Thursday, January 4, 2007

Remembering How To Talk About Place

Today I am going to let my excitement about this particular book supercede all other concerns—I’d rather have more people know about it than not. So if anyone is interested in posting on it separately, maybe more analytically, I won’t blame them.

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 detroit riprap (the embedding of otherwise useless cars in riverbanks to quell erosion), are human contrivances that slip in because they become the landscape themselves and exist in specific regional circumstances. Sprinkled liberally throughout in the margins and in the entries themselves are quotations from literature that invoke the various terms, for as Lopez points out in the introduction, great writers are those that are in touch with the language of place, whether they know it or not.

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 Moab, Utah. There are many yards, chain-link fences and all, but hardly any lawns to speak of (except maybe ironically). I told a friend with me that it must be a different sort of childhood to grow up not having to mow the grass. My own boyhood was a veritable lawn bildungsroman, first with the vintage 1950’s push-reel with no motor for the front yard, then the Lawn Boy push mower, then the Sears riding mower. Each was a step toward maturity that must be taken up by something else in the desert. Somewhere in the book, then, are the entries that must lay the foundation for those stepping-stones elsewhere that I had taken on with the lawn.

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.


trout said...

So is the whole volume full of entries akin to Raymond Williams' Keywords, as Sanders' entries seem to be from your descriptions, or is it more encyclopedically descriptive?

Either way, it's going on my long list of books I should probably buy. Thanks for the heads up.

Tommbert said...

Where Williams' book is a one man operation that takes up a more essay-driven format invoking various terms as he goes (akin to Holman and Harmon's "Handbook to Literature"), Lopez's book is collaborative. Because of that, it tends to the encyclopedia.

I should be clear, though, it's not produced entirely in the style of a reference book in that the entries don't point to one another (as they do in Raymond). For example, the entry on "bar" does not, at the end, say "See also..." and list the other related topics. There are no boldface words in the entries to allude to other entries, either. The lack of inter-entry unity is maybe the book's only negative--an almost trivial one given that it has three extensive indices, one each for terms, names, and places used in the entries.

That said, the individual entries are more concise than Raymond's, none more than about half a page. I also neglected to mention the great illustrations. In total, the book is a reference in as much one might look up something to know what it is and get some great direction to source material. At the same time, the selective nature of the entries--ones familiar in some way to the authors--really hits at the creative impulse, making them starting points for a range of inquiries.

Look, trout, just push the book to the top of the list and go buy it. You'll see what I mean almost instantly.

Planet Killer said...

It is honestly just an awesome book. It's an encyclopedia that's also just a great read.

Tommbert said...

I hate when people say thing better and more concisely than I do!

trout said...

You have shamed me into buying it.

Tommbert said...


Wizard said...

What struck me about this book (thanks, Tombert) is the way it works very much like gaining knowledge by hiking with a knowledgeable person, rather than like reading a handbook.

When you're hiking with a good naturalist, usually from the region, she might just point and say, "oceanspray" (the plant, not the mist, though she might point at the mist and say that as well in a moment of more blatant obviousness). Or she might point and say, "honeysuckle." She might say it the way a five year old does, who wants to taste it and smell it, or she might say it with the disdain of someone who burns the invasive armies of honeysuckle out of an ecosystem.

Point being, you have taste and information combined--what someone knows and what someone thinks. That strikes me as a very field-oriented prose in these entries. I say, "how's that happen?" pointing to fluting, and the amateur (or expert) geologist finishes his Cliff Bar and mumbles, "that's called fluting."

Very different than the academic-speak of analysis without material (especially in those "new" theories hostile to representation), and different as well from the pre-verbal awe in grunts and nods that appreciates beauty. These entries are the working person's reference. Dictionaries of ecology, for instance, have great stuff in them, but you need some differential calculus and chain-reactive context a bit too often.

Hey, look at that tailwater.

The pointing is important. The thesis of the book, as Lopez puts it, is to remind us of why we wouldn't want to lose the pointing to there being nothing at finger's end.

My initiation post. Thanks. This is a great site on a great subject.