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The Cowboy Geographer

by Sally Ann Flecker

Let us now praise famous sideburns.

Joshua Muldavin's sideburns are not to be ignored. They are likely the first thing you notice about him after you take in his insistent verticality. (He's 6'5”.) Though he was genetically predisposed to great height, the sideburns are a choice, a sociopolitical fashion statement, a celebration, a brand. They slide past the ears and widen emphatically under the cheekbone. They are, like so much else about Muldavin, bold and unexpected. As one Sarah Lawrence student has written, "Josh Muldavin's sideburns aspire to the sky.

As does Muldavin himself. Not only does his research in the Himalayas bring him a little closer to the heavens than most of us, but he's also dedicated his 30-year career to a lofty goal: protecting the land and promoting social justice in some of the most fragile and impoverished locations in the world. And he does it using geography. It's a discipline that may sound a bit stodgy to the uninitiated, but in Muldavin's hands, it's every bit as edgy as he is.

Muldavin comes by his larger-than-life character honestly. First, there's his father's mother. Sylvia Muldavin was the matriarch of the family, a formidable woman. She kept the family cattle ranch near Pecos, New Mexico, after she and her husband divorced, and she ran it like nobody's business. She lived through the grueling Dust Bowl years, became the first woman to join the soil conservation district in the area, and came early to organic farming and ranching methods. She was friends with union leaders, artists, writers, and bootleggers. That made for a whole spectrum of interesting conversation around the dining room table, which, by the way, was crafted with wood from the ranch as a WPA project.

Muldavin moved around a lot in his first 10 years. When you ask why, there's nothing that prepares you for the answer. "Long story" he says, "of how my father was run out of the state when my mother was pregnant with me because he was defending a Native American on a murder trial and got in trouble with the Archbishop. He was also defending a Communist at the time.” This was in the 1950s, so the FBI also came into it. Of course.

Muldavin started working on his cowboy squint when he was six years old. That was when his grandmother bought him a pony. "One of these kids has to carry on this tradition and know about horses and cows and ranching" his grandmother told his father. She gave Joshua her chaps and concho belt, tied her bandanna around his neck, set him on the pony, and told the elder Muldavin, who had done bulldogging in the rodeo and broken horses in the cavalry and didn't much want to be around horses anymore, "Go teach him to ride.”

"I'm very lucky for that" says Muldavin, "because it really tied me in to a very meditative kind of work. Most of the work of a cowboy is really boring. It's fixing fences. You get up and down off a horse a few hundred times a day riding along the fence. It taught me a lot about patience and discipline. You just go and go, and your mind wanders, and it's beautiful.”

On walks out in the west pasture, his grandmother gave him his first lessons about soil and conservation. Once when Joshua stepped off the trail and started running in the grass, his grandmother called him back. "Don't step on the grass" she told him. "If we want the grass, we have to be so careful about it, because once it's gone, the winds will come and take what little topsoil we have.”

They had a couple thousand acres of grassland there, says Muldavin, "And I'm thinking I've got to be careful about the individual pieces of grass that I'm stepping on. That sense of stewardship—particularly around soils and erosion and treating land right—was something she imbued into my psyche in a very strong way.”

Muldavin, incidentally, saved the ranch from foreclosure three times, raising money quickly as well as challenging those who were instigating the foreclosures. He was a mere 17 the first time. The ranch still belongs to the family. It is the wellspring of Muldavin's interests, ethos, and soul.

Here's one more outsized moment in the family saga. This one is Muldavin's own. He has graduated college and is figuring out how to do what he wants to do. A commune in northeast China contacts his father about developing a 15-year agricultural plan.Does Joshua want to help? This may sound out of the blue—and it is. But Joshua's father and grandfather are both known in that part of China. His grandfather had built sugar-beet refineries there in the 1930s and threw his support behind Mao fighting against the Japanese. His father had, among other ventures, published the first Chinese review of Western science and technology. It is the late 1970s, and the country is heading toward modernization, with a profound change from large-scale collective farming back to individual farms. The commune grows some corn and sorghum, but its primary asset is its grasslands—something the Muldavins know a thing or two about.

Geography today looks at the intersection between the physical features of a place, the environment, and the human activity that happens there.

Joshua Muldavin was 22 years old, with a shiny new bachelor's degree in conservation and natural resources from UC Berkeley, and he was off to the Siberian hinterlands of northeast China. "I would cringe today to think about it" he says, "a 22-year-old going out into the middle of nowhere to develop and run this project for a third of a million people, planning out their agricultural future. But that's what I did. I carried out studies on the state farm and two communes with peasant soil scientists and grassland specialists. I hired in people who were two and three times my age to be specialists on sheep or dairy cattle. And over those two years, I wrote up a 750-page, three-volume plan—a plan for how they might go forward.”

Along the way, Muldavin figured out how he would go forward as well. He discovered that the discipline of geography, by nature capacious and interdisciplinary, would provide him an open range, of sorts, where he could bring together his tangle of interests—soil conservation, organic farming, insects, biological pest control, politics, economics, and now, China. He could be the cowboy geographer.

