There’s nothing like getting to the raw base and passion of geography than by going out into the field. The literal fields and forests of the beautiful British countryside offer a perfect location.
In the UK, the lesser spotted physical geographers tend to favour exposure to the elements wearing some form of rip-stop nylon, lightweight, waterproof, breathable multi-climate jacket, waders for the river fanatics and, rarer these days, sleeveless jacket with multiple pockets for vital gadgets and gismos. Their social ecology is such that they tend to roam in groups and can often be found, when not in the pub discussing the merits of different real ales, stomping around in boots. They can be easily distinguished from other people, particularly dog walkers, as they tend to be holding/fiddling/hovering over tools of the trade, be it the one hundred square grid quadrat or the latest near infrared camera- helium balloon-iPhone concoction. Well, this was the perspective reached from experience of past field trips and from joining the first year undergraduates and assorted staff on a physical geography fieldtrip to Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire earlier this week.
Once immersed outdoors in fieldwork, suddenly newspaper article angst and breakfast news headlines become highly relevant. For what did we identify? In the midst of admiring the efforts of recent tree planting and noticing some natural regeneration we discovered ash saplings. A week or two ago, for some of us we wouldn’t have blinked an eye, but now it is almost as if these harmless baby trees have an aura of the forbidden about them, namely Chalara Fraxinea, or dieback of ash as its more commonly known, a disease that leads to leaf loss according to DEFRA. For those wanting to know more facts, the Forestry Commission have photos and nifty map depicting the distribution of Chalara positive sites. As its recent spread in the UK is suspected to originate from stocks of imported young saplings from nurseries, the Government has imposed strong import restrictions. This follows a media speculative fanfare, the most recent of which is John Vidal’s article in The Guardian, on the inadequacy of the European Plant Health Regime and the bureaucratic infrastructure that results in the UK importing ash saplings from foreign nurseries.
After a successful day out in the field with, hopefully, another generation of undergraduates inspired or at the very least aware of the importance of field work, interdisciplinary working and the usefulness of primary data collection within the more physical side of Geography, I was left to reflect on a couple of recent articles by Marc Tadaki and colleagues and Simon Dalby which have questioned, in different ways, the importance of this area of the discipline. On re-reading them, I was struck by their common reference to a paper by David Demerit in 2009 on framing environmental research in geography. The paper opens with commentary about the human/physical geography divide. On reading the paper I was left wondering, why, at the very time when Geography offers the ultimate discipline of interdisciplinary thinking, are the academics set on this physical/human divide? In this world where we are increasingly aware of the complexity of interrelating systems of environments both natural and man-made, of cause and effect, why call for the creation of yet another sub discipline? Why call for an environmental middle ground when actually the middle ground, the interdisciplinary thinking, is the very heart of Geography?
So I implore all those academics reinforcing the divide with theoretical musings to come down from the ivory tower and get out into the field with your colleagues and students. Geography has so much to offer as a discipline, so let’s focus efforts on building bridges rather than trenches.
Ash dieback: Forestry companies blame ‘chaotic’ import system The Guardian, 1 November 2012
David Demeritt, 2009, From externality to inputs and interference: framing environmental research in geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 3–11
Government bans imports of ash trees DEFRA, 29 October 2012
Marc Tadaki, Jennifer Salmond, Richard Le Heron and Gary Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547-562
Simon Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet The Geographical Journal 178 270–274