Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret Savoy is a finalist for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award for Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Savoy, an educator and Earth historian, examines America’s developing history, and the ways in which this history—particularly ideas surrounding “race”—have affected the land. From the personal to the global, these essays trace memory, geology, and human history. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Give me a story, and I’ll give you one in return.
Anyone passing our yard might think the solitary child played with an imaginary friend. She’d twirl in place, arms outstretched, eyes closed. Each turn bringing a new word spoken with care. Sequoia. Shenandoah. Cheyenne. Susquehanna. Mojave. Yosemite. Wyoming. The words were names that rolled off her tongue. She’d stop, then spin the other way. Potomac. Chesapeake. Narragansett. Appomattox.
Once given breath, the names incanted spells, the turns crossing all distance between place and child. These weren’t turns of fancy but a melding of sound and Earth in her—in my—mind’s eye and ear, much as evening shadows overtook the house edge, then approached and included me. Soundings touched contours of mysterious stories that could be plumbed if asked. Give me a story. I’ll give you one in return.
“Names are magic. One word can pour such a flood through the soul.” Had I at the age of six understood Walt Whitman’s words, I would have counted him friend. Word-moments could blaze with an intensity that seemed to concentrate all life. I placed myself by the compass of places sung aloud. That I hadn’t yet set foot in most mattered little. There were other ways to travel to them.
Once the alphabet was no longer a stranger, books joined road maps as primers. Green Eggs and Ham shared a shelf with folded offerings from Flying A and Esso, Chevron and the Automobile Club of Southern California. My father’s cast-offs became templates for storied wanderings. The painted cover of one map opened the scene of a story that would always end the same bright way: The gas station attendant sports a smile and pressed white uniform as he greets a family in a station wagon. Clouds glow above a golden evening sun. The two-lane highway switch-backs toward a mountain crest on the western horizon. The story continues: The attendant welcomes me and my parents. He fills our tank, checks our tires, oil, and plugs. Then he cleans our windows and tells us about the road ahead. The smile never wanes. With thank-yous exchanged Daddy pulls back onto the highway. We’ll cross the pass on our way home to 1253 Redondo Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.
This is happy motoring.
The names scattered across that map’s paper landscape would have taken flight if not for the roads and highways stitching them down. Thick and thin, solid and dashed, red and blue, they linked El Monte to the San Gabriel Mountains, Death Valley to Owens Valley, Kings Canyon to Tulare, Big Sur to Monterey Bay. Geography triangulated to Redondo Boulevard. To read a map meant I could reach any place on it. “You were born on the highway,” my mother would joke. It seemed a simple statement of fact. Even Nat King Cole sang to me: wild and windblown, that’s how you’ve grown, who can cling to a ramblin’ rose.
Once the continent wore no names, having no need for them. The languages of water, ice, and wind prevailed. Yet one can say Oklahoma or Yellowstone or badlands without thinking—so embedded are they in American vocabulary. It may be a commonplace to consider place-names or toponyms as givens, distinguishing one piece of terrain from another. To think this, though, is to see a reflecting surface and not what lies beneath.
My search for origins began years ago with George Rippey Stewart, a man who by his own admission was “born with a love of names.” . . . . Of his nearly thirty books, Stewart’s own favorite was Names on the Land, a “historical account of place-naming in the United States” that appeared at the end of the Second World War. “Thus the names lay thickly over the land,” Stewart wrote in the opening pages, “and the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly—Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugarloaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street—not thinking how they had come to be. Yet the names had grown out of the life, and the life-blood, of all those who had gone before.” Names on the Land tells stories of patterns and motives. It moved many writers of American places. Wallace Stegner, for one, acknowledged his debt to Stewart for clarifying “our history, or tradition, the story of our five-hundred-year love/hate struggle with the North American continent,” which “is there in the names we have put on the land.” Stegner thought Stewart’s books “teach us who we are, and how we got to be who we are.” Many agree. The New York Review of Books reissued Names on the Land in its classics series in 2008. The introduction to this edition calls it a “masterpiece of American writing and American history” produced by an “informed imagination that animates the past and instills . . . the spark and majesty of life.”
The narrative sweep and folkloric detail moved me, too. So did disappointment—for not “all those who had gone before,” or who came later, had voice in this extraordinary volume. The toponyms that most concerned Stewart either originated with voyagers and colonists from Europe and their heirs, or filtered through them from Indigenous tongues, sometimes so much the worse for wear that “the names became more European than Indian.” And “when tribes and languages had vanished,” he noted, “some of those old names, reshaped, lived still in the speech of those who followed.”
