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On terra firma

Home Ground Language for an American Landscape Edited by Barry Lopez Debra Gwartney, Managing Editor Trinity University Press: 450 pp., $29.95

October 08, 2006|Susan Zakin | Susan Zakin is the author of "Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement." She teaches writing at the University of Arizona.

SCHOLARS may be right when they say language creates reality, but can writers shove words down our throats to create the reality they believe should exist? As teenagers gather by the thousands to lose themselves in virtual reality, National Book Award-winner Barry Lopez has tried to revive a calmer existence based on an intimate knowledge of the physical world. With managing editor Debra Gwartney, Lopez has collected geographical terms like "chaco," "cenote," "prairie," "prado" and "bogue," and assigned them to 46 contemporary writers to create an illustrated, multi-voiced dictionary called "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape."

It's easy to write off the attempt as merely quaint. Three-fifths of the world's mammal species are circling the drain while kids wheeze asthmatically in disturbing unison. What's an environmentalist to do? Yet here we have Lopez and company smiling and waving like grizzled veterans of the Confederacy, positively glorying in their irrelevance. There is genuine beauty in landscape terms: cowboy-sounding phrases like "buckbrush coulee," technical words like "foreshore" and many in between. Certainly, Lopez's goal is noble, to counteract the sense of loss that pervades America as we cannibalize our landscapes. He is a graceful writer, and this is a timely enterprise. But what's missing from the book often speaks louder than what is there.

"Home Ground" is informative, surprising, chilling, poetic and occasionally funny. It is also often quite dull, although the dullness is relieved by transcendent moments. The book may be most important, in literary terms, as a mark of how far we have come from the days of Faulkner and Hemingway, those quintessentially American authors for whom landscape was paramount. "Home Ground" implicitly asks: Where should American writing go now? And yet, no answer is delivered here other than an implicit suggestion that we get back to our roots, which any sensible person realizes is impossible.

Where "Home Ground" does succeed is in the sheer pleasure of its words. Writer and marine biologist Eva Saulitis informs us that other names for "anchor ice," the skin that forms on the bottoms of chilled rivers and streams, include "depth, underwater, and lappered ice." Arturo Longoria quotes Jack London's obscure socialist novel "The Iron Heel" to describe a "barranca," which is the Spanish word for cliff or precipice. "A quarter of a mile from Glen Ellen," London writes, "after the second bridge is passed, to the right will be noticed a barranca that runs like a scar across the rolling land toward a group of wooded knolls." It's too bad that the brevity required by a dictionary entry keeps Longoria from mentioning that Glen Ellen was where London built Wolf House, a mansion that burned to the ground soon after its construction. Its ruins are preserved in a state park today, a monument to the tragic underside of California's particular brand of landscape triumphalism.

Several contributors transcend the limitations of the dictionary form quite handily. Interestingly, these tend not to be "nature" writers but simply "writers." Joy Williams makes barrier islands sound both playful and ominous ("The most dynamic of all coastal systems, barrier islands constantly shift at the whim of wind and wave, in time actually rolling over upon themselves"), while Kim Stafford defines beach cusps as "a series of rhythmic shapes in beach sand, where water's deft knife scallops the coast."

Many of the more appealing entries tend toward writing of the flash fiction variety. Luis Alberto Urrea, a poet, essayist, fiction writer and practitioner of New Journalism, delivers the book's knockout punches. Tijuana-born, Urrea knows about dispossession firsthand and is the only contributor whose definitions seem to have any relationship to real life as most of us experience it. One gets the sense that Urrea wandered off task, but I, for one, am grateful: "Huerfano is Spanish for orphan. In this case a perfect description of the landform -- a solitary spire or hill left standing by erosion apart from kindred landscape features. Also called a 'circumscribed eminence,' a lost mountain, or an island hill, it is a kind of existentialist monument, an island in the sky: no man is an island, but a huerfano is. You could make the argument that Devils Tower of Wyoming is the mother of all huerfanos."

The writers here are an impressive bunch, despite several curious omissions. Rebecca Solnit, an important author who produces cultural commentary on nature, doesn't show up in these pages; neither does Jim Harrison, nor, sadly, T.C. Boyle, who writes about nature with full consciousness of its imminent dissolution, and would have contributed a few needed laughs.

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