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A Letter to Bomps

Over the next 4 days one of my hero’s will be having most of his blood drained and replenished to keep him here on earth just a little longer.  In an effort to keep him busy thinking about other things thought I would post this letter so the world (the 3 people who might read this) can see why he is so special.

Dear Bomps,

As your only grandson there has always been a strong bond between the two of us.  The bond is unique because of the years of being in your immediate presence 24/7 on the orchard at the end of Putman Road.  I believe a large part of my character and personality was foraged at the home you built from the ground up.  The memories that flood my mind are vast and  I am so pleased I have been able to share some of those with you over the last few months. For the sake of those who have never met you I wish I could share all the moments that made me laugh, cry, and smile but they are to numerous to share, for that would take a lifetime.

The stories from your life where priceless to this boy listening at your feet.  There was being pulled over at 14 for not having a license while delivering milk for Great Grandpa McEwen, leaving for Alaska at 16 to start something new, lying about your age to get into the Navy so you could chose your branch of service or watching you try to explain why Aunt Irene had been around longer then you and Grandma Ag had been married.  (I appreciate the awkwardness you felt on this one much more now than then).  The fires you fought in Bellingham for your 20+ years on the department , and the story of how you and Kenny Smith got the jobs in the first place.  For the record you would have not enjoyed working for the post office anyway, you were a firefighter.  Your helmet hangs on my office wall today as a reminder of those days.  I could go on and on….

The shared memories we have that I will one day lavish on my kids and grandkids are golden.  The frozen manure pile, your personal favorite, will forever mark the beginning of my manure research.  The trips to Loon Lake in the back of the truck while using the Tab cans as toilets, getting lost on the Honda Trail 90 on the hill and ending up in Canada, shooting birds for hours, watching the pea combines, learning if you roll a tire into the burn pile at the right time it won’t burn black and alert the neighbors, plus splitting wood and hauling it with Dad.  I still remember watching your knee go out on the hill and watching you get so upset because Dad had to stop cutting the Alder down.  I continue – watching you build cabinets, prune trees, spray, mow, garden, can veggies, run the only registered cherry orchard on the westside of the state of Washington with ease.  Then there was that fateful trip to HiNotes, we travelled that way so many times it is hard to remember why that day, but you had to make a pit stop in the woods and I yelled those famous words, “Hey Bomps what you doing? I can see you bald head!” then on your return, “Hey Bomps, what happened to your hanky?”

Time and time again in my daily life I remember you.  The smell of oysters or clams always takes me to the TV room for the noon news to catch the weather.  The room where we would have a 5 episode marathon of All My Children on a Friday night.  It was in this room I fell in love with the news, Donahue, M.A.S.H, Peoples Court, The Price Is Right and Matlock mainly because I was sitting next to you.  It was there where you tried to explain the nature of the Jim Jones cult and tragedy as I stumbled over the Newsweek pictures.  You taught me about stocks with Ed and how to sit and listen to family.   It was some of those moments in the living room with Ed, Aunt Evie, Art, Kenny and Lorean Smith, Grandpa McEwen, Aunt Dotto, Earl, and Grandma Ag I wish I could repeat in my own live.   For as high strung and patient lacking you and I are you knew how to invest in family.  I am still learning this lesson a lesson I need to learn quickly before it is too late.

You loved a woman who came with an extra in a day when no one talked about such things.  I don’t know if anyone will ever know how you and grandma felt during those years when Grandma Z raised Kathleen but I would have been hurt and mad.  All I ever saw was love.

Don’t worry, I remember those times when you showed the less then perfect side of Vernon McEwen but it was these moments that assured me Jesus loved all our flaws and we could love Him through them as well.  (Trust me I fully understand you and I are two peas in a pod and can be pretty short with those around us at times)

Bomps, you have showed me how to work hard and provide for my family.  You showed me how to love a woman through for better or for worse.  You showed me how to worship God while sitting at an organ or working in the yard.  You showed me how to carry a gun.  You showed me how to run an orchard.  You showed me I have a tremendous Dad.  And more importantly you showed me how to live and die.

