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Excerpt: 'Home Ground'

Think you've crossed a kiss tank or made a lover's leap? Find out by reading these definitions from Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.


In the arid basin-and-range country of the southwestern United States and Mexico, cloudbursts send torrents of runoff down ravines cut into the flanks of sparsely vegetated mountains. The flash floods may deposit enormous quantities of sand, gravel, and mud at the mouth of a given ravine, where the sediments fan out across the basin floor and are compressed over time into a gently sloping carapace of conglomerate rock. Flowing water may subsequently carve deep, parallel grooves into the alluvial fan until all that remains of it is an array of elongated humps.

These remnant conglomerate humps, which resemble the backs of immense whales breaching in unison, are known colloquially as ballenas -- Spanish for whales. Jon Krakauer

blind creek

To most eyes a dry creek is a place where a creek once flowed and after a rain will likely flow again. Such a waterway is an ephemeral creek, technically. But by another way of seeing, some such creeks never entirely disappear. A ghost, if you will, holds the creek's place, moving slowly in darkness below the dry, sun-baked surface. In the mind of a local resident finely attuned to such things, you've come upon the invisible but real when you stand above a blind creek. Dig, and the water will come to light, like the blind floor revealed when the carpenter's floor is taken up. Barry Lopez

buffalo jump

The Plains peoples of North America hunted buffalo for thousands of years. One of their techniques was to find herds in a natural grazing area near a cliff or a steep bank over which the animals could be stampeded. The Cheyenne, the Kiowa, the Kiowa-Apache, the Lakota, and other native peoples of the Great Plains constructed driving lines, sometimes with stone cairns, sometimes with logs, to funnel the herds to the cliffs. The sites had different names in different languages. To the Peigan-Blackfeet people of Alberta they are pishkun. In English they are buffalo jumps. The driving lanes, in the centuries before the horse reached North America, could be as much as ten or twelve miles long. The killing sites at the base of the cliffs are a compound of bones, stone rubble, and earth, sometimes to a depth of thirty feet with strata that go back 5,600 years. When Meriwether Lewis came upon a buffalo jump hunt in Missouri, he described the activities in great detail in a May 29, 1805, journal entry beginning with this: "Today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench." Well-known buffalo jumps among the remaining sites include the Vore Buffalo Jump in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, Glenrock Buffalo Jump in central Wyoming, Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near Bozeman, Montana, and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort McLeod, one of 150 jumps in Alberta. Robert Hass


"Cistern. I say it aloud. Cistern. More magic" (William Kloefkorn, This Death by Drowning). Cisterns, whether man-made or nature-made, have seemed to be miraculous to most cultures. Kloefkorn speaks here of the cistern his grandfather dug, lined with rock and "connected somehow to a truckload of subterranean downspouts... thus when rain fell, it coursed and curved and sloshed its convoluted way down into the cistern." These dugouts were sources of drinking water and garden irrigation for farmers and ranchers through the millennia. The naturedug cistern has many names. In Spanish, it is a tinaja. (You can find these in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona: Edward Abbey often drank at Tinajas Altas, a place where "illegal aliens" drink now if they're lucky enough to find it.) A bedrock cistern in the wild is an example either of chemical weathering or of rain excavating rock. The Navajo Sandstone Abbey encountered at Tinajas Altas weathers to form shallow pits that perform like cisterns. A steady drip or small cataract of rainwater grinds out and fills a bedrock basin. This bowl, or divot, deepens over the centuries, worked at, between rains, by wind and sand. A perpetual process of grinding. (Some cisterns grow from indigenous corn-grinding metates, as can be found in the Las Palmas Valley, south of Tecate, Baja California.) In Walking Nowhere: Finding Home, W. Andrew Beckham notes a series of cisterns so deep that they have been called "Giant Track." Truly, it was a giant who made a footprint so deep that wind cannot stir the surface of its water, and that giant is the rain cloud. Kloefkorn says, "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Luis Alberto Urrea

