Desert words I want

This week The Guardian published perhaps the finest piece of writing I’ve ever seen in its pages, and it has gotten me thinking.

The article, by British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, comes as a sort of prologue to his book Landmarks, due out next week. The book and the article in The Guardian discuss our increasing loss of a vocabulary befitting the landscapes in which we live.

There’s a paragraph in Macfarlane’s Guardian piece that’s gotten a lot of attention, fittingly enough as it’s the springboard from which the rest of his essay sproings. That passage concerns a revision in 2007 to the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

If I can’t spend my childhood having acorns and conkers be relevant to me, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. Still, Macfarlane notes, the 2007 revisions to the OJD are just the culmination, reductio ad absurdum style, of cultural trends outside Oxford University Press. Macfarlane has spent a lifetime collecting odd regional words used throughout the British Isles to describe natural phenomena, and the 2007 deletions from the OJD spurred him to formalize his hobby.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. 

The rest of the article is a delight, and it’s a longish read by the standards of The Guardian. Macfarlane trots out a vocabulary of words used in a number of British Isles dialects that seem archaic and yet far from obsolete:

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.… On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. 

And my own personal favorite:

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Important, that detail: without a word for a thing, our chances of noticing the thing when we see it are diminished.

I never pass up the chance to use the word “autochthonous” in a sentence, and that’s what the lexicon Macfarlane has curated is: a collection of words that emerged out of the very soil of the countryside.

And of course there’s a problem for us American nature writers, bound as we are to the traditions our nation’s dominant cultural whatchamacallits have attempted to import wholesale from the British Isles. American natural history writers owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Brit forebears, the Gilbert Whites and Strata Smiths and Chuck Darwins, without whom we might not have had a genre at all. But the natural history of Great Britain bears only a passing resemblance to that of eastern North America, and both of those two exotic and unusual places share little but carbon-based life forms with the Mojave Desert.

We in the Mojave may cross swords rather often, but we rarely cross swards. The autochthonous vocabulary of fen and moor and marsh does not, in general, apply to us, despite some of the vocabulary of river people like the Aha Macav, lately known as the Mojave. (The Mojave phrase ‘a’ii hana’e, “wood that has been in water a long time,” makes sense coming from a riverbank language, even in the desert.)

There are words that have sprung organically from the North American deserts, though many of them are loan words. Likely the best known in this age when Burners run the world is “playa,” Spanish for “beach,” used to describe dry lakes — though salina is better used for those dry lakes made more of salt than dust.

The jargon of geology has permeated modern desert language. When rocky detritus builds up a pediment at the mouth of a mountain canyon, it forms an alluvial fan; when a number of alluvial fans merge at their margins, they become a bajada: an apron (the literal translation from Spanish) girdling the mountain.

(In case you’re starting to think all the loan words come from Spanish: when a bajada envelops an isolated prominence of the local mountain range so that it appears to be an island mountain disconnected from its parent range, it’s called an inselberg: German for “island mountain.”)

In the desert we have rivers of sand that flow under the force of wind, and they create a unique and dynamic kind of habitat that’s crucial to animals like a few species of fringe-toed lizards. It’s called blowsand habitat.

Sometimes rainstorms head in from the coast, or from the Sea of Cortez, and they shed precipitation that doesn’t reach the ground, sublimed instead into the greedy desiccated air. Such a rain is called virga, and it frustrates those of us who live below.

And as I mention above, there are whole libraries of words in disappearing languages spoken by those who lived here for millennia, whose languages and lives hang on by the slenderest of reeds. Another Mojave phrase: ‘amat iimiith, the fine, hairlike tendrils of grass or moss that grow suddenly in wet places after a desert rain. The Chemehuevi call the beans in mesquite pods opa, the berries of Rhus trilobata “hu’upi,” and an abandoned settlement ka’nip, all of them perfectly useful words, the last especially in today’s Mojave Desert.

I’m no expert on the lexicons of languages I don’t actually speak, but I do know that there are some words desert English lacks.

