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Naming the Local Terrain
Seth Zuckerman, 21 Nov 06
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It's a conceit of our times -- from political frameshops to high-priced company-naming consultants -- that language not only reflects what we see, it also shapes what we perceive. That principle reaches beyond politics and product placement to the very way we envision our place on Earth. That's why the new lexicon, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, is so fascinating. Editor Barry Lopez has raked up a pile of 850 geographical terms for this eminently browsable collection, written by a cast of 45 talented writers.

Collectively, they survey our vocabulary for features of the terrain, from those as obvious as "river" and "acre," to the regional and highly specific, such as "a'a" (lava that forms jagged rocks or clinkers) or "blind creek" (the water flowing beneath the bed of an intermittently dry stream-bed). Some of these terms are in danger of extinction, as the country cultures that generated terms like "cow-faced slope" and "envelope field" are weakened by rural gentrification and the migration of young people to the cities. We name what we notice. But once you or your neighbors have named a feature, it rises higher in your consciousness. It’s easier to refer to, and it digs your mental furrows a little deeper. A story might help put this in context.

In the rural corner of northwestern California where I lived for many years, most people refer to the place where they reside as "the valley," the broad expanse of river-bottom where the old-timers had settled and where schools, stores, churches, and bars were built. Even though growing numbers of people lived in the hills overlooking these alluvial plains, "valley" was the catch-all phrase for our place.

But then a group of local residents started to work for the survival of the river's salmon runs, and they began to refer to approximately the same terrain as the "watershed," the totality of the area whose run-off fed into our river. That linguistic adjustment shifted our attention in subtle ways, from the terrestrial habitat of human beings, sheep, and coyotes, to the natural processes that tied water to land, fish to people, and hillside to creek and ocean. It also broadened our focus to the lands that lay upriver of the alluvial plain, into the steep canyons of the upper river and its tributaries. "Watershed" is a little bigger than "valley," and our horizons expanded with our language.

Jon Christensen points out in his San Francisco Chronicle review that one geography is conspicuously absent from the book: the urban landscape. Most Americans inhabit a land of neighborhoods, suburbs, and blocks, yet those terms don't make the cut. Perhaps it's a hint at the underlying purpose of the project: to save the language that commemorates intimacy with our home terrain -- an intimacy unavailable to users of Google Earth or other remote sensing. The argot of "strip mall" and "cul de sac" doesn't need a lexicography to keep it fresh on our lips.

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Thanks, Seth! Your comments about the naming of the urban landscape reminded me of Dolores Hayden's A Field Guide to Sprawl; Hayden felt that we do have a rich lexicon of terms for the geography of the classic city, but not for the new, auto-oriented sprawl that has come to dominate much of the American landscape. Hayden's book, by naming non-places, may be a sort of counterpoint to Home Ground, which names places.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 22 Nov 06

The Shallow Water Dicitionary is a delightful read concerned with the observation of the brackish American east-coast marches and the preservation of its accompanying vocabulary.

Posted by: Randy J. Hunt on 24 Nov 06

That was marshes, not marches.

Posted by: Randy J. Hunt on 24 Nov 06



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