A geography of the imagination

by Eliza Murphy

At first glance, Home Ground resembles a straightforward encyclopedia of geography. But crack the book open, and you find yourself in unexpected territory, a geography of the imagination that blends literature, science, folklore and history.

Author and editor Barry Lopez got the idea for the book after a frustrating attempt to find a definition for blind creek. He elicited the assistance of his partner, freelance editor Debra Gwartney, in what became a monumental four-year project. After winnowing down a list of geography terms lodged in Lopez’s memory, they selected 45 writers from around the country, invited scientists to join an advisory board, and assembled a team of researchers. Each writer was given 20 words, a list of references, and best of all, freedom to use his imagination to define the terms. The responses, and the voices, range widely; some are straightforward and succinct while others are poetic and elegiac.

“The strength of a community is built on the preservation of individual voices,” Lopez said during a recent interview over lunch, likening the project to an “act of citizenship similar to the WPA in the ’30s.”

Voices holler, whisper, lament and sometimes rant, not from the page, but from jollas, colinas, tuckamores, and glades. Each voice is as distinctive as the landscape it describes, emerging from an intimate connection to a place called home.

The luscious vernacular terms create a distinctive, imaginative terrain: desire path, “the route people have chosen to take across an open place,” jaral, “where the vegetation makes progress difficult,” mezquital, “an unruly and haphazard zone,” nunatak, a “lonely peak.” Roll the words around in your mouth, let them sink into your marrow, for many of them are as much endangered as the landscapes they describe.

Lopez said he hopes that this book will “elevate conversation about the fate of place, about something hugely important.” True to the meaning of the word geography, which includes the human impact on the earth, Home Ground reveals the deep and often uneasy connections between people and the land. Linda Hogan describes zanja, the “system of ditches … Indian people were coerced into helping develop” in Southern California. And Joy Williams describes a coral reef as “a living underwater Xanadu” threatened by human activities such as “warming ocean temperatures … sewage runoff and the phosphorous-laden, nutrient-rich wastewater produced by agriculture.”

It’s not surprising to hear that environmental attorneys are grateful for this book. Lopez said the book gives them a way to argue more descriptively for the places they fight to protect: “They have a new set of tools in their toolbox.”

Nestled within the definitions are bits of literature and poetry, and clues about the settling of the country and the many migrations of its varied inhabitants. The words have rich histories, deriving from Indian, European, Arabic and Pacific Rim languages — drumlin, estero, esplanade, lek, pali, pingo. The range of terms reveals the cross-cultural settling of the nation’s landscape. “This is a map of the colonization of America,” Gwartney said during the interview.

Much more than a dictionary of picturesque, lovely terms — arroyo, glory hole, kiss tank, loblolly, misfit stream, sugarloaf, yazooHome Ground is, in Lopez’s words, an “anatomy of a landscape.”

“Gray did an anatomy of the body. You take the whole and break it into its constituent parts. At a certain point, you see the whole thing, you see all of North America — rain-soaked, semi-tropical, and cold-winter Minnesota,” Lopez said, between spoonfuls of squash soup.

As several of the contributors point out, it’s common to read the land as though it’s a human body, with our own anatomy inspiring our names for the earth. An arch is a “rib bone of earth”, and a ceja “a line of trees at the edge of a meadow, or the thin strip of clouds above a chain of mountains… each resembles an eyebrow.” The lava tongues and the mouths of the planet have much to say to us, if we dare to listen.

The author writes from Portland, Oregon, where she is learning to read the landscape she calls home.

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape
Edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney
480 pages,
hardcover: $29.95.
Trinity University Press, 2006.

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