I celebrated New Years with my grandparents in Colima, Mexico, enjoying an entire week in this tropical paradise. This post describes a day in Colima, a day trip to Tapalpa, an afternoon in the magical town of Comala, and shows the Colima’s residents unique relationship with el El Volcán de Colima, formed from two majestic peaks.
What is Diss?
Dissertation season is in full swing as the April 6th deadline races relentlessly towards us. For both Human and Physical Geographers, the laborious process kicked off in February 2016, with the submission of our dissertation proposals for Research Design. This six week course allowed us to explore methodologies and literature pertaining to our chosen topic while developing a strategic plan of attack, I mean outline and timeline for our dissertation. That was one year ago. Plenty has transpired over the course of 12 months: topic changes, presentations, surveys, sporadic tears, interviews, and fleeting feelings of accomplishment. I now invite you to hop on the “diss” bus and ride the bumpy road to a 12,000 word undergraduate honours dissertation.
Field trips are an integral component to the study of geosciences. However, I am not talking about physical geography trips to the great outdoors, rather I will be sharing my human geography field trip experience. If you follow Edinburgh Geoscience’s other social media channels, then you may have seen my Instagram and Facebook posts about my Berlin field course. Now that the assessment has been completed I can show you, from start to finish, what goes on in a human geography field trip.
What is a human geography field course?
“The Berlin field class is a research elective that provides an opportunity to develop skills in designing, planning and doing research in Human Geography.”
“It is an introduction to Berlin and grounds several major themes in Urban, Cultural, and Social Geography.”
-Berlin Research Elective Handbook
Berlin: September 3-10 2016
The group consisted of 24 students and 5 members of staff. We flew out from Edinburgh Airport on a Saturday Afternoon, and arrived at the Berlin-International Youth Hostel. After settling into our rooms (about 4 people in each) we set out for a quick drink in the city.
The following two days consisted of tours, explorations, and introductions to certain human geography themes in Berlin, such as memory-making through monuments. During these first couple of days we decided, in our teams of 3-4 students, how we would go about our research. In the semester before the summer holidays we had attended a workshop where we decided what our topic would be, so not to arrive in Berlin empty-handed. There was a diverse range of topics, including kite-flying, memory-making, urban gardens, the geography of “cool”, use of public parks by refugees, etc. During Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we gathered empirical data and created a presentation on Friday. Saturday morning before flying back to Edinburgh we presented our analysis of the data, receiving feedback from our peers and lecturers.
Throughout the week there were a couple of nights where the whole group of students went out clubbing to experience the famous party scene in Berlin. We also had group dinners, where we had interesting conversation and the staff passed down to us their geo-wisdom. Field trips always prove to be great bonding and friendship building experience, creating a much-needed support system of peers before taking on fourth year.
My Topic: urban gardens
My team decided to focus on urban gardens, as they create a new kind of space within cities. We visited a couple of gardens before deciding to research Prinzessinnengarten, a relatively new urban garden in the city centre, in the neighbourhood of Moritzplats. This garden is unique because of its mobility, nothing is planted directly into the ground. The soil is too toxic as the space used to be a wasteland of a destroyed shopping centre. Also, the space is only leased, not owned, by Nomadic Green (the non-profit which runs the garden) from the City of Berlin. With this temporality in mind, we explored the aims of the garden, who worked there, who visited there and why, and how the garden is run.
Research: gathering empirical data in Prinzessinnengarten
The goal of this field course was to test a variety of creative methodologies, so we tried out several in garden. We created a survey, which we called the “word tree” where we asked visitors to write one word describing why they were in the garden. The words were written in leaves that were part of a drawing of a tree, in keeping with the theme of nature. The next creative research method we executed was combining garden tours with photo elicitation, where instead of documenting by taking our own photographs, we asked our tour guides to take a picture of their favourite part of the garden, using our smart phones. Here we experienced a co-production of knowledge. The conversation where the guides told us why they had chosen a specific place as their favourite part was more valuable than the photograph itself. In addition, we practiced more traditional qualitative methods such as semi-structured interviews, observatory note-taking and photo documentation.
The following quote is how a garden employee described the picture above, which she took.
“I just saw some school children having lunch and playing here, it’s a great community, I love these spots where you can hang out.” -Christina, Prinzessinnengarten masseuse
Finally, the most valuable method for my research was participatory observation. We volunteered for a few hours on our final day, harvesting seeds, watering plants and feeding worms. This was the culmination of our research, as we felt quite integrated into this new place.
As part of volunteering, my peer Georgia cultivated radish seeds from their pods so they could be planted. It was a very windy day, so we had to make sure the tiny seeds wouldn’t fly away!
