Language and Landscape
by Keith Taylor
The intersection of language and landscape has always been central to the work of Barry Lopez. How do we particularly we non-Native North Americans imagine the landscape we have come to inhabit, and where do we find the words that help us understand it and that might be essential for us to live in it? This was a central preoccupation of Lopez's prize-winning 1986 book Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, but the question even animated his best-selling children's book Crow and Weasel (illustrated by Ann Arbor's Tom Pohrt). The question gains urgency when Lopez convinces us that perhaps we have been so cavalier in the exploitation of our landscape because our language hasn't allowed us to make the necessary imaginative connection. Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape is Lopez's latest effort to broaden his and our understanding. Here he has asked some forty-five writers (among them Robert Hass, Barbara Kingsolver, Jon Krakauer, and Terry Tempest Williams) to define the local and regional terms for landscape phenomena that they know or were asked to discover. These are the words that Lopez says come "out of the natural convergence of human culture with a particular place." Some of these are terms that are indeed used formally (William Kittredge contributed kame: "a hummocky deposit at the front of an ice sheet"), while others are rich with the smell and feel of local usage (Franklin Burroughs's gunk hole: "In coastal New England [it] is a small, out-of-the-way harbor or a nearly unnavigable shallow cove or channel"). The words come from all the various languages of Europe, but also from Asia (boondocks, Pattiann Rogers points out, comes from the Tagalog for "mountain"), and certainly from the various Native American languages (Robert Morgan notes, "Bayou is a word that sounds French but is in fact of Choctaw origin"). Some of them name features that we have imposed on the landscape, but most name the things
we found here, features of the land that rose into our imaginations. That is why Lopez asked writers to create his entries:
. . . many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land, and that it can be recognized and evoked even if it cannot be thoroughly plumbed. It is inaccessible to the analytic researcher, invisible to the ironist. To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features. . . .
Home Ground looks at first like a dictionary of American landscape terms, albeit one with patches of beautiful writing and genuine wit. As we explore it, the book gains something that might be a kind of political importance. Past that, it reaches literature, and then moves very close to the spiritual. It already feels like an essential part of my library.
Barry Lopez reads from Home Ground and discusses the process of collecting and defining these words at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Monday, October 23.
[Review published October 2006]