Life before kids…
It can be quite foreign to think most mums had a life before we had our bundles of sprogliness. Most expat mums here answer “What did you do before kids?” with “I was a nurse,” or “I was a teacher,” or even “I was an accountant.” Their answers are quantifiable and easy for people to imagine and understand.
Try answering this question with “I was a geographer,” and you get some strange, surprised, often cynical or utterly confused looks.
The look is normally followed by “Yeah, but what did you really DO?”
I always pause before I answer with uncertainty. I don’t know if I am going to be eye-rolled at or have to generalise so broadly that it defeats the purpose or talking about it. I also often don’t know how to explain being a geographer without going into details or becoming too complex.
Some people take it upon themselves to guess what a geographer is. Many people will hear the word geographer and instantly say things like “Wow – you must be good with your countries and flags then.”
It takes all my will to stop myself from doing a head slap in front of them.
“Geographers don’t necessarily study where countries are,” I will politely answer.
This normally gleans a confused look before moving on to the second most common response…
“Oh – so you read maps…”
Me: “Um, I CAN read a map, but no.”
“Oh – you made maps then?”
Me: “Um, not really. That would be a cartographer. However often I would create maps to present information.”
“So you did make maps!”
Me: “Kind of. But not the street maps you’re thinking of.”
“Ah huh! Like google earth then…”
Me (sighing and giving up): “Yeah – something like that!”
Occasionally someone will actually turn around with interest and say “So what does a geographer really do?”
At which point I beam with delight and then hold back a minute trying to contemplate how to deconstruct the complexity that comes with being a real life geographer. I realise I’ve become rusty in explaining my craft concisely, or maybe it is just such a complex field I simply don’t know where to start.
I am a natural geographer. That means my main field of study is the physical and natural environment – not so much people (which would be classified as urban or human geography) however the natural and human geographies invariably overlap in most industries.
Lets take an example, a forest. It isn’t JUST trees. It is a complex and dynamic ecosystem with a world of relationships going on within it. I was always searching for answers to questions. How many species of animal live in this forest? How far do they roam? Are there certain trees they always go back to? How do the rivers and gullies affect them? How much do human activities interfere with them and their habitat? How does the population and movement change over time? What happens if we chop a tree down over here but leave 5 standing over here?
Geographers are always trying to accumulate data with which to understand how an environment works, all its relationships and in many cases how it interacts with the human environment. When you think you’ve answered a question, several more may form because of your answers. Topics and scale can be broad or specific. You could be looking at global trends, or a country, a state, a park, or even just a small section of a park. Geographers at NASA even get to look at environments on other planets!
As a geographer I did not cover just one aspect of the environment, but several. I looked at trees and plants, animal species, geology, climate, economics, human aspects, networks …
I also looked at real time events. Bushfires in particular. Have you ever wondered how a bushfire is contained and managed? Well – that’s where your geographers come in. Making sure you have the right data to make educated decisions on where fire appliances and people need to be stationed, when to evacuate them, what to expect as a fire front moves through because of the vegetation ahead of the fire …
How did the fire start? Lightning strike? Arson? Something else?
As to HOW we performed analysis and came up with answers and maps falls into the tools a geographer uses. Computers play a big part in that and I used Geographic Information Systems (GIS for short). These can take the data, both location and attributes, turn them into a database (actually a special relational database (or if you use ESRI products geodatabase)) and in many cases display them on a map. A GIS, given the right instructions and technically correct data could analyse that data and map it, but you always need a geographer to check it and make sure it is logical (something that doesn’t always happen in the industry these days). GIS can involve a geographer dabbling in programming, which is how I would describe myself, or a programmer having to learn geography concepts, which seems to be the current trend.
A GPS system is a form of GIS. If you looked behind your pretty map and its voice you would see a database with everything catalogued and rationalised. An intersection would be a dot, but it would also have rules on it as to how a vehicle can turn, or if it can turn at all. Next time you’re at an intersection think about the rules you have to apply. The same is true of a GPS and that has to be rationalised and programmed. A road would be a line, but it would also have a speed limit associated to it and restrictions on what time of vehicles can use it.
So yeah, I made maps because ultimately one of the ways to display and explain the answers to the relationships geography investigates are by showing those relationships visually and spatially on a map once the analysis is done.
I know as a geographer I am, perhaps even was (given I haven’t practiced in the industry for a while), part of a dying breed. There was a time when geographers were explorers and pioneers. Now we are just misunderstood and disappearing into the realm of the unknown.