Letting the land tell us her name

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In late May 2017 on my first visit with my real estate agent to what is now my home, we both noticed an unrecognizable sound below the property, which sits on a mountain ridge.

It had that low hum of muffled freeway traffic, but there are no freeways out here on the edge of the wilderness. It didn’t sound like water, the more likely explanation. “What is that noise?” I wrote in my journal. 

Even though I had looked at the satellite view of my acreage on Google Maps, I didn’t fully comprehend the property I was buying until five months later in early December after the leaves had fallen. 

Silly city girl

When I looked out my living room window on a Saturday morning without the leaf canopy obstructing the near-distance view, I was shocked to see the steep drop to the creek below. 

When I mentioned it to a long-time resident and hiker at the community Christmas party that evening he mused, “Yeah, it’s about 800-1,000 feet to the creek there. It’s kind of hard to see how deep the gorge is from our side.” 

“You mean I live above a gorge?” I blurted out. “You didn’t know that?” he asked dryly. 

Renaming – and erasing – based on whim and religion

That mystery sound, dimly heard during a prolonged dry spell, is a waterfall in the gorge below, one of four on this section of Toxaway Creek on its way to man-made Lake Jocassee. Its roar is unmistakable after our frequent heavy rains. 

Unimaginatively renamed First Falls is the shortest of the four, maybe around 20 feet tall, but wide.

I’ve tried in vain to find a trail down to it from my house, but have only managed to get close enough to feel the mist above the falls through the dense undergrowth. Locals say a moonshiner sampling his product on one of the feeder streams fell to his death above the falls. 

I’ve hiked to Second and Third Falls on the neighboring camp’s trails. Both waterfalls are spectacular double falls that rival popular waterfalls in the county’s state and national parks. I haven’t made it yet to Fourth Falls, which requires ropes to assist the steep vertical descent. 

Letting the land tell us her name

The constant background hum of First Falls rises and falls with the weather and follows me everywhere on my six acres. It’s like an audio compass I use to get my bearings. It’s also the reason I’ve finally decided on a name for my haven in the forest: Undersong.

I discovered undersong in “Landmarks” by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane calls the book a “word-hoard” of the astonishing variety of minutely descriptive and nuanced words for every element of landscape in Britain and Ireland. It includes nine glossaries of thousands of words from dozens of languages and dialects for specific aspects of landscape, Nature and weather.

It took Macfarlane years to collect the words for this book.

Why bother? 

Humanity has lived closer to the land longer than we’ve lived indoors fixated on screens. Most of our place-based history has been passed down orally, rather than in writing. That history and deep connection with the land is being lost with the collective shift of priorities to technology in the 1950s, which is simultaneously dulling the richness and specificity of our language.

Language death means the loss of long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia…accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge mostly unrecoverable.” Ethno linguist K. David Harrison in “Landmarks”

We’ve become blasé about place, “indifferent to the distinction between things,” Macfarlane says, citing a 1903 essay from Georg Simmel. 

The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. – Robert Macfarlane

“Landmarks” is such an intense, densely fascinating book I could quote it endlessly. Instead, here a few random, magic words from the glossaries:

  • Acker: ripple on the surface of the water (North Sea Coast)
  • Cramble: boughs or branches of crooked and angular growth, used for craft or firewood (Yorkshire)
  • Pertbog: abounding in bushes or thickets (Welsh)
  • Barber: freezing coastal mist in calm frosty weather (Scots)
  • Fuzzicky: of land: spongy (Cheshire)
  • Scunge: to explore or wander about the countryside (North Ireland)

I’m determined to find or bushwhack a trail down to the falls. Who knows, maybe I’ll find the remains of the moonshiner’s still while I scunge. 

I wonder what those rusty relics are called in Southern Appalachian dialect?

Now, go wander outside!



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3 Resources for You

Links to Amazon books are affiliate links.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane | Besides being a visual and intellectual delight for those of us entranced with words, this book is full of stories and other writers who collect place-name words.

Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney | I have this one on my “on deck” bookshelf,  after Macfarlane discussed it. 

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso | Added this one to my Amazon wish list. 

2 Questions for You

Reflections, questions and ideas to break the digital spell.

1st Q: Any regionally specific landscape or weather terms where you live?

2nd Q: Some of the terms in Macfarlane’s book are from poets. Who are your favorite Nature poets (besides the wonderful Mary Oliver)?

Hit reply and let me know what you discovered this week. I’ll use some of your feedback in next week’s newsletter (first name only.)

1 Action for You

One small step to start the change.

Have some fun: Notice one interesting and specific aspect of Nature or the weather this week and see if you can come up with your own word for it.

Hit reply, let me know how it goes and I’ll include feedback in next week’s newsletter.

Nature View

Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it. The contours and colours of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others and to places. – Robert Macfarlane

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