Traveling at a reasonable clip across the page, I tripped and fell here. When tribes and languages had vanished. Vanish is a deceptive word. It slips easily off the tongue, the soft sh a finger to lips quieting a history far from simple, neat, or finished. The earliest encountered tribal peoples along North America’s Atlantic Seaboard whose communities were disrupted longest—like the Wampanoag or Powhatan—didn’t simply vanish. Fragmented, dispossessed of land, dislocated, perhaps ravaged by disease and violence, tribal peoples endured. Members reorganized or joined other groups. They migrated or they stayed in smaller communities. They continued to speak.
Names on the Land carries a sympathetic tone regarding Native peoples, but it is the stories of “those who followed” from Europe that form its core. What troubles me is how some readers embrace these namings as America’s history, “our” heritage, without asking if there might be other narratives, too. Stewart considers “the naming that was before history” in his first chapter, but not so much the importance of place-making in defining Indigenous traditions and identities in a storied land over time. And what of names and practices left by those from Africa and Asia who’d come to this continent? Perhaps readers assume they left no mark.
I was born in the homeland of the Ohlone, which Spain claimed as part of Alta California. My parents and I lived at first in a city by a bay named for Saint Francis of Assisi. We then moved south to another city, grown around a river now confined within a concrete channel. That settlement was called El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula. One of the mountains in the range west of it came to be known as “Niggerhead.” Then we crossed the continent to what had been part of the Piscataway chiefdom and claimed by Great Britain. We settled in a capital city named to honor the first president of the new American republic. Few of the official names of these places, east or west, arose from the land itself.
I now live in New England, a half hour’s drive from New Hampshire. On road trips south, I pass through New York and New Jersey. There are other “new” places. New Londons and New Bostons. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Names appear again and again. Cambridge, Bristol, Portsmouth, Newport, Plymouth, more—each having found at least two homes in the British colonies.
In the Chesapeake Bay area that became my paternal ancestors’ home, names paid homage to monarchs whose patronage voyagers either enjoyed or sought. Virginia for a virgin queen Elizabeth. Jamestown and James, settlement and river, remembering a king. Terra Mariae (Maryland) acknowledging another queen, Henrietta Maria, wife to Charles, son of James. Then there are the Syracuses, Troys, Athenses, Romes, Alexandrias, and Philadelphias scattered across American maps to recall an older Old World. Other names spread westward, too, with Anglo-American settlers after the Revolution. They left the land, as H. L. Mencken put it, “bespattered with Washingtons, Lafayettes, Jeffersons and Jacksons.” Columbuses, Columbias, Madisons, and, later, Lincolns joined them.
Colonial tugs of war left remnants in name-clusters born of other languages. I hear Dutch echoes on every trip by New York City: Haarlem or Haerlem, Jonkheer’s (Yonkers), de Bouwerij (the Bowery). Streets named Breede Wegh (Broadway) and De Waal (Wall). Nassau, Flushing, Staten, the Bronx. To the north, Poughkeepsie and Peekskill; across the Hudson River, Hopoakan and Hackensack. Breukelen’s “broken land” a nod to Long Island’s glacial debris.
I also hear lasting marks of Spain: California, Florida, Nueva México. Santa Fe, San Francisco, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles. Oasis meadows of Las Vegas. Sierra Nevada, the snowy range. Rio Grande del Norte, great river of the north. Colorado, mud-red river. Cañon, mesa, arroyo, playa—terms for dryland features that English didn’t know.
“For name, though it seem but a superficial and outward matter,” wrote Francis Bacon, “yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment.” Names encode meaning and memory. I can understand the impulse to place the linguistic familiar about oneself. In stapling down small created certainties, an overlain geography of home could then orient and transform a vast unknown into a knowable new chance. Naming and mapping would work as twin projects in the courses of empire, as semantic (re)defining fit a design that made sense to the ambitions of those men from Europe who made landfall after landfall.
Their linguistic claiming overprinted and appropriated older names, other views already there. Colonial maps and place-names reorganized space on a slate made blank—by drawing borders, by coding what (and whom) lay inside or out, by erasing. Columbus couldn’t hear Taíno speech, or at least he rationalized that they had no language by which to embrace the Holy Faith. He shipped captives back to Spain “in order that they might learn to speak.” The admiral then named and named and named, for God and Spain, islands, waterways, and coasts known by other terms.
