Journey of Discovery

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A Journey of Discovery

John R. Borchert

One of the country’s leading professional urban planners once remarked to me, "If I ever write my autobiography, the title is going to be One Thing Led to Another ". He quickly admitted that’s a terrible thing for a planner to say, but repeated that it was true. Another time, a geographer who was a successful analyst and consultant on metropolitan growth and land development commented, "I really haven’t had a career; I’ve simply careened through life". I heard those ideas from others, but they are no less applicable to my own case.

For me, life as a geographer has been a succession of discoveries, beginning by chance at a particular time and place,

and each leading to another. As a boy, by chance, I discovered the subject of geography, although I didn’t assign a name to it. Then, by chance, I discovered the academic field of Geography. A little later I discovered the discipline, and at last I could put together my accumulated knowledge of the subject matter and the field. Soon afterward, by good fortune, I discovered the need for geographical teaching and research. Meanwhile, I discovered the legion of curious, able, energetic students who, themselves, were discovering the subject matter, the field, and the discipline. And, alas, I discovered the chores to be done if one would conserve the institutions that provide the opportunity to teach and to study the field.

Too often among the hundreds of undergraduate advisees who came into my office, one of them would say, in effect, "I just don’t see how I’m going to work out my course program until I figure out what I’m going to do with my life." We would then work something out, but my parting advice would always be, "Remember: as a student you’re a professional. Be the best, most professional student you can be. But don’t be afraid to adapt to new interests and opportunities. Just be sure when you lay out each year’s program that it makes the greatest possible use of the energy you’ve invested up to that time. Changes in direction are exciting and often inevitable; but continuity is extremely valuable. Save what you learn, invest it and reinvest it."



As a boy in the 1920s and early 1930s I lived, by chance, on the edge of one of the steepest geographical gradients in the world at that time.

On one side of the gradient stood my home town, Crown Point, Indiana. At that time it was in most ways a typical Corn Belt county seat of 2500. Its merchants served the farmers within a six-mile radius, most of whom farmed land that had been cleared by their immigrant fathers and uncles in the mid-1800s. Almost everyone had a northwest European background, the vast majority German. German was still spoken at home by many of the old folks. The worth of a farmer was commonly measured by the size of his barns and manure piles and the order of his fields, not by his formal education. Ethnic and religious tolerance did not have a high standing. There was not a single African-American household, and only two Jewish, both in menial trades. Even our annual family reunion crowd of 200 or so divided along religious lines for the picnic dinner. The Roman Catholics ate at one set of tables; Missouri Synod Lutherans, plus a fringe of lesser protestants and fallen away but otherwise honorable relatives, ate at another set.

Yet just ten miles north of my home town was the south edge of the new, 100-thousand city of Gary, laid out less than a decade earlier by the U.S. Steel Corporation on the marshes and sand dunes at the south end of Lake Michigan. Just five miles farther north were the gates of the largest steel mills in the world, the economic base of Gary. Twenty thousand of Gary’s residents were Afro-American. Easily 80 percent of the rest were recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and a small contingent from Asia. It was a linguistic and religious polyglot to match any in America at that time.

From Gary a smoky, chaotic array of recent, modest residential neighborhoods, refineries, factories, and vast rail yards sprawled westward across the Calumet flats for 15 miles into Chicago. Beyond that, just 40 miles from my bucolic home town, monumental office towers and hotels rose above the noise and bustle and soot of the Chicago Loop. The train ride from Crown Point to the heart of Chicago took 59 minutes. Through the dirty day-coach windows I watched, on trip after trip, the quick, bewildering transition from my rural home countryside, through a heavy industrial complex that matched the Ruhr and the Pittsburgh-Cleveland axis for world leadership, amid rail yards teeming with thousands of box cars emblazoned with system names that read like a gazeteer of North America, to the heart of what was then the fourth largest city on earth.

The contrast was all the more striking because of my mother’s connections with Chicago. While my father was a country boy, she was a city girl. On completion of 8th grade, she had gone to work for the next 14 years as an office clerk at what was then reputedly the largest factory in the world, the giant Western Electric plant on Chicago’s west side. Close friends she had made in those years were now raising children my age in locations scattered in widely contrasting neighborhoods throughout the metropolis--from the sooty frame tenements near the industrial Chicago river to the elite North Shore and upper-middle class western suburbs, from inner-city, immigrant common laborer to corporate executive and suburban bank president. Unlike my cousins and many friends at home, most of those children were college bound and knew it.

Then there was my maternal grandmother in Chicago. Born the year the Golden Spike was driven to link Chicago with the Pacific coast, her earliest memories dated from the night of the Chicago fire. Self-educated, with good fortune, she had worked at a string of jobs that began as a seamstress stitching baseballs in Mr. A. G. Spaulding’s upstairs workshop and ended as housekeeper for the mayor of Chicago. Her neighborhood butcher had been the eventual meat packing magnate, Oscar Mayer. Her recollections of the physical and social changes in her city, like everything else in the environment were stimulating, often puzzling.

One of her nephews, briefly husband of the famous torch singer, Sophie Tucker, was music director at the newly-established NBC radio network studios in Chicago. When he would arrange visits to the studios, I could go into the control room and confront on one entire wall a breath-taking relief map of the United States which showed the city location of every NBC affiliate, with a light where a local station was carrying a network program at the moment. I could look at that map and put my nearby, still-bucolic home town in the context of the new coast-to-coast radio network communications system of the nation..

