The text at the surface is partial and pieced

West Street ball courts (As Water Would A Grain Of Sand) ©MAIERMOUL
West Street ball courts (As Water Would A Grain Of Sand) ©MAIERMOUL

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.

-Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory History, Race, And The American Landscape, Counterpoint Press, 2015