What is it then that I do? My answer is human geography; more precisely, a sub-field within human geography that might be called (albeit inelegantly) systematic humanistic geography. And what is that? I will try to provide an answer, drawing on my own experience and work. A good way to start is to envisage a faculty social gathering. At such a gathering, a historian is unlikely to be asked, “Why are you a historian?” Yet I have been asked repeatedly, “Why are you a geographer, or why do you call yourself one?” My unimposing physical appearance may have prompted the question, for people even now tend to see the geographer as a robust explorer in the mold of Robert Falcon Scott or Indiana Jones. As a matter of fact, when I was an undergraduate, the professors of geography at both Oxford and Cambridge were explorers. The question “Why do you call yourself a geographer?” may also have been prompted by the titles I have given to some of my books. People don’t immediately understand how Morality and Imagination, Passing Strange and Wonderful, Cosmos and Hearth, and Escapism can be the works of a geographer.
To those who have wondered about my vocation, I respond in three ways, each geared to a different level of seriousness. At a social gathering, when people are not at their most attentive, I am likely to say, “As a child, I moved around a great deal with my family, and there is nothing like travel to stimulate one’s appetite for geogra- phy.” Sad to say, this lazy answer nearly always satisfies my inquirer. It is what he or she expects. My second and more thoughtful response is: I have always had an inordinate fear of losing my way. Of course, no one likes to be lost, but my dread of it is excessive. I suspect that more than physical discomfort is at stake. To be lost is to be paralyzed, there being no reason to move one way rather than another. Even back and front cease to be meaningful. Life, with no sense of direction, is drained of purpose. So, even as a child, I concluded that I had to be a geographer so as to ensure that I should never be disoriented. Geographers always know where they are, don’t they? They always have a map somewhere–either in their backpack or in their head.
We barely had enough to eat. The elementary school I attended was a single, ill-equipped room. Yet, astonishingly, we were given a thoughtfully packaged, cosmopolitan education. We read elevating stories from the Chinese, European, and American pasts, stories about great scientists and inventors such as Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, and Benjamin Franklin that were meant to stimulate our intellectual ambition, and moral tales (ones of filial piety, naturally, but also Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”) intended to help us grow into compassionate adults.