Giving Names To The Land

Barry Lopez’ Home Ground: Language For An American Landscape

Lisa Lenard-Cook
3 min read
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The seed for Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape was planted when National Book Award winning author Barry Lopez went to the University of Oregon library to look up the definition of the geographical term “blind creek.” To Lopez’ surprise, “No one had ever published a dictionary of American landscape terms.” Though Lopez had neither the time nor the inclination to take on such a daunting project, the idea stayed with him. “It occurred to me … that I might invite a group of writers—as opposed to geographers—to define these words and give people a feeling for this language.”

The result is a collection of more than 850 landscape terms. From bestselling authors like Jon Krakauer and Charles Frazier to lesser-knowns such as Luis Verano and Eva Saulitis, more than 45 writers from throughout the United States provide definitions that offer not just explanations but colorful histories of each geographic term’s evolution, idiosyncratic background information and, often, quotations from literature in which they appear.

There are enough New Mexico-centric terms to keep a Southwestern reader entertained, including the more well-known
acequia , the definition of which includes the word’s derivation from the Arabic al-saqiya , which means water conduit, and cienega (swamp). Also included is paraje (stopping place), Luis Alberto Urrea’s definition of which includes this fascinating story, quoted from Sharyl Holden in Traveling in New Mexico :

The trail [between Las Cruces and Socorro] was first blazed by Oñate in 1598. His notes say the group suffered terribly for lack of water until someone’s dog appeared with wet paws. The travelers followed the dog to temporary water where the animals and people relieved their thirst. Known from then on as los Carchos del Perrillo, ‘the puddles of the little dog,’ it became a paraje.

Spanish language words aren’t the only New Mexico terms covered, however: There are the Navajo
tseghiizi and tsegi (respectively, rock fissure and rock canyon), as defined by Terry Tempest Williams and Arthur Sze, and the more Anglocentric “run-around” (handmade dike) and “tailings pile.”

Similarly colorful terms are indigenous to every geographical area, from the Hawaiian “Pele’s tears” (solid drops of volcanic glass) to the New England “sugarloaf,” bowl-shaped hills and small mountains shaped just like the pointed cakes.

Lopez notes that land, nature and a sense of place are particularly important to American writers. “For four hundred years … writers in American have been … creating a literature … set apart [by] the degree to which landscapes and seascapes loom in it … . The land is very important to us, it’s central to our sense of identity, no matter where we live … . I hope the book inspires people to look more deeply into the question of why a particular place matters to them … .
Home Ground explores a vocabulary that gives us a sense of belonging.”

Barry Lopez

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