Home Ground: Words of our native land

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Trinity University Press, San Antonio Texas, 2006.

One of the language byways I find fascinating is that of terms for landforms; they’re often based on metaphors (oxbow bend in a river, neck of land), some have ancient linguistic roots, others reflect the cultural history of an area with words from the language of indigenous people or early explorers. Those who share my interest will love this book, but it also has appeal for those who enjoy American regional writing or history, or are interested in how the landforms we see come into being.

Home Ground’s entries are in alphabetical order but it’s far richer than a dictionary. Entries are signed by their authors, who are mostly American writers with particular regional roots––novelists, poets, nature writers, scientists. From them we hear not just the definition and history of the term but also more diverse notes: political (the drowning of Celilo Falls in the Columbia River, by a dam, comes up in the entry for dalles), ecological, personal, and literary (quotations from hundreds of writers including Thoreau, Jack London, T.S. Eliot, Joel Chandler Harris, Pablo Neruda, Louis L’Amour, Joyce Carol Oates).

There are no fewer than three indexes: one for authors so quoted, one for terms (with cross-references), and one for specific place names mentioned: the San Andreas Fault, Satans Slab, South Dakota. And there are short biographies of the writers who produced the entries. With all this, you can browse the book or look for something specific like every mention of the Mississippi River, all the terms relating to ice, or mentions of Herman Melville.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a hill and a mountain, or among the words canyon/cleft/coulee/gorge/gully/ravine, you can find out right here. Terms run the gamut of languages––ronde, tseghiizi (Navajo), névé, krummholz, cuesta, gumbo (probably from a Central Bantu dialect), nunatuk, eddy (possbily Norse), erg (Arabic) and so on (although etymology is not always included). And they vary from the words of Western science (imbricated rock) to those of other observers (coyote well, paternoster lake).

And now, a few sample entries:

tule land

Tule land is a term recorded as early as 1856, just after gold rush. It usually refers to the flats of bulrushes and other reeds along the rivers of the West Coast. In the muddy shallows along the Sacramento, for example, as the river takes its time joining the San Joaquin and approaching the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, there are vast thickets of reeds, home to waterfowl and fur-bearing animals. Tule lands are especially common at the junctures of rivers, where the slightest breeze will set the rushes whispering and rasping over the mud and standing water. The Wintu Indians called tule land “the storehouse of instant tools” because the rushes could be used to make so many things: mats, clothes, baskets, lodges, boats, and cradles, sandals, brooms, fish traps, and talismanic images. ROBERT MORGAN

nivation hollow

In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,
Bill Bryson wrote: “I never met a hiker with a good word to say about
the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place ‘where boots go to die.’…Mile upon mile of ragged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face––not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.” Such a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania might just as well have been complaining about nivation hollows. A bowl-shaped depression in the ground, a nivation hollow begins to take shape when ice forms over a shallow rock basin beneath a snow bank. The ice freezes and thaws over time. During the warm period, melted snow seeps into the bottom of the hollow. During the cooler period, the seep water freezes. The rock breaks up, weathers, and erodes. Meltwater carries away the finer rock particles and the hollow becomes larger and deeper. MARY SWANDER

fil du courant

A Cajun French term meaning “thread of the current,” fil du courant is used to describe the optimal navigation course within a bayou or river. The fil is often visible as a glassy-smooth pathway through the otherwise ripping water. Louisiana shrimpers follow the fil du courant to avoid underwater obstructions and to secure sufficient depth for skim nets that extend winglike from either side of the vessel. MIKE TIDWELL

fall line

Fall line is a phrase both metaphoric and literal. In broader terms, it means the zone where the Piedmont foothills level out into the coastal plain, where sandy soil derived from marine deposits replaces rocky rolling land. On some southeastern rivers, such as in the Carolinas and Virginia, the Fall Line is a specific place where shoals and rapids once stopped navigation from the coast because ships couldn’t pass through. Cities such as Richmond, Fayetteville, and Columbia sprang up at the head of navigation, and mills and factories were built to take advantage of the water power at the falls and rapids. The abrupt change of elevation caused industry and commerce, courts and seats of government, to take root in those areas. ROBERT MORGAN

Line drawings, by Molly O’Halloran, illustrate some of the terms, such as this one for “Quaking Bog” which shows how peat, sphagnum, geologic forms, plants and water all combine to form this floating vegetative structure that will seem solid until stepped on. [The scan is much reduced, and for some reason tinted beige, unlike the original.]

quaking bog2.jpg

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