Field working geographers will always tell you there is no substitute for getting yourself in the thick of your subject material – the land, the soil, the rocks, the water and the air. They scorn the armchair geographers who theorize , speculate or just read other people’s work. They will check under the fingernails of students to ensure they are dirty – dirty with the grime of the earth if you are a physical geographer, dirty with the dust of houses and settlement and grease from industry if you are a human geographer.
There is certainly something to be said for it. Too many times I have been involved with projects where I have been thrown a satellite image and told to “interpret that”, and then wonder why there is disappointment when you did not manage to accurately tell everything there was to know about a piece of land instantaneously. I far rather have at least one field trip into the place I am working on, and if possible get completely immersed in the habitat. One of the vital parts of the process is that spending a while wandering around a location gives an impressive sense of the whole – how the structure of the land is formed, how the soil sits, the vegetation grows, the animals inhabit; and how humans interact in this environment in terms of what they build, what they cultivate, how they mark out and claim, and how they move around in that landscape. Without that immersion, you end up focusing just on the one thing you have to work on – a Cartesian, narrow minded, perfectly logical process, but lacking both richness and insight.
The chance to really understand a landscape has only come rarely in my career – so often it has been that one quick “look see”, pseudo-scientifically called Rapid Rural Appraisal in some circles, but more likely a jolly day trip where you look serious and ask clever questions.
One time the right type of field work occurred was my second trip to Mauritius. After a two month break, I was back in the Mascarenes. I had another three month period and whereas the first trip was to set up the GIS for the whole project, this time I was to concentrate on five “Pressure Zones”. After much deliberation, scientific analysis, political back and forth and considered reflection, some people pointed to five areas of the map and said – they are the pressure zones. Pressured because Mauritius has a limited coastline, and its tourist product relies very much on it – the usual tropical idyll of palm trees, white sand, coral reef, and hot sun. Trouble is the whole Mauritius coast is not like that , and what comes under that category is pretty much either developed to the highest extent, or is public beach not available to developers (fortunately). This has meant that development of resorts have now taken a novel angle. About half of Mauritius’ coastline is rocky or cliff like, or lagoonal silts with mangrove and other mosquito ridden habitat. That does not stop the developers from marketing the idyll. I was taken by the head of the Government’s beach authority to a new development north east of Port Louis city one wet afternoon. The site was at the end of a series of cane fields (not a rarity) on a low lying rocky headland. My knowledge of physical geography made me know that sandy beaches rarely form at this point – the area is rocky because the sea erodes any loose material away from this point. Sand forms in more sheltered bays or lagoonal areas, not areas of hard rock pointing out into the rough seas. This had not deterred the developers who were building a huge berm of rocks and backfilling with sand imported from elsewhere on the island. Even while the development was being built, you could see nature fighting against the changes – the sea water going round the back of the berm and biting into the sandfill from the rear. Also it seemed such a compromise on the part of the tourists – yes they would have the chlorine filled pool in the hotel complex, and a sandy beach to look out over the Indian Ocean, but isn’t part of the joy of these places to be able to lumber out of your room, amble slowly down the sandy beach till the warm tropical waters overtake you – without having to clamber over a bunch of large granite rocks?