Earth Matters: Late geography professor made a lasting impact

We all need to look up from our phones long enough to see the real world — not just to keep from running into something, but to truly look at everything that surrounds us.

We would better appreciate what a marvel the planet is and how we can change it, negatively and positively.

Penn State geography professor Peirce Lewis was as influential as anyone in helping me see those details, both natural and man-made. While his passing two weeks ago saddened me, my memories of his classes, lectures and writings also inspired me.

After more than three decades of talking about writing a book about my own travels and observations of the natural world, I finally completed the task and found a publisher last year. Though I had not talked to Dr. Lewis since my college graduation in 1978, his fingerprints are all over the book.

Geography, in part, studies the interaction between man and the natural world. I’m not sure there was anyone that told that story better than Peirce Lewis.

Geography is also the place where the social and physical sciences converge, and Lewis seemed equally comfortable on either side of the discipline.

His geomorphology course — the study of landforms and how they came to be — was more than a class about mountains and valleys. His comprehensive view of the world meant the class explained the many connections between the rocks, soils and waterways and the way man would use or be impacted by them. When I think back, I’m not quite sure how he squeezed it all into a 10-week trimester.

I still have his class notes, the textbook and the poster-sized map he used by famed cartographer Erwin Raisz. I referred to all three when I was writing my own book, and I still take the landform map with me when I travel.

Just as comfortable with the cultural side of geography, Lewis also taught about man-made American landscapes in a class called “The American Scene.”

Another of his disciples, Wayne Brew, was particularly fascinated by that side of Lewis. Now an assistant professor of geography at Montgomery County Community College, Brew recently reminisced about his old teacher.

“He provided a great epiphany for me; the cultural landscape can be ‘read’ like the physical landscape,” Brew wrote via e-mail. “Now the ordinary is interesting and extraordinary.”

Lewis won numerous teaching awards during his long career at Penn State, Brew describing him as “an extraordinary teacher.” He had an exceptional ability to connect the seemingly disconnected and make the complex understandable.

“His writings are not filled with jargon or pretense,” Brew noted.

His impact on Central Pennsylvania went beyond the classroom. His historic perspective helped him see the value of planning in the initial development of Pennsylvania’s oldest cities, and he believed smarter urban planning was a key to vibrant cities today. Recognizing the scenic squalor which was contributing to urban decay in the United States, he helped write the early sign regulations in State College in an effort to tame sign and billboard blight.

Peirce Lewis passionately preached his geography gospel at Penn State for nearly four decades, and there’s little doubt the messages he imparted will live in many of us for just as long.

John Frederick’s (www.johnjfrederick.com) column appears every other Wednesday. He encourages readers to watch Lewis’s “Pennsylvania Journey,” PBS’s 1983 documentary on Pennsylvania’s historical geography and landscapes at www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7XbHQP0fXs.

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