Whether you go home tonight, next week, or as you said in 21 years know you have lived well and given you family the best examples of living life through the ups and downs that come our way.  I am proud to be the only grandson of Vernon McEwen.  When you do see Jesus – thank him for letting me have you as my Bomps.


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Are You Done Yet?

Numerous of our family and friends have ask about my progress and when they get to call me Dr. or when I can afford to take my wife out to dinner. So here is the latest update:

The last six months have been full of set backs, rescheduled dates, and experimental reruns which ultimately shattered any hope of a December 2010 graduation.  I am currently in the writing process submitting drafts to my committee chair and then rewriting, rewriting, rewriting….you get the picture.  In a research based PhD publications are the key and required by the department at WSU (at least 1).  They are how your committee and chair get a return on their investment of time and money.  In most cases a graduate student finishes their dissertation and then publishes the outcome after graduation or a combination.  My committee chair however wants everything that can be published already submitted prior to my defense.  The difference between dissertation and publication ready are VAST, as I have found out in the last 4 months.

My PhD dissertation encompasses 4 major chapters (it was 3 until Friday afternoon).

1)      Literature Review

2)      “Influence of Biochar on Soil pH, Water Holding Capacity, Nitrogen and Carbon Dynamics. ”

3)      Characterization of Biochar made from dairy manure fiber and its ability to sequester phosphorus from dairy lagoons

4)      The impact of phosphorus recovered from dairy manure using biochar on soil characteristics and crop yield.

Progress: Chapter 1 – 80% complete but will be in revision until defense

Chapter 2 – DONE Accepted to SSSJA

Chapter 3 and 4 – Writing and rewriting


So it boils down to this – we are not setting any dates for my defense BUT it must happen before April 1, 2011 and I will walk in May.

Thanks for the prayers!

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A Little Self Promotion – Front Page Tri Cities Herald

Scientists see biochar as promising fuel source

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writer

Scientists in Eastern Washington are at the forefront of research into an ancient practice that shows promise as a clean fuel source, a way to improve soil condition and to capture carbon that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.

Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the federal Department of Agriculture’s research station in Prosser and Washington State University have been integral figures in studies of biochar and its potential uses.

Biochar, a charcoal-like material, is produced when biomass — including wood, plant and animal waste — is burned in the absence of or under low oxygen conditions so the material doesn’t combust.

This process, called pyrolysis, thermally decomposes the waste into biochar, bio-oil and syngas. Biochar and bio-oil show commercial promise and syngas offers a power source that can run a pyrolyzer.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has estimated that if the United States were to pyrolyze 1.3 billion tons of various forms of biomass annually, it could replace 1.9 billion barrels of imported oil with bio-oil. That would represent about 25 percent of the annual oil consumption in this country. In addition, USDA estimates the country could sequester 153 million tons of carbon annually by adding biochar to soils.

Although widespread research on biochar began less than a decade ago, debate already is brewing on whether its prevailing commercial use will be for fuel or for soil and carbon sequestration.

In January, UOP, a subsidiary of the Honeywell Corp., announced it had been awarded a $25 million grant from the federal Department of Energy to build a demonstration plant in Hawaii to take waste feedstocks of wood, agricultural products and algae residue to produce bio-oil. The oil then will be refined into aviation and diesel fuel with technology developed in part by PNNL, a junior partner in the project.

Biofuels, including bio-oil from char, “can’t replace all petroleum,” said Doug Elliott, staff scientist with PNNL’s Chemical and Biological Process Development unit. He has been researching biofuels for three decades.

“But U.S. production of biofuels could replace one-third of our total petroleum products annually and on a continuing basis,” he said.

Could create jobs

Or the use of smaller portable pyrolyzer units one day could be deployed in forests to clean up wood waste piles, produce lower-grade fuel, generate power and create jobs in rural communities. The Forest Service is funding research of a small demonstration project in a small Northeastern Oregon community.