There were other interesting contrasts. As auto ownership spread in the 1920s and early ‘30s, people from Crown Point made the trip to the Calumet industrial cities more and more often for work, shopping, and entertainment. In my college years I worked during the Christmas holidays as a salesman in the men’s furnishings department at the Sears department store in Gary. I often helped appreciative black ladies select a shirt or tie that would look good on their sons or husbands, and met not only black men who labored in the mills but others who were professionals and small business owners in the city’s large black community. I learned much about their backgrounds and lives in the process. A thrilling and provocative experience for a boy from all-white Crown Point.

Three of my cousins, brothers from the same farm, like many of their neighbors, were skilled, self-taught mechanics. When model-T Ford commuting began, they found work at the steel mills in Gary; and when the worst of the Great Depression followed, they were laid off, along with 80 percent of the production force. One of them found work as a garage mechanic, another as a car salesman. The third worked for labor leader John L. Lewis in the effort to unionize the mills. In that work he met a young Slavic immigrant woman who believed in the Soviet revolution, preached communism among her friends in Gary, and relayed propaganda literature from the Soviet cultural offices in New York. That gave me the opportunity to read vividly illustrated volumes on the goals and achievements of the Five-Year Plans. And I could try to match them with the reporting of Eastern European events in Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American.

The third brother persuaded the other two to join him as members of the Communist Party USA. It seemed like a way to get the mills going full-tilt again. Later the three joined to buy the Chevrolet garage in a nearby small town which was becoming a residential suburb of the industrial cities. Thus they were General Motors dealers and card-carrying members of the Communist Party at the same time! Meanwhile, back on the family farm, their father had resisted the township’s plan to surface his dirt road because he did not believe automobiles were here to stay. He refused to get electricity on the farm because appliances would make everybody lazy. And he thought a telephone was unnecessary and would simply tempt his wife to waste the day talking.

So here was an adolescent in a remarkable and potentially very confusing transition zone in the country’s--or the world’s--historical geography. There was a rich array of inconsistencies and contrasts. There were plenty of questions. There was a bewildering initial problem in simply classifying and ordering the observations of places, people, and activities that tumbled in day after day. Here was a feast of wonderful, challenging field experience, though nearly a decade would pass before I would fully discover that there is a field of Geography in which all of this material would fit.

Two big sources of help were at hand at the time. One was the small group of teachers, the minister, and the parents of some of my friends who were in the legal and land records professions associated with the local county court house. They guided me to the library early on, and eventually helped me to understand that I should go to college. The other was my Dad, who was a railway postal clerk. For years I watched him continuously thinking about the routing of mail through the northeastern and central regions of the country and studying for examinations. His study habits were my introduction to intellectual discipline. Meanwhile, a map of railway mail routes provided a very useful system for arranging the welter of information about places beyond the horizon.


It was a fitful, chancy journey to eventual full discovery of Geography as an actual field of study. I guess the journey began in the first year after high school. To be sure, I had two one-term Geography courses in grade school. But the teacher was not known in the school or in the community as the geography teacher, let alone as a geographer. I surely did not understand that the books were actually written by people who worked in a college field by that name. To my knowledge, Geography simply did not exist as a field of advanced study, let alone an occupation. Therefore, to learn of the field, I was going to have to go to college. And that was not a certainty.

I wanted to be a journalist. It seemed the obvious way to begin was to get a job with the local weekly paper and work up. I learned the rudiments of the printing trade and occasionally had to write the whole paper, from sports to card parties to weddings to funerals--with a deadline and with the knowledge that everyone around the courthouse square would soon let me know if I got something wrong. In later years I envied colleague James Parsons his longer and deeper journalistic experience before he took up Geography at Berkeley. But during that year the local Methodist parson intervened. He introduced me to a friend who was an executive at the Chicago Tribune. In his imposing tower office on Michigan Boulevard, Mr. Maxwell quickly showed me why I needed a college degree if I were going to get anywhere in that field. Then Rev. McFall introduced me, rather by chance, to the president of DePauw University, whose local high school commencement speech I was reporting. The following fall I was in college at DePauw, in Greencastle, Indiana.

By chance I took a year of geology as a freshman. It took some time to get oriented before I decided on a geology major. There were two reasons for the decision. The study of historical geology--especially the Ice Age and Recent--was my most liberating intellectual experience in college up to that time. And the study of economic geology could lead to employment. Like any youngster in any age I was curious about my place in the scheme of things. And like any youngster in a working-class family during the Depression, I could not justify college if it did not lead to a good job.


The lone professor of Geology did offer one course called Geography, which served to meet a state requirement for students majoring in Education. But neither he nor I had much interest in the course. The textbook seemed to me to be handicapped by what I now realize was an environmental-deterministic organization. It seemed either to garble or omit most of the geographical information I had accumulated informally. Meanwhile, however, Professor "Rock" Smith was a devoted and knowledgeable geologist and a stern taskmaster.

"Rock" saw the future of such fields as statistics, geophysics, and aerial photography in geology research and applications. He pushed his handful of majors (I was the 19th in 20 years) through a rigorous and well-rounded introduction to geology, the basic sciences, and mathematics unusual for the time. The college saw to the rest of a liberal program. Even more important, the campus lay astride the boundary between newer and older glaciation of the Midwest and also astride the gradient between later settlement from northern Europe, via New York, and earlier settlement from the South, via the Ohio valley. Hence "Rock’s" love of field work exposed his students to a lot of informal observation of not only the physiographic but also the cultural changes across those boundaries.


