Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/June 1912/A Philosophy of Geography

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IN the minds of many persons to-day it might seem necessary to apologize for holding to a "philosophy of geography" that study often remembered from school days with either utter dislike or disinterest; for in early years it was a bugbear to carry about the "big geography" in between the covers of which were gathered the colored maps of the various countries, with descriptions of those countries and their boundaries, products, exports, imports, rivers—a real Baedeker of the earth. Even later most of us were hurried along, not given time to catch our breath or have our wonders satisfied; and to-day, perhaps, there are still some who wonder at the college professor's giving serious thought to a subject of which they learned all there was to be learned during the years of schooling.

But such remembrances are probably becoming fewer, for in the minds of many thinkers to-day there is no doubt that the science of geography is one which furnishes much food for thought and much opportunity for research. Not only in the works of many of the older thinkers and philosophers, but also in the pages of various current periodicals and in some of the excellent modern histories, may one see something of the attitude which endeavors to view many human activities in their relation to the geographic stage. From making the study of geography dwindle into a mere recital of fact—with what hours of dullness or dryness!—it may be of interest or profit to somewhat fully give to geography a place beyond that of a mere catalogue of distribution, and to enrich its apparent field by glancing at some of its interesting causes and tremendous effects.

As was suggested, the mental image called forth by the word geography would doubtless be to many a mass of disconnected details, dealing chiefly with the idea of localization and definition and the remembrance of things in themselves uninteresting. An island was a mass of land entirely surrounded by water. An isthmus was a neck connecting two large areas of land. Why the island existed, or how it came about were "hideous secrets." Why two bodies were connected by a constriction may have been a mystery, and one was never led to solve it. "What was the capital of Missouri?" "For what product was Iowa famous?" "What crop comes from the northern plains?" "Name ten large cities of America." No one thought of enlightening the, perhaps. curious minds as to why the ten largest cities were largest. They merely were. No one tried to tell why the great wheat plains were plains. They just were. Yea, verily have many been piloted about the earth, passing with kaleidoscopic haste picture after picture, cramming their heads with encyclopedic facts until they were made aching by the rush of detail. Truly were they as the summer tourist with red Baedeker in hand, seeing and learning.

Geography is not a mere placing of things upon an earth. It is not a subject fit only to be placed in childhood's curriculum and passed through hurriedly during immature years. Geography ought to awaken an interest and kindle an enthusiasm rivaled by few other sciences, to all minds, the mature as well as the young, because of its far-reaching relations. What about the romance of the forces of the earth, the beauty of topographic expression? Why not see in the tiny trickle of the rain gully the roaring, destruction-bearing Colorado? or behold in the frozen cap of the pond ice the wasted expanse of Greenland's glaciers?—or picture in the muddy sidewalk the tons of debris dumped by the Father of Waters at New Orleans to add new lands to the old?

Vermont may be a great producer of slate. But why? What a story a piece of Vermont slate might tell!—of a time many thousands of years ago when beneath the sea were being deposited muds worn from the land beyond. Then, deeply buried beneath overlying sediments, the clay became pressed to a firm shale. In the turning and folding of the whole mass to make new land, the heat of the disturbance baked the shale, and the pressure of the overlying rocks developed in it the fine planes of cleavage; the shale became a slate. And the wearing of the rocks above by the processes of erosion brought to man's view the roofing of his home! Then, too, compare the passionate temperamental Italian with his more stable and phlegmatic cousins of the north. Is it just "the nature of the beast"? or is there a "why"? Why is the oriental art so rich in all its riot of color? Why the prominence of Philadelphia, Chicago, Richmond? Why the steel rails of Pittsburgh?—the great fruit produce of New York?

These and many like questions may give an insight into the "different" way of thinking of geography. For, although all of us will admit that what we have or are is because we are of the earth's food, shelter or clothing—the three R's of life—yet I want to suggest some of the perhaps less well known but just as interesting correlations between ourselves and geographical conditions.