“There’s all kinds of things that are potentially usable as a fuel source. You can make this work on a whole lot of things that don’t have a value and actively have a cost,” said Eric Twombly of BioChar Products, who is conducting the forest fuels project in Halfway, Ore.

Twombly fired up his mobile plant in December at an old lumber mill site about eight miles from the Idaho border. He hopes to produce at least 500 tons of biochar and at least 300 gallons of bio-oil using chipped wood waste.

A farmer already is buying some of the oil to use in his orchard heaters, and Twombly uses the syngas to power the plant. It now employs three people, but Twombly envisions one day creating at least a dozen full-time, family-wage jobs.

And ongoing research by soil scientist Hal Collins and his team at the USDA’s vegetable and forage crop research unit in Prosser is looking at how dairy waste could be transformed on-site into a product that could be added to the soil, used as an energy source and to eliminate the environmental concerns of waste ponds.

Jim Amonette, a soil chemist at PNNL who has extensively studied biochar, and others say it isn’t a panacea that will resolve the nation’s energy and environmental challenges. But he says its potential use in storing carbon and as a soil amendment is promising.

“You are basically taking a biomass that would be back in the atmosphere in five to 10 years and converting it into biochar that will be in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Amonette, who contributed a chapter to Biochar for Environmental Management, considered one of the definitive reference works on the topic.

“It is one of the few ways you can pull carbon out of the air and generate energy at the same time,” he said.

Different products

The process isn’t new. Researchers have found areas in the Amazon basin where people centuries ago deposited charcoal, leaving behind areas with rich soils and lush plant growth. Scientists aren’t certain how they created the charcoal, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at Washington State University and a co-principal investigator of a study published last year.

Scientists subsequently have found that different methods of pyrolysis — fast and slow, which are distinguished primarily by the rate of temperature increase in the pyrolyzing unit — produced different amounts of finished product.

Fast pyrolysis takes place in seconds, with temperatures that can reach up to 1,000 degrees. WSU researchers and Collins found in their study, released in 2009, that higher heating produced more bio-oil and less biochar from the same amount of biomass, while slow pyrolysis with slow heating rates yielded more char and less oil.

Amonette said research of the two methods in general has shown that a ton of biomass subjected to slow pyrolysis can produce up to 750 pounds of biochar, while the fast process yields 300 pounds of char.

Pressure to produce bio-oil could grow as oil prices continue climbing. UOP has said it expects to start fuel production in Hawaii no later than 2014. The company estimates it could produce gasoline and diesel for about $2.50 a gallon, Elliott said.

Others, however, tout the potential value of biochar for use in soils and in controlling greenhouse gases. Production of biochar locks up carbon from the biomass that would otherwise rot or be burned, and therefore decreases the amount of carbon dioxide returned to the atmosphere, according to researchers.

“By finding ways to keep this carbon out of the atmosphere for longer periods, we’re making better use of the service provided by plants when they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis,” Amonette said.

Soil scientists also have found biochar is good for storing carbon because it takes a long time to decompose, Collins said. It also has shown promise in retaining phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium — helping prevent them from leaching into lakes and streams — and retains moisture because it is porous.

But research by soil scientists thus far suggests biochar isn’t a magic elixir for all types of soil. It may work best in tropical and highly weathered soils — such as in the southern U.S. — where minerals have leached out of soil.

“It’s not a nutrient. It imparts some characteristics that improve soil conditions,” Collins said.

His team in Prosser now is looking at transforming dairy wastes into a fuel source and reducing environmental issues with the waste. The researchers are taking manure run through a digester at an Outlook dairy, running it through a pelletizer to change it to pellet form, and then subjecting it to slow pyrolysis to produce bio-gas or bio-oil.

Biochar produced in the process is being applied to dairy waste water to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus, which could be sold as a fertilizer.

“We think it shows a lot of promise,” Collins said.

Research will yield more clues into potential applications of biochar and bio-oil. Economics also will play a key role in how the technology is developed, said Jim Bartis, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who specializes in energy.

