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January 20, 2007

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

First, a caveat: my friend Debra Gwartney served as the managing editor for this book, so I have reason for bias. But I'd still like you to trust my praise. I cart this book around and crow over it to friends and family, something I would not do merely out of loyalty. Home Ground has enchanted me. Unlike any reference work I've encountered, it seems at once original and inevitable. It's sui generis: who has done a dictionary of local landscape terms before? Certainly, no one has recruited creative writers to craft precise, often lyrical or humorous definitions, embroidered with quotations from all over American literature. But why not? Once you have such a book, you need and want to consult it.

I saw Barry Lopez present the book in Marin in October. In his grave, kindly way, he proclaimed over and over that it was not really his. His name helps promote it, of course, but Home Ground is neither a single person's brainchild nor an anthology of diverse voices. Rather, it's that odd anomaly, a literary text produced through collaboration. I imagine that a posse of nature writers warmed to this idea because they already wrote to connect with a larger whole, both in human and environmental terms. Of course, they were still writers, and someone had to herd the cats. Debra Gwartney has a lively essay on managing the project and mediating between writers and scientists. She had to judge just how to convey the poetry of the landform without distorting its precise characteristics. Now, even though the book is out, the task of mapping the landscape in words continues. The Home Ground Project is looking for more volunteers of all stripes to compile and edit new definitions.

After the reading, I took Home Ground home and set it on the dining room table. For two weeks, I opened it over breakfast and felt a visceral pleasure--the robin's egg blue sky on the cover, the ample space on each page, the quotes lining the margins, the sketches of landforms. But the sensual reality of the book wouldn't do much for me if the definitions were boring. They were exquisite and often playful. I could read just for pleasure, or I could read to learn those words I'd always glossed over, the words I vaguely knew but which I thought belonged to the experts, words like "playa," "swale," "gooseneck," and "glade." The more technical phrases appeared too, in lucid, simple terms. And then there were the ones that were pure fun, like "thank you ma'am," "looking-glass prairie," "hoodoo," "painted desert," "milk gap," and "chickenhead."

The definitions made me want to get out and notice the country. They conjured memories of long-ago road trips. When was the last time I saw a mesa? Would I ever investigate a "racetrack valley," where rocks leave tracks in the clay where they slide across a dry lakebed? The gathering of definitions made me believe in the beauty and specificity and continuing power of the American landscape. I felt a sense of loss for all the local folk knowledge that is now obscure. But it also heartened me to think that Americans have not only been looters; we've known the ins and outs of the land, paid attention, made it come to life in our words. And we can still reach for those words and for that clear-eyed, delighted way of seeing the land around us. In fact, we must if we are going to save some fraction of it.

This is a book to give and a book to keep in the family. On impulse, I presented it to the child of an old friend. I wrote an inscription to newborn Ansel, who hasn't quite shown his appreciation yet. I wished him joy in both landscape and language throughout his life.

I may not take Home Ground off my dining room table for a while. It links me to my country and to others who find the land essential enough to observe and name in its particulars. Home Ground makes a good companion.