Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 36° 7’0.11″N 112°13’48.31″W Elevation 821 meters.
Ever hear the word “fretwater”? Know what it means?
It doesn’t have to do with playing guitars. It’s a term I learned last week while doing some background research for an article on the Grand Canyon. Fretwater Press is the name of eminent Grand Canyon historian Brad Dimock’s publishing company based in Flagstaff, Arizona. But it’s something else too.
According to Dimock, fretwater is a term coined by John Wesley Powell and his crew during Powell’s second descent down and the Green and Colorado River in 1871. The men named one of the rapids in Desolation Canyon, Fretwater Falls, a testament to the tumultuous, fretting nature of the water. On his website, fretwater.com, Dimock writes;
“Powell’s men could have saved a day of toil, trouble, and abuse, by just floating down the middle of this insignificant riffle. Fretwater seems to signify fretting and stewing over something entirely trivial, as we so often do in life. We’d all be better off damning the torpedos and flying right down the middle, full speed ahead.”
If you’re interested in more of Brad’s writing, books and progress on his boat building projects, check out his blog, Fretwater Lines (http://fretwaterlines.blogspot.com/)
Along these lines, one of my favorite books is Homeground edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It’s a 449-page dictionary of the American landscape detailing lesser-known words for describing features of the natural world. The entries are not standard Merriam-Webster entries, but instead short essays scribed by writers that bring the word alive through experience and history.
The notion that Eskimos have dozens of different words to describe ice and snow is often quoted. Well, there are dozens of words for creek, forest, hill and mountain too—but we’ve mostly forgotten them, relying on a few over-used terms to describe things that are actually very different.
As someone that loves the challenge of trying to convey the power of a landscape to others, I felt like I’d found a treasure when I’d happened upon Homeground five years ago. It echoed of an era when more attention was paid to the land, and the nuanced differences between features were celebrated.
I especially loved the regional terms—a detail that can bring a deeper sense of place to a description. In a time when localism and globalism duke it out, utilizing region-specific terms for the land, seems like an important yet underutilized way to uphold local traditions and identity.
Finally, specific words paint a more accurate picture. You’d never call a river a rivulet; why would you call a tuckamore a krummholz? Only problem is we just have to remember (or relearn) what those two words means.
Here are a few of my favorites from Homeground:
In the Dutch language, kill, is used to describe streams and river channels, and is literally translated into English as brook. So it is not surprising to find the term commonly applied to parts of the American East originally settled by the Dutch. On maps of the upper Hudson Valley and the Delaware Valley one can find landforms, rivers and towns containing the word—the Catskill (Cats Creek) Mountains of southeast New York State, and the mighty Schuylkill River (or “Hidden Channel River”) that flows through Philadelphia. Although the Dutch also settled the lower Hudson Valley, kill is not widely used there, perhaps because the Dutch culture was subsumed after 1664 when the English captured the colony of New Netherland and renamed it New York. Elsewhere on the continent, landforms and communities are named for the act that involves the taking of a life. A mountain in North Dakota, once known by a Sioux phrase, Tah-kah-p-kuty, “the place where they kill the deer,” is now simply Killdeer Mountain. –Jan DeBlieu (page 200)
In the northeastern United States, lumbermen called the stagnant backwaters of lakes and rivers pokelogans. Th word appears to be cognate with pocosin. The root sense may have meant something like “land covered with shallow water,” but whereas a pokelogan is always a part of a larger body of water, a pocosin is landlocked. Thoreau heard the term on his first trip to Maine from George McCauslin, a log driver on the Penobscot River: “Now and then we passed what McCauslin called a pokelogan, an Indian term for what the drivers might have reason to call a poke-log-in, an inlet that leads nowhere.” Such places as Pocasset, a village on Cape Cod, are etymological cousins, at a greater or lesser remove, of pocosin and pokelogan, according to William Tooker, writing in an 1899 edition of American Anthropologist. Did the Euro-American settlers realize that they were naming their community something like Backwater or Large Puddle?
-Franklin Burroughs (p. 275)
The beaver meadow is considered by many to be the most valuable of all meadow types. Where waterways—creeks, streams or rivers—are blocked or slowed by beaver structures, a creeping wetland is created. In addition to the myriad species that thrive in such a locale, the wetland acts as enormous biological filters. Beaver-created wetlands not only cleanse the water, but in detaining it permit the percolation of that water to the layer that holds groundwater. When a given dam is abandoned—the beaver having eaten their way through he softwood trees (aspen cottonwood willow) and moved on—the land will quickly revert to forest but with a revitalized soil base. Such is the case with western New York’s Beaver Meadow Creek Park, as well as Beaver Meadow Falls near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. The value of a beaver-created meadow was recognized by explorer Antonio Armijo in 1892. When he came upon a rich mosaic of springs, mesquite and grass meadows as well as an abundant population of beaver in what is now southern Nevada, he named the place “Las Vegas,” meaning “the meadows”—beaver meadows in this case. At that time millions of beaver populated the continental United States. In fact they are second only to humans in terms of the role they’ve played in shaping the American landscape. –Antonya Nelson (p. 31)