Preceding graduate school in Geology, a short stint in geophysical exploration for oil introduced me to the inspiring landscapes of the northern Great Plains and to my future wife, Jane Willson, in Bismarck, ND. Her unfailing support would help me at every point on the road ahead. A semester of graduate work at the University of Illinois--just long enough to discover that I enjoyed teaching--was punctuated by Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II. There was no way to focus on traditional graduate work now. A job beckoned as a topographer with the U. S. Geological Survey. Topographic mapping of the coastal areas had been accelerated in response to the fear of Nazi and Japanese attacks. My assignment was on the Tensaw quadrangle, on the bayou-laced delta of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, at the northeast edge of Mobile Bay. As one result, my name appears as one of the surveyors on a USGS topographic sheet--the only AAG member, I believe, to hold that obsolete distinction.

Far more important, at least to my education, were some of the features of the "culture" which we were locating on our field sheet. We kept encountering large mounds, hidden deep in the piney woods and swamps, left by Spanish surveyors and their slaves when they had tried to locate the boundary of Florida in this remote wilderness, months removed in travel time from the royal palace in Barcelona. And there were the footpaths winding through the roadless pine forest--a mature forest growing where a previous mature forest had been logged early in the 20th century, where cotton fields had grown half a century before that.

In clearings here and there along the footpaths were one-room, windowless log cabins. Adjoining small gardens were enclosed by crude stockades to keep out the deer and bear and wild hogs. The gardens supplied much of the food for the descendants of slaves who lived in the cabins. Trapping and hunting provided their cash. The people in the cabins were old. Their great-grandparents had worked in the cotton fields that were now under second-growth mature forest. The year was 1942. The younger folks had moved to Mobile in response to the war-time employment boom.

Where the paths converged in the middle of the forest, there was a larger cabin, with split logs for seats and desks. That was the community church. It had also doubled for the school when the young people were still there. A couple of miles away, out on the highway, stood a neat brick elementary school, built with federal public works funds, for white children. Nearby, a tiny rough-sawn store building stood at the edge of the road. It was run by a friendly, toothless, grizzly white man who was the only remaining descendant of the one time plantation owner. His store stocked crackers, canned beans, Coca Cola, and shotgun shells. He catered mainly to the people who lived in the cabins along the footpaths.

As my rodman and I went about our mapping, the families in the cabins always greeted us; and so did the preacher. We encountered him several times each day as he rode from cabin to cabin to minister to his flock and take his meals with them. His mule was the only transportation in the black community. We often visited with the pastor, but I had difficulty understanding the others. So did my rodman, a white 16-year-old dropout from the county seat. I was a stranger from 900 miles away. He was a stranger from ten miles away.; he’d never been in this area, either. I could not explain what we were doing to folks beside the cabins. Most were not literate. Some had no certain surname, perhaps no legal existence. There was no context to understand a topographic survey. My mind so often ran to the urbanized, transplanted African-American customers I met in the Sears store in Gary.

My work on the Tensaw Quadrangle ended abruptly in early 1942 with a profound change in direction--but definitely not a discontinuity. I changed course from Geology and Geophysics to graduate work in Meteorology at M.I.T., where Jane and I were married. Part of the Aviation Cadet program, the course led to a commission in the Army Air Force. The most exciting part of the program to me was the work with synoptic weather maps. Foreshadowing events to come in my life, one course dealt with world regional climatology. That was my introduction to the Koppen classification of climates, which, unbeknownst to me, was a focus for much research and writing in American geography in those years.

After commissioning and a brief break-in period, I went to England. Experience at bomber bases in mid-1943 led to almost two years of work as an operational weather forecaster at the headquarters of the B-24 "Liberator" bomber division. There were similar weather centrals at each of the two B-17 "Flying Fortress" divisons and at the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command. On many days a thousand planes and ten thousand men were flying on our forecast.


Briefing the crews and the generals, and de-briefing the crews after a mission were powerful and humbling teaching experiences. Analyzing and drawing the weather maps, and preparing the forecasts were powerful experiences, too. The essence of our job was clear. We had a very large array of numerical data on a map of a very large area of the world. We used isopleth analysis to locate highs, lows, gradients, air flows, and weather conditions generated by those flows as they diverged, converged, and crossed relief features and water bodies. Then we applied a mixture of fairly rigorous procedures and intuition to extrapolate the patterns through time.

Thus, we were doing four-dimensional cartographic analysis, which I would later come to believe is the heart of the geographic method. It was obviously the same method to which I had been exposed in the contouring of bedrock surfaces in search of possible oil-bearing domes on the northern Great Plains, and in making topographic maps that could be used to follow changes in the shape of the delta at the head of Mobile Bay. The weather maps were far more exciting because they were so much more dynamic--changing by the hour rather than by the century or the eon. Hence they were much more suited to seeking and applying the understanding of change because change was going on while you watched.

Twice daily we analyzed weather maps that reached more than half way around the northern hemisphere, from the west coast of North America to central Siberia, and from near the North Pole to the Sahara. Four times each day we analyzed maps that reached from Greenland and the Azores to the Urals and North Africa. The map analysis and forecasting for routes and target areas were absorbing. You could never avoid reviewing and enlarging on what you had learned about the vast, ever-changing global atmospheric circulation system. But it was also impossible to range over all those lands without thinking about what people there were doing. Along with weather forecasts, from piecemeal intelligence photos and topographic maps, you conjured landscapes and little stories as your attention moved from Atlantic City to Aberdeen to Algiers to Astrakhan, all at the same hour on the same day.

