Sand and stone are Earth’s memory. Each of us, too, is a landscape inscribed by memory.
My book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015) began as a struggle to answer, or at least come to terms with, questions that long haunted me. Questions like these: If each of our lives is an instant, like a camera shutter opening then closing, what can we make of our place in the world, of the latent image, for that instant? What do accumulated instants mean over generations?
Long ago I realized that living in this country meant being marked by its still unfolding history, a history weighted by tangled ideas of “race” and of the land itself. This lesson became starkly clear when I saw that I could more easily track the continent’s deep past from rock and fossil clues than find traces of my own family’s past. I needed to understand what it meant, as a woman bearing the blood of Africa, Europe, and Native America, to be a citizen of this country and of this land.
Trace became a mosaic of personal journeys and historical inquiry that crossed the continent and time. Chapters emerged from particular places explored and questions plumbed there. From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation and colonial town in New England. From an island in Lake Superior to “Indian Territory” and Black towns in Oklahoma. From national parks and burial grounds to the origin of names on the land. rom the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S. capital. And from Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” to Willard Savoy’s “alien land.”
Many books—nonfiction, poetry, and fiction—helped me define and redefine my search. Some literally joined me on my journeys; others guided me to new directions. Those that stunned me or fed my spirit mattered most.
They include works by James Baldwin, Clarice Lispector, Rainer Maria Rilke, Audre Lorde, Loren Eiseley, Viktor Frankl, Muriel Rukeyser, Zora Neale Hurston, N. Scott Momaday, Walt Whitman, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Ambrose Bierce, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Wang Wei, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Eduardo Galeano, John Berger, Anton Chekhov, Helene Cixous, Adrienne Rich, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Louis Owens, Gerald Vizenor, William Faulkner, Willard Savoy, and many more, especially poets.
It’s not possible to name all of the books and authors whose energy and ideas seemed to welcome dialogue. What follows are just few works that touched me deeply and also explored what became my obsessions: time, memory, silence, traces of the past, and the search for home. These works all threaded together, helping me see where “race” and “nature” converged.
Two books published in 1949 became orienting compasses for me as an adolescent decades later. “The land ethic” is the climax essay of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Alien Land, a young man’s first novel on “passing” and racial hatred, was written by my father, Willard Savoy, a lifetime before my birth. Though I first read A Sand County Almanac as a ninth-grade assignment, Alien Land found me by accident, after my father’s death. The search and journeys in Trace measure the distance between “alien land” and “land ethic” and call for them to meet.
Carson McCullers wrote in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.” For me, finding home in this country entails placing one self in the land and in time—that is, being situated in history and over generations. Yet, I long felt estranged from time and place, uncertain of where home lay.
In The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul offers an exceptional journey of mind, heart, and body from the British colony of Trinidad to England. What he describes of having “stranger’s nerves” is very familiar. I, too, had lived with the rawness of feeling a stranger in my own home, “out of place” in a country (and in popular histories) I couldn’t seem to claim fully. Naipaul’s “arrival” at understanding encouraged my own.
The ideas of the brilliant writer and social critic James Baldwin first found me as a teenager in my father’s copy of The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s essays struck like lightning, scarring shocks and illuminations. Consider the following words from his essay, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” collected in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. The “very word ‘America’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun,” Baldwin wrote. “No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.” His writings forced many hard questions.
Frederick Turner introduces Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness with the “incomplete sense of this New World” he was born into and then interrogates an American “ignorance amounting to estrangement from the land . . . estrangement of the inhabitants from their habitat: a rootless, restless people with a culture of superhighways.”
Mixedblood Messages and I Hear the Train, two collections of essays and stories by Louis Owens, showed me how one writer tried to negotiate the indeterminate, liminal terrain of “mixed” heritage in this land and write toward understanding and survival.
