Home Ground: Words of our native land

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Trinity University Press, San Antonio Texas, 2006.

One of the language byways I find fascinating is that of terms for landforms; they’re often based on metaphors (oxbow bend in a river, neck of land), some have ancient linguistic roots, others reflect the cultural history of an area with words from the language of indigenous people or early explorers. Those who share my interest will love this book, but it also has appeal for those who enjoy American regional writing or history, or are interested in how the landforms we see come into being.

Home Ground’s entries are in alphabetical order but it’s far richer than a dictionary. Entries are signed by their authors, who are mostly American writers with particular regional roots––novelists, poets, nature writers, scientists. From them we hear not just the definition and history of the term but also more diverse notes: political (the drowning of Celilo Falls in the Columbia River, by a dam, comes up in the entry for dalles), ecological, personal, and literary (quotations from hundreds of writers including Thoreau, Jack London, T.S. Eliot, Joel Chandler Harris, Pablo Neruda, Louis L’Amour, Joyce Carol Oates).

There are no fewer than three indexes: one for authors so quoted, one for terms (with cross-references), and one for specific place names mentioned: the San Andreas Fault, Satans Slab, South Dakota. And there are short biographies of the writers who produced the entries. With all this, you can browse the book or look for something specific like every mention of the Mississippi River, all the terms relating to ice, or mentions of Herman Melville.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a hill and a mountain, or among the words canyon/cleft/coulee/gorge/gully/ravine, you can find out right here. Terms run the gamut of languages––ronde, tseghiizi (Navajo), névé, krummholz, cuesta, gumbo (probably from a Central Bantu dialect), nunatuk, eddy (possbily Norse), erg (Arabic) and so on (although etymology is not always included). And they vary from the words of Western science (imbricated rock) to those of other observers (coyote well, paternoster lake).

And now, a few sample entries:

tule land

Tule land is a term recorded as early as 1856, just after gold rush. It usually refers to the flats of bulrushes and other reeds along the rivers of the West Coast. In the muddy shallows along the Sacramento, for example, as the river takes its time joining the San Joaquin and approaching the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, there are vast thickets of reeds, home to waterfowl and fur-bearing animals. Tule lands are especially common at the junctures of rivers, where the slightest breeze will set the rushes whispering and rasping over the mud and standing water. The Wintu Indians called tule land “the storehouse of instant tools” because the rushes could be used to make so many things: mats, clothes, baskets, lodges, boats, and cradles, sandals, brooms, fish traps, and talismanic images. ROBERT MORGAN

nivation hollow

In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,
Bill Bryson wrote: “I never met a hiker with a good word to say about
the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place ‘where boots go to die.’…Mile upon mile of ragged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face––not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.” Such a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania might just as well have been complaining about nivation hollows. A bowl-shaped depression in the ground, a nivation hollow begins to take shape when ice forms over a shallow rock basin beneath a snow bank. The ice freezes and thaws over time. During the warm period, melted snow seeps into the bottom of the hollow. During the cooler period, the seep water freezes. The rock breaks up, weathers, and erodes. Meltwater carries away the finer rock particles and the hollow becomes larger and deeper. MARY SWANDER

fil du courant

A Cajun French term meaning “thread of the current,” fil du courant is used to describe the optimal navigation course within a bayou or river. The fil is often visible as a glassy-smooth pathway through the otherwise ripping water. Louisiana shrimpers follow the fil du courant to avoid underwater obstructions and to secure sufficient depth for skim nets that extend winglike from either side of the vessel. MIKE TIDWELL

fall line

Fall line is a phrase both metaphoric and literal. In broader terms, it means the zone where the Piedmont foothills level out into the coastal plain, where sandy soil derived from marine deposits replaces rocky rolling land. On some southeastern rivers, such as in the Carolinas and Virginia, the Fall Line is a specific place where shoals and rapids once stopped navigation from the coast because ships couldn’t pass through. Cities such as Richmond, Fayetteville, and Columbia sprang up at the head of navigation, and mills and factories were built to take advantage of the water power at the falls and rapids. The abrupt change of elevation caused industry and commerce, courts and seats of government, to take root in those areas. ROBERT MORGAN

Line drawings, by Molly O’Halloran, illustrate some of the terms, such as this one for “Quaking Bog” which shows how peat, sphagnum, geologic forms, plants and water all combine to form this floating vegetative structure that will seem solid until stepped on. [The scan is much reduced, and for some reason tinted beige, unlike the original.]

quaking bog2.jpg

Stooks and sheaves at an historic farm

At Hanley Historic Farm near Jacksonville, Oregon, we came upon a wheatfield that had been cut and stacked, and it was a beautiful sight.


