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Geography, An Overview

The purpose of this first section of the course is to introduce you to the state's physical environment - its climate, landforms, soils, vegetation and water resources. In addition, we will begin the process of acquainting you with place location. A basic understanding of these two facets of the total course will significantly enhance your understanding of the spatial aspects of the material to follow. Consider this portion of the course as one in which the stage will be built for the balance of the play to be acted out upon.
 
Before we begin, let us take a moment to define geography and place the content of this course within the larger discipline.
 
What is Geography?
 
The word Geography is derived from the Greek word geo (the Earth, in its broadest meaning) and graphos (graphy, to write about). Literally, to write about the Earth. Often this has meant just learning about countries, their crops, landforms and people -- the "states and capitals" approach if you will.
 
But Geography is much more than just states and capitals! Geographers generally define Geography as being the discipline that is concerned with the "spatial interrelationships (connections across space) which exist between people, their activities and the physical environment." Now, that's a broad discipline, and it is comprised of many facets. On the one hand, Geography is concerned with PEOPLE. All kinds of people. Urban people, rural people, the rich, the poor, the in-between, people of all races, colors and creeds.
 
In addition to people, geographers are interested in what these people are doing (THEIR ACTIVITIES). When one considers how people make a living, activities are generally categorized as either primary, secondary or tertiary. Those engaged in primary activities make their living by taking a commodity directly from the natural environment. Primary activities are generally divided into four segments. These are agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining.
 
In addition to primary activities, a considerable segment of the world's labor force (generally in the more developed societies) is involved in secondary activities. Secondary activities are, for the most part, engaged in by those individuals who make their living in the manufacturing sector of a nation's economy.
 
And finally, there are those who make their living in the tertiary sector. Those working in this sector provide not goods, but services. Bankers, teachers, insurance agents, sales and the like would all be examples of tertiary activities.
 
While geographers are concerned with people and their activities, there is a final component -- the PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT. And the physical environment comes in many forms -- vegetation zones, landforms and climatic zones are among the more prominent.
 
In looking at the spatial relationships between people, their activities and the physical environment, geographers are especially interested in PATTERNS. No pattern -- then of no interest to the geographer. You are in fact surrounded by patterns -- some obvious, some more subtle. Some patterns, especially those in rural areas, are often obvious and may require little in terms of powers of observation. A couple of hour's drive in almost any direction from your home will most likely be associated with changes in vegetation and/or landscape patterns -- plains changing to hills or maybe mountains, grasslands to trees, pines to oaks, maybe from one kind of crop to another or from crops to animals.
 
But not all patterns are associated with the physical environment. How often have you driven through the countryside and noticed that very small communities tend to be more numerous than larger settlements? Have you ever noticed that settlements of a certain size tend to offer the same kinds of goods/services and be located roughly the same distance from each other? For instance, here in East Texas, county seats tend to have populations between 10,000 and 15,000. You can buy just about the same kinds of goods and services in them, and most of these county seats are located approximately 20 to 30 miles apart.
 
More subtle, but of no less importance to the geographer, would be changes in urban land use (residential to commercial to industrial and/or public land) one can see driving through any medium to large city. The homes of the wealthy (or poor) tend to be located in specific areas of most American cities. And often one can identify certain non-residential features associated with particular income groupings -- such items as freeways, railroads, water, views, public land and the like come immediately to mind. 
 
You might have noticed a variant of the rural settlement pattern noted above in some of our larger cities. Think about how (and how far apart) 7-11 type convenience stores are located relative to each other as opposed to larger shopping centers. And you can call them 7-11 stores or Bubba's Corner Store, but don't they all offer about the same kinds of goods? And with regard to larger shopping centers, have you ever noticed how some have only one grocery store and maybe a few smaller shops (often a cleaners, bakery, barber/beauty shop)? How often do these one grocery store centers offer just about the same kind of services? Do you recognize that these one grocery store centers are closer together than say those centers that have a grocery store on all four corners? And how different are these four corner grocery store centers in terms of what goods/services they offer? Cleaners, bakeries and beauty shops to be sure, but many other kinds of shops as well.
 
In seeking to better understand the patterns and spatial relationships which exist between people, their activities and the physical environment, geographers are essentially attempting to better understand the character of a place -- what makes a place different and distinct from all others.
 
We all understand that some places have a unique character. New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco are very distinctive cities. While all cities are to some degree similar, none possess the character associated with these very unique American cities.
 
The same could be said of certain cultures. Think of the German culture of central Texas, the Hispanic culture of South Texas or the Southern culture of East Texas.
 
In seeking to understand the character of a place, geographers look for patterns of similarities and differences, and they are concerned with connections and linkages across space between people, what the people are doing, and the physical environment.
 
In attempting to understand the relationship of Geography to other disciplines, it might be useful to consider the graphic below. As indicated, Geography draws from a variety of academic disciplines in an effort to better understand man-land relationships. As you might suspect, some of these disciplines are found in the physical sciences. Others are more closely associated with the social sciences.
 
 
 
Geographers generally approach the study of the discipline from one of two directions:  systematically or regionally.
 
In the SYSTEMATIC APPROACH, one is concerned with laws, rules and generalizations that have no regional basis. For instance, in physical geography one is concerned with rules and generalizations that apply within the physical environment regardless of geographic location. We know that in the summer it tends to rain (if it rains at all) between the hours of 2 and 4 in the afternoon. As we will see later in the course, this is related to heating of the land surface, rising air, cooling, condensation and rain. There is a tendency for rainfall to occur during the afternoon in the warmer months of the year all over the world -- be it France, Argentina or Russia. Wherever the generalizations apply, the result will be the same. This is the essence of the systematic approach.
 
