What are the sets of events that created this? What are the impacts and implications for the people who live there? And how do we make the world better for people based on this knowledge? For me, that's what geography does.

Ben Marsh

When he takes his senior geography and environmental studies students to Sunbury, Pa., Professor Ben Marsh, geography and environmental studies, has them do an exercise. The students stand on Market Street and stretch out their hands to block their view of the ground level, looking at only the upper stories of the impressive 1880s buildings lining the main drag. Then they move their hands up so they can see the street level — the empty storefronts, small businesses and few restaurants surviving in the economically challenged city about 15 miles from Bucknell's campus.

"You can read a place like a biography. Towns, houses, cemeteries — they're symbolic parts of the landscape," says Marsh. "They communicate so much about who built them, about what the people value, their political choices, their attitudes toward race or the environment." Sunbury's landscape, says Marsh, signifies the progress of an earlier industrial boom and the economic decline that followed. || See more local assets and community action projects

A geographer for almost 40 years, Marsh reads places and landscapes around the world. He's currently working on several Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping projects to address hidden discrimination in communities across the U.S. For example, he collects data for lawsuits or community action related to landfill sitings near minority communities, racial profiling or housing laws that favor one group over another. "Some actions may seem random, but when you look at them spatially, you see themes," he says. "Maps reveal practices or decisions that people on the ground didn't realize were systematic." || See more on spatial inequality and GIS

Marsh spends most summers in Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, where he measures sediment from river basins and flood plains to better understand environmental change during the Copper and Bronze Ages (6,000-1200 BCE). "The best way to understand an early settlement is to look at the enormous soil disruptions that took place from early agriculture," he says. He also visited Iron-Age sites with colleagues to collect sediments that will reveal the "geochemical signature" of an area. These signatures can help scholars figure out how ceramics — and thus people — moved from one area to another. "People frequently made pottery to look like someone else's," he says, "so it's hard to make conclusions based on style, but the chemical signatures can be very revealing."

The three areas in which Marsh works might seem disparate, but for Marsh, they are all part of one philosophy. "It matters where things are," he says. "All of these projects are about how we read the landscape. What are the sets of events that created this? What are the impacts and implications for the people who live there? And how do we make the world better for people based on this knowledge? For me, that's what geography does."

Posted September 6, 2013

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