The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.
Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.
“Writer” was not always – is not always – a comfortable identity either, though. It took me a long time to learn how to say it without cringing, to stop waiting for someone to say, “sure, but be honest: you’re not a real writer.” On a good day, what I feel about my identity as a writer is that it’s mine, and therefore it’s okay for it to look different to someone else’s. Perhaps geography is the same; it moulds itself to your shape. My cultural geography is not your cultural geography, though there may be overlaps.
So let’s say that in one sense, I’m still learning how to be a cultural geographer. And part of the process of learning this involves an appropriation of the label. When I first fell into geography I was giddy: I felt like I’d finally found something I needed but didn’t know I’d been looking for. I then spent my first few shaky months as a PhD student telling people how nervous I’d been, coming from an academic background in Other Subjects (politics, then creative writing), and so often these people would say, in turn, that they had also been worried about this, that they had first studied history, or literature, or international relations, or theatre, or whatever. Interdisciplinarity seems to be at the heart of cultural geography, which is one of the things I love most about it: it’s an open field. It comes alive as a discipline because of the people who do it and the knowledge (and baggage) they bring with them.
Actually, geography is the one thing I’ve always wanted to write about and think about, even before I knew it had a name.
I grew up on a ranch on the coast of California. The land was rough and uncooperative. One winter the road, submitting to the pressures of a particularly heavy rainfall, slid away into the sea; we walked out to Highway 101 on the railroad tracks, across a tall, spindly bridge, hoping no trains came. We lived in fear of summer wildfires, which were presaged by a particular kind of wind that put everyone on edge and could turn beloved golden hills into a blackened Martian wasteland in the blink of an eye. We coexisted with coyotes, mountain lions, bats, mice, rattlesnakes. Everything had a life of its own. It was a difficult place, but it was also beautiful, hypnotic – at times almost unbearably so. How can anyone live here? How can anyone leave here?
I developed a sense of place rooted not in a town or a city, as so many of my peers had, but in isolation and details: the rock face that our house had been built into, the smell of orange blossoms and dirt, the swells and tides of the sea, the subtle seasonal changes in light. The affective qualities of these things were intensified during my teenage years, when I actively resented the ranch: I hated being so remote, so weird, though I knew that the place mattered to me. I thought my friendships were weaker because I couldn’t wander out into the suburban night and get casually drunk with them, that I would never learn how to be comfortable around people my own age because every extracurricular social encounter had to be arranged in advance. But I also remember thinking, around this time, that the thing that most defined me, the thing that was most important to me, apart from basic considerations like love and shelter and sustenance, was a relationship with place. I didn’t know how I could think about anything else without first considering where I was and where I’d been.
So you could say that in this everyday, bordering-on-selfish sense, I have, in fact, been a geographer for a long time. These things – wildfires, washed-out roads, train tracks, orange groves, kelp beds, afternoon light - are cultural geography to me. So are my memories of them, which are often imperfect, sometimes invented, especially now that I live about 5,000 miles away. This is, perhaps, where I get the impression that geography is often best done from the perspective of an “I”: I am part of the geography that I write. I’ve written recently about the difficulty of negotiating multiple, sometimes overlapping but often quite disparate selves – academic-self, freelance-self, writer-self, person-in-the-world-self. I’m coming to believe that my geographer-self is the thing they all have in common.
The discipline of (doing) geography has taught me, too, to be a better writer, a better reader, a better participant in my own life and the lives of others. Place, broadly understood, has remained important to me; it’s where my “practice” as an academic geographer is rooted. But I’m also starting to see other things through the lens of geography. The way I listen to music informs my actions as a cultural geographer, and vice versa; sitting in a café, peeling cracked plaster from our bedroom walls, walking to the pool after an unproductive day, swimming laps – these are all ways of “doing” geography. They are certainly all ripe for writing about from the perspective of the cultural geographer. Sometimes just to write is a geographical act.
- Miranda Ward, PhD Candidate