Bringing Light to Geography

Bringing Light to Geography

My first impressions of my first geography conference springs to life

Hello Interactors,

I’ve been absent the last few weeks. First our kids were back for spring break and then I was off to the American Association of Geographers (AAG) national conference in Denver, Colorado. Both were fun, exhilarating, and inspiring and I’m bursting with things to write about!

We’re officially in spring here in the northern hemisphere. I now turn to cartography and the role mapmaking plays in shaping how we interact with people and place. There will be themes of cartography in this initial spring post, but first I’m offering my impressions of the conference.

As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.

Please leave your comments below or email me directly.

Now let’s go…



“It’s got a nice kick to it”, he said, as I sat down to join him for breakfast. He introduced himself as Mark. He lifted his attendee badge that hung around his neck. It read, Mark Schwartz. We broke the awkwardness by talking men’s basketball. The Kansas Jayhawks, my mom’s beloved team, had recently been eliminated from the NCAA tournament. He informed me he got his PhD from Kansas in 1985 and is now teaching and researching at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in the geography department.

Mark is a climatologist. More specifically, he’s one of the foremost experts in phenoclimatology which looks at the effects of climate change on seasonal variability. We humans look to the calendar to tell us when spring arrives, but what if you’re an ant or a plant? They already know, so phenologists look for the biological responses to seasonal changes. Phenology comes from two Greek words that roughly combine to mean ‘the study of bringing to light’.

This map shows how “spring leaf out continues to spread north, arriving several days to weeks earlier than average (the period of 1991-2020) in much of the Southeast, lower Midwest, and mid-Atlantic. The West is a mix of early and late. A slow to the spread of spring in recent days is now visible, with spring leaf out arriving in parts of Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri days to weeks late. Scranton, PA is 4 days early, Hartford, CT is 2 days early.” Source: NPN 

Mark co-founded the National Phenology Network (NPN). This is where the world turns to see when spring is officially arriving across the United States. Including journalists. Here’s a story in the Washington Post on this spring’s arrival and the NPN website. It features quotes from Mark.

“‘What I like to tell folks is that you still need to be prepared for considerable variation from year to year. You won’t simply be able to start planting your garden earlier each year…”1

Before long, another gray-haired man joined us. I observed older attendees at this conference naturally congregated. Gerontology...from geron and logia (the study of old men). Our new guest introduced himself as Ron. I could tell he was older than Mark and myself and I was right. When I was three years old, in 1968, Ron Abler was getting his PhD in Geography from the University of Minnesota. Soon after, in 1971, he was the lead author on an influential geography textbook on spatial organization. He went on to teach and conduct research at Pennsylvania State University and was the President of the AAG from 1985-86. There’s an AAG award named after Ron, the Ronald F. Abler Distinguished Service Honors. Mark was a recipient in 2005.

We were soon joined by another older gentleman, but closer to my age. He introduced himself as Joseph and I read his badge as Joseph Oppong. He was the recipient of the Abler award in 2021 and studies medical geography at North Texas State University. He received his masters in 1986 and PhD in 1992 from the University of Alberta in Canada and his bachelor’s at the University of Ghana in 1982. Joseph was one of a few at the conference of African descent, but like the rest of America the geographic, cultural, and biological diversity of this academic community is increasing. This was apparent in my first session of the first day of the conference.



The morning before my breakfast with the burrito boys, I attended a panel consisting of four young academic women of Indigenous, Hispanic, Black, and mixed heritage. It included Fantasia Painter, an Assistant Professor of Global and International Studies at UC Irvine, Elyse Hatch-Rivera, a student seeking a law degree at Macalester in Minnesota, Gabriella Subia Smith, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Colorado, and Dr. Danielle Purifoy, a geography professor at the University of North Carolina with a law degree from Harvard.

Fantasia’s paper: Our Lands, Your Lines: How Inter and Intra National Borders Try and Fail to Contain Indigenous Land. She argues “that inherent in the idea of “the desert” is the undoing of the settler colonial bordering project. This is not a desert. This is O’odham land.” 

Elyse’s paper: The Right to Secure: The 100 Mile Border and the Making of a Carceral Geography. She “explores the emergence of the 100-mile border zone (HMBZ) in order to argue that the U.S. has expanded its borders inward and redefined notions of national security and our modern understanding of human rights.”

Gabriella’s paper: The Evolution of Colorado's Third District. She argues “Looking at the evolution of congressional districts can help us to better understand both the possibilities for equitable political representation and the limits of borders for fixing politics in place.”

Danielle’s paper: Setting [Futile] Boundaries: Black Municipalities in the White Settler State. She uses two case studies showing how decades work of “scholars of law, geography, and political science have taken up the social, political, and environmental impacts of this largely white municipal practice of geopolitical exclusion on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.”

Here’s a video of Fantasia introducing herself and her work at UC Irvine

The conference theme was Toward More Just Geographies and this session was a fitting kick-off. It was titled Futile Borders: Why Borders Fail and How Borders Function in the Incomplete Project of Settler Colonialism. These scholars, all of whom have a legal focus to their work, challenged the popular and simplified notion of borders as articulated in both popular culture and the legal text of the United States. They drew attention to the violence these words perpetuate through legal acts of interdiction, deterrence, and deportation.

