Earth Notes
11:37 pm
Tue December 25, 2007

Earth Notes - Home Ground

Flagstaff, AZ –
New residents of the Four Corners region quickly become hobby geographers. Where Earth's bones erode into shapes too bizarre to imagine, where the planet's history dwarfs our own, curiosity stirs. Within a few seasons newcomers learn to tell arroyos from acequias, comb ridges from flatirons, and mesas from buttes.

Now a single book describes nearly all such odd landforms. Enlisting 45 of the country's finest writers, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez and partner Debra Gwartney have compiled an American landscape glossary called Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.

With an eye for the quirky and poetic, luminaries like Barbara Kingsolver and Terry Tempest Williams researched 900 terms descriptive of soil, water, ice, and topographic features.

The resulting paragraph-length definitions far transcend the reference genre. They respect the facts while infusing technical jargon with life. They include gems like kiss tank, which is a shallow rainwater pool, or Pele's tears (congealed bits of lava). Readers will discover reasons to avoid jackstraw timber (deadfall resembling the child's game of pick-up sticks) or malpais (which the novelist Cormac McCarthy describes as the burned-out floor of hell ).

Above all, this book draws from cultures long sustained by the land. It celebrates a sense of belonging. Beneath the surface of language, it claims, runs a current of meaning that is worth preserving because it roots us in particular places. For refining the vocabulary of place, Home Ground is invaluable.

-Michael Engelhard