The earth supplies man with the necessities of food, clothing and shelter, which, naturally, differ in different parts of the world. And yet in each locality man has adapted himself to these differences. The relationship of man to the physical things of the earth is one which can be traced out in the minutest detail, especially, of course, in primitive communities where food is absolutely dependent upon geographic location. The Esquimaux, with no forest or sandy deserts, eat of fish and game. The fruits supply the tropical savage, there where the warm climate supports a variety of vegetable life, so that the native has but to step from his grass hut to find his daily bread. Pastoral peoples have their milk foods, dwelling as they do in the sweeping plains of Australia or Russia which support flocks of sheep and herds of oxen. Moreover wheat, corn, maize, meat, which are all products of the physical earth, of climatic and geographical conditions, go far to shape the man of the temperate zone.

Likewise, compare the leather garments of the shepherd, the fur coat of the Lap, the woolen garment of the Russian, the grass dress of the Australian, and see in them the influence of geography. Or, trace in the adobe hut of the plainsman, the sod homes of the tropical savage, the inglow of the Esquimau, and the skin tents of the nomads, in the carved stone buildings of the cave dweller, in the log hut of the forester, in the cobble house of New York state, a like influence of geography upon the sheltering places of man.

As for occupations, does not one see in the hunting of the African wilderness, the herding on the plains of Patagonia, the agriculture of the river valleys, the mining of the mountains, the lumbering of Canada, the fruit growing of California a relationship with the geographic field? When a community possesses more material than can be utilized by it, peoples begin a trade, thus establishing commercial relations, with the development, on a large scale, of agriculture, manufacturing and other industries. Man would not have made rugs in India, for there was no wool. Nor would he have made gold ornaments in England, for there the gold was absent. The Persians made rugs, for wool was at their door; the Hindoos carved gems, for Indian plateaus were pregnant with them; the Chinese wove costly silks, for in their country the silk worm flourished; the Norsemen built boats, for in their country lumber was cheap. In short, in many places, as raw materials were present, so manufactures grew—porcelain in Japan, rugs in Persia, ships in Norway, pottery in England, steel in Birmingham, smelting at Denver, cement in New Jersey. Power is needed in extensive manufacture, and where power is cheap or easily obtainable there may arise immense industrial centers, as at Birmingham, Pittsburgh and Niagara Falls—where fuel is at a stone's throw away, or where the mighty rush of water furnishes energy, and where it is often comparatively cheap to bring, for manufacture, raw materials produced elsewhere. Often, too, where places are favorably situated along travel lines of least resistance there may grow up populous centers as Buffalo, Saint Louis, London and New York.

Let US now view a few more historical facts in this limelight of geography. The history of geography, which leads to the geography of to-day, is a record of achievement, colonization, trading, conquest, religious zeal, and scientific endeavor. The nomads move because the environment will not support them. Disturb an environment and see the result. Block the trade route from Europe to Cathay as did the Turks and a new world is discovered. Block this route and Venice trade passes into the hands of Portugal. Pierce the Isthmus, and Japan is at your doors. As Keltic has so well pointed out, the first great civilizations, Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian, began in the great river valleys. They were non-cosmopolitan and isolated civilizations, for they were content in the fertile valleys of the Nile, Euphrates, Ganges and Yang-tse-Kiang. Contrast with theirs the spirit of the Phoenicians, the sturdy and fearless seamen of the pre-christian era, forced to trade by the non-fertile condition of their strip of country. See the physical development of the Greek, his intellectual stimulus inspired greatly by the multitude of topographic conditions. How did the Himalayas affect history?—serving as a barrier, hindering the migration of both man and beast, and protecting the people from invasion? Among mountain people many ancient customs are preserved. Because the Scotch and Welsh were much less affected by invasion than other parts of the British Isles during time of inroads, some of the oldest of their dialects still linger with them. The Basques, a small body of people in the Pyrenees, still speak a language spoken by no other race. Why has Switzerland been able to remain independent? Because the brisk air of mountains helps to develop a brave, hardy people, and because of her impregnable position among the Alps. Why did the early American settlers locate along the Atlantic coast and not push towards the west? The Appalacians served as a barrier to the spread of the early colonists and sheltered them from the savages of the west. Why was Alaska exploited? The gold in her gravels. England owes much of her historical importance to the geographical fact that the sinkings of the land give the coast such an irregularity of outline as is always favorable to the development of navigation, commerce, fishing. Why has Austria been from time to time the scene of inroads by Asian peoples? Because she lies open to the Black Sea and the plains of central Europe.