During the preparations for the Allied invasion of the continent, one of my former fellow geology students at DePauw appeared at the British Admiralty headquarters as a member of a small team assembled to forecast sea-and-swell conditions for "D-day". When we got together, I met one of his co-workers, Kenneth Hare. Dr. Hare’s background turned out to be in Geography--a fully recognized field of study in England, I learned. I hadn’t even a premonition that our paths would cross again, in Geography, two decades later in North America. Nevertheless, my gradual, fitful discovery of the field--and certainly my widening observation of the subject matter--continued.

The end of the war set in motion a chain of chance events which led quickly, once and for all, to the field of Geography. My room-mate on the base in East Anglia at that time was the division ordnance officer. Mysteriously, he happened also to be responsible for closing down the libraries at all the bases. Near our quarters he happened to have a quonset hut filled to the roof with books from those libraries. A great many of them were introductory college textbooks. With combat missions discontinued, I found myself spending many evenings browsing through stacks of textbooks which some committee had once decided should be available to curious GI’s while they carried on the air war over Europe. As you might guess, the books were generally in excellent condition.

I became steeped in the fundamentals of practically everything. But one book caught my special attention--The Elements of Geography, by V. C. Finch and G. T. Trewartha, professors at the University of Wisconsin. Large parts of the book seemed to deal with Mapping, Geology, and Meteorology/Climatology. I had worked at the early graduate level and had some applied experience in all three fields. There seemed to be an effort to relate the earth science material to human use of the land, and that had always interested me. The final section of the book tried to say something systematic about the morphology of human settlement. The effort was minimal and halting but the idea was intriguing. My thoughts also ran to the enjoyment I’d experienced in tutoring at DePauw, running labs and quiz sections at Illinois, and briefing crews and generals in England. Perhaps I should look into this.

When I returned to the States in September of 1945, Jane and I, now with a 3-year-old daughter, were impatient to settle in the civilian economy and get going. I soon rejected the possibility of continuing graduate work in geology or pursuing graduate work in meteorology. The outlook for satisfying work, advancement, and income seemed best in petroleum exploration or air transportation. A particularly exciting opportunity had appeared with Northwest Airlines, which was at the threshold of its major post-War commercial expansion coast-to-coast and across the Pacific. But there were lingering thoughts about Geography.

In late September, 1945, Jane and I were visiting my home back in northern Indiana. I left for two days to go to Camp McCoy, in central Wisconsin, for separation from the military. As I was leaving, Jane suggested that I stop at Madison on the return trip and talk with those men, Finch and Trewartha, just to put the matter to rest. I said, "Aw, the train from Camp McCoy to Chicago doesn’t go through Madison. Besides, I think we’re pretty well committed to Northwest."

The next afternoon I was walking from the base headquarters back to my barracks to pick up my knapsack and head for the railway station to catch the train for Chicago. Overtaking two fellows on the walk, I asked the time. The conversation disclosed that they were about to drive to Detroit, and I was welcome to a ride with them right to Crown Point, Indiana. Excellent. It occurred to me that this route would go through Madison. A couple of hours later, we got a red light at the corner of Park and University, on the edge of the University campus. I thought, "If Jane learned I came this close and didn’t stop, she’d be pretty upset." So I climbed out of the car and found a hotel room.

Next morning early I headed for the campus and easily found the Geography Department just where I expected it to be--relegated to the upper floor in a big red brick Victorian building shared with Geology. At the top of the stairs was the sign over Prof. Finch’s office door. He received me graciously. We talked for some time about my background and interests and questions, his assessment of where the field had come from, and its post-War future. Presently he looked at his watch and observed that he had to give a lecture to the introductory physical geography class in a few minutes. He paused, then said, "The lecture today deals with the Marine West Coast climates in the Koppen system. You are certainly familiar with that climate and what it meant for our fliers in northwestern Europe. Would you like to give the lecture?"

Recklessly, I accepted the invitation. As we walked up Bascom Hill to the lecture hall, I thought about the chapter on Cfb climates in Haurwitz and Austin’s climatology text at MIT and some memorable mission forecasts that illustrated both our location in the world wind system and what it meant to air force operations. I was alarmed to see 200 students waiting in their seats. At the end of the hour, I was drained; the blackboard was filled with outline headings and map sketches; and the class applauded. I had found the field. I was hooked, for good. A week later we were living in Madison and beginning to burn alternative occupational bridges behind us. .




When we returned to the department, Prof. Finch introduced me to Prof. Trewartha for more conversation about the field, then I remained for a bag lunch with the half-dozen graduate students, including Alan Rogers and Wilbur Zelinsky. By chance, the guest speaker was Prof. Wellington Jones, from the University of Chicago. He reported on his research in the Punjab.

Jones’ presentation was a revelation to someone at my particular level of preparation. His maps were simply work sheets, containing Indian census data on crops, at successive time intervals. The data were overlaid with isopleths. He talked about areas of high and low production, intervening gradients, and changes in pattern from one time to another. He laid out his explanations for the patterns and the changes. His explanations were based on archival work and interviews in the field and on comparisons with other maps. He examined his subject at several scales. Behind him hung a couple of large wall maps on which he placed his study area within South Asia and the World . At the opposite end of the scale, he showed photographs of landscapes which were generalized on his maps. He discussed questions which still puzzled him, and he speculated about possible further questions the maps suggested.