That Exmoorian “zwer” works as well for a covey of Gambel’s quail taking wing as it does for Devonian partridges, so that’s covered. But I want a word for that season in which those Gambel’s coveys dissolve into mated pairs, the formerly cooperative males suddenly regarding one another with something like suspicion. That season would roughly correspond to summer, but longer, beginning with spring nesting and mating, ending when the baby quail no longer require their parents’ solicitude.

I want a word for the ring of chaff surrounding the hills of the Mojave’s ubiquitous small red and black ants, created when each hill’s workers take the seeds they’ve gleaned from the surrounding desert and husk them, then carry the inedible seed coats only as far as they have to from the nest.

I want another word for the circle of bloom that bursts forth when the flower seeds those ants accidentally discarded with the chaff get enough water to germinate.

A word for three days after a rain, and the difference in color of the desert soil at the surface and just below the surface.

I want a word for the scent of rain a dozen miles away, and another for the sight of storm clouds on the hundred-miles distant horizon.

I want a human word for that coyote word that is neither bark nor howl, but something unresolvably between. I want words to distinguish the group howl from the solitary, the tentative yip from the full-throated song of the successful rabbit hunt.

There ought to be a word to describe the islands, raised up a foot from the sea of surrounding desert, buttressed with ancient roots and well-fed with resinated humus, that surround every single creosote bush in the desert.

I want a word for the spiny gloriole of backlit cholla. I want a word for the tracks of Pinacate beetles, fearlessly straight across a desert full of beetle-eaters.

I want a word for the earth’s shadow in the sky on a summer sunset evening, that terminator between pink and indigo, and the knowledge in the gathering chill that tomorrow’s sun will be every bit as hot.


10 thoughts on “Desert words I want

  1. Karen

    Thank you for this. As a fan of nature writing, I want these words, too. Are writers like Edwin Way Teale now obsolete or just a curiosity?

  2. guestnic

    A great essay, Chris. I assume there are Inuit words for most of the natural phenomena we experience up here, but I certainly don’t know them. The gradual impoverishment of English seems to come partly from disuse, partly from ignorance and lack of reading, and a lot from the deliberate simplifications and dumbing-down that have happened during our own lifetimes. We talk about the tragedy of extinction of species, but the disappearance of words and diminishment of language is a kind of extinction too, and happens very silently.

  3. Khadija Anderson

    Hi Chris, Dave Bonta said I should look you up and the first thing I see is your piece about the remarkable article I read yesterday from Macfarlane. I say you should go ahead and make up those words yourself!!

  4. Fremen Akela

    “I want a word for the earth’s shadow in the sky on a summer sunset evening, that terminator between pink and indigo…”

    I call that “nightrise.” That is, after all, what it is – the night visible coming in from far away at sunset.

  5. crusher

    “There ought to be a word to describe the islands, raised up a foot from the sea of surrounding desert, buttressed with ancient roots and well-fed with resinated humus, that surround every single creosote bush in the desert.”


  6. Raskos

    “Nightrise” has a rign to it, but the phenomenon already has a name – the Belt of Venus (or Venus’s Girdle if you don’t worry about ctenophores). It appears just after sunset and just before sunrise.
    I was just thinking about something along the lines that this essay is concerned with. I recently read Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a novel about a Dark Age British saint, and it reminded me of something that I’ve noticed before with good British historical fiction – the descriptions of the natural world, never far from the author’s focus, and the more evocative because, as is noted here, the indigenous vocabulary is frequently deployed. Makes sense, when writing about people who spent large amounts of their lives out of doors, and for whom the wilderness was generally not far away. But British novelists of the early decades of the last century had this tendency as well, despite the predominantly urban nature of life in the UK over the past couple of hundred years.

  7. Erika

    A gorgeous piece of writing!!

    I spent significant time working in Death Valley while in grad school, and the best days were the one where we were back at camp in time to watch the Black Mountains consume themselves with fire, a phenomenon I learned was called alpenglow. When I had a word for it I could tell others about it, and the shared joy was immense.