Other geographers attempt to understand the land-man relationship by emphasizing group culture. What are those cultural factors that tend to make European (or Chinese, or whatever) settled areas similar regardless of the geographic location?
 
Still other geographers study the man-land relationship in terms of economic factors. Take one idea: profit (which can be many different things to different groups) which seems to drive many human decisions. How are people similar in their search for "profit" and what kinds of patterns are represented on the landscape as a result of these efforts to maximize profits? These are some of the kinds of questions of interest to the economic geographer.
 
   
 
While systematic studies are important, and many geographers spend their professional lives in one or more of the systematic areas, the real heart of Geography lies in regional geography.
 
REGIONAL GEOGRAPHY integrates the findings of physical, cultural and economic geography within the context of a geographic area or region. To truly understand a place, it is necessary to bring together the culture of the people (cultural geography), the activities the people are engaged in (economic geography) and the relationship of these characteristics to the natural environment (physical geography). To really understand the character of a place, it takes all three. Not just the the crops, people or the rocks, but the integration of all three.
 
At its heart, the region is a tool used by geographers to organize reality in order to better understand a landscape. To a geographer, the term "region" has meaning. A geographic region must exhibit three characteristics:
 
(1) It must be a sizeable area. Your bedroom closet is not a geographic region, but France, desert climates and the American South are.
 
(2) A region must possess a substantial degree of internal unity. In other words, there must be a set of defining characteristics generally found across the region.
 
(3) Finally, the region must differ significantly from adjacent areas. There is a difference between the climate (and culture) of East Texas from that of South Texas. France is different from Germany, the Middle East from Europe.
 
To get some idea of what regional geography is all about, let's take a quick look at the American South of which East Texas is a part.
 
   
 
The American South exhibits all three characteristics necessary to be a geographic region. For openers, it is a sizeable area, stretching from the Mason-Dixon Line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, down the Ohio River, around the Ozark uplands and then south through Oklahoma into Texas, passing between Dallas and Ft. Worth and continuing south to the coast in the vicinity of Victoria.
 
   
 

While the precise boundaries of the region may be subject to some discussion, and surely within this area there are many places more Northern/Yankee than Southern, I think most would agree that within this area there is a general similarity. Here such things as a relaxed lifestyle, a unique language (where else would you encounter those uniquely Southern measurements of "a buncha" and/or "a mess"?) hold sway. The religion is predominantly Protestant with relatively few Catholics (in Florida, along the western border and south Louisiana) or Jews (the area's larger cities).

 
Where else in the United States can you find so many houses in need of a good coat of paint, or barns needing propping up, or in front yards so many automobile tires painted white and planted with zennias, or refrigerators and sofas on front porches or broke-down cars in front yards on Coca Cola crates?

 
The South is all of these things and more. But mainly the cultural South is a time gone by. To find many of the things touched on above, you would have to venture out into the countryside. The cultural South is primarily a rural place and a place of your grandfather's time. Spanish moss-draped live oaks framing large white columned mansions, fried chicken and watermelon, tobacco, cotton and mules, ain't and yonder. Yes, you can still find all of these. But more often than not today, the South is represented by the bustling cities of Atlanta, Dallas and Houston with their sprawling suburbs and crowded freeways.
 
The South is still the South, but the cultural South is rapidly disappearing. And this change should remind us all that like everything, even regions change with time

 
While many might think of the South in the historic sense, we who live here know that the South of Granpa's day is gone for good. Education for the masses and TV has come to us all. Vestiges of the old South still remain, primarily in rural areas and among older people, but the South of the 21st century is probably better represented by the graphic below. Dallas, Houston and Atlanta are the vibrant Southern cities of today. Charleston, Richmond, Galveston and New Orleans are the Southern cities of a time gone by.

 
Now, what about the third criteria? A region differs in significant respects from adjacent areas.
 
Well, let's look at what we encounter as we move out of the South into other parts of the United States. And understand, the picture segment for the regions which follow is not going to do a lot of justice to the notion of these adjacent areas, but I think any of you who have traveled outside the South will easily recognize that each of the surrounding regions is in fact significantly different from the South.
 
The West. As you move west from Texas and Oklahoma, you encounter an area of vast distances, wide-open spaces and big skies. Most of the region is relatively dry, often hilly to mountainous. In short a very different kind of physical environment from what we find in the South.

  
The Midwest. If you move north from most Southern states, you get into such states as Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio. Like the South, the Midwest is largely a region of flat to gently rolling terrain. Unlike the stereotypical South, the Midwest is not characterized by trees and poor farmers occupying small plots of land but rather highly mechanized and very productive farms that send their production to the markets of the world.
 
In the Midwest, farming is truly a business and not so much a way of life as was so often the case in the historic cultural South. Here, as far as the eye can see, one generally encounters open/cleared land and few trees. As a rule, trees are found in towns, around farmsteads, along streams and in the more rugged areas. But for the most parts the Midwest is just field merging into field.

 
The North. Again, it's not all concrete and big buildings, but the North is certainly more heavily urbanized than the rest of the country. It is a region of large cities, home to millions and smaller "towns" that may have 150,000 to 200,000 people living in them. Here, the closest most people get to a farm is in the local grocery store. The stereotypical North tends to be a land of large cities, high income and populations from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

 
As you can readily see, Geography is a broad discipline with both human and environmental aspects.
 
Let us now turn our attention to applying these ideas to the state of Texas -- the subject of this course.

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