A short rumination from Akiko Busch in the NY Times asks us to Learn a River’s Name Before It’s Gone resonated with me around the idea of language as the cultural thread that weaves. Describing a road trip, where she wrote down the list of over 100 rivers crossed, concluding that “If we couldn’t hear the sound of the water itself, the syllables of the names became a new way for me to chart this country.” The simple idea of knowing the name of something (or someone, for that matter) and although we go a bit crazy with naming storms, Busch posits that:
“it would likely be of greater benefit if we could find a similar pleasure in learning a few of the names that identify those features of the natural world we live with all the time. Which is to say, instead of making up new names, we might consider learning the names that already exist.”
Data and science are critical elements in understanding on many levels, but words and names provide a level of connection. Busch continues: “Giving something a name is the first step in taking care of it. Place names help us to attach landscape to history and region. And when it comes to the question of attachment, we are not just speaking of how names are attached to places, but how humans become attached to places.” Stories of places abound, and continued attacks on environmental regulations aims to further degrade our protections, so “perhaps we could make the effort to learn as many of the names of those places — and the trees, the rivers, the ranges, all the species that live there — as possible, before it’s too late.”
Robert Macfarlane, quoted in Busch’s essay above, says that “Once a landscape goes undescribed and therefore unregarded, it becomes more vulnerable to unwise use or improper action.” To me he embodies the idea of naming and knowing, and I was fascinated by his take on the vibrancy of language, and the stories of how this language is being lost, and the need to retain it – from this Guardian article ‘The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape‘. I wrote about this here in Landscape+Urbanism, and have been currently reading his book Landmarks, which breaks down place language in short essays interspersed with lists focusing on language specific landscape features. The resources The publication of his book led to him receiving a deluge of words from readers from around the globe, Recently on Twitter, Macfarlane posts daily words and continues to collect new ones and has amassed a following of those interested in the word hoard.
This idea connects with other writers of lexicography, such as the fabulous book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, which provides “descriptive language for the American landscape by combining geography, literature, and folklore” and those gems that have been formative for many landscape architects, such as Anne Whiston Spirn’s poetic Language of Landscape. New forms are emerging as well, such as the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Seen, Many
Whose Language, Whose Culture?
The naming, of course, needs to respond to pre-European settlement, as much of the work of ‘finding’ hidden hydrology uses maps that are made by Europeans and often (purposely or ignorantly) erase place names that have be tied to places for years. As we look back into history, we are challenged to find not just the names of places on a map, but to search a richer heritage of Native place names. The work on the Welikia Project explains: “The Lenape people inhabited Mannahatta for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They named their island home “Mannahatta,” meaning “Island of Many Hills.” We use the term “Mannahatta” to refer to the island as it was in 1609, and “Manhattan” to refer to the metropolis of today.” When they expanded the concept to the larger NY City metro area, they also adopted the Lenape expression “Welikia,”meaning “my good home,” and infuse place making with Native settlement patterns often in their work.
The Waterlines Project here in Seattle is a great example of connecting Hidden Hydrology to Native language, providing on the map a key with Coast Salish Place Names.
The place names on this map, written in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, are drawn from elders who worked with ethnographers in the early twentieth century, from the work of linguists and scholars such as the late Vi Hilbert, and from an atlas created by Coll Thrush and Nile Thompson for the book Native Seattle. Place names are stories: proof of presence, archives of meaning, evidence of ancestry, and a reference for treaties and other legal connections to territory. They provide context to the ongoing presence and strong connections to the city for Native people as co-managers of our shared resources. Refer to “An Atlas of Indigenous Seattle” for further information on the Native place names found on this map.”
I’m inspired to learn the names (those of the present, past and distant past) of the local places across history and dig into some of these local resources as I continue to compile my working base of Seattle and Portland Hidden Hydrology. I found a post by local writer David B. Williams on his GeologyWriter blog – which was helpful in summarizing Seattle’s Stream Names, for the more recently naming, and soon to come is some documentation of my recent muddy exploration of Licton Springs, which is named for Liq’tid (LEEK-teed) or Licton (Item #9 above), the Lushootseed word ‘Red Paint’ for the reddish mud of the springs.