When I was a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, I remember one day in a poetry theory class where my professor, Angela Ball, told us about a visiting writer who had come to campus a few years before. The poet’s name was Derek Walcott, a St. Lucian writer who had recently won the Nobel prize for literature (1992), and we were reading his book, Omeros, an epic poem based loosely on the Iliad, but set in Walcott’s childhood home of St. Lucia and its history of colonialism.
The thing I took away from that discussion was the story of Walcott, walking across the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, with its towering Long Leaf Pines, massive Magnolias, live oaks, wisteria, Spanish moss, Azaleas, and a labyrinthine rose garden, who bent down to a plant and asked the graduate students the name. According to Ball, Walcott was disappointed to find out that the graduate students, who were studying poetry and fiction at the Center for Writers, couldn’t name any of the plants they walked past every day. Granted, most of the students weren’t from Mississippi, and most of them identified with the landscapes of cities and suburbs more than the aggressive vegetation of the sub-tropics, but Walcott believed that it was important for a writer to know the names of plants and animals that inhabit the world we write about.
The opening pages of Omeros demonstrates Walcott’s close attention to such detail:
“This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.”
Philocete smiles for the tourists, who try taking
his soul with their cameras. “Once wind bring the news
to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking
the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars,
because they could see the axes in our own eyes.
Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us
fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,
the trees have to die.’ So, fists jam in our jacket,
cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers
like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it
give us the spirit to turn into murderers.
I life up the axe and pray for strength in my hands
to wound the first cedar. Dew was filling my eyes,
but I fire one more white rum. Then we advance.”
It is with this spirit that I turn to a new book I discovered this summer, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Too big to be a field guide, the book is best for reading on a cold winter night, dreaming about the land right outside the door, or halfway across the country.
The book provides definitions of over 850 words that American people use to describe distinctly American landscape features. It is arranged alphabetically, with entries by forty-five writers from every region of the United States: memoirists like Kim Barnes from Idaho and Gretel Erhlich from Wyoming; novelists like Charles Frazier of North Carolina, author of Cold Mountain; Visual artists like Emily Hiestand; Native American writers like Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw; journalists like Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild; essayists like Scott Russell Sanders and Terry Tempest Williams of Utah; and other names you recognize, like Patricial Hampl, Barbara Kingsolver, William Kittredge, Bill McKibben, Antonya Nelson, Larry Woiwode, and Joy Williams.
In a beautiful introduction to the book, Lopez describes a US Geological Survey map showing a section of Alaska’s Susitna Valley: “The map on the left bristled with more than a hundred colored push-pins, each bearing a tiny paper flag with a Deni’ina place-name on it . . . . Fewer than a dozen names appeared in English on the right, neatly printed on the quadrangle as an official part of the map.” Lopez goes on to point out that “a region hardly known to its relatively new landlords is, in fact, minutely and extensively known to its long term residents, [which] dramatizes a truism about belonging, about intimacy with a place.” The Athabascan words “had grown up over many centuries, out of the natural convergence of human culture with a particular place” (xv).
The purpose of the book is to help remain connected with our landscape. As Lopez concludes, “A community of writers has set down definitions for landscape terms and terms for the forms that water takes, each according to his or her own sense of what’s right, what’s important to know. The definitions have been reviewed for accuracy by professional geographers, but the writers’ intent was not to be exhaustive, let alone definitive. In concert with each other, they wanted to suggest the breadth and depth of a language many of us still seek to use purposefully every day. Their intent was to celebrate and inform, and to point us toward the great body of work which they perused in their research and which, along with a life experience of their own, they brought into play to craft what they had to say.
Each entry contains definitions and descriptions, an explanation of how it is formed, locations, history, other common names, a literary usage, and an exploration of the suggestiveness of the name. For example:
“Hoodoos are fantastically shaped stone pillars in deserts and badlands of the North American West. Classic hoodoo groupings, such as those in Bryce Canyon National Park and Goblin Valley state park in southern Utah, form by sporadic, intensive rainfall erosion of steeply sloped but horizontally layered sedimentary rock, leaving free standing pinnacles, each with an overhanging cap of resistant stone . . . . The term dates back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. Walt Whitman, n Specimen Days, regrets that he never saw “the ‘hoodoo’ or goblin land” of the Yellowstone Country. That these arresting features should have been tagged with a variant of voodoo seems almost inevitable. Their suggestively spirited forms, whether taken as malign, whimsical, or transcendently elusive, exert spells to which many humans are susceptible.” John Daniel
Enjoy your winter reading, and get outdoors when you can.