Man, with certain limits, differs from his lower cousins of the animal family by being able to take his environment by the forelock and make use of it for his own convenience. He constructs a Suez canal, he removes a mountain from his path by carving a Simplon tunnel, he brings fertility to arid New Mexico; he drains Arkansas swamps, he rescues Holland from the sea, he changes the course of the Mississippi. Indeed, it may seem bold, but there is much truth in the statement that the greatest enterprises of the present day are the results of wise utilization of geographic knowledge.

It is to the astronomers and mathematicans, glued to their telescopes or buried in their complex calculations, to whom we must go for knowledge of the magnitude of the earth, of ways of locating points, of reasons for climatic conditions, and day and night. And so geography, as a science, is related to their subjects. Probably the plains of Chaldæa and Babylon were the primal seats of observative astronomy. For there the unbroken plains of Mesopotamia could not arouse enthusiasm, but the phenomena in the heavens, changing with the days and the seasons, would most assuredly attract attention. Besides, the level expanses and the clear atmosphere gave excellent opportunities for observation. In the matter of map making, the basis for an understanding of distribution finds its foundation in a knowledge of latitude and longitude. Therefore the geographer is indebted to the mathematical astronomer for the graphical representation of the earth. We can not understand the make up of the earth, the so-called "mineral kingdom," unless we deal with chemical materials. It is the laws of physics which enable us to theorize about and understand the workings of many geologic processes, as mountain formation and volcanic activity. It is indeed obvious that physical geography rests in an intimate relation with these sciences; so much so, that certain phases of that study are termed geophysics and geochemistry.

In botanical fields such questions as these "What determines the flora of the steppes?" "Why are some regions treeless and others grassy?" "How is it that the same alpine plants are found on widely separated mountains and not in the intermediate area?" "Why is the cactus provided with water storage organs?" "What are xerophytes, hydrophytes, mesophytes?" These and infinitely many more questions of a similar nature will find their adequate answers only when based upon a knowledge of physical conditions and climatic facts.

In the study of animal life we do not find so direct a dependence upon geographic conditions as in that of plants, just as among men of to-day the dependence upon immediate environment is less marked than in the life of their primitive ancestors, largely because of the "power of locomotion." However, the mere existence of zoogeographical maps shows that there is, nevertheless, a distinct and important relationship. One finds that species and their distribution are determined largely by food, climate and physical conditions. The mountain goat, the camel of the desert, the river beaver, the wading and swimming birds, the antelope of the plains, the apes of the jungle, the reindeer and polar bear in the arctic, the coral in the warm seas—many of their adaptations are determined by the geography of their homes.

In the study of the highest of animals the same influence is of remarkable importance in the shaping of his character and habits. Why does the African have as occupations, hunting, fishing and modest kinds of agriculture? Why are the Negroids more advanced in culture than the true blacks? Why are the Thibetans pastoral? Why did the Incas represent a superior American type? How have peoples been influenced by the presence of a great river, a vast desert, a yielding mountain, a tundra waste? These questions, and many others relating to man's habits and culture, occupations and history, are intimately associated with geographical considerations.

In the history of medicine and hygiene one can trace, likewise, an interesting connection. Where do bacteria flourish? Where have developed the malignant fevers? The amount of ozone in the air, the amount of moisture, which lessens or raises the rate of evaporation of the body, thus tending to raise or lower the temperature of the blood, is a relevant consideration here. In hot climates bodily activities are lessened because less internal heat is required to maintain the blood at its normal temperature; tissue changes go on at a much slower rate, and these include processes of nutrition. The amount of perspiration, the color of the blood, the color of the skin, have geographical significance, because of the varying action of the liver in various localities.


