backland

The word backland commonly refers to an area remote from centers of population, and is interchangeable with hinterland or backcountry. In farming regions backland is the acreage far from the road or farmhouse. In parts of the Deep South the word has a special sense, referring to the zone of a floodplain separated from the river by a natural levee (a barrier of soil deposited over the centuries by the swollen river) and therefore sheltered from flooding. Backland in the Deep South is useful for cultivation, especially in dry years and for crops such as corn that thrive in moist soil near a river. Farther back from the levee, but still on the floodplain, is low ground known, particularly in reference to the Mississippi River, as back swamp. It is interesting that while we often hear the word backland, we rarely hear someone talk about front land, suggesting that land in the foreground doesn’t need an adjective. The distinction is almost always with land lying farther away, beyond. Where we live, where we stand, the foreground, is just land; it is the place beyond that is backward. John McPhee alludes to the social prejudice in The Pine Barrens, writing: “A surprising number of people in New Jersey today seem to think that the Pine Barrens are dark backlands inhabited by hostile and semi-literate people who would as soon shoot an outsider as look at him.”

Robert Morgan