These aren’t just bunches of cut wheat tossed up into heaps like our idea of a haystack; they’re carefully constructed of sheaves, or bundles,



and each sheaf is self-tied with wheatstraw.


This takes us back a hundred and fifty years or so: before mechanical harvesters and threshers, grain was cut with scythes, made into stacks in the field to dry, heaved up onto wagons with pitchforks, and then threshed and winnowed to separate the wheat (or barley or oats or millet) from the chaff and straw. Hot, dusty, backbreaking work.


Winslow Homer (1836-1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865 (source)


(source; artist unknown.)

Think about cutting acres of wheat this way, stopping every 20 minutes or so to sharpen the scythe blade which had to be razor sharp so that the cut wheat would fall neatly.


Heinrich Bürkel (1802-1869), Loading The Hay-Wagon [and hurrying to beat that rainstorm!] (cropped for this use; entire painting here)


I’m curious how this wheat will be threshed and winnowed. Historic methods for threshing included having oxen walk round in circles stepping on the grain to break it (mentioned in the Bible: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” Deuteronomy 25:4) and using a flail,



I’ll see what I can find out from the farm, which is run by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.



Small Oregon Port hosts giant cruise ships

Astoria, Oregon, is a port town of about 10,000 at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. It’s rich in history, and calls itself “the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies”. Lewis and Clark wintered near here at a fort they built after reaching the Pacific in 1805; the town itself began as a fur-trading site for John Jacob Astor; it is the site of the Astoria Column, a 125-foot (38 m)-tall column with an observation deck at the top and a spiral frieze all the way up depicting events of Oregon history; fancy Victorian homes dot its hills, remnants of the fortunes that were made in lumber, shipping, and salmon fishing. But it’s a small port these days. Many big cargo ships bypass Astoria, going up the Columbia to off-load at Portland, and timber exports have declined. For years Astoria has been wooing cruise ship traffic, putting $10M into piers to accommodate the larger cruise ships. The Port has organized volunteer “cruise hosts” to lead tours and make visitors feel at home.

This year the preparations really paid off, as ships cancelling their planned stops at Mexican ports due to the H1N1 flu are looking for alternatives, and Astoria was ready. The scheduled 13 ships stopping in Astoria expanded to 21 for the season, and one of the biggest pulled in on May 12 for a few hours. Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas is 1,020 feet long and carries 2,700 passengers. The Port’s marketing director said that about 80% of cruise passengers generally disembark when the ships stop.

There were tours for all sorts of interests: history and bicycling at Fort Clatsop (the Lewis and Clark overwintering site which has been re-created in replica, with historic re-enactors); galleries, shops, and restaurants; the Columbia River Maritime Museum; Seaside and Cannon Beaches; “Shot in Astoria”, a tour of locations where movies have been recently filmed; a refurbished 1920’s vaudeville and movie theatre; the great view from the Astoria Column, high on its 600-foot hill, and more. And just walking around taking in the river, the ocean, the hills and the city, is worth a visit.


Top of the Astoria Column, photo by Terry Richard/The Oregonian.

And perhaps best of all was eleven-year old Tyler Delay selling messages in a bottle! Are they bottles for the visitors to toss in the ocean, having added their own notes inside, or mysterious ones that Tyler has scoured up himself in years of beachcombing? Guess we’ll have to go to Astoria to find out.


Photo by Ross William Hamilton for The Oregonian, accompanying The Oregonian’s article (from which most of this information is derived). Sorry this photo isn’t as good as it should be; it wasn’t part of the online article and was scanned from the newspaper.

Wander through the history of world art

The Heilbrunn Timeline of World Art, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site, is a garden of delights in which one can easily become lost. It now includes over 6000 items and more are being added. Covering the time period from 20,000 BCE to the present, the site allows exploration by keyword or subject, name of artist, time period, country or region, time period and region, medium, and more. You can even sort the alphabetical list of essays by region or time period, see a cultural time line (e.g. Central and North Asia, 8000–2000 B.C.), or search for something specific in both the Timeline and the Met’s overall collection database. I searched for “hat,” and found 2020 hits in The Costume Institute, and 75 in the Heilbrunn Timeline itself.

