Friday, November 17, 2006

Language and Landscape, the Poetry of Place

If “language is the DNA of a culture”, what does it mean when words…and specifically, words used to describe the landscape…fade into oblivion? Yesterday, National Public Radio profiled a new book, Home Ground. The book’s authors have collected more than 800 terms used to describe the American landscape. Words like playa, milk gap, looking-glass prairie and hoodoo. The intersection of language and landscape is fascinating, with the power of words to evoke nature and of nature to evoke words. Mysterious symbiosis. With the loss of such colorful and descriptive words, comes an erosion of the ability to comprehend and communicate the depth and complexity of the landscape. It is a noteworthy example of lost knowledge, wisdom once common that has dwindled from disuse.

May Theilgaard Watts opens her book, Reading the Landscape of America, with an account of seeking and finding several antiques in the Great Smoky Mountains, namely: a woven bedspread, a song, a word, and a forest. They all had one thing in common and that was they were not only antiques, but disjuncts, “long ago, cut off, isolated, or disjointed, from others of its kind.” Watts expected such disjuncts in the Smokies, a “region that had so long been a sort of sanctuary, or refugium, for cut-off groups of plants and men and customs.”

As this place becomes less and less a sanctuary or “refugium” is it any wonder that language and landscape are eroded and stripped of their diversity, their poetry? Who else is out there, attempting to read the landscape, and grasping for the right words? Didn’t Thoreau say “In wildness is the preservation of the world”? Could we add, “In language is the preservation of the wild”?

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