I thought, this is analogous in so many ways to what we did with weather obvservations--isopleth analysis, description and classification of patterns; description at different scales from global to local; interpretation using both theories and simple, direct obervations; discussions of the results with others who were interested. Here, once more, was a demonstration of what I would come to regard as the core of the geographic method. The data were for minor civil divisions rather than specific weather stations. Prof. Jones was sampling an extensive surface using small areas rather than points. His time intervals were in years rather than hours. But there was plenty of opportunity to watch and map the change as it was actually taking place.

Graphically and intellectually he put his study area in its context of larger world patterns--just as we placed the weather maps of the British Isles in the context of the northern hemisphere circulation, when we briefed aircrews. Or just as we had placed the potential oil structures of North Dakota in the context of stratigraphic and structural patterns of the continent. Or the Tensaw Quadrangle in the context of colonial boundary surveys and the U.S. Land Survey or the map of slave-holding agriculture. Or the route of my boyhood train rides from Crown Point to Chicago in its context on atlas railroad maps.

The landscapes in Prof. Jones’ slides represented regions on his maps. I thought of memorable landscapes in my own experience--the flatwoods, the windowless cabins, and muddy bayous on the Tensaw quadrangle; the contrasting scenes from the train window in the transition from the countryside to the nearby heart of Chicago. His interviews seemed analagous in a way to my conversations with the folks beside their stockades on the Tensaw; with the land agents leasing drilling rights from central North Dakota farmers on the land we were seismically surveying; with my white rural cousins and my urban black customers, all busy living their lives in the industrial northwestern corner of Indiana. Clearly, one good way to order these landscapes and conversations was to put them on maps.

In short, this talk focused on an aspect of the human use of the earth. It classified selected features to describe a geographic structure. It described a geographic process of change in that structure. It looked into some of the mechanics of the change process. And it depicted the structure and change at different scales. The study suggested that maps proscribe a distinct geographic scale for the study of human settlement--from local to global. To appreciate the analysis, I had to visualize myself in a place there in India and visualize my location on maps of the village, the region, the sub-continent, and the world. I had to be able to shift back and forth between images of the real landscape and images of my location at that place on maps at different scales, with graphic symbols at diffrerent levels of abstraction. Prof. Jones’ maps also suggested the virtually endless range of possible observations about the human use of the earth that either are or could be collected and mapped. In turn, that suggested the problem of selecting which data to work on, and in what order. Not an easy subject. I had no idea how far we’d still be from understanding the cognitive aspects of it when I would retire fifty years later.

Nevertheless, here was clearly a powerful intellectual tool. It would be hard to imagine a more intellectually liberating experience than backing off and looking at one’s self on the face of the earth in this way. Nor would it be easy to think of any more efficient way to understand the locations and interactions among a great variety of day-to-day activities while, at the same time helping in the ultimate scientific quest to understand the role of humanity on the earth.

With the benefit of retrospect, it’s easy to make too much of that brief encounter. Yet I’m sure that all of those seeds were planted at that time. On the one hand, the experience showed me a way to order the array of naive observations of people’s behavior on the land, and the limited vocabulary of mental maps I had accumulated up to that day. At the same time it set in motion my thinking about the discipline and practice of geography. To be sure, the thinking would be modified and reinforced from that time on; but it had begun.

The inspiration really never waned. It led to many rewarding discussions with fellow graduate students including Rogers and Zelinsky, as well as Cotton Mather, John Brush, and John Alexander. Richard Hartshorne added historical depth sorely missing in my peculiar and accidental background. Arthur Robinson brought so much insight into discussions of scale, generalization, and measurement. Glenn Trewartha added his penchant for vise-like, orderly, unequivocal description. Reid Bryson’s ideas about flows, gradients, boundary zones, and interactions between the earth and human settlement ranged far beyond his central interest in dynamic climatology. The same thinking that began in that lunch hour with Wellington Jones in 1945 carried through to discussions with Minnesota colleagues including, especially, Jan Broek, John Weaver, Phillip Porter, Joseph Schwartzberg, and Fred Lukermann, and a procession of graduate students.

As a result, maps in time series to analyze geographic processes were a hallmark of most of the research I did from the time I became a geographer. Let me take a few major examples.

My first major publication, in 1949, was also my doctoral dissertation. It compared the patterns of atmospheric circulation, rainfall, and temperature in different dry seasons and decades in central North America. A short time later, two studies of municipal water supplies of American cities compared patterns of water use with available supplies in wet and dry periods.

A field class project in the early years at Minnesota returned to a one-time land-use and ownership survey Prof. Darrell Davis had done in a frontier Finnish settlement area on the Lake Superior north shore. His work dated from the 1930s, in the days of federal rural resettlement during the Great Depression. Mapping and interviewing in the same area at a second point in time enabled us to describe a quarter century of dramatic local changes that reflected global forces from the Czar’s Russification of Finland to Washington and Kremlin policies in the "Cold War".

