Theme 1: Introduction to American studies
1. A panoramic view of American geography;
2. The discovery of America;
3. People in America.
The United States of America (the main landmass) is situated in central North America, with Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The two newest states, Alaska and Hawaii, are separated from the continental United States: Alaska borders on northwestern Canada, and Hawaii lies in the central Pacific. In 1959 Americans welcomed Alaska (1,5 million square kilometers) into the Union as the 49th state. In 1867 the peninsula was purchased from Russia. The same year (1959) the territory of Hawaii (16,7 thousand square kilometers) was admitted to the Union as the 50th state — a state separated from the mainland by about 3,2 thousand kilometers of the ocean.
Americans' encounter with their land has been abrupt and violent, consuming much of the nation's energies. Americans had to confront and to come to terms with a huge, wild country. It has been said that America is a nation with an abundance of geography but a shortage of history. It took less than 400 years to subdue more than 3 million square miles of territory. It was often a painful process and people had to learn geography from hard experience by trial and error. But the geography of the country played into their hands and the land allowed Americans to become self-sufficient in agriculture and basic minerals.
The United States occupies a favorable geographical position. The Atlantic Ocean is of great importance for the country's sea communications with Europe, Africa and South America. The sea routes to Asia and Australia pass over the Pacific Ocean. The sea route through the Panama Canal, which connects the two oceans, runs over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
The total area of the United States is about 9.4 million square kilometers, the population — over 260 million people.
The United States of America is a country of great contrasts and similarities. The diversity of the country stems from the fact that it is so large and has so many kinds of land, climate and people. It stretches 2,575 kilometers from north to south, 4,500 kilometers from east to west. It is impossible to generalize about theweather, the landscape, or even the way of living because the nation occupies nearly half of a continent.
There are high mountains and the flattest of prairies, tropical heat and arctic cold, fertile valleys and desert areas. All sorts of products are grown, there are industries of every kind. The most densely and most sparsely populated areas of the world are to be found in the United States. In some parts of the country the way of life seems to have happened by accident.
Each region of the United States has characteristics of its own. There are large and modern cities with millions of people, but a great proportion of the country consists of open land marked with farm-houses and small towns. In some regions small communities are still provincial. In spite of this, however, and in spite of the size of the country, there are striking similarities in the American scene that surprise foreign observers. There is an appearance of the country as a whole that might be said to be typically American.
The rural village typical of many countries in Europe and Asia — a collection of houses, close together, occupied by the people who work on the surrounding lands — is almost unknown in 20th-century America. In the United States, instead, each farm family usually lives separately on its own fields, often beyond the sight of its neighbors. The village or town is predominantly a place where the farm family travels to buy supplies, to attend church and to go for entertainment or political, social or business meetings.
The usual town of average size, in any part of the United States, has its "main street" with the same types of stores selling the same products. Each town has the same type of drugstore and supermarket. There is some variety of architecture, due to the differences in climate, locality and national background of the people. Yet, many American residential areas, especially new ones, tend to have a similar look.
THE PHYSICAL FEATURES OF THE UNITED STATES are also greatly diverse. The majestic Rocky Mountains stretch all the way from Mexico to the Arctic. They divide the country into two parts — the East and the West. The East is occupied by the Appalachian Mountains, the Atlantic Plain, the vast Central Plain and the Plateau of Prairies or the Great Plains. The West is under the powerful Cordillera Mountain System, and the Rockies are part of this system. Close to the Pacific coast, lying between mountain ranges, stretches the California Valley, a narrow strip of lowlands.
The mountain ranges of the United States stretch longitudinally and afford no protection against the cold northerly winds. This accounts for the country's climate, which is notably colder than that of Western Europe or North Africa in the same latitudes.
The Appalachian Mountains run along the Atlantic coast of the country. They extend from Georgia and Alabama in the United States to parts of eastern Canada near the St. Lawrence River. Compared with the Rockies in the West, they are ancient, strongly destroyed mountains of no great height (2,000 m). They lost much of their height because of the action of glaciers and erosion. Railroad lines run along the river valleys and over the low mountain passes, thus connecting the Atlantic coast with the interior of the country. The eastern slopes of the Appalachians merge with the Atlantic Coastal Plain, which, expanding in the south, adjoins the Gulf Coastal Plain and the lowlands of the Peninsula of Florida. The greatest width of the Appalachian belt in the south is nearly 320 kilometers, and in the north — some 100 kilometers.
