Book Reviews: May / June 2007


| May / June 2007


A New Glossary Comes to Terms with Nature: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney (Trinity University Press)

Residents of the American West in particular become hobby geographers almost by default. Where Earth's bones erode into shapes too bizarre to imagine, where the planet's history dwarfs our own, curiosity quickly stirs. Within a few seasons newcomers learn to tell arroyos from acequias, comb ridges from flatirons, and mesas from buttes.

Each of this country's geophysical provinces has signature landmarks, of course, and now a single book (nearly) covers them all. Enlisting 45 eloquent writers, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams) and co-editor Debra Gwartney have compiled an American landscape glossary solid as caprock but sublime as a parabolic dune. With an eye for the quirky and poetic, luminaries like Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Jon Krakauer, and Terry Tempest Williams researched nearly 900 terms descriptive of soil, water, ice, and topographic features. The resulting paragraph-length definitions transcend the reference genre, infusing technical jargon with life while respecting the facts. Between line drawings and literary quotes in the page margins sparkle gems like "kiss tank" (a shallow rainwater pool), "Pele's tears" (congealed bits from a lava fountain), and the self-explanatory "candle ice." Readers will discover reasons to stay out of "jackstraw timber" (deadfall resembling the child's game of pick-up sticks) and "malpais" (Cormac McCarthy's "burned-out floor of hell").

Above all, Home Ground celebrates a sense of belonging, drawing from cultures long sustained by the land. Beneath the surface runs a substratum of meaning that is worth preserving because it roots us on this continent. Without language to convey what matters, public discourse becomes stunted. For refining the vocabulary of conservation, Home Ground is invaluable. -- Michael Engelhard




Guitar Man: A Six-String Odyssey

by Will Hodgkinson (Da Capo)

"Those who can't play, write."