A 1967 study, "American Metropolitan Evolution", depended on maps of the country’s cities, using comparable size classes, at successive dates in the evolution of transportation and industrial technologies. The study emphasized the importance of successive, unforseen new rounds of initial advantage, reorganization, adaptation, and new reasons to exploit new land and abandon old. It mused over countervailing public pressures--speed up institutional adaptations to geographic change, notably in local government; or try to retard the rate of change and thus reduce the need for difficult adaptation. Comparison of this paper with the Grassland study shows my continued focus on mapping geographic processes, notwithstanding a big shift of application from resources to settlements.

A subsequent paper on "Major Control Points In American Economic Geography" dealt with one component of metropolitan evolution. It mapped a half-century of change in the location of headquarters of large business organizaztions. The maps reflected the importance of entrepreneurship, instability, inertia, and drive for security. Another follow-up study in 1983, on "Instability in American Metropolitan Evolution", described in more detail a century of increasing variability in local growth rates as the speed and capacity of inter-metropolitan circulation increased. In light of the findings, "chaos theory" came as no surprise.

A 1987 regional monograph, America’s Northern Heartland, was based on many maps comparing the settlement patterns of the Upper Midwest at successive times--at the beginning of railroading, the beginning of the auto-air age, and the beginning of the jet-satellite-fibre optic era. The study documented and interpreted dramatic changes in the way the region functioned. It also highlighted persistent features of the culture and circulation network of a busy part of the country, whose winters, most Americans think, make it basically uninhabitable.

A short time later, I had the opportunity to reflect on the changes since the 1960s. That paper was a chapter on "Futures of American Cities", in a 1991 volume titled, Our Changing Cities. The book was conceived and edited by my colleague, John Fraser Hart, on the occasion of my retirement. My paper followed a stimulating, year-long series presented at the University of Minnesota by some of the country’s finest urban geographers. In that study, I asserted that we have been in a new epoch since the 1970s, and speculated on the settlement features that would be the hallmarks of the resulting new metropolitan "age rings".

I suppose I could not escape from impressions developed over the previous three decades--the importance of evolving, pervasive technologies; unique local sites and histories; entrepreneurship; and increasing instability, complexity, and fragmentation. I added that an outpouring of atlases and interpretation would be more essential than ever as the inhabitants of these cities seek to understand their options and their actions. There I had in mind two converging trends: society’s growing need for geographic analysis and forecasting, on the one hand, and the potential power of Geographic Information Systems, on the other.

Both trends were foreshadowed, in a way, by a fairly massive study I carried out with the help of students in the late 1950s.

The result was "The Twin Cities Urbanized Area: Past, Present, Future", published in 1961. Although that paper also rested on a time series of maps, there were some added features.

For one thing, the goal of the study was to map a probable future geographic pattern of subdivision in the metropolitan area. That demanded an historical series of data more consistent and detailed than the census. Computerized land records were still well in the future; hence we had to devise a measure that could be obtained readily from both old and recent maps and would be consistent through time.

From a large sample of mile-square sections in the land survey, we found that a count of public street and road intersections per square mile provided a virtually perfect indicator of the density of platted building lots and and street mileage. Thus we had a physical descriptor of the cultural landscape reminiscent of Finch and Trewartha’s "cultural elements". And we laid a grid of one-mile squares over the entire five-county study area, not unlike the early works of Sauer and Finch. Then we added in each square mile, a simple index of relief and roughness, another index of water surface--an essential in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. We found that these measures in each of our several thousand mile-square sections, distributed on a graph, fell naturally into classes of density, relief, and drainage. A resident or a developer, looking at the land would probably put boundaries just where we were placing them. We added another descriptor for the quality of roads.

The resulting maps provided an unprecedented picture of the spatial growth of the Twin Cities from 1900 to the height of the post-World War II building boom in 1956. The next step was to extend the growth picture to 1980. We finally generated a map that accommodated the number of new persons in accepted gross population forecasts. The map also put all of the projected new people in places that developed logically from past decisions, terrain, and accessibility. The map showed unprecedented geographical detail. A quarter-century later it turned out to be about 80 percent accurate. Meanwhile it had helped to plan major expansions of highways, parks, utilities, and shopping facilities, schools, and subdivision locations.

Thus the 1961 Twin Cities study went beyond the notion of a time series of synoptic maps unfolding from past to present. It attempted systematically to extend the series into the future. It also set an example locally for the use of fine grids and quantified descriptors of the landscape, looking ahead toward coming computerized geographic information systems. In that respect it was part of the movement spearheaded by the "Area Transportation Studies" stemming from the federal interstate highway program in the late 1950s. It established the direction for two subsequent large-scale research projects: the Minnesota Lake Shore Development Study and the Minnesota Statewide Land Use Management Study--affectionately known in those late-’60s years to students and state legislators as the LSD and SLUM studies.


In the preface to Minnesota’s Changing Geography I asserted that the book’s maps and narrative ". . . reveal one of the most exciting facts which the human mind can discover--the fact that the varied landscapes all around us are parts of an orderly spatial pattern. That spatial pattern is the focus of the study of geography. And it is a fascinating, ever-changing composite expression of the combined works of men and nature." I also claimed that, "Organized knowledge of the present is essential to give relevance to the historical past. Knowledge of the pattern of land and settlement provides the concrete framework upon which to build more abstract knowledge of human society. Knowledge of today’s changing patterns provides the foundations from which plans for tomorrow must grow."

In subsequent decades of use of the book by hundreds of teachers, and in the face of frequent re-statements of those convictions in classes and workshops, no one ever denied them. If those convictions are true, there is little doubt about the importance of geography in liberal education, formal and informal, at every level. I am convinced that liberal education is by far society’s most important need for geography. Other needs, and the ability to furnish students to meet them, are important but subordinate.