“We know we can implement (the technology) now on a small scale,” Amonette said. “We can’t wait 50 years to get all the bugs out.”

* Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535;

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BioChar What is It – What is BioChar?

I have had a lot of questions about my posts related to Biochar over the last few months, so I thought I would post this piece from the Economist from University of Florida.  I could talk for a few hours on the subject about the truth, lies, snake oil effect and real research that is going on… but this article gives a good overview.  Again – not my own article – but I do have the largest supply of biochar from anaerobically digested dairy manure fiber currently in the world.  A large portion of my PhD is dealing with the use of biochar as a nutrient recovery tool

The Economics of Biochar

Before the industrial revolution, whole forests disappeared to provide the carbon that ironmakers need to reduce their ore to metal.  Then, an English ironmaker called Abraham Darby discovered how to do the job with coke.  From that point onward, the charcoal-burners’days were numbered.  The rise of coal, from which coke is produced, began, and so did the modern rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ironically, the latest fashion for dealing with global warming is to bring back charcoal.  It has to be rebranded for modern consumers, of course, so it is now referred to as “biochar.”  There are individuals who think biochar may give humanity a new tool to attack the problem of global warming, by providing a convenient way of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, burying it and improving the quality of the soil on the way.  Many people with an interest in biochar got together recently at the University of Colorado, to discuss the matter at the North American Biochar Conference.  They looked at various ways of making biochar, the virtues of different raw materials and how big the benefits really would be.


The first inkling that putting charcoal in the ground might improve soil quality came over a century ago, when an explorer named Herbert Smith noticed that there were patches of unusually rich soils in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.  Most of the forest’s soil is heavily weathered and of poor quality.  But the so- called “terra preta,” or “black earth,” is much more fertile.  This soil is found at the sites of ancient settlements, but it does not appear to be an accidental consequence of settlement.  Rather, it looks as though the remains of burned plants have been mixed into it deliberately.  And recently, some modern farmers – inspired by Wim Sombroek, a Dutch soil researcher who died in 2003 – have begun to do likewise.

According to Julie Major, of the International Biochar Initiative, a lobby group based in Maine, infusing savannah in Colombia with biochar made from corn stover (the waste left over when maize is harvested) caused crops there to tower over their char-less counterparts.  Christoph Steiner, of the University of Georgia, reported that biochar produced from chicken litter could do the same in the sandy soil of Tifton in that state.  And David Laird, of the USDA, showed that biochar even helped the rich soil of America’s Midwest by reducing the leaching from it of a number of nutrients, including nitrate, phosphate and potassium.  However, it is the idea of using biochar to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a semi-permanent basis that has caused people outside the field of agriculture to take notice of the stuff.  Sombroek wrote about the possibility in 1992, but only now is it being taken seriously.

In the natural carbon cycle, plants absorb CO2 as they grow.  When they die and decompose, this returns to the atmosphere.  If, however, they are subjected instead to pyrolysis – a process of controlled burning in a low-oxygen atmosphere – the result is char, a substance that is mostly elemental carbon.  Although life is, in essence, a complicated form of carbon chemistry, living creatures cannot process carbon in its elemental form.  Charcoal, therefore, does not decay very fast.  Bury it in the soil, and it will stay there.  Some of the terra preta is thousands of years old.

Moreover, soil containing biochar releases less methane and less nitrous oxide than its untreated counterparts, probably because the charcoal acts as a catalyst for the destruction of these gases.  Since both of these chemicals are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, this effect, too, should help combat global warming.  And the process of making biochar also creates beneficial by-products.  These include heat from the partial combustion, a gaseous mixture called syngas that can be burned as fuel, and a heavy oil.

The benefits of the soil should be enough to persuade some farmers to make and bury biochar. Others, though, may need more incentives – probably in the form of carbon “offsets”that compensate for emissions elsewhere.  In the developing carbon-trading economy, CO2-emitting industries could pay farmers to buy stoves to char and sequester farm waste.  Farmers in poor countries could get in on the act too, through the Clean Development Mechanism, a United Nations’ program that allows emitters to buy offsets in the global market.  (The Economist, 8/27/09).