I arrived at this site while googling prehistoric Japanese sculpture (of the “Jomon” culture) and then somehow found myself looking at Moroccan embroidery and a 19th c. American quilt using squares with the signatures of notables of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Each item has at least one photo that can be viewed in two sizes, a short description, and perhaps most enticing, links to other pieces related by time period, region, or material. Short essays are provided for many topics. Here’s one on the American Arts and Crafts movement; here’s one on a site in China, dated to 7000 BCE, with pictograms and bone flutes–”the earliest playable musical instruments” found (disputable, but let’s not carp).

Go to the list of artists and sort them according to medium or type of work: performance artist, calligrapher, painter, weapons maker, architect, metal worker, etc.

If this sounds wide rather than deep, who can complain? African Rock Art, Albrecht Dürer, Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions, Ancient Greek Dress, Botanical Imagery in European Painting, the Bikini, the Bronze Age, the Bauhaus…if I had to choose a few sites to be able to access on a desert island, this might make the list. (All of the foregoing are thematic essays on the A-B page.)

Embroidered panelMorocco.jpg

Above, embroidered panel, ca. 1800, Morocco.
Linen, silk; 9 ft. x 32 1/2 in. (274.3 x 82.5 cm)

Purchase, Everfast Fabrics Inc. Gift, 1970 (1970.272)
One of the rarest and finest examples of Moroccan embroidery, this wall hanging (arid) displays the most remarkable achievement of a Chechaouene needlewoman’s skills. The arids were used to cover the surrounding areas of interior arches in matching sets. Worked in plaited stitch, these panels contain geometric motifs based on tracery, arabesques, stars, rectangles, and diamonds, all closely associated with Andalusian elements. Said to have been used as an altar curtain in a Nestorian church in Jerusalem, this particular piece is certainly conversant with a variety of cultures and civilizations. The importance of embroidery in Moroccan life can be illustrated by the ceremony held for every infant girl at the age of four months, when the baby was placed in a chair and given a needle and thimble along with some silk thread to hold, in anticipation of a life blessed with the needle’s art.

[The images may be used for non-commercial purposes, with credit to the source, but the museum stipulates that the accompanying text must be used also.]


Above, detail, Autograph quilt, ca. 1856–63, by Adeline Harris Sears (American, 1839–1931). Silk with inked signatures; 77 x 80 in. (195.6 x 203.2 cm).
Below, entire quilt.

Purchase, William Cullen Bryant Fellows Gifts, 1996 (1996.4)
In 1856, seventeen-year-old Adeline Harris, the daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island mill owner, conceived of a unique quiltmaking project. She sent small diamond-shaped pieces of white silk worldwide to people she esteemed as the most important figures of her day, asking each to sign the silk and return it to her. By the time the signatures were all returned and ready to be stitched into a “tumbling-blocks” patterned quilt, Adeline had amassed an astonishing collection of autographs. Her quilt features the signatures of eight American presidents; luminaries from the worlds of science, religion, and education; heroes of the Civil War; such authors as Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and an array of prominent artists. Today, the autographs displayed in this beautiful and immaculately constructed quilt provide an intriguing glimpse into the way an educated young woman of the mid-nineteenth century viewed her world.


Below, one result of the “hat” search: [Cornelius Conway Felton with His Hat and Coat], early 1850s
John Adams Whipple (American, 1822–1891)
Daguerreotype; Each 3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. (8.3 x 7 cm)

The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.41)
This rare daguerreotype diptych shows Cornelius Conway Felton (1807–1862), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, reaching for his felt hat and duster. The first son of a poverty-stricken furniture maker, Felton became one of the most renowned classical scholars in the country and, in 1860, Harvard’s president. Although Felton donned academic robes, he never lost his connection to the everyday experiences of common folk. As opposed to the inflexible silk top hat worn by dandies and professors alike, the broad-brimmed felt duster that co-stars here was worn by outdoorsmen and was practical, casual, and fundamentally democratic.


