As much as a place, home is a story we tell ourselves. But when your family’s history has been obscured for generations, it’s hard to know where home lies. Lauret Savoy, professor of geology and environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, discovered this truth at far too young an age. The descendant of African-Americans, Anglo-Europeans, and Native Americans, Savoy heard history lessons in school that vilified or erased many of her ancestors from the landscape, even as she herself experienced racism daily. “My greatest fear as a young girl was that I wasn’t meant to exist,” she writes in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press), which won the 2016 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
In Trace, Savoy takes on the connection between place and story by questioning the way that Americans tell history. The result is gorgeous, honest writing.
Savoy holds her questions about humanity against her knowledge of geologic time. Her love of geology developed early. Facing racism as a young child in Washington, D.C., Savoy hoped that something inside herself might yet endure, that “each of us possesses a hardness—not harshness, not severity, but the quality of stone or sand to retain some core though broken again and again.” It was an endurance Savoy had witnessed in the rugged national park landscapes she and her parents visited on their move east when she was seven.
From Arizona’s once-segregated military barracks at Fort Huachuca, to Lake Superior’s Apostle Isles, to the Grand Canyon’s north rim, Savoy returns in Trace to significant locations from her past and her family’s past to write about the untold histories that haunt this country’s landscapes.
According to Savoy, Trace is for readers interested in “what ties together environment, history, and culture.” Savoy wrote Trace for readers who “recognize that many experiences of place have been omitted from popular narratives.”
High Country News recently spoke to Savoy about Trace.
High Country News: What inspired you to write Trace?
Lauret Savoy: The book began in my struggle to answer, or at least face, questions that long haunted me.
The paths of my ancestors—free and enslaved Africans as well as colonists from Europe and tribal peoples indigenous to this land—converge in me. But I knew little of them or their paths to my present. Even though I could track the continent’s deep past from rocks and fossils, the traces of a familial past seemed eroded and lost.
I came to realize that each of us is a landscape inscribed by memory and by loss. I also realized that to live in this country is to be marked by its still-unfolding and too-often unvoiced history.
Writing became a way of pushing back against silences, in this society and its public history, and silences within my family. Writing became a way of “unforgetting.”
HCN: Trace starts with your childhood. You describe an “eight-year-old’s wish for a place before race,” tracing your development both of sense of place and sense of identity through history. When did you start to write Trace, and what motivated you?
Savoy: In many ways I have been coming to this book all my life. I’ve always been drawn to stories we tell of the American land’s origins, but also to stories we tell of ourselves in this land
Coastal California was where my childhood took distinctive shape. Bright sky and an intensely physical landscape imprinted me there, in the Sierra and in Owens and Death valleys, as well as in southwestern canyons and deserts.
But by the age of eight I learned a life-defining lesson. That the American land did not hate; people did. This was the end of the 1960s, a time of riots and a “war” in Vietnam, a time of demeaning school lessons, a time when I first recognized hatred aimed at me in the form of spit.
I came to love being outdoors in nature that never judged or spat. My child-sense of the land’s antiquity, of the land existing long before race, also became a refuge. I reached toward deep time, collecting piles of rocks and fossils as well as postcards of people-less landscapes. Later, after stepping into the realm of geology in college, I saw how the land’s past could be entered, its pieces read in the language of science.
I struggled for more than a decade to write Trace, discarding first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth attempts. I didn’t trust my voice or myself. I didn’t think I had the right to write, or the authority. I didn’t think others would understand or care.
HCN: Why does understanding the history of place and self matter?
Savoy: We all carry history within us, the past becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are.
A case in point for me is the San Pedro Valley in southeastern Arizona’s borderlands. My mother had gone there in her youth, as an Army nurse stationed at Fort Huachuca, then at the prisoner-of-war camp at Florence. That was in the last years of the Second World War.
I suspected that the place and her experiences there had marked her. She was so quiet about that past, beyond a statement she would often repeat: “I am not a race, I am a human being.” So I went to the valley and the fort for some clues to her silence.
I found much more than I had imagined. The valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the continent. And it has witnessed human migrations for millennia, some by choice and by force. Among the last were African-American soldiers posted there and elsewhere on the frontier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, deliberately confined to remote areas. Such segregated thinking reached my mother and other “Negroes” whom the military ordered and contained there during the Second World War. [Trace describes the mistreatment of African-American servicemembers by both the U.S. military and local Arizona communities in “Migrating in a Bordered Land.”]
These and earlier events played out by the border with Mexico, the history of which threads all. I soon recognized how the consequences of the valley’s past still unfold, reaching past my mother to me.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “palimpsest” as a parchment or other surface on which the original text has been partially erased and then overwritten by another.
The American landscape is a palimpsest, altered in the passage of time, but still retaining traces of earlier forms and origins. Whether mountains, canyons, deserts, or plains. Whether cities like Denver or Salt Lake, Tucson or Los Angeles. We all make our lives among relics and ruins of former times.
HCN: Why should we care about the names of places? And how does that permeate into our understanding of those places?
Savoy: Place names are not passive artifacts. They are living signposts to what was important to the namers. Naming and mapping were essential to possessing and creating a “new” world.
Words and phrases were often reshaped by European colonists and Anglo-American settlers with little sense of original context or use. The name Wyoming began as an eastern Native term that migrated west. Another example is the convoluted origin of the name Wisconsin and, by extension, Oregon.
Also rarely considered in public history are names and naming patterns left by those from Africa and Asia who’d come to this continent. For example, some place names with at least partial roots in African languages survive on this land and on maps, especially along the coast and rivers of the South. Yet they’ve been overlooked, or thought irresolvable mysteries or of solely Native American origins. Like Suwannee. But much more troubling are place names referring to African-Americans that weren’t given by them. “Nigger” once featured in at least two hundred official American place names.
HCN: You write about the power in controlling public memory. How does that play out in American politics and how do you see it relevant in American politics now?
Savoy: How a society remembers itself can’t be separated from how it wants to be remembered or from what it wishes it was.
Narratives depend on selective forgetting—and this includes silencing, suppressing, or rejecting elements that are contrary to what a group wants to think or believe. For some social memories or historical narratives to be prominent or privileged requires amnesia or silencing of others. These often are discordant experiences of “other” people of the same time or event.
Think about this in terms of power and ignorance and fear. We’ve always faced their interplay. The power to segregate memory and the power to segregate people have worked in concert, too often driven by ignorance or fear of some “other.”
The relevance of this today is huge.
Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with High Country News.