I retrieved Thursday November 19 at 6:30am from

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Norman Borlaug

In the last month the world lost the father of the green revolution Norman Borlaug.  He won the Noble Peace Prize for basically his breeding of semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.  (I might add that the original variety Borlaug used for his base breeding was developed and given to him by Orville A. Vogel the wheat breeder at WSU)

In a presentation to the American Society of Agronomy in 2007 (  Borlaug addressed the issue of world hunger and ability to use GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) to help the issue of world food security.  I understand the issues surrounding GMO’s I deal with the debate on a regular bases for classes, research and personal pondering however the question I pose is this:

This great era of political correctness, environmental awareness, the Omnivore’s Dilemma, world population nearing 7 Billion, and agriculture being told it must turn away from large scale commercial endeavors – WHO DIES FIRST and WHO GETS TO DECIDE?

Norman Borlaug was an advocate for the poor and hungry yet was dismissed at times for his support of GMO’s.   If we do not use every tool available in our tool box including: no til, precision agriculture, big farm, small farm, machines, hand tools, synthetic fertilizers, green manures, manures  and GMO’s there will most likely not be  enough global food production to sustain our population, people will die.

I think the legacy of Dr. Borlaug will not only be feeding millions of people but his keen awareness that hungry people should eat and we need all the tools available to accomplish this task.

Can you answer the question? Who dies first and who decides?

Is it government, Universities, ADM, the producers of Corn King, the farmers, Al Gore?  Who gets to limit the tools in the tool box – would we limit the tools our heart surgeon has available to him during open heart surgery?

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A Revisit of the Vision

This was originally posted almost a year ago.  This morning will out in the field it became evident I need to read through it again and make sure I can see the Vision.  I still can…
Every fall season (yes, I believe fall is here) I find myself trying to get organized for the year ahead, this year is no different. 2008-2009 however has a little different feel as this becomes year number 2 in the PhD program. The question posed by my wife, “can you see the light at the end of the tunnel” my response “what’s light?”, so… it is at these times in my life I dig deep into my character, thoughts, and passions to remember the why –

First I remember – “God loved the world so much (everyone in it – no questions asks) that he sent his only son to pay the bill no one could ever afford – John 3:16 (Jason’s Translation)

Second, I remember – Like everyone I was not an accident but designed for a purpose that is bigger then myself. I have a role to play – I must play it with my best.

Third, I remember – I was never expected to play my part on my own strength but with the backing and support of the ultimate designer – the same creator who paid my bill – seriously – if He is for me – who can be against me.

My hope does not come in who’s president, the price of gas, the state of global relationships but my hope comes from my personal and living relationship with God and him working in me.

I’m not normal – I get it – I love God and play with poop but I know this, my purpose stays the same…

“I exist to restore hope to my generation, anyone I meet, anywhere I go, anyway I can; living dangerously and recklessly trusting God’s word because God’s love compels me to do no less”

I Corinthians 9:24-27 (Message) You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.

So, I press on – following the example of Jesus the best I can – I will continue to screw up – say the wrong things – miss opportunities – miss deadlines – yell at the boys – kick the dog – have bad attitudes – but I will do my best follow Him and run the race.Now I return to the books, the data, the manure and the upcoming dissertation looking through the lenses of the deep and the passion that remains the same…

Africa or Die

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AGROTAIN AGGIES – Rainier to Pacific Relay 2009 A debrief

RTP Finish Line

In a classic twist of, being at the right place at the right time, I was dropped in the middle of a group of 13 strangers from around the world to run in the 21st Annual Rainier to Pacific Relay Race.  The course consisted of a supposed 152 miles from Mt. Rainier to Ocean Shores, Washington, with team members running 3 legs ranging from 3 to 7 miles encompassing a little over 25 hours.