The relationship of geography to thought can, likewise, be but briefly touched upon here. Psychology, according to James, "deals with states of consciousness as such "—with all states of consciousness—that of the child, the criminal, the lover, the workman, the poet; and in so far as geographical conditions may affect a state of consciousness, to that extent does the geographical factor have a bearing upon psychology. And indeed this factor is quite as important in certain respects as other factors of heredity, physiological constitution, immediate environment. James says: "Mental facts can not be studied apart from the physical environment of which they are cognizant." Strachey writes: "By the influence and study of external nature are found and developed man's emotional, intellectual and moral faculties. The emotions created in the mind by the vast extent of the ocean, the ever-moving surface, the broken outlines of land and sea, the richness and luxuriance of the vegetable clothing of the earth, the never-ceasing transformation of the clouds as they float overhead, the large serenity of nature at rest, and the overwhelming violence of her convulsions, are, even though not consciously, the source of many psychological attitudes." Indeed, the states of consciousness of peoples may be viewed, in a way, according to geographical conditions. At the sea, mountain dwellers, peoples living in fertile valleys, people inhabiting regions of volcanic or atmospheric disturbances, the desert tribes, or peoples on beautifully luxurious lands—we find their psychological attitudes individually stamped. If typical individuals from such localities were examined, what a range we should find in imagination, optimism, attention, superstition, emotion, habit—all provinces of psychology! Occupations affect mental states to a great extent, and these often depend upon geography. Health, often determined by drainage, swamps, ozone—how well do we know to what extent it can make or unmake our minds!

Philosophy, which may be briefly defined as an attempt at formulating the universe, utilizes the material results of all fields of knowledge and science, and, in so far as these are related to geography, in so far is philosophy also associated. For the names of philosophers who have been influenced by geographical problems and conditions, one has but to turn the pages of the history of geography, and see the names of Thales, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Bacon, Ritter, Tyndall, Darwin, Comte. What can, and has, more radically shaped theories concerning the ultimate and the universe than the attempts at the solution of such problems as uniformitarianism, diastrophism and vulcanism?

Religions may not have had their origins in natural phenomena, yet the influence of these has often played a wonderful part. From the Himalayan austerity, the solitude of tropic forests, the unmastered floods of great rivers—from such tremendous natural phenomena came the Hindoo religion, a nature worship tinged with the melancholy of future oblivion. In Hindoo mythology the lofty mountains are invested with great sanctity and thousands of pilgrims journey year after year to the holy sources of the Ganges. From the cruel desert came the idea of Mohammedanism, of eternal bliss, an unending dream of sensuous delight attained by the faithful after the privations of a desert life. Ancient Jewish religion was much affected by the geographical factor. Wliere, too, did the puritans dwell and what was the type of their religion? And how has commerce, born of a geographic source, influenced the religions of men?

J. A. Symonds says: "In their early ignorance of cause, the Greek wondered at everything. When thunder terrified them they attributed their own nature to the phenomenon, and they conceived of Heaven as a vast body which gave notice of its anger by lightning and thunderings. Their sun was called a shepherd, in the early myths, and the clouds his sheep. It was easy for them to make a god of the sea—a husky-voiced and turbulent old man whose form none might clearly know because he changed so often and was so secret in his ways, who shook the earth in anger and had the white-maned billows of the deep for horses." All earliest religions at least had their nature worship. The rain made food grow; the sun gave warmth; the thunder-storms could put an end to a long drought. Then, there is a minor nature worship that deals with rivers and springs, with trees and groves, with rocks and stones. The spring was haunted by nymphs, the oak inhabited by a dryad. The Nile and the Ganges were holy. England is full of "sacred hills" which once received prayers and offerings. High places were hallowed in all lands.

In the fields of music, literature and art do we find the psychological attitude greatly influenced by geographical environment. Music's origin must be looked for in natural causes. The elements of all music exist around us, in the sighing of leaves, the gentle monotone of the winds, not less that in the roar of the ocean or the impressive tones of thunder. Earlier peoples imitated these sounds. And, where climatic conditions were good for the throat, singing qualities were developed. Where external conditions were not good for the throat there was a greater amount of inventing rude and noisy instruments. Brinkton says: "The use of noisy instruments recalled the voices of pealing thunder, the mad rushing waters and the wailing of the winds." Early music went hand in hand with the dance, which was, in turn, largely developed in warm climates and on fertile soils. The Esquimaux savage does not sing and dance as the tropical ones, nor does singing come from the people of the frozen tundra save of the poorest sort. Most Hebrew music was strangely harsh; many of their instruments, tabret, buggag, cymbal, pipe, shawn, chiefly wind and percussion instruments, meant noise with piercing effects. For, unsettled "dwellers in tents" as they were, this rough element was unavoidable, for, in moving about they came into contact with the rough elements of nature—storms, sea, winds. The Hebrews who were not "dwellers in tents" had, on the other hand, beautiful music—divine gratitude to Jehovah. The Romans had no music, because they were enormously successful commercially, because of their geography, and war and conquest were their first considerations. Something of the same is true of America to-day. Too anxious to utilize to the fullest extent her geographical wealth, she borrows music; chiefly from the negro. Folksongs, one of the truest types of music emanate from the geographically determined life of peoples. All nations had their songs to the soil, to the flock, to the soldiers' march through plain and mountain, had songs of the fisherman, the sower, the reaper. No doubt Russian music owes much of its melancholy and plaintiveness to the great mournful steppes. Why did the violin develop in Italy? Because it, of all instruments, resembles the human voice which was revealed to the Italians. The great German musical names, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Handel, Bach, come from southern Germany and were influenced by the singers of Italy.