The Appalachian Mountains consist mainly of the numerous mountain ranges which are nearly parallel with the Atlantic coastline and extend from near the Gulf of Mexico north into Canada. Between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains is a wide area of low, rolling hills, called the Piedmont. The Piedmont has fast-flowing rivers and streams. The Piedmont and the coastal plain are divided by a fall line, where rivers drop sharply from the hilly region toward the lowlands near the Atlantic Ocean, forming waterfalls and rapids.
Nearly all the Western part of the United States is occupied by the Cordillera Mountain System. The Cordillera Mountains extend from Mexico to Canada and Alaska. In the south they are drained by the Colorado River, in the north — by the Columbia River. It is a region of high plateaus crossed by streams which flow through deep canyons. The Cordillera Mountain System includes a number of lofty ranges or chains and plateaus.
The Rocky Mountains form the eastern chain of the Cordilleras. They rank among the greatest of the world mountain ranges. They are high (over 4,000 metres), sharp and rugged. Many peaks, especially those near the state of Colorado, rise over 3,658 meters. The highest peak in the Rocky Mountains is Mount Elbert in Colorado (it rises 4,993 meters above sea level). As compared with the Appalachians, they are young and their peaks are capped with snow. When the Rocky Mountains were formed (over 100 million years ago) the molten rock which was forced up carried with it gold, copper, lead, silver and other metals, so they are very rich in minerals.
Another subdivision of the Cordilleras is the Sierra Nevada — Cascade Range, which extends from the Canadian border to the Mexican boundary and is part of the Pacific ranges. Most of the major earthquake activity in the region has occurred in the areas along the Pacific ranges. The Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range form an almost unbroken mountain wall between inland United States and the Pacific coast land. The only east route from the interior to the coast is at the point where the Columbia River cuts through the mountains in a wide pass. There are great forests in the Cascades and large gold deposits in the Sierra Nevada.
The Pacific slope of the Cordillera Mountains includes the Pacific valleys and the Coast Ranges. These ranges form two parallel mountain systems stretching along the Pacific coast. The Coast Ranges are known also as the Maritime Cordilleras.
Between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific ranges in the United States lies an area of mixed landforms, which include the Colorado and Columbia plateaus and the Great Basin. Deep gorges cut through parts of the Great Basin. Mesas are also found between the Rockies and the Pacific ranges in this area.
The eastern and western chains of the Cordilleras enclose the Great North - American Plateau. The climate here is markedly continental and dry, vegetation — of the desert and semi-desert types. The central part of the Great North-American Plateau — the Great Basin — is a semi-desert area with the only large sheet of water — the Great Salt Lake. In the region between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Reno, Nevada, there is nothing but dead lakes, dry rivers, snakes and small animal life, enormous mineral wealth, and the inhuman beauty of the desert. The climate is so dry and hot that even fairly large rivers from the mountains evaporate so rapidly that they die before reaching the end of the desert. The sun shines nine-tenths of the year, and the temperature goes up to about 50 degrees centigrade in the shade. But occasionally it rains, even here.
Close to the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, in California, there is a particularly lonely stretch of desert named Death Valley by pioneers who tried to cross it in their rush to the goldfields. For 225 kilometers hardly a bush can be seen in this ancient lakebed 85 meters below sea level — the bottom of the United States.
But even in the vast, silent desert there are rich and prosperous towns, which were built where men found sufficient water. The Colorado, the Gila and other smaller rivers have made the desert bloom along their shores. Centuries ago, American Indians used these western rivers to irrigate their fields. Ruins of their old canals are still found throughout the desert. Observing these canals, early settlers reasoned that bringing water to this land would be easy. They had seen that the mountains held plenty of snow and rain, and that the Mountain Rivers could be put to work.
The water that is brought down the mountains is stored in two natural lakes — Utah Lake and Bear Lake — and six man-made storage facilities. These facilities account for about 75 percent of the total water in the state. More than 100 towns and countless gardens now flourish in this region which had once been considered worthless.
After 1848, when gold was found in the river beds of California, great numbers of people crossed the mountains over trails discovered by the hunters. Today, eight railroads and a dozen highways go winding over the mountains, following routes made by these settlers.
It should be mentioned here that the United States is divided into 50 states. Those which border one another on the continent are grouped into seven regions: New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont), Middle Atlantic States (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania), Southern States (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia), Midwestern States (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin), Rocky Mountain States (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming), Southwestern States (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas) and Pacific Coast States (California, Oregon, Washington). In addition, Hawaii and Alaska are grouped separately.
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