kiss tank

Walking across the hot, dry lands, through saltbush and snakeweed and desert sage, the tired travelers longed for the sight of a kiss tank, a pool of water left from the last rain and its runoff in a naturally formed rock basin. Ranchers call these pools of water kiss tanks because, when such a pool is found, all creatures of the desert, as well as cattle and horses and humans, put their dry lips and thirsty mouths to its water eagerly, with a kind of passion. And they rise refreshed. Such basins filled with the water from snowmelt can also be found in mountainous regions. A basin on top of the Maiden, a sandstone spire near Boulder, Colorado, for instance, contains freshwater shrimp that have evolved to survive the dry seasons. A kiss tank is also called a tinaja, which is Spanish for a big, earthen jar. Pattiann Rogers

looking-glass prairie

Nineteenth-century settlers were astounded by the grandeur of prairies on the western plains, particularly those christened looking-glass prairies for their elegant curving shapes and their surprising reflectivity. These gleaming prairie wetlands (circumnavigated by prairie schooners) -- great shallow basins of sedges, reflecting sky and landscape and nurturing fish, waterfowl, and other animals -- were initiated by glaciers retreating from the Central Lowlands, which stretch west from the Mississippi River across the Great Plains. The term is generic, although it can be specific, as in the 1829 third volume of Travels in North America, where B. Hall writes of one prairie that was "particularly beautiful of its kind, and named Looking Glass Prairie." Such prairies engender optical illusions and mystical revelations, and it’s worth noting that L. Frank Baum set his Oz books in the magical prairies of Kansas. But alas, most settlers considered looking-glass prairies useless impediments, and busily drained and plowed them. Donna Seaman

lover's leap

It is not known whether each of the sites listed under this name by the United States Geological Survey commemorates a tragic jump by one or more doomed lovers. But these fifty-two places hold enough topographical features in common to warrant a definition. Lover's leap is a colloquial term describing a landmark, typically a cliff or bluff, varying in height from fifty to two hundred feet, but usually possessing the following: a promontory where a troubled lover, or lovers, might contemplate a final act; a beautiful, often exceptional view; and a quota of free fall with necessary dramatic effect, often including a swirling lake or river below. There are eight lover’s leaps in Missouri and four in Texas. Mark Twain once wrote that there were at least fifty such high bluffs up and down the Mississippi River alone. Lan Samantha Chang


A midden is a mound, of varying size and composition, created by animals or human beings. The middens of desert wood rats (Neotoma lepida), also called pack rats, are often constructed around the base of prickly pear and cholla cactus, where they form virtually impregnable fortresses against predators. In addition to bones, fur, teeth, and other collected animal remains, their midden nests include twigs and hardy plant material, as well as found objects, from walnut shells to belt buckles. Some preserved pack-rat middens are large enough and old enough to contain many thousands of years of evolutionary history for a single species -- a meadow vole, say -- offering scientists an unprecedented record of how a species has changed and evolved, and how its evolution has been affected by climate change. Middens created by human beings comprise all the leftovers from village life -- worn out clothing, broken pots and tools, unrepairable toys. In Wind in the Rock, Ann Zwinger writes of an Anasazi midden at the base of Junction Ruin in Grand Gulch, Utah, that produced "pieces of corn cob, soft cotton string, shreds of bark (used for bedding and diapers), turkey feathers" used in making blankets and capes, and yucca fibers, for which the Anasazi had many uses. In her memoir Already Home, Barbara Gates painstakingly describes one of the more than 425 shell mounds found around the rim of San Francisco Bay, writing that these middens were composed mainly of charcoal, ash, and shells -- kitchen life. Terry Tempest Williams

