Education in the Northern Mid-Latitudes



I travel to work daily through the woods.  Through one particular stretch of road I find myself reciting the preamble of Longfellow’s Evangeline, memorized in high school: 


This is the forest primeval.

The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,

Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms

Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean

Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.


I am a child of the Northern mid-latitudes.  I grew up, raised my daughter, and continue to live among the deciduous trees of the mid-latitudes—oaks, maples, elms, beech, walnut, and hickory.

The nature of the mid-latitudes is that the inclination of the earth leads to a greater range in climate from winter to summer than nearer to the equator.  Evergreens (and pinecones) dominate further to the north and year round growth to the south.  But the mid-latitudes are defined by the deciduous trees whose leaves turn brilliant colors in the autumn, and fall to the ground, leaving behind the stark shapes and textures of the tree trunks and branches.  These trees produce a seasonal abundance of seeds, feeding the animals that collect and store them for the winter, many of whom go into hibernation.  One year I had a neighbor’s one oak tree produce enough acorns to fill multiple trashcans! My daughters and I learned about oak tree cycles that year and anticipated an explosion in the squirrel population the next spring.

When I was growing up, we would bury each other in piles of leaves in the fall, or create imaginary houses, using the piles as the walls.  Eventually we would stand by as our parents burned the piles, at a time before concerns over air quality.

If you live in the Northern mid-latitudes and have children, there is a “rite of passage” which involves building a leaf collection for a school project.  Early grade school projects may require the use of acorns and other nuts from these deciduous trees for art projects, but middle school involves the dreaded leaf collection project.

The front cover of Marie’s leaf collection

My older daughter attended a special 6th grade science-enrichment school where she was required to collect leaves from a MINIMUM of 25 native tree species.Rumors of local parks where all the trees were labeled passed through the parent network, as well as tips on where to find particularly rare native tree species.  Parents who had older children were especially valuable because they had gone through this rite of passage before.  Although I would never admit it under oath, there might have been some leaf sharing among desperate working parents. I really have no idea whether my daughter learned her mid-latitude trees, but I certainly did:  Red Oak, White Oak, Pin Oak, Bur Oak, Red Maple, Norway Maple, Sugar Maple, Ash, Black Locust, Honey Locust, Black Walnut, Red Bud, White Birch, Paper Birch, Sassafras, Sweetgum, Hawthorne, Shagbark Hickory…I believe we ended up with more than 40 species of trees.

As I drive daily through the forest primeval, I personally identify the trees of the mid-latitude forest around me, bonding especially with the Shagbark Hickory. 

When my daughter returned to her regular school in 7th grade she was required to do a leaf collection…again…

Stages of Life, Scales of Living

When I was in college or graduate school, I remember my parents starting to get together once a year with three other couples for what they called “The Last Hurrah.”  They had all lived in the same town and been friends at the time I was under 5 years old, but two of the couples, including my parents, had moved away.  Life intervened, and only when children were grown and gone did they establish the pattern of getting together for what was a series of “Last Hurrahs,” drawing the group together from across the country.

I experienced a similar pattern when a group of friends from college began to get together occasionally after a 17 year period of not seeing each other.  Scattered across the country, with several of us having moved several times, we’ve met in Montana, Michigan, Manitoba, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  My daughters view this group much like I viewed my parents’ “Last Hurrah” group.

I have been thinking lately about the scale at which I experience my closest relationships.  At one point in my life, it would have been at the local scale, but as I have taken on new opportunities over time to serve at higher levels, with its resulting moves, I have begun to see my closest relationships existing at a national or even international scale.  I had a conversation around this topic this morning, as I ate lunch at Sugar Mags in Gloucester, MA  with friends from out of state who had come to visit–are we examples of life in the post-modern world, where we envision our deep relational network as a web that exists far above the local level?  Or is this spatial pattern the result of the vocational positions that we occupy where all relationships at the local level are related to these positions of responsibility?

I feel like I am walking lightly in the place where I live, not deeply embedded in the local community in the same way as I was when my children were young and our lives focused on their school, the neighborhood, church activities, and local events. Tulip Time has been replaced with international meeting of the CCCU in L.A.  Friday night coffee at the local bookstore has been replaced with visits from friends from afar, or skype conversations.  Have I become, what one essayist called, “The rootless professor?”

For a geographer, who has written on the importance of place, this is all a bit troubling.  It is especially troubling because I have often quoted Christopher Lasch who argued that we loved particular people and places, rather than “the world”–the world being far too abstract.  Am I living at a scale that inhibits depth?

I haven’t yet drawn any conclusions on whether this new weightlessness in terms of the local community is the result of my life experience which has resulted in an accumulation of places and relationships, of my positions of leadership, or more generally the result of post-modern life.  What I do know is that, when taking a walk on a beautiful fall day recently near my house, a whole string of antique horse-drawn carriages came by, filled with individuals in Victorian-era clothing and I have no clue as to what was going on.  Everyone around me seemed to know what the occasion was, but as I walked I had been thinking about the international rankings in higher education and my skype meeting with the Dean from Hang Seng College in Hong Kong.