Geographer John Hudson, who teaches a course called Human Use of the Earth, takes classes to Northwestern's artificially created beach to show how nature is reclaiming it as a grassy sand dune.

(Photo by Eugene Zakusilo)

John Hudson and students


Geographers like to explain the value of their work by pointing out that everything happens somewhere, and geographers know what to do: Map it, and, sooner or later, somebody will find a use for that map. It's really true, says Northwestern geography professor John C. Hudson. You have data on temperature variations around the world? Map it: Global warming theorists will love you. Sitting on a bunch of info on people's incomes, ages and education levels, organized by ZIP code? Map it: Marketers will never forget you. You say you've already mapped it? Psychologists want to ask how you did it: The answers may help them figure out how children learn spatial reasoning and navigation.

Every year at the Association of American Geographers meeting, Hudson says, "There will be a contingent of people from some discipline that has discovered geography, and they're looking around. Sometimes it's a lasting connection, sometimes it's not, but they come from many, many fields. Geographers are quite used to having someone they've never heard of, in a department they've never thought about, call them up and say, 'I understand you geographers know about this.'"

But, while geographers are supposed to map things, Hudson has also flipped that idea upside down: For almost 30 years, his presence has helped keep Northwestern (42 degrees, 3 minutes, 7.5 seconds north, 87 degrees, 42 minutes, 7.5 seconds west) on the map of the world of geographers.

A theoretician regarded as one of the brightest thinkers in the field in the 1960s because of his skill at using a mathematical approach, Hudson surprised geographers in the early 1970s by turning his back on math in favor of a more historical approach.

"He's not a follower of anybody," says Mike Mikesell, a University of Chicago geographer. "I don't think there's anybody like him. He's a very colorful person."

Hudson's career shift brought him a reputation as a maverick and helped garner one of geography's most prestigious awards, the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize, for his 1986 book, Plains Country Towns, a largely historical exploration of frontier settlement patterns in the upper Midwest.

His accomplishments also made it very difficult for other geographers to write off Northwestern when the department was eliminated — and the subject downsized into a program in the Department of Anthropology — in the 1980s. Now, as the University's only geography professor, Hudson teaches a course load almost twice as heavy as normal. He also edits Rand McNally & Co.'s compendious and well-regarded Goode's World Atlas.

And in early 2001, judging by advance praise, his most ambitious book — the first comprehensive regional geography of North America in more than 70 years — is poised to land with an earthshaking thud on the terrain of academe. Called Across This Land: A Regional Geography of the United States and Canada (Johns Hopkins Press), it is, says University of Minnesota geographer John Fraser Hart, "a genuine tour de force that no other geographer, and I include myself, could have written. It is light-years ahead of existing texts."

But hang around Hudson's classes for a few days, and it's hard to figure out which he loves more: doing geography or teaching it. Students rave about him. They bring their parents to his class to meet him. His name shows up on a regular basis on the student government Faculty Honor Roll.

His barbed but avuncular sarcasm is legendary; his lectures, coveted. "He's a witty guy," says junior Herman Wang. "He manages to make what seems like a heavy subject fun." Indeed, there's usually a waiting list for his most popular offering, an annual course on North American geography.

In his office on the Evanston campus in a metal annex attached to the anthropology department — a cramped cave of a space with dangerous outcroppings of thick books to be wary of and sheer cliff faces of densely packed magazine spines on shelves — Hudson leans back in his chair and shrugs off such accolades with a disarmingly relaxed style.

He likes teaching at Northwestern. There really aren't any bad students here, he says. It is a great privilege to be able to teach smart kids and to know that when you teach something, they are going to pay attention and learn it.

Besides, Hudson adds, people like geography. "When it comes right down to it, most people ... like hearing about places," he says. "You don't have to convince people they should be interested in geography." He pauses then, in case his point isn't clear enough, and says, "Now, if you're teaching differential equations, that's an entirely different thing."

Scrunching up his face in mock anguish, he mimics the torture of a differential equation student. "Awwww, pleeeeezzz don't start the lecture, because then I'm going to have to listen to it."

Unscrunching, he says, "You never encounter that in geography. It's not a painful experience for anybody."

Talk, or, more likely, listen to Hudson for any length of time, since he's one of those rare people whose storytelling is effortless and entertaining, and you get the impression that his brain is one big agglomeration of mental Post-it notes, each one containing a different, interesting fact.

This is a mistaken impression, as he is quick to note. Some people, Hudson growls disapprovingly, think geography "is just trivia. ... There's no faster way to get my dander up than to say, 'Oh, you'd be really good in a trivia contest.'" Hudson hated the brief popularity, about 10 years ago, of geography quizzes. "Geography bees on TV, instead of spelling bees," he says with distaste. "Geography is precisely the opposite of trivia. Trivia is unrelated information. It's simply information stored in some fashion in somebody's brain."

No, what geography is, Hudson says, is "a framework for interpreting facts and a way of organizing facts about places. It's what happened, and where and when. It's a way of looking at things that gives a purpose to the information." In other words, it's a way of making sense of the fact that everything happens somewhere.

Everything that first happened to Hudson happened in and around Milton, Wis. (42 degrees, 45 minutes north, 89 degrees, 0 minutes west; one of six towns named Milton in the world, according to Goode's), where he was born in 1941.

Too young for memories of World War II to be impressed on his brain, Hudson instead recalls first experiencing the world as a repetitive succession of natural events. "I was part of nature," he says. "I learned to identify birds by their song and trees by their leaves. I guess I grew up in a family where that kind of information was valued."

And, although he lived in town, the primordially cyclical permanence of rural life permeated everything. Even his roots went deeper than those of an oak tree. His father was an electrical engineer and his mother was a housewife, but "both my mother's family and father's family were among the original settlers in the 1840s in the first wave of migration from New York State to southern Wisconsin," he says. "So my family had lived there more or less forever."

