Home Ground

JOHN FILSINGER taught Spanish in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, where I started high school. In our remote burg of crew-cut brick makers, coal miners, and farmers, wonderful old Filsinger wore a full beard, played stringed instruments with his wife, Marjorie, and their two children, and, best of all, climbed mountains all over the world. Filsinger was a great Spanish teacher but an even better mountain-talker. On deliciously rare occasions, he would show slides of the family trips to the Andes and thrill us with his narrations. His enthralling terminology for alpine landscapes sometimes sent me, a shy, word-loving boy too intimidated to ask, to the library. A col, I learned, was a small pass between two peaks. A couloir was a breathtakingly deep gully amid mountains. A cirque sounded like what it was, a semicircular bowl at the foot of a steep headwall. An arête was a knife-edged ridge or spur; I pictured it sharp enough to slice a climber’s boots.

He once used a mountaineering term I carried in my head for years: gendarme. When I looked it up, I could find references only to French policemen and soldiers. Years later, in grad school, Filsinger’s mountaineering gendarme came to me again, and I knew then to resort to the Oxford English Dictionary. No luck. Gendarme was still only a cop.

Until the book Home Ground arrived.

In this literary dictionary of landscape terminology, I immediately went to gendarme and — ah, what joy! — learned this (from Jon Krakauer): “[T]he French word for policeman . . . is used to describe lofty rock towers that stand like huge petrified sentries.” Only mountaineers, and other lovers of landscape, would know this.

In Home Ground, editors Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney assembled forty-five writers who, in turn, have assembled nearly nine hundred extensive definitions of terms applied to the forms taken by water, rocks, waves, sand, soil, ice. The words themselves are often delicious enough — chop hills, ganderbrush, fumarole, vly, chickenhead, trembling prairie — but from the minds of these superb writers emanate flows of description as gorgeous as they are accurate.

Ellen Meloy pictures a tail wave like this: “After a river plunges over the rocky debris of a rapid, it blasts out from the constriction and finishes in a series of high-momentum tail waves. The waves stand like glassy dunes, stationary in form even as the river flows through them toward stillness again.”

Luis Alberto Urrea elevates the mundane word rock: “In literature, a stone is a rock with gravitas. A rock is workmanlike, quotidian (“Upon this rock I will build my church . . .”). A stone is fraught with anthropomorphized depth, a rock seen with metaphoric eyes (“He rolled away the stone . . .”).”

Many of the terms found in Home Ground originate in Spanish, Cajun, Russian, French, and native languages, reminding us of the intimate and ancient relationships people have had with the terrains of this continent: braso, kipuka, catoctin, platin, nunatak, nevé, sastrugi, playree. And lots of the terms are tightly entwined with regions and specific places: pokelogan (New England); fourteener (Colorado); pocosin (the Carolinas, Maryland); draft (Virginia and Pennsylvania); trainasse (Louisiana); tuckamore (Newfoundland).

These words enter into your mind with the fierce particularity that the enemies of the living — abstraction and exploitation — blindly seek to kill. Our language to describe landscapes today, like much of our relationship with the world of nature, suffers from a numb generality, what Lopez, in his fine introduction, describes as “an attenuated list of almost nondescript words — valley, lake, mountain.” The editors write that part of their intention is to “provide an impetus for the rediscovery of an extensive American language, used to establish and reaffirm intimacy with our home place.” They have succeeded. In exactly the way an excellent teacher can open up a world for you — a new world entered through tiny gates made of words — Home Ground makes you want to go out and look at things, run some silt through your hands, feel some smooth p¯ahoehoe beneath your bare feet. A strange and marvelous dictionary, it is one you may want less for reference and more simply to read. The book seems a work of love, to be built upon by generations to come, adding to it, like point-bar deposits, grain by grain, drumlin by dune, canebreaks by pishkun.

Don Snow teaches environmental humanities at Whitman College, amid the loess soils of Walla Walla, Washington.