Children’s books online: social history, public-domain illustrations



I’m fascinated by the wealth of vintage illustrations that have been scanned and made available on the web. The BibliOdyssey blog is all about this and a great place to browse. Lately I’ve been doing some ferreting about for myself too, and of course have to share my discoveries.

This time it’s old children’s books in two collections at the University of Florida: the Literature for Children Collection at the University of Florida Library (2455 titles), and the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature (4787 titles). Cruise the title lists (LCC, Baldwin) and find multiple versions of Robinson Crusoe, Aesop’s Fables, and other classics; various illustrated ABC’s, Annie and the elves, and other stories published in 1852 by the American Sunday-School Union, Around the World with Santa Claus (1891), At war with Pontiac, or, The totem of the bear : a tale of redcoat and redskin (1896)–––and we’re still in the “A” section. [Above are the first two pages from Aunt Louisa’s picture puzzle alphabet (1880).]

Below are a few illustrations from volumes in these collections, and I was assured when I enquired that “Nearly all of the books in this collection [LCC] are public domain. Those that are not are clearly labeled as such. You can use the images freely, although we always appreciate a statement attribution that they came from Literature for Children (palmm.fcla.edu/juv/).” I think the books from the Baldwin Collection would be public domain as well.

These are presented here considerably reduced in size and resolution, compared to the online originals, which are each over 1 MB when saved as pdfs.


Above, the cover from Puss in Boots (c. 1888), illustrations by André, R ( Richard ), 1834-1907 [nom de plume of English artist William Roger Snow].

Below, the “London Cries” page from Aunt Mary’s primer: adorned with a hundred and twenty pretty pictures (1851) shows some of the street pedlars of the city along with their characteristic “cries” to hawk their wares, which gave us phrases such as “Cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” Also shown are the dustman collecting who knows what (horse manure?) and a “link-boy,” selling his services to light the way of those travelling the unlit streets before gas lighting.


Below, the cover and two pages from A museum of wonders and what the young folks saw there explained in many pictures (1884), text and illustrations by Frederick Burr Opper [Baldwin Library Digital Collection, also at the University of Florida].


Below, the cover and two illustrations from the ABC of Horses (1880)


But there’s more here than quaintness, nostalgia, or public-domain illustrations. Children’s books are always in some way a part of society’s revelation of itself to children, and its effort to shape their attitudes. The very first entry in the alphabetical list of titles is 10 little nigger boys (1890), no author given. A rhyme recounts how a group of ten young black boys gradually becomes only one, as various accidents befall them on their journey. One oversleeps (the most benign incident); one chokes, one is hugged to death by a bear at the zoo, one “cuts himself in half”, you get the idea.


This reminded me of the familiar title Ten Little Indians (Agatha Christie) and I wondered what the connexion was. Wikipedia was the first entry in a Google search and was very informative.

It is Christie’s best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date, making it the world’s best-selling mystery…The novel takes place on an island off the coast of Devon in late 1930s named Indian Island. Eight people of different social classes journey to the Soldier Island mansion are invited there by a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen but the eight people don’t know them. Upon arriving, they are told by the butler and his wife, Thomas and Ethel Rogers, that their hosts are currently away. Each guest finds in his or her room a slightly odd bit of bric-a-brac and a framed copy of the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldier Boys” (“Ten Little Niggers” in the original 1939 UK publication and “Ten Little Indians” in the 1940 US publication) hanging on the wall:

Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier boys going in for law;
One got into Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.


Cover of the first UK edition of this book (from Wikipedia).

Thus we learn, among other things, that in England in 1939 it was acceptable for Agatha Christie to publish her mystery novel under the title Ten Little Niggers in England, but not in the US, the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The book has been filmed a number of times under this latter title, and also as “Ten Little Indians.”

I wonder what black children were reading in 1890, when 10 little nigger boys was published. Books for children were a luxury, whether in white households or black. Was there a parallel endeavor to publish reading material for black kids? Maybe I’ll email the people at the University of Florida again and see what they can tell me.

I saw it in print, it must be right!

Exercise your ear for language. Of these quotations, which was not written or uttered by Thomas Jefferson? [some irregular spellings are contained, they aren’t typos but represent the flexibility of orthography in earlier centuries.]

