Geography: Making Sense of It All

By Charles A. Heatwole, Ruth I. Shirey

People are fascinated by the world in which they live. They want to know what it’s like and why it is the way it is. Most importantly, they want to understand their place in it. Geography satisfies this curiosity and provides practical knowledge and skills that people find useful in their personal and professional lives. This is nothing new.

From ancient roots . . .

Geography comes from two ancient Greek words: ge, meaning “the Earth,” and graphe, meaning “to describe.” So, when the ancient Greeks practiced geography, they described the Earth. Stated less literally, they noted the location of things, recorded the characteristics of areas near and far, and used that information in matters of trade, commerce, communication, and administration.

Disputed paternity

A Greek named Eratosthenes (died about 192 B.C.) is sometimes called the “Father of Geography” because he coined the word geography. The Greeks themselves called Homer the “Father of Geography” because his epic poem, The Odyssey, written about a thousand years before Eratosthenes was born, is the oldest account of the fringe of the Greek world. In addition to these gentlemen, at least two other men have been named “Father of Geography,” all of which suggests a very interesting paternity suit. That the story goes back to the days of the Greeks tells you that geography is a very old subject. People of every age and culture have sought to know and understand their immediate surroundings and the world beyond. They stood at the edges of seas and imagined distant shores. They wondered what lies on the other side of a mountain or beyond the horizon. Ultimately, of course, they acted upon those speculations. They explored. They left old lands and occupied new lands. And as a result, millennia later, explorers like Columbus and Magellan found humans almost everywhere they went.

Links to exploration

Geographers from ancient Greece through the nineteenth century were largely devoted to exploring the world, gathering information about newfound lands, and indicating their locations as accurately as possible on maps. Sometimes the great explorers and thinkers got it right, and sometimes they did not. But in any event, geography and exploration became intertwined; so, “doing geography” became closely associated with making maps, studying maps, and memorizing the locations of things.

. . . To modern discipline

During the past century, and especially during the past several decades, geography has blossomed and diversified. Old approaches that focused on location and description have been complemented by new approaches that emphasize analysis, explanation, and significance. On top of that, satellites, computers, and other technologies now allow geographers to record and analyze information about the Earth to an extent and degree of sophistication that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

As a result, modern geographers are into all kinds of stuff. Some specialize in patterns of climate and climate change. Others investigate the distribution of diseases, or the location of health care facilities. Still others specialize in urban and regional planning, or resource conservation, or issues of social justice, or patterns of crime, or optimal locations for businesses. . . . The list goes on and on. Certainly, the ancient ge and graphe still apply, but geography is much more than it used to be.