Book Review of Home Ground, Edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney

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Barry Lopez is a master of literary non-fiction, but even he occasionally has trouble finding the right words to describe the landscapes he so aptly writes about. Which is why he, along with managing editor, Debra Gwartney, has compiled a tome of evocative terms— and their definitions— that describe the American landscape.

“Home Ground” (Trinity University Press, $29.95), is descriptions, definitions and interpretations of landscape and water features, each written by a regional author. But, more than a simple telling of what a kiss tank, a comb ridge or desire path is, “Home Ground” looks at the culture that created the word and the poetry the feature inspires.

“How a particular culture or subculture divides and names the features of it’s homescape, and the way it perceives how one thing grades into another—when exactly a draw becomes a gulch or a tarn a lake—is in the end particular to a culture,” Lopez writes in the introduction.

If it is “landscape that keeps us from slipping off into abstract space,” as Lopez asserts, then it is “Home Ground” that roots us to our landscape and our home. When putting a canoe into the cold Missouri River at Fort Benton—days of solo time in wild country awaiting around the next bend—consider Luis Alberto Urrea’s words:

“The Missouri Breaks could have been called the Missouri Quebradas. A Quebrada is something broken. Literally, a break (from the verb quebrar). It implies the breaking up of the ground; a shattering of passes and horizons into a rougher country beyond.”

The definition is interesting, but Urrea also tells us a little something about the culture from which the word sprang. “…quebrada is the best slang some Chicanos can come up with for “getting a break” in life. “Orale, vato—dame una quebrada.”

Or perhaps you will be driving past an abandoned mine site or across acres of badlands stripped bare by grazing, and you’ll think of it as “derelict land”. Barbara Kingsolver writes concisely, “Land that has been used, ruined, and consequently abandoned by humans is peculiarly described as derelict—as if the land itself had become careless of its duties.”

Through perusing this book slowly and savoring each word (and the lovely pen and ink sketches that accompany some of them) a deeper sense of place and understanding of home is gained.

Big Sky Journal

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