Sunday, October 24, 2010

Field Report: Middle States geography meeting in West Point, New York

This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Middle States Division, Association of American Geographers - website. This is always an interesting meeting, but this year it had the added attraction of being held at the historic Thayer Hotel, located on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Having already visited the Academy back in the August 1995 while conducting research for my PhD dissertation, I was anxious to return. My memories of the first visit are sketchy: I was only there for a day, and wasn't that awake, having spent the previous evening at a tent in Bear Mountain State Park. I am sure I enjoyed that first visit, discovering useful West Point materials that would make their way into my dissertation, but in hindsight this summer might also represent a fallow period for my creative energies. I now realize that my photography really helps train my mind and memory, but by this point in my life I had given up on 35mm photography and had yet to take advantage of the rapid advances in digital. I was excited to be returning to West Point, to rediscover a landscape that I once known well, from personal acquaintance as well as from descriptions that I had read in the letters of nineteenth century travelers.

I got a late start driving up to West Point - the conference at noon, but I didn't drive onto the Academy grounds until 5:30 pm. Some of the delay had to do with business I needed to attend to on Long Island. But another contributor to the delay was the panorama of fall colors on display as I drove up the Palisades Interstate Parkway. I stopped to pick up maps at the Bear Mountain State Park Visitor's Center, located in a widened portion of the Parkway median, and again at Fort Montgomery State Historic Site. With the limited amount to time at my disposal, I wasn't able to tour the museum - although I later learned that it definitely worth an hour or two on my next trip. Instead I took to the trails, walking up to the Bridge crossing Popolopen Creek [taking the shot to the right] and down to the water's edge, which offered additional photo opportunities - check out some of the shots that I have posted to my flickr photostream (search for West Point).

Once I had finally arrived and checked in to the Thayer Hotel, I met up with my companion for the weekend, Katherine Keirns, a graduate student in the Federated Department of History (Rutgers-Newark & New Jersey Institute of Technology) who also happens to be my sister-in-law. We enjoyed the dinner buffet and options for night life. What turned out to be the last game of the American League Champoionship Series was on - the crowd seemed to be equally split between Yankees fans and haters.

Saturday morning, I attended (and tweeted) sessions on the History and Geography of West Point, and Military Geography. Both sessions were interesting, although I was particularly engaged during the first, because of my interest in photographing the historic fortifications and architecture of the campus, and because Katherine presented her paper "The Brush is Mightier than the Sword: How Drawing Nature Saved West Point" in that session. All of the papers were excellent and really helped give the audience a sense for the changing historical role of this awesome location. I hope to be able to share more insights from this sessions in forthcoming posts.

Kenneth E. Foote, a professor of Geography at the University of Colorado who is currently serving as President of the Association of American Geographers, delived a well-received lunchtime keynote concerning efforts to support the professional development of young faculty in the field. This luncheon doubled as an awards banquet. We were suprised to hear that Katherine had not only been selected as a member of the Middle States Geography Bowl team (based on her performance in the Geography Bowl challenge the previous evening) with financial support to compete at the national AAG conference in Seattle 2011, but was also selected one of the student paper competition winners. We aren't sure yet whether we will be making the trip, and thus reporting from, Seattle, so you'll just have to watch this space and see!

In no hurry to leave, Katherine and I signed on for a bus tour. Our guide was a middle aged woman with blonde hair and large sunglasses who had obviously been giving tours for many years and liked to speak from personal experience. Since this was the two-hour tour, we were able to visit many of the standard sites including the Cadet Chapel and the "million dollar view" from Trophy Point. But we also visited the Academy Cemetery, where we had a chance to look inside the Old Cadet Chapel and to interview two young men - first-years or "plebes" - who appeared to be writing up notes on some of the more significant former cadets who were buried there. If you visit my photostream, you will see that the tour gave me a chance to refamiliarize myself with some of the more iconic sites, and served to point out locations, such as the monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, that I would return to on my own later. As you can see from my "All Things Kosciuzko" photoset I have a soft spot for the Polish engineer and freedom fighter who redesigned the defenses at West Point and who, in his will, set aside funds for Thomas Jefferson to use in freeing his slaves. As Gary Nash documents in the book Friends of Liberty he co-authored with Graham Hodges, Thomas Jefferson was never able to make good on his promise. Kosciuszko spent the year 1797-1798 convalescing in Philadelphia from disabilities occassioned fighting for human freedom from bondage in both Europe and the Americas (NPS). His vision would take generations for the country to fully (if ever) realize.

1 comment:

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