06 August 2009

A seamless web of green: The Shallow Water Dictionary

It’s one of those blissful quiet mornings... foggy but no wind, computer but no Internet service... forest but no forest fire.

Ensconced in this blissful quiet space, I picked out a small but lovely book from my favorite bookshelf (favorite bookshelf: the one I can reach from where I’m sitting) and rediscovered a small gem:: “Shallow Water Dictionary” by scholar and Harvard professor in the History of Landscape, John R. Stilgoe.

Professor in the History of Landscape. I wonder how many students aspire to that particular discipline?

This book immediately puts you in the mood to drop oars into shallow water, and manoeuver among the salty dunes of New England. The subtitle of “Shallow Water Dictionary” is “A Grounding in Estuary English.” Stilgoe uses words and the history of words to paint a poetical picture of the coastside transitional lands he clearly loves.

He begins, “In the shallows the oarsman pulls precisely, for in the shallows, a wrong stroke or two, a slight falling off before the wind, means a gentle grounding in clean white sand or grayish-black mud. Navigating the shoals and sandbars and negotiating the creeks meandering through almost limitless salt marsh require continuous picking along, constant choosing, countless corrections of course.”

It soon becomes apparent that the author is using precise nautical terms and their etymology in order to approach a visual description of a very particular landscape. He aims to renew local language and understand the environment by careful attention to how it is named.

Reading Stilcoe is refreshing and reassuring. Refreshing because very few writers paint as well, and reassuring because his brief essay is connected to eons of coastal seafaring and coastal lore.

Another way to say it: It’s as if Henry Thoreau wrote a dictionary.

Stilcoe continues, “Where the rower... meets no other humans, language might be as unimportant as watches or clothes or credit cards. But the rower... intends a book, a landscape history of the realm of estuary and marsh, and pulls as an explorer, as a chronicler... Oriented toward the visual, he still needs to write, and in writing wonders about the quiet, almost mute vocabulary of his neighborhood, his environs. He wonders as he pulls along the creeks. In the quiet, the old language barely whispers.”

He goes on to define “creek” and brackish, seaward, seamarks, skiff, skeg, and many more resonant terms, all the while conveying the majesty of a land that stretches from Maine to Cape Fear in North Carolina.

The entire book might take you an hour to read, but you will savor it much longer than that. It’s a small dark blue hardcover published by Princeton Architectural Press without jacket, and it comes with a ribbon to mark your place. It’s a gift book without any of the dazzle associated with pop culture.

The “Shallow Water Dictionary” is a quiet contribution to deeper understanding. It will put you in the mood to launch your skiff into shallow waters, and go exploring yourself in the landscape of sights, sounds, and words.


“Shallow Water Dictionary” by John R. Stilgoe. Princeton Architectural Press hard cover $14.95. ISBN 1568984081. Currently in print, but difficult to obtain. There are used copies out there for sale, too.

Other titles by John R. Stilgoe: Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape; Landscape and Images; Lifeboat; Outside Lies Magic: Discovering History and Inspiration in Ordinary Places; Alongshore; Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939; Metropolitan Corridor : Railroads and the American Scene; Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845.

His web site: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~stilgoe/index.html

"Yet the marshes are almost invariably deserted, at least away from the major channels. People tend to find them uninteresting, not variegated enough, monotonous, boring, although finding out what such people think, when such people avoid the marshes, proves a little difficult. Exploring in what is at first glance a seamless web of green undoubtedly pales besides roaring about the open ocean in an engine boat..."

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