The project of illuminating terra incognita’s darkness made certain ways of inhabiting and relating to this place called “America” natural. It made particular points of view normal. In their place-making these newcomers not only set out to possess territory on the ground. They also lay claim to territory of the mind and memory, to the future and the past.
The people who were already there—Taíno, Powhatan, Wampanoag, and countless others—who now were discovered but still not seen, could and did look back.
Here lies a paradox. To become oriented, to find their way and fill their maps, venturers from Europe needed Native peoples’ knowledge of the land. Maps and names would then obscure that knowledge from its context, as Indigenous people themselves were removed from the land.
A pot spilled. Perceptions and names spread inland from the Atlantic Seaboard, up from Mexico and the Caribbean, covering older names and ideas. Names come into view but sink from sight. Names metamorphose.
I look for those rooted in Native America. I look, too, for visions originating with newcomers from continents other than Europe. What I seek, of course, are linguistic seeds of my own presence.
Native place-names, or the names of tribal people living in those places, began to appear on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European maps inland of the Atlantic coast. It might be better to say that explorers and colonists transcribed into familiar symbols what they heard. Indigenous sounds twisted on European, then Anglo-American tongues. Words and phrases were often reshaped with little sense of original context or use. Maps and journals then carried forward clipped words, simplified renderings, and transliterated sounds. Mutating steps could result in an English version of a French interpretation of an Indigenous word that ended up as Wisconsin. In misreading hand-drawn sketches, map-makers and engravers in Europe created more errors. One changed letter, once formalized in print, could make a name of great meaning become meaningless.
More than half of the United States’ names originated, in some form, from Indigenous languages. Some began as records of tribal peoples encountered, either what they called themselves or what others called them. Dakota, Illini, Kansa, Ute. Some state names refer to specific elements of the landscape. Massachusett, to the Wampanoag, means “place of the foothill,” but Puritan settlers used it for a bay and their colony. Kwinitekw, the long tidal river, became Connecticut. And there is the convoluted origin of the name Wisconsin. According to George Stewart, the French voyageurs Jolliet and Marquette heard and recorded Mesconsing (or Mescousing) in 1673 for a river flowing west to the continental interior. But Mesconsing became Ouisconsing or Ouisconsink on later maps, finally Wisconsin in English.
Native words for aspects of waterways, or of names of people living by them, also persist, even if in altered forms. Potomac. Rappahannock. Susquehanna. Merrimac. Penobscot. Connecticut. Ohio. Wabash. Missouri. Mississippi. Chesapeake. All but one of the Great Lakes. Stewart described a shallow, braided river crossing the plains that was called Ni-bthaska in one Native language, ni for “river” and bthaska for its spreading flatness. Frenchmen in the 1700s translated this name to Rivière Plate, but spelled it Platte. These waters became the lifeline of the Oregon Trail—and from Ni-bthaska, Stewart noted, came the name of one state through which the river flows.
Place-names that might or might not have been bestowed by Indigenous people for those places shimmer like mirages. I live in Massachusetts. I’ve swum in the Connecticut River. I’ve spent long hours by the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers, by Chesapeake Bay. I’ve waded into the Platte, the Arkansas, the Missouri. I’ve crossed the Mississippi’s headwaters on stepping-stones. And I’ve explored mountains. Adirondack. Taconic. Ouachita. Pocono. Wasatch. Absaroka. Uinta. Appalachian.
In my mind, though, Oregon and Wyoming offer the most telling examples of how far out of linguistic and geographic context American place-naming could reach.
The Oregon story George Stewart favored began with a coincidence of mistakes on a 1715 map, an old legend that hadn’t yet died, and liberties taken by explorer-promoters who claimed and advertised far more than they knew. First, a map-engraver misspelled the Ouisconsink River (already a mutated word) as “Ouaricon -sint,” placing the hyphen and last four letters beneath the rest of the name. The crowded map showed the Ouaricon flowing west from the Great Lakes region. A later, more fanciful map applied the name to the fabled River to the West, which legend had flowing from the midcontinent through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Ouaricon passed into Ouragon, Ourigan, and finally to the name now used.
