I search the web for others' takes on nature writing, so why not offer my own? I hope you'll respond. Here's more on the blog philosophy.

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.


Rebecca said...

Anna, I'm not a reader of blogs, per se, but I have a search ongoing in Google for any mention of Barry Lopez -- which is how I found your blog. I have gathered into my library every word he has ever written that I could lay hands on. Shamanistic, yes. There is magic in his luminous prose, and in the timbre of his voice, reading.

For years I have said that if I had the opportunity to meet ANY writer, living or dead, I would choose Barry Lopez. Last October I got my wish: just a moment at a post-lecture book signing. He had been describing for his audience (mostly college students a third my age) the premise and process of writing "Home Ground", and it was fascinating...

You have a fine writing style yourself! -- flowing, lucid, honest. I write poems. I have never considered myself a "nature writer", and yet a great many of my poems are anchored in the natural world.

I wonder whether you are familiar with the work of Loren Eiseley?

I will check back. Thanks!

Anna Mills said...

Thanks for reading, and thanks for saying nice things about my writing style. It's tricky to say who is a nature writer and who isn't; I feel unqualified because I'm not an expert. Still, it seems silly to call myself a non-nature writer who writes about nature. Of course, I still want the freedom to switch hats and write about capitalism or my grandmother's taste in fish if I'm so moved.

It's wonderful to hear from another Barry Lopez admirer. I've seen him read twice now, and both times I left comforted by his existence. I appreciate his dignity and moral seriousness as well as his lyricism and his erudition. At a Home Ground reading, he painted a picture of the literary community that had produced the book in a way that wasn't just an attempt to be gracious. He envisions an activist movement of writers and artists who are not focused on status but on the transformative possibilities of art.

Somehow Barry Lopez manages to combine a longing for travel with a longing for rootedness. He always seems to me to write from a formidable distance, and yet his work is all about his search for connection. I think this paradox is what gives him both the generosity and the space and stature to become such a leader. He says he sometimes wonders how his life would have been had he become a monk, and I think he offers us guidance to some degree the way a monk might.

I think Desert Notes, River Notes and About This Life are my favorite essay collections.

I'm glad you reminded me to seek out Loren Eiseley. I was mesmerized by an essay of his on time in the desert some years ago and have been meaning to read more ever since. Where would you recommend I start? The Immense Journey?