‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France

‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28764207

Z is trying something new today. Today’s post, geographic naming.

A hamlet in France is known in French as “Death to Jews” or Mort aux Juifs. The name has, again, attracted attention with calls from various organizations to rename the place.

Oddly named places stirring up controversy aren’t new. U.S. states Alaska and Ohio are in a tussle over the name of Mt. McKinley named for an Ohio-born president. Alaska is pressing for the name Denali, from a deity among Alaskan tribes.

And there are other less savory names that have been the subject of controversy. Canada, in 1961, renamed Nigger Creek in British Columbia to Negro Creek.

To Z Geography more effort should be expended in community outreach and development not in, potentially,  bringing litigation against communities. Changing the name of a place doesn’t address prejudice.

What it does do is erase human history. That’s the other lesson, these place names are an important record of things that we should never forget, lest we return to the bad old days of Crusades and purges.

A marathon

Today your Geographer is running his first marathon.

By way of honoring this event, Z would like to relate the story (thanks to wikipedia, of course) of why running 26.2 miles is called a “marathon.”

The popular story goes something like this: following the battle of Marathon, the Greeks who had just defeated a Persian army, sent a runner to Athens to report the felicitous news. The battle of Marathon is acknowledged as the turning point in that first conflict between the Persian Empire and Greek city states. Athens is approximately 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) from the plain of Marathon. Upon reaching the city and shouting out the good news, the runner promptly fell over and died.

As wikipedia tells it (with a pair of sources who are second hand sources themselves) this popular story is actually a conflation of two stories surrounding the battle. There was a runner, Pheidippides, carrying a message. However, he left Athens as the Athenian army left for Marathon. Pheidippides covered 140 miles (225 km.) to reach Sparta the day after he left (otherwise known as ultrarunning) and bade the Spartans to make haste for Marathon to assist. As the heavens would have it, the Spartans were observing a religious festival requiring peace and would be unable to march until the following full moon (some days later). Following the battle, the Athenian army marched back the 25 miles back to Athens from the battlefield at Marathon. The Athenians marched quickly, they were carrying gear and were probably exhausted, in an attempt to reach Athens before the Persian fleet could Cape Sounion (to the south). If the Persians rounded the cape, they could have conceivably landed the survivors directly in Athens – since the city was undefended with the army in Marathon. As you may have guessed, the Athenians reached the city first.

Thus, our modern marathons (eventually set at 26 miles, 385 yards or 42.195 km.) commemorate the Athenian army’s march and race against the Persians.

The Aral Sea, Lakes?

Occasionally, I find myself examining side-by-side shots of the so-called “Aral Sea.” I’m beginning to think that its time to we, as Geographers, Politicians, Academics, and Private Citizens, stop referring to the various Aral Lakes as the “Aral Sea”.

As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a proscribed standard surface area, diameter, radius, or perimeter distinguishing between a lake and a sea. What they have in common is that they are large-ish bodies of water, fresh or salty. A lake is surrounded on all sides by land, while a sea is “definitely marked off by land boundaries” (thanks to Dictionary.com). This is why we have the Aral Sea, which is completely surrounded by land, and the North Sea, which isn’t. Generally though, seas are larger than lakes.

Compare the two images below, a composite of two satellite images taken in 1989 and 2008, further down is another image (from EOsnap.com) showing the “Aral Sea” in June 2013. The Earth Snapshot website also provides a link to a Columbia University webspace discussing the “Aral Sea Crisis.”

Aral Sea (1989, left) Four Lakes of Aral (2008, right), via wikipedia.

My point is purely the naming convention. I’m guessing its primarily out of a sense of tradition that we continue to use the term “Aral Sea” for what is clearly three different Aral Lakes. In addition to the tradition of the word, perhaps it is also to assuage our (humanity’s) own guilt. If we continue to refer to this as the Aral Sea I suppose we’re deluding ourselves (since most of us will never see it) into thinking that humans can’t possibly have this sort of affect on our natural environment. According to wikipedia, the Aral Sea had an area of over 26,000 sq. mi. in 1960. In 2004, the “four lakes” (East, West, Middle, North) had a combined area of 6,600 sq. mi.

As it turns out a number of “lakes” are larger than the “Aral Sea”, even when in it was a single body in 1960. Lake Superior (Canada and the U.S.) has a surface area of 31,000 sq. mi. Lake Ladoga (in Russia) the largest lake in Europe is larger than the four lakes of Aral, having a surface area of about 7,000 sq. mi.

Although some would argue that it would be a stretch to think that a simple name would have much impact on the world. I would argue that this name frames and defines (duh) our world and, more importantly, our place in it. Sure, we may continue to use “Aral Sea”  out of hope that the Aral Sea will make a come back, but at the moment, it feels delusional. If not delusional, then it might just be a denial. A denial to the potential fact that we, humans, wrecked our environment.

The EOsnap’s image (taken in June 2013) below shows the four lakes of Aral in the upper right. The vast expanse of water on the left is the Caspian Sea.

Four lakes of Aral (2013), via EOsnap.com.

Geography of Naming: Volgograd/Stalingrad

Previously I posted about how tracking the names of places is a legitimate geographic pursuit and commented on a story about monuments in post-Communist societies. Today, we’ll be combining these two themes on the persistent discussion on the name of a historically-important urban area in Russia, Volgograd/Stalingrad. While many are familiar with the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer are aware of the political wrangling over the city’s name since it was initially renamed in 1961.

1961 wasn’t the first time Volgograd was renamed. According to wikipedia, the original name for the place was Tsaritsyn due to its location at the confluence of the Tsaritsa and Volgograd rivers. It was renamed in 1925, in honor of Jospeh Stalin’s and the city’s role during the Russian Civil War during the previous decade. The city’s name was then changed by Nikita Khrushchev during his administration’s de-Stalinization campaign, after the leader’s death in 1953.

The BBC reports that the Volgograd/Stalingrad issue has come again as the city council has approved usage of the name Stalingrad on six different days of the year that commemorate World War II. While some oppositionists dismiss this move as cheap vote-buying, which begins making a come-back ahead of elections, others are dismayed by the renewed “official” usage of the name. For them Stalingrad means Stalin, and Stalin meant the deaths of millions (much like the argument against Lenin statues in Mongolia).

Others are advocating a more sensible approach, one is a 92-year old veteran of the battle (as noted in the article) who says that although he can’t condone what Stalin did and is responsible for, “you have to recognize the positive things he did, whether you want to or not.” In this case, Stalin provided the leadership to reverse the Soviet Union’s dismal prospects during World War II. While Stalin can hardly be credited with deserving all of this credit, he was the one in power. More importantly, Stalingrad is how the city was known during this crucial moment in Russian history, its not as if the city was known as Tsaritsyn during the battle and then Stalin changed it to reflect his glory. While the wikipedia article is unclear on this point, Stalin may have renamed the city after himself in the 1920s.

Ultimately, I suppose the most equitable answer is to decide the name by referendum (according to the article the Communists have over 30,000 signatures for Stalingrad). But the referendum should include all three names, Tsaritsyn, Stalingrad, and Volgograd. But then again, considering humanity’s apparent propensity to rename the same thing, who’s to say there isn’t an even older name?