Going far beyond maps, as one might presume, “Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” explains Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor of Geography at MU. The discipline as a whole covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion and weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, to understand the interactions between humans and the environment), and something called human geography, a subfield that focuses on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions. Human geographers cast their eyes on “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as “the impact of human activity on the environment.” Within human geography Larsen specializes in cultural geography. While traditionally that may have entailed mapping the distribution of various cultural traits to track changes over space and time, cultural geography today is much more process-focused, drawing heavily upon the methodologies and theories of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
There are ways in which Matt Gompper’s work is simultaneously disheartening and inspiring. As an associate professor in the Fisheries and Wildlife department, he pursues research that falls into an area of wildlife biology known as conservation biology. That is, he seeks to understand the theoretical and real-world causes that drive animal populations to decline or become extinct. While focusing on animal species on the brink of extinction is surely depressing, his efforts are also aimed at conservation—and that’s the part that is encouraging.
Larsen’s newest project is located just north of Canyon City, Colorado, where the ranches that dominated the area since the late 1800s have been subdivided into parcels of 35 acres or more, creating a residential rural sprawl. Working at a field school facility that overlooks the valleys, Larsen and his research team have been interviewing the residents of this area “on the fringe, where residential development interfaces with wildlife.” The interviews reveal that “these ex-urban residents actually knew very little about the dangers, the environmental limitations, and issues that they were going to face”—from wildfire, bears, and rattlesnakes to how to deal with erosion and localized rain events that turn suddenly into flooding. As such, the residents were engaged in a process of knowledge transmission in order to learn about the environment. Larsen seeks to understand how this informal transmission of environmental knowledge might impact the future landscape.