Art, with civilization, seems to have arisen in the three great river basins of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, where the people had plenty of comfort and time to satisfy their desire for beauty. The amount of coarse, hard, massive rock available no doubt influenced the colossal architecture of Egypt. Chaldæa is a stoneless country, therefore its arts depended upon the nature of the clays. They, the Chaldæans, invented the potter's wheel—the beginning of a great field of art and industry—ceramics. Art of two dimensions, so to speak, painting, tapestry and embroidery, has been probably more affected by geographic environment than any other forms. Commerce had a distinct influence here. The crusades brought the new world into contact with the east, and European manuscripts became beautifully illumined after oriental style. Climate, here, too, exerts no little influence. In dry, clear countries the people can see great distances, everything stands out in bold relief, and paintings are apt to be very bright in color, quite different from the work in moist, foggy lands. The Japanese, Chinese and Hindoos possess a natural artistic skill probably greatly determined by their geographical wealth—gold, metal, precious stones and ivory, the silk-worm, and the many vegetable paints and dyes that could be made from the soils. The making of carpets and tapestries goes hand in hand with such climatic conditions as will produce wool and silk. The pearl carvings are most beautiful among people living near the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. There is a great predominence of yellow and red in Indian designs—because iron compounds are plentiful in the earth. The refinement of Greek detail would never have been possible without her fine marble quarries. Indeed, climate and the prevailing materials in any country determine much the character of the finished building. The towers, minarets, fine tracery and carving of the cathedrals and churches of Europe owe their existence to a great extent to the use of soft limestone and caenstone. There are flat roofs in dry countries, pitched roofs where there is little rain, and steep ones in snowy regions. In dealing with literature in this connection, people may shake their heads. If one attempts to trace the influence of sea, mountain, desert, river, seasons, climate, they might say "Of course. That is nature. Of course our literature reflects those things." But, if literature were permeated with expositions of and similes concerning the mechanics of solids and fluids, would it not be interesting at least to trace the relation between physics and literature? The first literary themes of peoples are always songs of the sea, the river, the night, the mountain. In the songs of Indian, American and African savages there is an endless maze of themes to the winds and erosive forces of nature. Many of our literary monuments are merely recitals of geographical exploration and discovery—from Ulysses to Gulliver. The seasons have been sung by Shelley and more others than there is space to name. All stories of Wanderlust are associated with the spring time. Literature of specific areas is definitely stamped. Italy, because of her geographic condition, has been a distinct influence not only upon her own writers, but upon all writers who have journey there—Bryon, Goethe, Shelley, Browning, Keats, Milton. The influence of the north—how absolutely can we trace it! Beowulf is a mirror, almost, of the grimness of the north. Fiona Macleod, Ibsen, are essentially of the north. Pick up Brand. Where else could it have been produced? The desert, the river, the sea, the mountain, have been inspirations of many literary efforts.

All this may seem as much a "mere rush of detail" as that spoken of as characteristic of the geography of our school-days; but the details are of a different nature—more vital and of more human interest. Though the field is, I grant, entirely too large to be covered in a brief paper, yet, to make of geography not merely a collection of bald facts, but a study most intimately associated with and related to the fields of human activity—commerce, industry, history, science, thought, music, literature and art—that is what I mean by a "philosophy of geography."