Wyoming also began as an eastern Indigenous term that migrated west. The name of a valley in northeastern Pennsylvania, it might be a corrupted version of a Lenape word for “at the big flats” or “great meadows.” It became wildly popular among Anglo-Americans after an 1809 poem by Thomas Campbell, “Gertrude of Wyoming,” memorialized three hundred settlers killed by British loyalists and Iroquois allies in 1778. Ten Wyoming post offices sprang up between Rhode Island and Nebraska within six decades. The name was also proposed for a new territory organizing north of Colorado after the Civil War. Debates in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate would prove the longest on the floor of Congress over land naming. Against the use of Wyoming was the obvious incongruity between name and place. Tribal names from the area were then considered. Cheyenne received the most attention until one senator suggested it sounded too close to the French word for a female dog, chienne. We know the end of the story. The reasons that won the day? Euphony and poetic association, or as Wisconsin senator James Doolittle offered, “Because it is a beautiful name.”
The use of Native or native-sounding words as place-names grew ever more popular among Anglo-Americans through the nineteenth century. Washington Irving so favored them that he proposed the country be called Appalachia or, better still, Alleghania.
Walt Whitman, too, praised Indigenous names that “roll[ed] with venison richness upon the palate.” He’d set out in the 1850s to celebrate the language of the United States in An American Primer. “All the greatness of any land, at any time, lies folded in its names,” Whitman wrote. “Words follow character,—nativity, independence, individuality,” elements that he believed set the United States and Americans apart. Being “of the national blood,” Indigenous words that gave a “taste of identity and locality” contributed to this unique American character. “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant,” he expanded, “and behold, here are the aboriginal names . . . They are honest words,—they give the true length, breadth, depth. They all fit. Mississippi!—the word winds with chutes—it rolls a stream three thousand miles long. Ohio, Connecticut, Ottawa, Monongahela, all fit.”
H. L. Mencken matched Whitman’s fervor in The American Language, his landmark study of the development of American English. He, too, was taken by “native” words. “Such names as Tallahassee, Susquehanna, Mississippi, Allegheny, Chicago, Kennebec, Patuxent and Kalamazoo give a barbaric brilliancy to the American map,” Mencken wrote in the 1921 edition. “Only the map of Australia can match it.”
Both men had researched toponyms in the official lists of post offices. Mencken also drew from the reports of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, whose mandate was to steer the country toward standardized place-name usage. Accented letters, names with multiple words, names with articles, suffixes, and apostrophes all fell prey as the board anglicized and simplified terms from many languages for the sake of “official” uniformity. La Cygne, in Kansas, became Lacygne. Portage des Flacons lost to Bottle portage. El Dorado squeezed into Eldorado, De Laux to Dlo.
The American landscape is palimpsest. Layers upon layers of names and meanings lie beneath the official surface. What came before colonial maps and names was vast and long. On the eve of contact the breath-taking diversity of Native languages exceeded that of Europe—at least several hundred distinct languages were spoken north of Mexico, perhaps thousands in the Western Hemisphere.
Imagine the names. Imagine their origins.
While many Indigenous languages ceased to be spoken over five eroding and assimilating centuries, hundreds survive in the Americas, even with the looming threat of silence as fluent speakers age and die. Some tribal groups, like the Wampanoag Nation, work to reclaim as a primary means of expression what had been nearly lost.
The land may be the “matrix” of linguistic meaning for oral cultures. Leslie Marmon Silko has described how “the continuity and accuracy of oral narratives are reinforced by the landscape” for Laguna Pueblo people. In Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache, Keith Basso notes that “place-names are arguably among the most highly charged and richly evocative of all linguistic symbols.” A linguistic anthropologist, Basso had cowboyed with and worked among the Western Apache (Ndee) for years when an elder asked for help in making Apache maps of their land near the Salt River in eastern Arizona. Basso came to understand the sacred, indivisible nature of place and words for these people. Theirs is a language that situates ancestral knowledge (nohwiza’ye bi kigoya’ii) and traditional narratives, mind and heart, time and space in the lives of a person and a people. The Ndee word ni’ means both land and mind, calling on the inseparability of place and thought. In ni’, Earth and thinking converge: “Wisdom sits in places.”