The panel description cites research pointing to “[s]ettler state violence and legal-spatial violence” that “permeate borders through border enforcement practices of surveillance and detention and also through attempts to map over Indigenous lands and nations by creating colonial certainty over jurisdiction and national membership.”2

While these laws exists to protect the rights of some “it is through law, legal decision-making, and formal processes, policies, and practices that legal-spatial border violence is enacted and sustained.” It is the law, as currently written, that “help to form, manage, and control borders and mobility [that] weaponize state violence and operate to assert settler legal authority.”3

During the discussion, one of the presenters positioned legal text as a form of fiction that feature fantasy borders on maps that ignore the non-fiction realities of plant and animal existence, persistence, and relationships – including with humans. These fictions provide the “legal reach of the state [to] extend externally and outwards in order to preserve imperial power while regulating and restricting immigration and mobility through racialized strategies.”4

This panel was a powerful introduction to the conference. It featured perspectives of bright, ambitious academic women of color who are bringing miles and piles of fresh knowledge to the academy and students. Many similar sessions were offered by women and BIPOC scholars who seek to challenge traditional institutional geographic histories, knowledge, and perspectives pervasive in the field of geography. I attended at least one a day for five days straight, but there were so many I couldn’t attend them all.

The field of geography, and cartography in particular, was invented in large part to discern and delineate the natural world for the purpose of dispossession and ownership of land and people for and by private and government actors. As one attendee told me, “Cartography barely has a just leg to stand on.” Consequently, these forums and platforms act as a mirror to the discipline of geography. They offer opportunities for scholars and practitioners to become more self-aware, reflective, and critical of geography’s past and future. If sustained, this focus, attention, and prioritization of pluralized perspectives has the power to transform the discipline – to tilt the world toward more just geographies.

It’s a tilting earth that brings about seasonal change. Mark Shwartz and his team of geographers maintain a map that chronicles the bringing of light to the natural world. It offers no human bias, no imperial agenda, and reveals just how fictional borders really are. Phenoclimatology reveals human-induced climate change is causing spring’s arrival to become increasingly meteorologically erratic and extreme.

Many scholars at this conference pointed to how settler-state induced human and environmental violence have contributed to these climatic changes. They also showed how these forms of legal, economic, and spatial geographies are causing increasingly erratic and extreme societal injustices and imbalances. They’re chronicling and remapping a discipline by bringing light to the world of geography.



When will spring come? Or has it already? Look up where you live. Harry Stevens. Washington Post. 2023.


Futile Borders: Why Borders Fail and How Borders Function in the Incomplete Project of Settler Colonialism. Paper and panel session AAG 2023. Shoukia van Beek, organizer. University of Victoria.





Bibliography from the session description.

Amilhat Szary, A-L, Giraut, F (eds) (2015) Borderities and the Politics of Contemporary Mobile Borders. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Basaran, T (2010) Security, Law and Borders: At the Limits of Liberties. New York: Routledge.

Bauder, H., & Breen, R. (2022). Indigenous Perspectives of Immigration Policy in a Settler Country. Journal of International Migration and Integration.

Burridge, A, Gill, N, Kocher, A (2017) Polymorphic borders. Territory, Politics, Governance 5(3): 239–251.

Curley, A., Gupta, P., Lookabaugh, L., Neubert, C., & Smith, S. (2022). Decolonization is a Political Project: Overcoming Impasses between Indigenous Sovereignty and Abolition. Antipode, 54(4), 1043–1062.

Dorsett, S., & McVeigh, S. (2006). Questions of Jurisdiction. In Jurisprudence of Jurisdiction. Routledge-Cavendish.

Fakhrashrafi, M., Kirk, J. P., & Gilbert, E. (2019). Sanctuary Inter/Rupted: Borders, Illegalization, and Unbelonging: Sanctuary Inter/Rupted. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien, 63(1), 84–99.

Lightfoot, S. R. (2021). Decolonizing self-determination: Haudenosaunee passports and negotiated sovereignty. European Journal of International Relations, 27(4), 971–994. 661211024713

Loyd, JM, Mountz, A (2014) Managing migration, scaling sovereignty on islands. Island Studies Journal 9: 23–42.

Luna-Firebaugh, E. M. (2002). The Border Crossed Us: Border Crossing Issues of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. Wicazo Sa Review, 17(1), 159–181.
Miner, D. (2015). Gaagegoo Dabakaanan miiniwaa Debenjigejig (No Borders, Indigenous Sovereignty). Decolonization.
Nath, N. (2021). Curated Hostilities and the Story of Abdoul Abdi: Relational Securitization in the Settler Colonial Racial State. Citizenship Studies, 25(2), 292–315.

Pasternak, S. (2014). Jurisdiction and Settler Colonization: Where Do Laws Meet Special Issue: Law and Decolonization. Canadian Journal of Law & Society, 29(2), 145–162.

Pratt, A. C., & Templeman, J. (2018). Jurisdiction, Sovereignties and Akwesasne: Shiprider and the Re-Crafting of Canada-US Cross-Border Maritime Law Enforcement. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 33(3), 335–357.

Simpson, A. (2014). Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press.

Tauli-Corpuz, V. (2020, March). There Should Be No Borders for Indigenous Peoples: Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine.

Interplace explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place.