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Curiosity, Inquiry, and the Geographical Imagination (review)

From: Journal of Latin American Geography
Volume 11, Number 2, 2012
pp. 199-200 | 10.1353/lag.2012.0044

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This is a thought-provoking, partially autobiographical, exploration of curiosity as a motivation for conducting geographical research. Written by a highly productive scholar in his fifth decade of disciplinary contributions, the volume includes meditations on a life spent in the field and the academy seeking answers to questions both significant and arcane. Gade, who is professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, sees Carl Sauer as geography's twentieth century hero, and has plentiful advice for young scholars to follow in the master's footsteps.

The first part of the book is a discussion of the nature of intellectual curiosity with summaries of the contributions of people who have exemplified that trait. Gade argues that curiosity is highly correlated with a romantic sensibility. He is of the opinion that very few people, even scholars, exhibit a high level of intellectual curiosity and regards Carl Sauer (and Gade himself) as exemplars. Sauer's animating spirit of inquiry is discussed as is the work of his scholarly descendants (his former graduate students). The final section of the book is devoted to Gade's intellectual autobiography and discusses why questions occurred to him, how he went about seeking answers, and why there were some he questions he abandoned. He also revisits an earlier project (on citrus growing in Lake Garda, Italy) to explore how his perspectives changed.

This reviewer is entering her eighth decade and so appreciated Gade's prefacing remark that at age 70 one has "accumulated a capital of savoir-faire that is appropriate to communicate" (p. xv). However, we seem to have accumulated rather different capital. All fourteen of Gade's exemplars of the inquisitive spirit are male. Thirty seven men and no women wrote doctoral dissertations under Carl Sauer's direction. Gade's wife is acknowledged for having served as sounding board, travel companion, map maker and copyeditor as well as "providing a congenial home setting." I suspect she also took the photo of Gade with a statue of Humboldt, though various photos taken by Gade himself are labeled as such. Gade's curiosity-driven heroes are different from mine. Hartshorne's book on the nature of geography is referred to as "that turgid book," and he is later dismissed as a utilitarian philosopher. An accusation that Berry manipulated facts to construct his own reality is repeated. The quantifiers of the 1960s, the subsequent Marxists, feminists, and critical theorists are dismissed as lacking imagination. Gilbert White (who was on my own doctoral committee) practiced "geobureaucracy." Harvey is cited, but only for his article on the curious Humboldt.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy, provoke and praise in this volume. This reviewer shares Gade's enthusiasm for field work and travel, and also his predilection for walking, while disagreeing with his generalization that "fieldwork is too humbling for those who constantly seek to parade their knowledge before audiences" (p.182). Gade has certainly practiced what he preaches. He has conducted extensive field work on several continents and has published voluminously in the journals of several disciplines. Fluent in several languages, his writings are enlivened with quotations from German, French, and Latin (mostly translated for those of us who are linguistically challenged!). He is, perhaps, a quintessential "old school scholar." He reports spending happy days in dusty archives in Spain and Latin America and one senses that the more esoteric the topic, the more enthusiastically he pursues it. Among the research projects he began, but abandoned, were race and motivation for arson, cats as food and lightning rods in Venice. While archives delight him, he appears to relish the danger of riding ancient railroads with drug smugglers in the Amazon if not the harrowing encounters with famine victims in Ethiopia. He has contracted various diseases and been the victim of theft. As he wrote, fieldwork is not always fun, but it is exhilarating.

One of the attractions of this volume for me was the fact that while conspicuously erudite, the text is not weighed down with footnotes and references. Gade has the self-confidence to generalize without citing exhaustive scholarly authorities. It is more readable than your average book in our field. He intends for the narratives to "dance in the...



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