Like most Geography departments, we had several Lower Division courses at Minnesota which gave us the opportunity to introduce large numbers of students to the field and the discipline.

When I began teaching at Minnesota in 1949, I inherited, by chance, one of those--a long-established though weakly-attended course on the geography of Minnesota. I assumed, somewhat naively, that students would come into the course with the common attitude that they already knew the territory because they lived "there". Hence they would be expecting an unrewarding but easy three credits. I wanted to show clearly that they could gain new insights about their own territory, or any other, by studying it as geographers; to show that, though the place was familiar, the discipline was new to them and that, as a result, they not only enlarged their substantive knowledge and understanding but also learned useful skills and concepts.

I decided to organize the content of the course around major problems of public policy. It seemed best to select problems which not only have a major geographic dimension but also are important and persistent. The procedure was to state each problem in general terms, sort out the major dependent variables, study their geographic distribution, and ask what are the principal independent variables which are accounting for the distribution. We then compared the resulting series of maps, attempted to explain the problem, and show what variables would have to be changed in what ways to resolve it.

The problems, themselves, were not peculiarly geographical; nor were the answers. But the approach to them was. It used the vocabulary of regional patterns, place knowledge, generic terms of map legends, and concepts--location, scale, circulation, nodality--which are hallmarks of geography. It showed that geography is a way to clarify an issue, analyze a problem, and propose a solution. I selected five broad, interrelated issues. They were vital in Minnesota at that time and likely to be around for some years--the Farm Problem, Promoting Industrial Growth, Metropolitan Organization, Future of Small Towns, and Outlook for the "Depressed" Northeast.

Rather than eliminate the need for traditional material, the new course framework demanded more rigorous description of location and form of such features as moraines and summer drought; and it gave to their understanding an obvious urgency which was clear to the students. It also demanded many new maps of cultural and economic features which had not been needed in the traditional approach and had never been prepared because the questions had not been asked. Students helped to do the research. The material turned out to be so timely and informative that the "instruction" soon spread far beyond the classroom to podiums, panels, and editorial pages. And there was no doubt that it was Geography. People had to discuss the ideas from maps, compare and analyze patterns and locations. They had to know what was where. And they came out with place-specific statements about issues.

It’s not stretching history to say that much of my direction for much of the next 50 years’ work tumbled from that experience. In the first place, the course reached several thousand students in subsequent years. Moreover, spurred by the experience with the Minnesota course, I completely reshuffled the large, introductory physical geography course. We reordered traditional material using as the text a world atlas and specially-prepared supplementary maps, added information on population and technology, organized student work around creation of thematic world maps and accompanying essays. Class means on the final examination rose 15 percentage points over previous performance. Ten thousand undergraduate students took the course over a dozen years. With an equal number in Jan Broek’s introductory human geography course, we had a strong underpinning for the undergraduate major and graduate programs.

The need for material for the Minneosta course motivated the first atlas of the state which Neil Salisbury and I produced when he was a senior undergraduate major, in the early 1950s. The first edition emphasized the state’s agricultural geography. It helped to spawn a lasting relationship with the agricultural extension service. That relationship, in turn, led to funded research jointly by agricultural economics and geography, in the late 1950s. Faculty and graduate students investigated freeway impacts on land use and land value. The geographical studies used time series of maps to separate freeway influences from independent, long-term trends in both rural and urban settings and, thus, to show the complexity of many changes that had been assumed to be caused simply by freeway building. Meanwhile, subsequent issues of the atlas, in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s engaged an extended family of graduate students who went on to positions of leadership in public agencies.

Another set of new materials for the course generated a year-long series of articles for school classroom use in the Minnesota education journal in 1954. Again, that research used time series of maps to show not only the geographic evolution of the state’s surprising array of manufacturing but also to suggest the overwhelming role of local entrepreneurship in explaining it. The series stirred enough interest to lead to publication as a separate booklet. Besides its original purpose, it encouraged changes in state industrial development policy and alerted the governor, other officials, and local business to geography.

Development of material for the metropolitan unit in the course led eventually to "The Twin Cities Urbanized Area: Past, Present, Future". Students who worked on that project fanned out to positions in the metropolitan area’s pioneer urban planning enterprise. Work with both public and private planning opened the opportunity to organize an urban research program under the Upper Midwest Economic Study in the early 1960s. Now the subject was the changing geography of towns and cities all across the Upper Midwest. The ostensible goal was to encourage more urban planning in the changing economy. But our studies resulted in a much deeper understanding of the irreversible geographic trends the auto era had brought to every part of the settlement system. Moreover, my experience with the Upper Midwest Study led to the development of a new year-long course sequence on the geography of American Cities. There it was my good fortune to intersect the emerging careers of quite a few dozen of the most enthusiastic, talented students I would ever know.

Meanwhile, back in the late 1950s, the visibility of the atlas and industry studies led to an opportunity to work with state legislators on a new program that would respond to the federal Outdoor Recreational Resources act. In the Minnesota setting, of course, attention went directly to lakes and forests--money for fisheries, for public access, for tourism, for control of polluted runoff, for exchange of public and private forest lands, and so on. We badly needed centerpiece studies of the basic geography of those topics, and by the mid-1960s geographers were involved with virtually all of them.