It's a role he has fulfilled very well. Mid-stride in his career, he's been invited to speak on international policy at the European Parliament, Finnish Parliament, US Congressional China Commission, and Asia-Europe People's Forum. In 2005, he was named an Abe Fellow by the Social Science Research Council for his work on the role Japanese environmental assistance has played in China's development. Last year, the Association of American Geographers presented him with the Award for Media Achievement, one of their highest honors. The association cited "his geographical insight into the major issues confronting a large portion of the world that would otherwise go unnoticed, and in recognition of his outstanding promotion of geography through various global media.”

When Muldavin was a professor at UCLA in the 1990s, he received the university's two highest teaching awards and was its nominee for Carnegie Professor of the Year. In 2002 he came to Sarah Lawrence, and perhaps the truest measure of the impact of Muldavin's work are the hundreds of former students still in close contact with him, still engaged in work that grew out of his courses.

Chances are the last time you thought about geography was when you had to learn all the state capitals. Chances are also good that when you think about geography, you think of maps, and you wonder, with the cacophony of satellites winking down at us from space, with GPS devices so prolific that paper road maps are practically obsolete, with Google Earth available on your iPhone, for heaven's sake—why would anyone need to study geography?

But that's too narrow a sense of the field. "Everyone thinks geography is maps—or rocks" says Muldavin, whose field is regularly confused with geology by outsiders. Actually, geography today looks at the intersection between the physical features of a place, the environment, and the human activity that happens there. Muldavin talks a lot about "reading” landscapes—politically, economically, environmentally, socially, culturally, historically. In his agriculture class at Sarah Lawrence, he shows slides from fields around the world and asks the class to try to identify the crop and its location. Then he hits them with a barrage of questions—what can they tell, from this one slide, about agricultural organization and production there? He's trying to get his students to envision the layers of political, economic, and
historical relationships that reside on top of that landscape, shaping and changing it.

He's trying to get his students to envision the layers of political, economic, and historical relationships that reside on top of the landscape.

Truth be told, geography has a bloody history. It was the discipline of discovery, Muldavin says. As such, it became inextricably linked to power, colonialism, military expansion. You had to map a place to know how to take it over. "It was about going out and cataloging places, their plants, their resources, their minerals, their peoples, so you could build mines and plantations and railroads and ports to extract and control resources" he says. "You could take a negative view of geography and say it was a history of the dominant over those who were dominated. It was about dividing and conquering. It was about creating private property where previously it had been communal property. It was about putting down lines where there were no lines before.” Many of today's conflicts are rooted in the maps that were drawn without regard for native peoples and their histories, he says.

One of the more progressive uses of geography today is counter mapping, where a map with one kind of information is superimposed on top of another—often to surprising and illuminating effect. For instance, in the early 1990s, Muldavin worked with the Labor/ Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, who mapped environmental pollution in LA and overlaid it with a map of ethnic groups and economic stratification in the region. What they found was revealing. "Among the poorest people of color you had the most environmentally unsound industries and the most pollution" says Muldavin. "The whole idea of environmental justice is often built upon these multilevel counter-mappings.”

Equally eye-opening is Muldavin's work in the Hindu-Kush region of the Himalayas, which encompasses parts of China, India, and Nepal. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is intended to lay the groundwork for international environmental policy. (The NSF, by the way, told Muldavin that his top-ranked proposal had been awarded an exceptionally large portion of their geography budget.) There's a global debate today about who knows best how to conserve the biodiversity of natural environments. Is it the communities who, for centuries, have been stewards of their grasslands, forests, and water? Or is it the scientific elite of the state? Do you encourage local participation in a democratic process or do you, in the name of more immediate action, practice "fortress conservation" in which an area is set aside and access to it is outlawed? And further, is participatory conservation an effective means of addressing poverty?

As Muldavin reconstructs long environmental histories of Hindu-Kush villages, he's learned some surprising things. For instance, the land-use practices of poor indigenous groups in the mountains have been blamed for soil erosion and flooding downstream in the more urbanized areas. Muldavin's research counters that notion. In Nepal, the native practice of terracing had prevented soil erosion for millennia. But as people left the highlands in search of work, there weren't enough farmers left to maintain the terraces. "Terraces collapsed, and then you had real flooding problems" he says. Muldavin found that the government privatization policies have often been the primary cause of flooding, and the approach used by local farmers was more environmentally sustainable.

Because Muldavin discovered early on the incalculable value of learning through meaningful work, he hires students as research assistants in the field. They take word-for-word notes as he conducts village interviews, sitting beside him on small chairs, traditionally about three inches high. If they are in Tibet, they will be around a hearth and someone will be pouring yak-butter tea. "We are trying to re-create an environmental and social history to understand how a policy has influenced them individually" he says. "This is an ethnographic approach. You triangulate through 15 different versions of that story and you get a sense of the overall picture.” They'll even ask to see what the farmers are doing in their fields, sometimes getting in behind the oxen to learn how to plow.

At some point in the summer, after many visits to many villages, Muldavin will turn the tables on his students. Now he will be the one quietly listening as they conduct the interviews and figure out how to make the villagers comfortable with their presence.

That's a generous act as a teacher. And after all, isn't that what his grandmother taught him? Be a good steward of the resources entrusted to you. Treat each blade of grass right.