pack ice

In winter, a quixotic carapace of drifting sea ice blankets millions of square miles of the polar ocean. Inupiaq Eskimo call the permanent part of the polar pack, consisting of both multiyear and annual pack ice, aakanga siku, "mother ice." The English-language term is meant to include, as well, the extensive fields of younger, mobile ice-of-the-year, the seasonal or annual ice that may stretch much farther to the south as winter settles in. During storms, pack ice cries out: grinding, screeching. Winds, tides, and currents mangle floes into pressure ridges or rip them apart to form temporary open water leads. When Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance became frozen in Antarctic pack in January 1915, the dynamic nature of the ice was made manifest in a ship that was first cemented, then splintered, and finally sunk in place, all while the pack traveled 670 miles in ten months, shuddering and groaning incessantly. In his famous poem, Coleridge depicts the fearful aspects of pack ice encountered by the Ancient Mariner: "The ice was here, the ice was there/The ice was all around:/It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/Like noises in a swound!" Ishmael, Moby-Dick's narrator, calls pack ice "a boundless church-yard grinning... with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses." Eskimos in Arctic Alaska hold quite a different view. For these native people, annual ice forming over the continental shelf equals life. In summer, melting pack ice releases freshwater and nutrients, helping spin a food web: algae, flagellates, zooplankton, fishes, mammals. Polar bears and many species of seal and whale are entirely dependent on pack ice for survival. When the pack drifts far to the north, Eskimo hunters scan the seaward horizon expectantly for its reflection in the sky -- ice blink -- a brightness in the clouds. In recent years, summer pack ice, reduced by global warming, remains farther offshore and less accessible to hunters. In this century, if current projections of continuous climate warming are correct, the shrinking ice pack will transform the Northwest Passage from occasional adventure to commonplace reality. Eva Saulitis


Pocket derives from pockete, an Anglo-French word that means "bag" and is related to the French poche and its diminutive pochette. As a landscape term it refers to a recess, cavity, crevice, hole, depression, pit, hollow, or glen. Miners describe small veins or lodes of ore as pockets. And there is pocket ice as well as pocket valleys, pocket beaches, and water pockets. The hidden, secluded, and secretive qualities attached to pocket make it seem a rare, intimate, and mysterious feature of the land or sea. Michael Collier


A revetment, or facing, protects an embankment against erosion. Revetment materials range from stone, concrete, and mixed rubble to dead trees and specialty fabrics known as revetment mattresses. Shoreline revetments may be used to check erosion on lakes and along coastlines. Stream revetments, also called riprap revetments, stabilize banks by reducing slumping and deflecting the channel away from the bank or slowing the stream’s velocity against it. On small streams, tree revetments -- cut trees laid against the bank -- offer a biological alternative to the once common D-Day-style rubble pile of broken concrete. Ellen Meloy


The word savanna entered New World English in the sixteenth century by way of the Spanish, who had taken it from a Caribe term for meadow. And the diverse savannas of North America -- whether pine savannas of the Southeast, oak savannas of the Midwest, ponderosa savannas of the Rockies, or juniper-pinon savannas of the Southwest -- are all grassy, meadowlike landscapes, intermediate between treeless plains and closed-canopy woodlands. The savanna overstory is broken, patchy. Trees cover only about a third of the land and grow singly or in copses. The understory is composed largely of tall grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. Historically, North American savannas were maintained by frequent fires, either naturally occurring or set by Native Americans to control undergrowth and encourage grassy openings to improve habitat for the grazing animals they hunted. But savanna ecosystems have become increasingly threatened and rare as a result of fire suppression and clearing for commercial pine plantations, agriculture, and development. In the Southeast, for example, almost nothing remains of the old-growth longleaf pine savannas that once dominated the landscape of the coastal plain. Charles Frazier

tide pool

When the tide retreats, it leaves seawater in intertidal rock hollows. Deeper bowls remain filled until high tide returns; leaky crevices, fissures, and shallow basins are temporary. Tide pools owe their ephemerality, pH, temperature, salinity, and species complement to depth, distance from low tide, height of tides and waves, wind and storms, and air temperature. Tide pools harbor high diversity and an abundance of plants and animals immune to dunking and drying, such as sea stars, anemones, urchins, limpets, barnacles, mussels, sponges, hydroids, and many algae. Animals that must remain wet, such as nudibranchs (sea slugs) and sculpins, use lower pools or go in and out with the tide. Few habitats more richly reward the careful watcher with color and riveting activity. In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson writes: "Tide pools contain mysterious worlds within their depths, where all the beauty of the sea is subtly suggested and portrayed in miniature." Robert Michael Pyle

Excerpted from Home Ground, edited by Barry Lopez. Copyright © 2006 by Trinity University Pre. Excerpted by permission of Trinity University Press, San Antonio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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