The most urgent need was for a study of the state’s thousands of recreational lakes--their physical properties and status and trends in their development. That project soon consumed us. We brought together data from sources scattered through state agencies and local courthouses and supplemented them with survey research. And we joined all the data in a grid of 40-acre cells in the basic land survey, covering 12 thousand miles of inland lake shore. The study had many applications to public policy, lakeshore property development, and the recreational business. And it also provided a context for contemporaneous research in the basic sciences which was necessarily localized.

Widespread interest led to the expansion of the lakeshore study to a statewide land inventory covering more than a million 40-acre cells. By 1972 the project had produced a land use map of the entire state and files that became the basis for the state planning agency’s pioneering land management information system. The big colored map might well have been the first such computer-generated civilian work in the country. In any case, it soon hung in hundreds of state and local offices and libraries and certainly raised many aspects of geographic awareness to a new level.

Four more applied studies come especially to mind from the later 1970s and 1980s. They dealt with such seemingly disparate topics as higher education enrollments, historic preservation of buildings, origins and destinations of redistributed tax revenue, and the market value of land and buildings. All had in common certain traditional features of work I had done over the years. They included field work and analyzed time series of maps. They focused on features of the settlement pattern. They brought geographic detail to topics that were otherwise being dealt with only in generalities which had much more limited value in policy-making. But also, all were collaborative efforts; all depended on managing large amounts of computerized data; and they were perhaps more narrowly specialized than most of my earlier work. Also, through the 1980s, more projects tended to be retrospective "overviews".

Projects were more and more reflecting my aging, I suppose. And times were changing. In 1990-91, I had the opportunity to go on video and TV. We produced a 10-part course called "Minnesota on the Map". It was an up-dated combination of the time-honored undergaduate Minnesota course and the "hard copy" book on the Upper Midwest region. As of this writing, the broadcasts are long since lost in the ether, but I’m still grading papers from the interesting students who use the videotapes in the "distance learning" course (I still call it "corresponence").


Meanwhile, by the late 1960s I was growing acutely aware of the institutional obligations that go along with the opportunity to teach and to study. I had already served as department chair, filled in briefly as an associate dean and assistant to a vice president of the university, served on the AAG council, and miscellaneous National Research Council committees. But now there was a full-time center directorship, and chairmanship of the NRC’s Earth Sciences Division. Then the presidency of the AAG came along at the moment of controversy over moving the meetings from Chicago, in the midst of the Vietnam years, and needs to raise money to support the national office. And there was more to come in the 1980s-- stimulating affairs of the National Research Council and the International Geographical Union. To be sure, assignments like these are not merely obligations. They are opportunities to know personally many outstanding individuals. Often, too, they are honors one can only humbly accept from colleagues.

In retrospect, these excerpts from what I might call a career have been to a very large degree a succession of fortunate, really wonderful opportunities to observe human settlements, to study, teach, and learn, and sometimes to serve institutions I had depended on. Each opportunity was peculiar to the place and to the time I was there. At many critical points I depended on support from individual friends, colleagues, and students. By chance I have mentioned only a few among the many whom I would dare not even to try to list. The journey evolved. It’s all explainable. But it was not predictable. Nor could I replicate it.



"The Climate of the Central North American Grassland",

Annals of the Association of American Geographers (40)

1950, pp 1-49.

"The Surface Water Supply of American Municipalities"

Annals of the Association of American Geographers (44)

1954, pp 15-32

Minnesota’s Changing Geography, Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press, 1959, 191 pp, mapa, illustrations.

Urban Reports, Upper Midwest Economic Study:

The Urbanization of the Upper Midwest 1930-1960, 1963,

56 pp

Trade Centers and Trade Areas of the Upper Midwes (with

Russell B. Adams), 1963, 44 pp


Urban Dispersal in the Upper Midwest (with Thomas

Anding et al), 1964, 24 pp

Projected Urban Growth in the Upper Midwest (with Russell

B. Adams), 1964, 34 pp

"American Metropolitan Evolution", Geographical Review (57)

1967, pp 301-32

Atlas of Minnesota Resources and Settlement (with Donald

P. Yaeger), St. Paul: Minnesota State Planing Agency, 1969,

262 pp, map folders. Earlier editions, 1954, 1958; later

edition (with Neil C. Gustafson), 1980.

Minnesota’s Lakeshore (with George W. Orning et al), Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Department of Geography , 1970, 72 pp

State of Minnesota: Land Use (computerized 9-color land use map, showing data for 1.3 million 40-acre parcedls; with George W.

Orning et al), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for

Urban and Regional Affairs and Minnesota State Planning

Agency, 1972.

Public College Enrollment in Minnesota’s Changing Population Pattern (with Thomas Mortenson and Arnold Alanen), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, 1973, 95 pp, maps, tables.
"Major Control Points in American Economic Geography",

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, (68)

June 1978, pp 214-232.

Taxes and the Minnesota Community, Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, 1979, 34 pp.

"Instability in American Metropolitan Growth", Geographical

Review, (73) April 1983, pp 124-46.

Legacy of Minneapolis (with David Gebhard, David Lanegran, and Judith Martin), Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 1984, 195 pp, maps, photographs.

America’s Norhern Heartland, Minneapolis: University

of Minnesota Press, 1987, xiii+250 pp, maps,


Real Property Value in the Heart of thde Upper Midwest (with

William Casey), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center

for Urban and Regional Affairs, 1994, 41 pp.















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