The names of things and why they matter

by Julianne Couch

If there is one thing Westerners like, it is naming things. Open up a topographical atlas and take a look: Every creek, butte, ridge, wash and reservoir has a name. We are fond of naming creeks Spring, buttes Pumpkin, ridges Red, washes Dry, reservoirs Cow, lakes Lost. We even re-name places that had already been named by the previous inhabitants; Devils Tower, for example, was once known as Bear Lodge.

We engage in a veritable identification bee when we talk about the world around us. We are proud to know the difference between sagebrush and rabbitbrush. We are haughty when someone refers to a moraine as a pile of rocks. We mutter under our breath when a piñon jay is identified as a Clark’s nutcracker.

And yet, when  it comes to naming the objects in the industrial landscape, most of us are at a loss. What do you call that jack-like object out there in yonder prairie, bobbing up and down in the grass like a robin with a worm? What is that mess of metal drums and pipes at the end of that gravel road, the new one that just appeared and is now crawling with white pickup trucks? 

Sure, most of us know a windmill when we see it and know that a whole mess of them aligned on a ridge top is called a wind farm. But what is that other tall tower up there, the one with that gizmo at the top?

In Home Ground, writer Barry Lopez explains why it is important to know the proper names of things. “If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better.”

Home Ground, which Lopez helped edit, is a collection of lyrical definitions of every natural feature imaginable. But it makes no mention of pump jacks, natural gas rigs, or meteorological towers, although those things that have become as common in our Western landscape as rocks named Castle.

Of course, plenty of people can look at an oil refinery and immediately locate the coker. But ten to one those are people who’ve worked at an oil refinery. And others can visit a coal-fired power plant and identify the sulfur-dioxide scrubbers. Again, they are folks who know about generating electricity from coal. But the people for whom that sort of information is common knowledge have not -- so far as I know -- devoted themselves to constructing a poetic dictionary of industrial terminology.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the industrial objects that increasingly occupy our physical spaces, especially in the energy-industrial complexes in the West. I suspect that our inability to name these artifacts affects our power to control or change them.

Take the vast natural gas fields of Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline. This high-country desert stretches out just beyond the Wind River Mountains, and it’s a landscape beloved by the kind of people who know what natural things are called. There have already been about 1,000 wells drilled there since 2000. Those wells affect the local wildlife -- creatures called mule deer, pronghorn and sage grouse -- and they cause air pollution -- stuff known as ground-level ozone. 

In response to public and governmental pressure, the Bureau of Land Management compromised on its new plan to allow 4,400 more gas wells on the Anticline. To ensure the safety of both people and wildlife, the BLM promised that those white pickup trucks will make 165,000 fewer trips up and down the gravel roads. The well development will occur in phases -- described as pumping out and reclaiming one area before drilling in an adjacent area. 

The industrial has butted heads with the natural around the West in recent years with the force of male Dall sheep, which are not known for compromising. But at least the sheer volume of local public meetings, as well as press coverage by publications such as The New Yorker -- about as far removed from Pinedale as you can get -- is giving us Westerners a vocabulary to talk about what’s happening to us. We are rural people smack in the path of industrialization.

If we can keep tabs on the proper names for things, both natural and man-made, we have a hope of understanding what is happening to our world. And if we can understand it, as Lopez says, we might be able to make it better. There’s always the hope that we won’t have to start naming our lakes Acid and our glaciers Melted. 

Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Laramie, Wyoming.

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