positive action.  More than 8000 people volunteered.  This was their beach and their responsibility.  Their story is one that needs to be told more broadly.

Maritime New Zealand

Maritime New Zealand

Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand

This tragedy occurred in a specific place.  It emotionally and physically affected the community that inhabited that place, a community that collectively felt responsibility for the environment around them.  And decision-makers at each level had to learn to work across scale collaboratively to respond effectively and honor and build the capacity of the local community.

 So why do we get caught in the dichotomy between market and government?  The market needs oversight by government, particularly in the areas of environmental concern that involve the common good, non-market resources such as clean air and water, and in areas that involve the commons.  The market alone cannot protect the world’s oceans and the adjacent beaches from the environmental destruction that comes from the migration of registration of cargo ships to countries with the lowest possible safety measures and training in place.  The market is not a perfect instrument.  But if we put a market price on the cost of oil and included the cost of such accidents, it would certainly help.  The market can help us signal real costs.  The federal-level government needs to work in partnership with local institutions.  Otherwise it can undermine local government, local initiative, and local ownership over the stewardship of its resources.  When it does, it undermines its own ability to fulfill its duty.

Subsidiarity—it is about the responsibility of higher levels of authority to build capacity at the lowest levels possible, leading to the strengthening of the mediating structures that are essential for the sustainability of ecological and social health in the places where we live.  It is about being on the beach and close to the ground when crises strike.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thinking Like a Watershed

The concept of a watershed has long captured my imagination.  A watershed is made up of the area that drains to a common waterway.  I don’t know why this has always been of interest to me.  It may go back to when I was quite young and my mother took us me to play along Little Cottonwood Creek near where she grew up in rural southwest Minnesota.  She taught my brothers and me to skip rocks.  She told us how she used to play along the creek and think about how the creek drained into the Cottonwood Creek which drained into the Minnesota River which drained into the Mississippi River, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  I later took my daughters to play along the same creek.   

Much of my life has been shaped by the Mississippi River watershed.  I grew up in Illinois, not too far from the Mississippi.  I lived in Louisiana in the delta of the Mississippi.  Afterward, I lived in Minnesota for quite a few years and daily crossed the river to get to the University of Minnesota.  One summer I finally got to the headwaters of the Mississippi, in Ithasca State Park.  There I walk across the mighty Mississippi, thinking about how this stream connected with the river I crossed in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi I knew that separated Iowa and Illinois, and the river whose sediment created a landscape just above sea level in Louisiana.

This is what attracts me to rivers and their watersheds.  Even the smallest creek flows somewhere—it has direction to it.  My grandmother’s high rise apartment building, in Windom, MN overlooked the Des Moines River.  For more than a decade I lived in southeastern Iowa within a couple of miles of the Des Moines River.  Every Sunday I would take a long walk along the river, always thinking of being connected with my grandmother upstream. 

When I received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Guelph, in Ontario, I left my Mississippi watershed behind.  In southern Ontario, the land drains into the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic.  Soon after my Fulbright, I actually moved to Michigan, leaving the Mississippi watershed to remain in the St. Lawrence watershed.

Several weeks ago I recognized my on-going connection with the St. Lawrence in a public event.  With a grant from the Canadian Fulbright Association, a group of volunteers planted rain gardens in the Plaster Creek watershed of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I lived for 16 years.  These rain gardens increase the infiltrate of rainwater.  This reduces storm water from rushing into the stream and also allows for the natural filtering of the water to decreases pollution.  I began this effort in 2004 with others in what was called the Plaster Creek Working Group.  Others are now leading what has grown into the Plaster Creek Stewards which involves the public in on-the-ground restoration activity somewhere in the watershed (e.g. labeling storm drains, planting rain gardens). To date seven churches, two businesses, two schools, and over 100 residents have been involved in activities related to Plaster Creek.

This particular effort was funded by the Fulbright Foundation of Canada, in recognition of how the lives and actions of those living in the Plaster Creek watershed affect our Canadian neighbors downstream.  Plaster Creek is part of the Grand River Watershed which empties into Lake Michigan and drains through the Great Lakes and out the St. Lawrence River.  The waterways and their watersheds connect us and make the need for a mutual commitment to each other necessary.  It is a reminder that rivers lead "somewhere" and that others live in that "somewhere."

Wes Jackson says in his book, Alters of Unhewn Stone (NY: North Point Press, 1987: 155):
What if we employed our rivers and creeks in some ritual atonement?  Their sediment load is largely the result of agricultural practices based upon arrogance, tied in turn to an economic system based upon arrogance…but perhaps we need an annual formal observance in the spring—when the rivers are particularly muddy--a kind of ecological rite of atonement, in which we would “gather at the river.” Maybe we should ally ourselves by virtue of a common watershed…for a watershed can and often does cut through more than one bioregion.  There would be nothing abstract about a common covenant among people of a common watershed.

My hope is that each of us may move beyond the abstract in how we live each day in our watershed.

Photos by Gail Heffner

Dennis Moore from the Canadian Consulate in Detroit

Monday, October 1, 2012

Owning Your Own Slippers

In his novel, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese retells an African tale of a merchant who tries to get rid of his old slippers.  Each attempt to get rid of the ragged slippers ends in disaster--when he throws them out the window they land on a pregnant woman who miscarries;  when he throws them into the canal they plug up the main drain and cause flooding.

Out of this tale, Verghese's character in his novel tells his sons that the slippers in the story represent everything you see and do that must be "owned."  In one of the most moving statements in the novel, his character tells his sons:  "...own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don't.  If you keep saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching, you'll die bitter, always felling you were promised more.  Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny." (page 350-351).