Basso learned that the evocative power of place-names is “most forcefully displayed when a name is used to substitute for the narrative it anchors, ‘standing up alone’ (’o’áá), as Apaches say, to symbolize the narrative as well as the knowledge it contains.” A place, its name, and other ancestral narratives emergent there cannot be separated. The land watches over and “stalks” the people as a cultural mnemonic of origins, of “purposive” behavior. What’s crucial is to “think and act ‘with’ [landscapes] as well as about and upon them, and to weave them with spoken words into the very foundations of social life.” As one example of “sensing of place,” Basso recalls an incident while stringing barbed wire with two Apache cowboys. He noticed one man reciting a long list of place-names in between spurts of tobacco juice. Asked why, the man responded that he “talked names” all the time. “I ride that way in my mind.”
N. Scott Momaday has referred to woven experiences of imagination, language, and place—and the relationships born of them—as “reciprocal appropriation.” To invest oneself in the land while incorporating the land into one’s “own most fundamental experience.” Place-making is both a way of “doing human history,” Basso offers, as well as “a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”
“In contrast to the oppressed Indian,” George Stewart concluded in Names on the Land, “the oppressed African left little mark upon the map. Pinder Town in South Carolina preserved the Kongo mpinda, ‘peanut,’ but white men probably did the naming after the word had become current in local speech. Doubtless many hundreds of small streams and swamps were named by Negroes, but their namings cannot be distinguished.”
Left little mark upon the map. Their namings cannot be distinguished. A dismissal unlikely to be questioned by most. But as diaspora linguists like Annette Kashif have observed, languages and naming patterns from Africa crossed the Atlantic, too. Toponyms bearing their influence survive on the land and on maps, especially along the coast and tidewater rivers of the South. That these names have been overlooked beyond a few studies is, I know, part of the story.
Some place-names with at least partial roots in Africa were long thought either irresolvable mysteries or of solely Indigenous origin. Suwannee stumped William Read in his Florida Place-Names of Indian Origin and Seminole Personal Names (1934): “The name . . . cannot be translated with certainty, the lack of historical data rendering futile all guesses at its etymology.” Suwannee always summons to mind two songs I learned in childhood. Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” from 1851 is still Florida’s state song. It’s easy to imagine Christy’s Minstrels in blackface “a-longin’ for the old plantation.” Quick on this tune’s heels I hear Al Jolson singing, “Swanee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Swanee!” Yet two possible African sources for the word include nsub’wanyi for “my house” or “my home” in Kongo or Mbundu, and the West African (Mandingo) Suwane, a personal name.
Suwannee also hints at twining relations among southeastern tribal peoples and Africans, ties far more tangled than stories of harbored fugitives or enslaved workers imply. From their earliest presence in Atlantic and Caribbean colonies, enslaved peoples escaped bondage to establish maroon camps in remote, inaccessible areas. The Great Dismal Swamp, straddling Virginia and North Carolina’s low-country border, was one such refuge. Suwannee Old Town was a Seminole-African community along the Suwannee River sacked by Andrew Jackson’s forces in 1818.
Though some findings have been questioned, Winifred Vass posited African roots for other American place-names. Combahee in Mississippi from kombahu or sweep here (imperative). Ulah in North Carolina from ula, possibly meaning to purchase or buy. Nakina, North Carolina, from nuakina, to hate or to be cruel. Alcolu, South Carolina, perhaps from alakana, meaning to long for, hope for, desire greatly. These are but a few. And hybrid words admixing tongues from two or more continents may be more common than once thought.
What disturbs me is how these names, if their origins bear out, may be commentaries on life in those places. Buy. Hate. Home. Deep longing.
There is no question, though, of linguistic agency with the many communities that free and freed African Americans established over two centuries. Parting Ways was settled near Plymouth, Massachusetts, by a small group who’d won their freedom fighting in the Revolution. “Black towns” grew in number with the great exodus north and west across the Mississippi River after the Civil War. Liberty. Freedmantown. Freemanville. Lincolnville. Independence Heights. Union City. Bookertee. Nicodemus. Blackdom. Some, like those I’d visited in Oklahoma, succeeded. Others succumbed within a generation.
A much more hurtful dimension lies in place-names that refer to African Americans but weren’t given by them. “Nigger” once featured in at least two hundred American toponyms according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. “Dead Nigger Creek.” “Dead Nigger Hill.” “Nigger Canyon.” “Nigger Slough.” “Nigger Ford.” “Nigger Lake.” “Nigger Gulch.” “Nigger Spring.” “Nigger Head Peak.” “Nigger Head Mountain.” “Niggerhead Island.” “Nigger Heel Bar.” “Niggertown Marsh.” “Nigger Prairie.” “Nigger Joe Ridge.” “Nigger George Draw.” “Nigger Bill Canyon.” On and on—in most states, from Maine to Alaska.