So equipped with some courage and apprehension I drove to Seattle to meet my team for the first time.   One by one I was introduced to “Nine Hot Guys and Two Really Lucky Women” from AGROTAIN (a vital component to putting quality food on your table every day in an environmentally sound manner), AdFarm (the ad wizards who can make fertilizer and manure look attractive) and Dave (the DCLS rep who rallies for common sense on the hill).    For most it was a reunion of friendships and putting a face to a familiar voice from a years worth of meetings over the phone until the Yellow Rose of Texas came into sight.  Dressed in nothing more then a couple see through wash cloths strolled by our group with her man (at least for a while) by her side.  It was at that moment this group became a team.  We now had a common experience and sight most of us would rather forget.

The team spent the next three days with little sleep, except Dave who had the unique ability of sleeping THROUGH ANYTHING, maneuvering through poorly marked routes, extra mileage, extreme heat, and each others individual odors.  (I was fortunate enough to have the two beautiful ladies in my van which made for “a little less ripe environment”) Highlights included: dog bites, the ER, lost runners, a little old lady shocked by the vomiting runner on the sidewalk, changing in the woods, avoiding a patient at the hospital not plagued with ED, cold 1am showers at Elma High School, a blown knee and hearing Dora sing Karaoke at the Bullpen.  Needless to say, it was a weekend full of lifelong memories.

At the end of the day my team had now become my friends.  A group filled with class, determination, righteous sense of humors, professionalism and genuine good hearts.  They did not have to bring me into the fold but they did and for that I will always be grateful.

Now we all start a new week with our own duties and to do list far away from the Yellow Rose of Texas but one thing I do know…with companies like AGROTAIN and AdFarm working for the Aggies of the world we can all sleep a little easier, kind of like Dave.

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The Timer That Haunts Me

Perhaps you can multitask inside a ten minute window.  I understand moms do this all the time but running trace gas samples from dairy manure on a  Gas Chromatograph  is different in my head.  You manually punch the sample and start your timer.  You walk down the hall to pick up the task you left and hope your mind will allow you to start right away…you start and get on a role, writing, data analysis and you don’t want to stop…then the little white timer yells at you every 10 minutes.  Others can do this very well…I can not.  I really would like to take this timer and throw it against the wall, but it has been come my friend.  It comes to lunch, meetings, coffee break and on occasion it steals away on my pocket for a trip to the house over night.    What would I do without this white digital box by my side….perhaps get something completed.   Shoot, there it goes again…I wonder if God ever thinks of me like the annoying white timer yelling at him every 10 minutes.

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The Giant Earthworm of the Palouse

Yes – there is a giant earthworm that roams below the surface of the Palouse. Driloleirus americanus is not just a myth like the Lochness Monster but this is actually the only native earthworm known for the hills the Palouse and spits a defense substance that smells like lilies. It grows to over a foot long, is lighter in color and tends to exist deeper in the soil profile, however invasive species might be taking it out of existence. With only 7 known possible samples seen since 1897 it is a question of how many there actually were and are, plus when sampling soil it is easy to cut a foot long worm in half – sad but true. With trillions of dollars my kids are now going to be paying back to China I think the world’s great thinkers should save our worm. Seriously though if you find one in your back yard save it! If you haven’t guessed this was again logged during a seminar. It is now back to my phosphorus recovery methodology and exam prep. Until next time if you want more detail check the authors below.

I have been told by a few different people that I have a lot of information in my head which makes me “unique”. I wonder why knowing that if you urinate on camel manure it can make a water tight lining for creating ponds in the desert sand is strange but then again…I am a little odd.

Smith 1897, Fender 1978 Johnson 1988, 2005 Sanchez-de Leon

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Glad I am not the Newt

John enjoys posting blogthings on his blog on Saturdays and Sundays so today I saw one I had to pass on from blog
Your Medieval Occupation
You Are a Cartographer
*You have a wide range of knowledge and you’re very detail oriented.
*You have a photographic memory, and you remember places very well.

*Like a middle ages cartographer, you’re also very adventurous and curious about the world.
In modern times, you would make a good non-fiction writer or scientist.

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