I just got my copy of the new Barry Lopez edited reference book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape and am completely thrilled. A collaboration among 45 nature writers, the book’s goal is to set out in an encyclopedic format the specific names of various geological phenomena. Primarily natural occurrences the writers have chosen things of their own experience growing up or traveling about the country. We get over forty references to sediment bars as they exist in waterways from harbors to rivers. One learns about sand motion, that barchan dunes are crescent shapes while the transverse dune is a mound with a gentle up-slope and close to sheer drop on the opposite side. Some, like
Writers, then, are the ones that help us with the central problem Lopez forwards: we are forgetting about places because our language is losing specificity. “The land beyond our towns,” he says, “has becomes a generalized landscape of hills and valleys, of beaches, rivers, and monotonous deserts…almost without our knowing it, the particulars of these landscapes have slipped away from us.” People, as he puts it, are “groping for a sense of place and community, that we want to be more meaningfully committed, less isolated.” The solution to this problem, then, is the book. By bringing together writers from across the country, Lopez pulls in those people who are still in tune not only with language but its connection to place. “Whatever their styles and emphases, many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land,” that writers find themselves in the connective “moment when the thing—the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss-tank, the caliche flat, the bajada—ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.” This is not necessarily mysticism (though one could call it that, I suppose), but the acknowledgement that language and representation are means to getting at the realities of place, a contentious subject in the postmodern world.
Because the list of contributors includes their home grounds, I decided the best way to look through this reference book was to read entries nearer (geographically) to my understanding, to see how they bounced off of what I thought about things close to me. To make things easier, instead of scanning all 480 pages, I chose to read the various offerings by Scott Russell Sanders as he lives right down the road a bit, a long-time resident of Bloomington, Indiana, a professor at Indiana University since 1971.
I should admit that I have a strange sort of affinity for Sanders. I've never met him or read a great deal of his work (though his Private History of Awe is engagingly written and a pleasure to read). Once, though, a couple of years ago I was a judge for the IU high school speech invitational and happened across his office in the building the contest was being held on that campus. I spent a few quiet minutes away from the busy crowds of hyper-dramatic teenagers down the hall reading the assorted postings on his and other’s doors. No connection at all, really. Still, I always note his name in print, a kind of passing recognition of someone nearby who works in the same type of field. It’s as if I sort of know him in our shared Hoosier-ness (he transplanted, I native), the same way I might feel meeting someone from Indiana abroad, a starting point to a conversation, maybe. Admittedly, it’s an artificial but harmless connection I like to acknowledge nonetheless.
In any event, looking up Sanders’ entries, I found (at first) a kind of vague disappointment with his choices. I, like most readers I presumed, know what ground is, so too with lawn and yard. These seemed to support Lopez’s point about language becoming non-specific, that these terms were just fill-ins for the terms lost I wanted to reclaim—or worse, that there is nothing particularly interesting in the book. My own snap assumptions, however, were soon dissipated by Sanders’ specific and literate definitions. His lawn entry has a brief history of the phenomenon of grass-carpeted yard (which reminded me of a great David Quammen essay, “Rethinking the Lawn” from The Boilerplate Rhino). Broken ground has an etymological list illustrating geology’s becoming completely abstracted by the term’s use in scholarship. It even turns out that I was just simply wrong about ground; I knew very little about it. Besides being the rough stuff of the earth’s surface, it attends to any purposed land (he notes circus ground, for one), and that in the nineteenth century “campground” was nearly identical to “church revival ground.” Neat stuff! Many of Sanders’ entries link together, if implicitly, like lawn and hundredth meridian. In the latter he reminds us of Powell’s warnings about the massive water needs to settle the West, while in the former he mentions off-handedly the place of lawns in “parched Los Angeles, where it is utterly crazy.” In every entry I was treated to something new, whether it be a geologic factoid or a reference in American literature. Sanders’ pieces are not alone in their great writing, as I found myself unable not to look at adjacent entries.
What’s more, however, is that I had to confront some of my own regional assumptions that I hadn't much considered. (And, no, I am not too proud to share my own reconsiderations even when they expose naïveté.) I thought I knew what a yard and lawn are because I grew up with one. No, it wasn’t fenced in some Dick and Jane fantasy, but it was a pretty clearly delineated plot of which I was aware the boundaries. At the same time, I remembered my visits to
That’s the great quality of the book: its ability to get underneath the things you are already familiar with, while at the same time illuminating others as they exist in different regions. In that way it certainly accomplishes Lopez’s goal of bringing back a language of place that has been brushed aside in a busy, busy world. Moreover, not only does specificity count, but it is damned interesting reading. Any book of scholarly research that helps you get at a little more self-knowledge has got to be a good thing. I am happy to have my own assumptions laid barer. Get this book—I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in the ways place affects our lives and the ways we talk about the world. And that should be all of us, by the way.
Also of note, the Home Ground Project, an extension of the book where you can include your two cents on the entries.