Micro-geography: the 53rd parallel

I’ve been doing some very local geography lately. Of course doing hyper-local micro-geography is nothing new, but it’s new to me. Today I was out with my i-phone, close to the building where I work, looking for the 53rd parallel. Yes, I know I could have looked it up on a map but that’s not the point. And, yes, I know that “real” geographers will tell me it’s sacrilege to use a phone for serious navigation, but this wasn’t all that serious. Part of the fun, in fact the whole point, was that this would be my 53-degrees north. I didn’t want to tame it and bag it and pin it down, I just wanted to go and find it, watch it for a bit, and then leave it alone. I know it’s already marked on the map so it’s not much of a discovery, but the one on the map isn’t mine, it’s the Ordnance Survey’s. I needed to find my own. Yes, the GPS found it for me really, but by combining the GPS and the map, and using a fairly dodgy GPS and a fairly small-scale map I kept any real certainty out of the picture and felt as if I was exploring for myself and discovering, over the space of a few minutes, an actual in-the-flesh example of an elusive geographical concept. A whole-number line stretching off around the world in both directions, separating everything to the north from everything to the south.  And so I sat for a while with my own little bit of the 53rd parallel. If I go and look for it in the same place tomorrow I hope it will have moved at least a little.  For a moment I considered (since it runs through the University Campus where I teach)  that I could mark it with some posts and a line carved in the ground, like the meridian at Greenwich or the equator at, well, at lots of places in fact. But then what would be the point of anyone else trying to find it?

Part of the fun of geography is exploration. At a global scale that is quite hard. But at a local scale it isn’t hard at all unless somebody has already labelled everything in big letters. Hence the growth in popularity of activities like geocaching, and the relevance of projects such as Mission Explore. For most of my professional life my Geography has either been at a grand scale (ice sheets, and epic landforms created in extreme environments) or has been couched within a framework of global systems. In a lot of “science” physical geography you can only get funding if you demonstrate that your project will address some global concern or relate to a massive international project concerning the history of the planet and the global impact of some hugely significant process . I don’t think I’ll get NERC funding to go and sit with the 53rd parallel for half an hour. But it’s Geography. And I enjoyed it a lot. If you have a little time to spare one afternoon you could do a lot worse than look at a map to find out what your nearest nice-sounding line of latitude or longitude is, then just go out and try to find it. Don’t disturb it. Just sit with it quietly for a while then leave it alone where nobody will pay it much attention. But next time you pass, you’ll know it’s around there somewhere. My 53-degrees North was on a stone bench at the end of the terrace walk overlooking the old walled garden at Keele. When I last saw it the line stretched off into the distance to the west across open country, and to the east it dived into dark woodland. Next week I might go and see if I can find 52-degrees and 59-minutes north.

Note: This post was originally posted in my other blog at http://petergknight.wordpress.com in August 2011 and transferred to Blank Atlas as I moved my Geography posts into one location.

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