Why study the landscape?

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If we believe reports critical of our nation’s educational system, then it has to be admitted that many of today’s youngsters are woefully ignorant of geography. A poll of students taken a few years ago showed that many could not find Washington, D.C., or the Florida peninsula on a map, or locate the continent of Europe. PBS recently featured and inner-city school with a teacher who was turning kids on to geography. In her classroom, every one of them could point to a large U.S. map and identify each of the 50 states, naming their capitals to boot. They gleefully performed for the TV interviewer. Sadly, that sort of display is now rare, educators having discarded anything that smacks of rote memorization. The fact is that memorization has its value, and certain information in geography, history, math and other subjects can only be learned in that way. We all need a basic fund of geographical knowledge to orient ourselves in the physical world and to understand the position and nature of places remote from our experience. Several examples from New Mexico history humorously illustrate the consequences that can flow from a lack of acquaintance with geography.

The first incident dates from 1845 (a year before the American conquest of New Mexico) and is recorded in the memoirs of wandering Irish artist Alfred S. Waugh. It seems that Mr. Waugh was in Santa Fe, making his way by painting portraits. He had taken lodging with fellow Irishman John Scolly, who ran a store on the plaza. Regularly, Senor Guadalupe Miranda dropped by the store to inquire of any news that might have come in from the states. He was the secretary to Gov. Manuel Armijo and promptly reported to him whatever he could learn. According to artist Waugh, his friend Scolly had grown tired of the secretary’s visits and came up with a way to get rid of him and also have some fun. The next time Miranda appeared, he announced gravely: “I’ve just received a message that the Dutch have taken Holland!” Miranda was thrown into a panic (not having heard this old joke) he asked: “Is that possible? Will it injure New Mexico or interfere with our commerce?” Playing along, Scolly replied, “It’s really dreadful and God only knows where it will end.” Dutifully, Miranda raced to the palace and advised Armijo of the terrible news. Waugh says that Armijo was thunderstruck and ordered his captain to prepare the troops, in case the Dutch, having seized Holland, should march next upon New Mexico.

In the artist’s judgement, this little episode offered a perfect example of the lack of geographical knowledge in high places. Another one, of a very different kind, occurred 50 years later and was related by veteran trail driver Teddy Blue Abbott. A sophisticated lady had come out from the East to visit a cattle ranch on the southern plains. Talking with some of the cowboys on the veranda in the evening, she launched into a recital of her latest trip to France. An innocent 19-year-old puncher couldn’t stand to hear that this snooty Easterner had been some place that he hadn’t. So he blurted out: “Wal, I’ve been to that there France myself and it sure ‘nough is a dandy place.” The surprised woman expressed doubt and inquired how he had gotten to France. The youth replied, “I went there drivin’ a beef herd.” “A beef herd?” she said. “How did you get over the ocean?” “We didn’t go by the ocean,” explained the cowboy. “We went around by the divide!” Obviously, he had never been introduced to a geography textbook.

My final incident took place on those same plains, during the late 1870s. By then, the hostile tribes had been defeated and removed to Oklahoma. And most of the game was hunted out. For generations, Taos Pueblo Indians had hunted buffalo on New Mexico’s east side, but for the last dozen years had not bothered to go. Now some of the old men decided to make one last hunt, in hopes that a stray buffalo or two might yet be found.

They rode horseback as far as the Texas line, by which time they were utterly bewildered. They had once known this pancake-flat country like the palm of their hands, but now all was unfamiliar to them. The land had been chopped up into pastures, the old trails were gone and travel was restricted to fence-lined roads. The surface geography had changed and the Indians were lost. Embarrassed, they had to ride up to a ranch house and ask a white man for directions, so they could get home.