The NAACP and others petitioned the Board on Geographic Names for decades to remove the word. Piecemeal changes occurred, a name revised here, another there, until the board decided in 1963 to replace what it called the “pejorative form of Negro” with “Negro” on federal maps and documents. But so embedded was the “pejorative form” that it continues in pockets of local speech and on some maps.
I first encountered such a place-name on a journey across the country the summer after college. My Honda meandered with the Colorado River on Utah Route 128 between Cisco and Moab. On an afternoon in the high nineties, finding a wading spot was a high priority. Sheer sandstone walls flanked many small tributaries of the river. The BLM trailhead sign at one of them stopped me—Negro Bill Canyon. Who was this Bill? Why and when was he here? Sandstone echoed my questions. Later I learned that William Granstaff or Grandstaff was a man of mixed heritage who had come in 1877 as an early pioneer and grazed cattle. “Nigger Bill” featured prominently on an old map I saw in Moab.
And a peak in the Santa Monica Mountains west of our Los Angeles home wore the name “Niggerhead.” It, too, took a long linguistic journey, stopping briefly at Negrohead, then, in 2009, becoming Ballard Mountain to acknowledge this early homesteader as a man with a name.
Other slur-names remain. Or they’ve only recently been changed by the Board on Geographic Names. “Chink Peak” or “Chink’s Peak” near Pocatello, Idaho, became Chinese Peak in 2001. “Jap Rock,” in California’s Solana County, was renamed Japanese Point. But many are still the official names on the land: Pickaninny Buttes, California; Wop Draw, Wyoming; Darkey Springs, Tennessee; Wetback Tank, New Mexico; Dago Gulch, Montana; Dead Injun Creek, Oregon; Sambo Creek in Pennsylvania and Alabama. On and on.
Words of enmity and ignorance that had fallen out of general favor long ago persisted as the official, formal names on the land.
Names outlive the bestowers for many reasons. I think of the vantage point, the “appearance” of overwhelming difference in the eyes and ears of beholding namers over five hundred years. Even the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature (listing genus and species), so taken for granted as an international standard, began as part of colonial world trade that collected human beings as it collected exotic plants and animals.
Languages spoken by unknown ancestors converged toward me. But linguistic tributaries arising in Africa and Native America were cut off or diverted long ago. I speak and write in English, a language with no adjective form for place. My school rambles through Latin, French, and Castilian Spanish kept me mostly within Europe’s realm. Sounds, gestures, rhythms from other lands, all were lost.
Yes, I am palimpsest, too, a place made over but trying to trace back.
Years ago Barbara Ras invited me to research terms for a collection Barry Lopez was editing on a “vocabulary” grown from this land. The end product was Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. My efforts played a small part in this community project, but their impact on me was immense. Old memories surfaced as I compiled a list of more than six hundred geologic, geographic, and regional folk terms for the continent’s features. I began to call the words aloud.
a’a ablation hollow abra alamar alamo alkali flats . . .
badland bajada bald bally banco baraboo . . .
cajo caldera caleta cañada cañon candela cat hole catoctin . . .
A current of language and imagination, dry for so long a time, could still rise and flow, entraining me as water would a grain of sand. Language of the land still worked on me.
What lies beneath the surface of maps and names? The answers, and their layers of meaning, of course depend on one’s point of view. Whether what came before 1492 is considered prelude to an American story beginning to unfold. Whether participants from places other than Europe are seen as supporting cast or props. Whether “we” and “our culture” embrace a much larger changing whole.
“All the greatness of any land, at any time, lies folded in its names,” wrote Walt Whitman in his American Primer. “Names are the turning point of who shall be master.” If history can be read in the names on the land, then the text at the surface is partial and pieced. A reader might do well to look beyond “official” maps for traces of other languages, other visions. He or she might do well to acknowledge, and mourn, the loss of innumerable names born out of textured homelands that no longer reside in living memory. We all might do well to remember that names are one measure of how one chooses to inhabit the world.
Give me a story, and I’ll give you one in return.
Copyright © 2015 by Lauret Savoy from Trace. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
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