In the same way, we must each own where we come from.  We are the embodiment of the places where we have experienced life.  Often people try to deny the places that nurtured them (or not), by changing their accents, distancing themselves from the people that shared their lives in particular places, or ignoring particular periods of their lives by denying their memory.  But in the end, if we are to be fully who we are, we must own the memory, experiences, and senses of the places that shaped us.

For me this includes seeing and smelling the red clay earth of North Carolina and sensing the tension around the topic of the Civil War 100 years after its end;  the smell and feeling of 100 percent humidity in the marshes of Louisiana as I heard the sounds of Cajun French;  the regulation of life shaped by the International Harvester plant whistle in the factory town where I grew up and the desperate need to get away;  the difficulty of breathing under the constraints of the rigidity of an ethnic Iowa town;  the site of the Norfolk pines and cabbage trees in New Zealand;  storms and lightening across open landscapes;  hot, humid summer days where it was said that you could watch the corn grow;  the browns, greens, blues, and yellows of the rural fields and homesteads of Ontario and Swan River;   the damp, cool indoor temperatures of the UK; the Great Lakes in winter and in summer from Niagara Falls to the North Shore of Lake Superior to the dunes of Lake Michigan;  the crowds, lights, and food of Hong Kong.

And the feeling of being an insider and the feeling of being an outsider;  the desire to stay and the desire to go. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

New Rules of the Road

This region has an informal rule of the road to which I have been adjusting.  I have to adjust because if I don't follow it, then other drivers get irritated, even though following the rule actually breaks the law.

When you come to a stop at an intersection, where the cross traffic has the right of way, drivers on this main artery, who are going to talk a left turn onto the road where you are sitting, will stop and waive you to go first across the intersection in front of them before they turn.  In spite of being dangerous, if you don't do as they request, they get irritated as you sense you are not responding to their helpfulness.

And if you don't do the same for others, they think you rude.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Navigating in New Space

I have been navigating in new space.  I have gone to the airport three times and gotten lost three times, even with my newly purchased GPS.  Finally after the third time, someone here said to me--oh, by the way, a GPS doesn't do well getting you to the airport.

I had been resisting getting a GPS because I've felt like it makes people too dependent on point by point instructions rather than developing a mental map of an area.  As a geographer I am more interested in developing a sense of the organization of a place, its spatial layout, rather than just point by point directions associated with one trip to one particular place.  I need to build my capacity to navigate in my new space rather than just take the shortest route necessary to get to the closest Starbucks.

So I have become self-conscious of my own learning. The first few weeks I used the GPS to get to particular places.  But I would also then go back home and look at a map so I could see the orientation of the route.  I needed to know what direction I was traveling when I made the turns directed by the GPS, trying to build up the view from above and see the relationships between places.

One of the earliest Saturdays, I actually used the map and walked a 4 mile route from my apartment to the local shopping area and back.  This helped me pay attention to landmarks and turns because I walked the route and experienced it at street level.

After almost a month, I am doing better in finding my way around without using the GPS.  Or the GPS will tell me to go one way and I will actually choose to go another--no longer is it ordering me around, but rather I am in control of my destiny and the GPS is my aid rather than my guide.

This process of learning has been very different that my previous experiences with acclimating to new spaces. Of course in the Midwest, your best course of action is to orient yourself by learning the major north-south and east-west arteries, all of which are usually one mile apart.  This is a pattern laid down by the Rectangular land survey system west of the original 13 colonies.  Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!  It is a very rational, deist type of system which has even evolved into a typical pattern of numbered streets that tell you where you are relative to the city center, or streets that run in order of the alphabet.  Minneapolis uses may of these strategies--France comes before Xerxes and numbered avenues run one direction and numbered streets the other direction.  The grid pattern can be an amazing thing, especially on a landscape that is primarily horizontal in orientation with very little change in terrain.

In Hong Kong I used public transportation.  I depended on my detailed street map book, and supplemented it with another street map book that also had air photos to show terrain--it is a three dimensional space .  The book showed the lettered subway exits so that you could make sure you came above ground at the correct spot and on the intended side of a  major street.  But disorientation came from not being sure which direction you needed to turn to get to your destination when you came up from below.  A colleague added a compass to her arsenal which oriented her when she came up from below.  The first time I lived in Hong Kong I did not leave my apartment without my street map book.  It had key places circled.  It had my bus numbers written down and where to catch them.  It was my tether to my home base.  But the second time I lived in Hong Kong, I found at times I was just forgetting to put it in my bag.  I was not needing my crutch as often as my larger mental map got filled in.

Maps and satellite images that helped my navigation in Hong Kong

In the midst of my most recent spatial learning curve, a colleague here brought in some family items to show me.  They were silk maps used by paratroopers during WWII.  They were given these maps and a compass.  I had never thought about the challenge of navigation in these conditions and the tools that might have been provided.  Within my mother's lifetime (actually within my lifetime) we have gone from orienting ourselves with the use of printed maps and compasses to looking at an individual streets using satellite images, navigating by using GPS, and downloading directions using mapquest.

Technology changes, but in the end, it is all the same necessary process--becoming comfortable in a new place through developing an ability to find our way home.  

And by the way, I have discovered that one of the greatest uses of GPS is not to help you get some place, but rather to get you home when you've gotten lost.  So my recommendation is to go get lost and explore without fear, as long as your GPS is close by.  But this does not work if you are near Logan International Airport.