The Wonder of Words

Which help us see the land around us.

HOME GROUND: Language for an American Landscape. Editor, Barry Lopez. Managing Editor, Debra Gwartney. Writers: Jeffrey Renard Allen, Kim Barnes, Conger Beasley Jr., Franklin Burroughs, Lan Samantha Chang, Michael Collier, Elizabeth Cox, John Daniel, Jan DeBlieu, William deBuys, Gretel Ehrlich, Charles Frazier, Pamela Frierson, Patricia Hampl, Robert Hass, Emily Hiestand, Linda Hogan, Stephen Graham Jones, John Keeble, Barbara Kingsolver, William Kittredge, Jon Krakauer, Gretchen Legler, Arturo Longoria, Bill McKibben, Ellen Meloy, Robert Morgan, Susan Brind Morrow, Antonya Nelson, Robert Michael Pyle, Pattiann Rogers, Scott Russell Sanders, Eva Saulitis, Donna Seaman, Carolyn Servid, Kim Stafford, Mary Swander, Arthur Sze, Mike Tidewell, Luis Alberto Urrea, Luis Verano, D.J. Waldie, Joy Williams, Terry Tempest Williams, Larry Woiwode. Illustrations: Molly O’Halloran. Trinity University Press, 2006. Hardcover, $29.95.

I’ve lived most of my life in the Western U.S. and was delighted to realize as I read Home Ground that my love of language springs in part from the place — specific, colorful names given to Western country landforms by earlier inhabitants. The total effect of the work of these 45 writers from 26 states is a portrait of a living, changing, American earth that is both achingly familiar and utterly fantastic. The 852 landscape features pictured here (and another 638 briefly described) represent separate but linked events, a slow, terrestrial dance.

Evidence of the dance resides in particular features with names we savor: acequia madre, alcove, barranca, boondocks, chaparral, dust bowl, fast ice, field pattern, glacial polish … On and on, place words tumble out to be explained succinctly and poetically in the melodious, original voices of contemporary American writers. John Daniel, whose home ground is the Upper Long Tom River, in the inland Coast Range foothills of Oregon, describes in “ice dam” a calamitous event 14,000 to16,000 years ago when an ice plug holding back the waters of ancient Lake Missoula failed:

Surging waters scoured out the channeled scablands of eastern Washington, swelled the Columbia River a thousand feet deep at Wallula Gap, overtopped Crown Point in the Columbia Gorge, and repeatedly made a deep mud puddle out of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, bequeathing 300 feet of rich, exotic silt that Oregon Trail pioneers would declare the firmament of a New Eden.

The outstanding quality of this ambitious literary project begins with an idea conceived and nurtured by two notable local literary figures: award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer Barry Lopez and nonfiction writer, scholar and editor Debra Gwartney, a member of the writing faculty at Portland State University.

Collaboratively they began the project nearly five years ago, the impetus coming from Lopez not finding ready descriptions of unique landscape features. They ran the idea of a book of such terms before UO landscape architecture professor Kenneth Helphand, who told them, “Nobody’s done that.” Encouraged but aware of the vast research required, they moved forward with the project.

“Barry called me and said, ‘Start writing down landscape words,'” Daniel said. Lopez’s conception was that we didn’t need another geology dictionary but a more personal evocation of specific landforms, he said.

The editors built a list of 1,500 such words and submitted them to an expert advisory board, which whittled down the list to create what Lopez called “a vocabulary of place.” Land is central to our sense of identity, Lopez wrote, to how we see ourselves as Americans, our sense of belonging.

The editors chose an equal number of men and women writers with a wide range of interests from different parts of the country. Each writer received 20 words; the work was to be scientifically correct, not misleading, and would be vetted by an advisory editor and board. Contributing editors and researchers would help the editors and writers.

The first year was busy. “Barry took the first year choosing the words, setting up the board and inviting the writers,” Gwartney said. Lopez added, “Debra negotiated and stayed on excellent terms with so many writers. She edited the book; she shaped it.”

Yet in the best sense, they didn’t know where what they were doing was going, Gwartney explained. “One day when I had about 15 sets of 20 words each, I sat down and started alphabetizing them. Oh my god, what is this? I asked. I understood then the life of the book depended on the variety of the writer’s voices, the different paces of their writing, the way imagery flows from one piece to another. I called Barry. We couldn’t have done this on purpose. It’s beyond us. If we had tried, it wouldn’t have worked. It was ‘accidental’ how all the pieces fell together.”

Gwartney crafted the book through a year-long gestation into a first-draft manuscript, then worked with the writers exclusively for another two years to “preserve the lyricism of the writer’s voice and get the science right.” She set up a website where volunteer UO grad students in environmental studies posted quotes from the cream of American literature. Writers could access the quotes, and many made their way into the book, such as Nabokov on “mountain.” Gwartney’s “über reader,” Julie Polhemus, read 20 books for the project.

Lopez spent the last year of the project fact-checking every sentence, Gwartney said. “I shaped the book, then he came in and refined it. The rigor he brought to refining each word was astonishing.” He would call three ice experts to get one sentence right, she said.

“The book is an act of conservation of language,” Daniel said, noting he tried to use diverse tones, inject humor, show the etymology of words, express the science clearly and toss in references to Oregon in his 20 words, which include burn, cinder cone, duff, freshet, hoodoo, runnel and stratovolcano.

The editors signed a contract with Barbara Ras, director of Trinity University Press, to publish the book. Ras (UO MFA creative writing, 1975), said she feels “very lucky and honored” to be involved with the book. “The metaphorical richness of the language is startling and gratifying,” she said. “The combined quality of the attention of so many people raises the language to the level of the sacred,”

“This is a book that grows out of America at this time,” Lopez said. “It’s about a conversation a group of Americans are having about place. This book intends to invoke our place and how we say ‘our place.'” Community and place are the two words that most frequently come up when people talk about their lives today, Lopez said: community because we feel cut off from others and place because we want an answer to the question: what is my place?

“The book speaks metaphorically to our times, to the relationship between community and place. It’s apolitical but very patriotic,” Lopez said.

“Preservation is enhanced by specificity and accuracy,” Gwartney said. The book draws attention to this blend of honoring an individual sense of place with the bigger stakes of trying to preserve places of common cultural or societal connection, she said.

“The book is an unrecognized aspiration that came to life in my writing life,” Lopez said. “It’s a book we wrote. To collaborate with Debra and the board was like taking a sketch and then making a movie out of it. Everybody’s opinion mattered. We made it together, Debra and I. It couldn’t have been done any other way. She’s the right person.”

Lopez is now on a 30-city book tour. He and Gwartney read from Home Ground at 7 pm Oct. 12 at the UO Gerlinger Alumni Lounge. Additionally, they will sign books from 2 to 4 pm Dec. 2 at J. Michaels Books.

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