Presentation: emerging themes and analysis of data
At the end of the three research days all the groups came together to present what they had learned. We received verbal feedback from our peers as well as written feedback from the lectures and the PhD teacher’s assistants. My team decided that “belonging” was the strongest emerging theme from our research in the garden. My final research question was “how does belonging function in Prinzessinnengarten?” This particular urban garden is focused on environmental education through participation by residents and visitors alike, with the goal of integrating this kind of space within urban planning. The creation of a new and unique place such as Prinzessinnengarten raises questions of who belongs and who does not and how belonging is negotiated. We worked our way up from observing visitors to participating volunteers, and our journey from strangers to being part of the garden was the basis for my research.
“My experience confirmed my theory that the performance of belonging will need to be restructured to fit a temporal yet meaningful urban space such as a participatory public garden. I discerned that belonging in a mobile, temporal place with communal participation must be flexible and adaptive, yet spatial context will always define how ‘belonging’ functions.” -the conclusion of my analysis
Apart from a 15 minute presentation including methodologies, presentation, and analysis of empirical data, all the teams created a poster with a title and a couple of quotes from their experience. These will be printed and displayed at the Old Infirmary Building, the location of the Institute of Geography in the School of Geosciences. (My team’s poster is at the beginning of this blog post)
Assessment: Post-trip essay
100% of this 20 credit field course was actually not the presentation during the field trip, rather a 4,000 word essay. This mimicked the methodology chapter of a human geography dissertation, in preparation to write our own dissertations. This was one of the largest essays I had ever written in my undergraduate education, however it was good practice in analysing original empirical data, and exciting because I was writing about a topic I had not only chosen, but also developed and researched.
As a student living on the opposite side of the meadows from the university’s central geography campus and main library, I commute daily back and fourth across Edinburgh’s mini “Central Park.” The meadows is a dynamic park with tennis courts, a playground, bike paths, and a bbq area. Beautiful pink cherry blossom trees line the walking paths, creating colourful tree tunnels, criss-crossing the vast expanses of grass. I feel so blessed to live near such a massive green space in the city. Autumn is nearing to a close, so I will describe the meadows through a couple of senses, sharing with you the magical transition from summer to winter.
Barbecues are traded in for hot cups of coffee, and picnics are swapped with people wrapped up in massive scarves to keep warm. As the temperature dips to 2-5 degrees celsius, the meadows transform from a sunny and busy hang out spot to a windy tundra of apocalyptic proportions. People are not the only ones bundling up for the chilly temps. Another signal that winter is coming are the canine friends sporting stylish coats and sweaters, a sight I’m sure would cheer up anyone’s day.
While most people joke about the never-ending rain that keeps Scotland forever green, I would argue that Edinburgh is the city of wind rather than rain. The meadows is no longer filled with picnic-ing families and acrobats balancing on slack lines, rather everyone traverses quickly so not to get swept away by the strong gales.
Apart from the slack line enthusiasts there are other clubs who frequent the meadows on a weekly basis. Mostly noticeably during autumn The Beltane Fire Society are seen practicing their fire-spinning performances at night. They can be spotted from the opposite side of the meadows as balls of light dance around in loops and circles. Another quintessentially British club is the Harry Potter Society, returning to the meadows in autumn, once University is in session, to practice “Quidditch.”
The most fantastic feature of the meadows during October, and especially November, must be the turning of the leaves. The shiny oval leaves of the cherry blossom trees take on various hues of that of a burning flame, ranging from soft yellows and blazing oranges to deep dark reds. But don’t wait too long to take your leaf pictures for the ‘gram because the rain will quickly turn those bright crispy leaves to mushy brown piles of mud in the blink of an eye.
Edinburgh is famous for being “grey” from the ever-overcast sky, yet there is another side to this gloomy coin. The sunsets are spectacular. Colours from neon pink to magenta and purple are brushed across the clouds, a masterpiece certainly worth capturing on your phone.
As November nears its end, frost become a frequent sight in the early morning hours. Edinburgh is quite wet, so the frost which forms on the grass and pavement can become quite thick, yet dazzles with its brilliant sparkles.
While most cold locations do not require to have the grass cut as the temperatures drop, Edinburgh’s eternal rain keeps the grass growing. The freshly mowed grass of the meadows in September and October is the first layer of the park’s aromas.
Anyone who has visited Edinburgh has encountered its unique “cookie/biscuit” smell, which is in fact aromas from a local whiskey distillery. The sweet oat-y scent that fills the autumn air is very “Edinburgh.” In this sense, Scottish whiskey follows you everywhere you go. I love the mixture of this smell with the decomposing leaves. It reminds me of home, raking up fallen leaves to fill pumpkin-coloured trash bags, which would decorate my front garden just in time for Halloween.
“The North British Distillery’s roasted malt smell has given the capital air a distinctive tang since 1885.” -BBC, 2009
You know when you can just smell “winter?” Its that cold air aroma, wafted in by the snow clouds looming above. This “layer” in the mixture of meadows scents occurs as the last of the leaves fall off of the trees and the sun begins to disappear before 4pm.
I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the meadows during autumn!