“An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second.” 1

“But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” 2

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” 3

“A mind always employed is always happy…The idle are the only wretched. In a world which furnishes so many emploiments which are useful, and so many which are amusing, it is our own fault if we ever know what ennui is, or if we are ever drive to the miserable resource of gaming, which corrupts our disposition, and teaches us a habit of hostility against all mankind.” 4

Probably you had no difficulty in identifying #3 as the one that doesn’t fit. It seems to stick out like a wrong note in music: inappropriate to the man and his time, both in sentiment and expression. For me, being old enough to recall the human potential movement, it clearly has a connexion to that school of folly. Spontaneity, individualism, do whatever feels right to you (regardless of consequences to others, or even yourself), were exalted above all else. Impulse over reason. All self-expression is good. Learning, self-restraint, and practice are by implication unnecessary, and a cruel blow to one’s inner child.

“…you just get stoned, get the ideas in your head and then do ’em. And don’t bullshit. I mean that’s the thing about doin’ that guerrilla theatre. You be prepared to die to prove your point.”
Abbie Hoffman 5

“I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”
Frederick E. Perl 6

But all over the net, I found that laissez–faire quotation #3,

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”

attributed to our third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, a man of such parts that John F. Kennedy famously remarked, upon the occasion of a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize Winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.” [Please indulge me while I point out the obvious, that Thomas Jefferson did not acquire any of these abilities by simply expressing himself and “doing his thing.”]

The mis-attributed quotation came to me a few weeks ago from some newsletter list I got on, and it seemed so anachronistic to me that I started looking for who really said it. Well, according to most websources, it was Thomas Jefferson. Google it and see. I did find another person credited with it, but the Jefferson attributions were far more numerous. But truth isn’t established by majority vote, so I kept looking.

Finally I discovered The Jefferson Encyclopedia which has a page of “Spurious Quotations” but I did not find “Don’t ask. Act!” there, so I wrote to them. This, now, is a reliable source, part of the foundation which protects and restores Jefferson’s estate at Monticello and sponsors educational and research programs. The encyclopedia site is described as “Trustworthy information on Thomas Jefferson and his world by Monticello researchers and respected Jefferson scholars.” I got a prompt reply; the experts there have had more than one inquiry on the subject, and mine must have been the last straw, as they decided to add a page concerning the “Do you want to know who you are?” quotation to their informational wiki-encyclopedia.

The true author of those words? Witold Gombrowicz, of course! He was (1904-1969 ) a Polish novelist and dramatist. As Anna Berkes, the Monticello researcher who kindly answered my email query, put it:

“Also, most people would much rather put “Thomas Jefferson” on their signature line or plaque or bumpersticker than, say,
Witold Gombrowicz; so it’s often an uphill battle to try to
dis-associate Jefferson from quotations like these.”


This painting is a copy of the second life portrait of Jefferson (1805) by Rembrandt Peale. Source.

The web is the best example to date of how something can get written once, and then copied by dozens of others who rely on the authority of the first.

The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on the phenomenon, about how someone’s questionable comparison of the size of the earliest horses (Eohippus, when I was in school) to the size of a fox-terrier, was repeated by textbook publishers from 1904 to 1988 when Gould’s “The case for the creeping fox terrier clone” appeared in Natural History Magazine. (You can also find it in Bully for Brontosaurus, a collection of Gould’s essays, and in Google’s online digitization of same.) Gould’s point was the failure of textbook writers (compilers?) to consult original sources and use fresh material, instead of doing what, in a student, would be condemned as plagiarism. The only fox-terrier familiar to very many people is Asta in the Thin Man movies, but probably few people born after 1950 would know about William Powell’s debonair canine sidekick. Thus, as an aid to understanding, the metaphor has outlived its effectiveness.

And copying blindly leads also—as in the case of the Jefferson mis-attribution—to just plain wrong information. The Eohippus/fox-terrier comparison may be such a case. The AKC standard for the Wire(haired) Fox Terrier prescribes a height of 15.5 inches at the withers—roughly the shoulder—for the male. Wikipedia states that Hyracotherium (formerly Eohippus) “averaged 8 to 9 inches (20 cm) high at the shoulder.”


And why did I write this post? I admire Jefferson, and I wanted to help set the record straight. So, Google, find this: Thomas Jefferson did not say or write “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” It was Witold Gombrowicz.