Nature or Nurture: Are Geographers Made or Born?

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People who share my discipline often say that geographers are born, not made.  They recall being the children that always spent hours pouring over maps and atlases, and serving as the family navigator on road trips. I certainly experienced a certain “coming into my sweet spot” experience when I discovered the field.  I could study aspects of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities in order to understand what I saw around me.  I could use abstract concepts to explain concrete patterns on the ground.  I still find it incredibly satisfying, a pleasure that I have to monitor around my daughters

What is it that makes us different, we geographers?   Are we visual learners? Is that the distinction from others?  Or are we “lumpers” rather than “spliters”–people who naturally are trying to understand phenomenon as wholes rather than reducing them into smaller and smaller parts?  Or are there developmental experiences that shape our interests?

I contemplated whether I was born a geographer, or became one this past week when I visited Winston Salem, North Carolina.  I had not been to Winston Salem since I lived there as a five year old.  I spent my first five years on the prairies of Iowa, went to North Carolina for one year, and then returned to the prairies of the Midwest.  I believe that in some way that one year fueled my imagination and my ability to image all possible worlds.  Did it make me a geographer?

As a five year old, I can remember the strangeness of the place–the Appalachian mountains and its coal beds, the hilly terrain, the red soil, the smell of the clay, the Baptist church my father pastored that was filled with tobacco farmers, and civil war bubble gum collecting cards.  I adapted overnight and took on a southern accent, yet maintained a northern identify in my bubble gum card collection.  Did I ask questions about all of this of my parents, or was all this processing going on in my mind?  And is it the multi-sensory nature of how I interacted with this place, almost feeling it in my bones, that characterizes me as a geographer?  I smelled.  I saw.  I heard.  I felt it.

A discussion with my mother and brother on the apartment complex where we lived that year, finally identified its location.  My mother thought is was east of the Baptist hospital where my father was in chaplaincy training, but my brother, who was 7 when we lived there, remembered the street.  I wondered if I would recognize it.  I remembered red brick apartments buildings with a hill behind our particular building (I slid down the hill using a plastic covered winter coat in a rare snowfall) and a parking lot at the bottom of the hill.  I could see myself at the bottom of the hill in the parking lot talking to my friends about the Civil War cards and could also picture a playground nearby.

DSCN0817 DSCN0822When I drove down the street, it wasn’t the detail of the buildings or the inside of the apartment that I remembered, but the context–the hill, the parking lot, and the grassy lot–and it was all there.  I think I know which building I lived in from that larger context–the visualization–whereas my brother remembers exact numbers and streets (he is a medical doctor).

I went by the Presbyterian church where I went to kindergarten.  North Carolina didn’t have public kindergartens at that time–something else that became part of my memory.  I was surprised that it was right across the street from the larger apartment complex.  It had had no relational spatial location in my memory.  It’s location was not part of my mental map.

DSCN0821Did this experience of living in a different world at such a young age make me a geographer, seeking out yet other possible worlds to explore over a lifetime?  Or did I see, smell, hear, and feel this place in the way I did because I was born to do this?

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1 thought on “Nature or Nurture: Are Geographers Made or Born?

  1. Great essay Jan! Ah, the question of the chicken and the egg…which came first? I think the move fueled your curiosity about places, and how very different they can be. Maybe a similar thing prompted me to pursue geography. When I was 8, my family made the first of what became annual treks to Cape Cod from the industrial Ohio River valley where we lived near Pittsburgh. Watching the landscape change and following the route on the map kept me occupied for the 14 hour trip. The same two things still hold my attention on any road trip!

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