And yet, I went to one place in the States where I came to the conclusion its residents really did have no need to travel further. At one time they had struggled to make their landscape inhabitable and productive, and now they had got it just right there was no need to go spoiling the balance. Once home there you would be happy.
The location of this Shangri-La may surprise you. It is South Dakota.
I never dreamed I would go to South Dakota, but the opportunity arose out of the work I had been conducting in, of all places, Sierra Leone. I’d worked with the US Forest Service out there who were interested in measuring the impact of my project in terms of the land use changes over a period of time since the project had started. The whole point of the project was to protect the forest there that was being decimated by logging, charcoal burning, shifting cultivation and climate change. They wanted me to map various parts of the region to see the different effects, look for trends and see whether protection had improved the forest, or at least decreased the rate of decline. To do this I was to use similar techniques similar to a great colleague of mine who had also worked with me out in West Africa, Gray Tappan.
Gray, and his colleague Matt Cushing worked for the US Geological Survey, one of those huge federal monoliths that even to many laymen in the US would be a household names. They made so may maps people used, recorded earthquakes, mapped the vegetation, rivers, geology, climate and all sorts. I knew of them from the time I started as a geographer at Durham University at the age of 18, and when I was working for NRI and started using satellite imagery, I found myself ordering data from the USGS Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science, or the EROS Data Center, in Sioux Falls. Now I was being asked to go there to learn Gray’s techniques and start my work on Sierra Leone in their offices. As a geographical geek it was like going to the Vatican, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden Palace. This was my Mecca.