Although I was familiar with many of Wendell Berry’s works, I hadn’t read The Hidden Wound until Curt Meine introduced the book to me some years ago. Berry wrote an initial draft at the end of 1968, a year defined by assassinations (of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy) and riots. Influenced by the civil rights “agitation,” this descendant of a “slave”-holding Kentucky family tried to face his and his ancestors’ unspoken complicity in history and heal in himself the diseased “hidden wound” of racism.
In The Life of Poetry, another complacency-shattering book, Muriel Rukeyser writes of the place (or responsibility) of art in life. Imagine being a teenager opening the book to this page: “I lived in the first century of world wars.” Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi camps (including Auschwitz) and a leading psychiatrist in postwar Europe, was another ninth-grade assignment. As I note in Trace, Frankl believed that “each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” He added that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” and thus “evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency.”
Time and history are very much intertwined with place and home in most of the above works. By time, I refer not only to its passage but also to its depth, to fragmentation, and to senses of its continuity.
Loren Eiseley’s self-described “prowlings” of a mind “preoccupied with time” attracted me as a student newly introduced to geology. I was hooked as soon as I read this line from The Night Country: “This is the price one pays for learning to read time from surfaces other than an illuminated dial.” In The Immense Journey and in The Firmament of Time, Eiseley challenged readers to be aware of our place in the mystery of life and evolution:
Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and a puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life.
What of time on a scale of years or centuries? Once I recognized that the history that made me was not the history taught to me in school or re-presented as media stereotypes, I sought to understand how the past is remembered and told, how it is silenced or evaded. Many writings and oral texts guided me—from historiography to poetry, from cultural criticism to indigenous narrative traditions.
The lingering presence of the past is a crucial theme. Naipaul writes in The Enigma of Arrival of living “among ruins, among superseded things . . . . Because the world—in places like this is never absolutely new; there is always something that has gone before.”
My initial reading of James Baldwin’s works kindled questions of what “history” really is. The provocative essay “White Man’s Guilt” (collected in The Price of the Ticket) hit me hard:
History . . . is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
Many works weave threads of memory, place, history, home, and loss. One that, like John Berger, I found extraordinarily beautiful is Anne Michaels’s startling novel Fugitive Pieces:
It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor to hear the radiocarbon chronometer, the Geiger counter amplifying the faint breathing of rock, fifty thousand years old. (Like the faint thump from behind the womb wall.) It’s no metaphor to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling off has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment. Eskers of ash wait to be scooped up, lives reconstituted.
In The Way to Rainy Mountain N. Scott Momaday creates a tapestry journey to his ancestral home in Oklahoma through multi-voiced narratives drawn from Kiowa traditions, historical/anthropological commentary, and personal remembrance.
These and other writings have drawn me again and again for their beauty of language, poignancy, sharp clarity of place, and sense of time on Earth. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier by Wallace Stegner is also part of this group. The Cypress Hills and plains of southern Saskatchewan, where his family homesteaded a century ago, come alive in Stegner’s remarkable prose. I became aware of selectivity and perspective in narrative recollection when I first read this book as a teenager. I recall wondering about the voices of tribal peoples who had inhabited the same land, wondering how their stories might be different.
Let me mention two final “texts.” Erwin Raisz’s large map “Landforms of the United States” has joined me on every cross-country trip I’ve taken, overland or by air, since college. Drawn by a master cartographer-artist, the map shows no highways or other overlays of commercial road maps beyond state boundaries, cities, and some towns. I note in Trace that Raisz’s pen strokes outline, instead, his sense of the land’s texture. His lines are the summits of mountain ranges, the edges of plateaus, the paths of sinuous rivers. Most names on the map place this geography, a map that always seems to call out Read me!
Finally, the American landscape itself anchors the narrative threads of Trace. The history of human experience on this continent owes much to the history of the land itself, to the land’s structure, materials, and texture. In understanding this, I believe it’s possible to gain a larger sense of place.
Lauret is the judge for the 2016 Terrain.org Nonfiction Contest on the theme “Fabrication.”
Header image of American landscape (aerial) by Folkert Gorter, courtesy Superfamous.com.