Immediately surrounding Milton was the land where crops and animals were raised. And that's where Hudson first became aware that what happened, and where and when, were important.

Ask a farmer what time it is, he says, and the answer might be, "'Well, it's time for the second crop of hay.' I wasn't a farmer, and I'm not sure what the second crop of hay was, but I know there was a time in late July when farmers baled hay for the second time ... sometimes they'd get three cuttings.

"What does that have to do with anything? Well, it has to do with dairy farming." In other words, hay nourishes cows. Cows produce milk. Milk nourishes people. People grow hay.

"So there were lots of things like that that were part of life and sort of regulated the ebb and flow of activities," Hudson says. "I took that for granted. I think if I had grown up in another place, I wouldn't have."

Take him on a drive, show him a crop growing in the field, and, he says, "I want to know what that crop is. Some people couldn't care less and would be bored to tears if you told them. But I want to know why it's growing there, where did it come from and so on. I'm sure that comes out of my background."

By the time he was ready for college, Hudson already knew what interested him, but he had no idea it had a name. So, arriving on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 1959, he flipped through the course catalog and experienced a revelation.

"I discovered that all these things were taught," he says. "It was one of the greatest thrills of my entire life. Everything that interested me was taught in the geography department. I didn't know there would be a geography department in a university. It didn't occur to me that there was any such field. So there was never any question as to what I would be. I realized then that no matter what I did, even if I were a truck driver, I would always be a geographer, because that was what was interesting to me."

Eight years later, Hudson received his doctorate in geography, and, by 1968, he was an assistant professor at Wisconsin. He excelled at mathematical models of population growth, says the University of Minnesota's Hart. "His contributions in that area were outstanding." In particular, his attempt to mathematically explain how settlements spread "really put the capstone on a problem that theoretical geographers had been grappling with."

But already, Hudson says, he knew he was not doing "something I wanted to make my life's work. I could only do a fraction of what interested me. You know, if I wanted to take a very narrow subject area, then there were lots of fields I could go into."

His teaching, the occupation he would come to love so much, suffered, too. For the first 10 years, he now concludes, "I don't think I devoted much attention to whether I was doing a good job or not. In the '60s, that wasn't much in vogue. Professors would try to be out of town as much as possible."

Research was in vogue. So he researched, and he published, contributing a variety of articles, reports and book chapters to the literature. He wrote things with titles like "An Algebraic Relation Between the Losch and Christaller Central Place Networks" (for the Professional Geographer), and "Elementary Models for Population Growth and Distribution Analysis" (for Demography).

He went to annual meetings of the professional geographers' association, taking his camera with him and wistfully snapping photographs of terrain and landmarks that interested him.

(Do geographers intentionally pick geographically interesting places for their meetings? Well, what geographers consider to be geographically interesting has a broad definition, according to Hudson. "I'll give you a good example. Last year, we met in one of the nicest places we've ever met, which was Honolulu. Next year, we meet in Pittsburgh. And there are lots of geographers who prefer Pittsburgh. Because it's a more real place. A lot of people thought Honolulu wasn't a really serious place.")

Finally, feeling cramped and frustrated by the stricture of trying to explain the whole sprawling world of geography through the restrictive funnel of mathematical formulas, Hudson simply stopped relying on the intellectual approach as a virtually exclusive method.

So, after he came to Northwestern in 1971, Hudson was ready for a broadening experience. For several years, he worked happily in a department with several colleagues, but by the 1980s, the move turned out to be broadening with a vengeance: A nationwide trend toward specialization at the university level exploded, and before long, the six- to eight-person geography department was too small to be sufficient. The Northwestern administration decided that expansion would be too costly to be viable. In 1987, the department was eliminated, and geography courses were folded into the anthropology department. Hudson was the only professor who stayed on.

Students may still get a degree in geography, but only if they have another major. There aren't enough geography courses offered for a solo major.

The courses that have been kept, Hudson says, are "basically my own courses. They reflect what I think the core of geography ought to be about." That turns out to involve a mixture of analytical material and what Hudson calls "old-fashioned geography."

By far the most popular of these courses is Geography C313, a region-by-region exploration of North America. It is, Hudson says, a class in which he weaves stories about specific geographical locations "so that people can understand these places." The elements of the story of each spot come from a variety of sources, including his own readings and experiences and photographic slides now numbering in the thousands that he has taken over the years.

The classes are huge. While a normal Hudson offering might have 25 to 35 students, C313 had 338 last spring; 253 the year before that; and 219 the year before that. Ten minutes after the bell sounds for the first class, Hudson says, "I'm talking about Newfoundland. By the last week of the course, we're in Hawaii."

Two years ago, a student told a Chicago Tribune reporter that sitting in the class was like "taking a vacation to another interesting place twice a week."

Hudson likes teaching the course so much that even when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988, relieving him of instructional responsibilities, he still came back to teach C313.

The material in the course, in fact, is the basis for Across This Land, Hudson's forthcoming book. "I guess it's my life's work," he says. "I mean, I hate to say that because that means my life's work is going to be completed pretty soon. Nobody wants to say that."

But Hudson's memory of the year of his Guggenheim seems to indicate that his life's work may not be over quite yet. During that year, he says, "I had to go on leave, but I didn't want to. I didn't like not being here and wondering what was going on. So I was sort of miserable. It's much more fun for me to be involved in teaching a class. I really enjoy teaching."

Everything happens somewhere, geographers say, and for Hudson, it appears, the preferred somewhere is in a classroom of students ready to learn.

Kevin Johnson is the Chicago correspondent for the Life section of USA Today. He is also Webmaster of the Spizzerinctum Page, an obscure-word Web site.