Some years ago I walked into the office of a man named Jim Kari, at the time the director of the Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, and was brought up short by a striking contrast posted on his wall. Arranged side by side above his desk were a pair of identical United States Geological Survey maps showing the topography of a section of south-central Alaska's Susitna Valley. The map on the left bristled with more than a hundred colored pushpins, each bearing a tiny paper flag with a Deni‘ina place-name on it, the Athabaskan language spoken by the indigenous people still living there. Fewer than a dozen names appeared in English on the right, neatly printed on the quadrangle as an official part of the map.
Mr. Kari's point, that a region hardly known to its relatively new landlords is, in fact, minutely and extensively known to its long-term residents, dramatizes a truism about belonging, about intimacy with a place. The deeper point made on me by Mr. Kari's maps that morning is that the English words on them were arbitrarily chosen, little more than points of orientation. The Deni‘ina words, which Mr. Kari had gathered during his years of hiking the Susitna River drainage and interviewing resident people, had grown up over many centuries, out of the natural convergence of human culture with a particular place.
Mr. Kari's declaration, about arbitrary imposition and real authority, given a much larger frame of reference, amounts to an observation about modern loss and belonging which many of us can identify with. Some of us in the United States can trace our family lines back many generations to, say, the Green Mountains of western Vermont, the urban hills of the San Francisco peninsula, or the sandhills of western Nebraska; to small towns along the Mississippi River or a red-earth farm in Alabama. Many of us have come from ranching, farming, or logging families, and might have listened with a measure of envy while a grandparent spoke of these places of origin, using a language so suited to the place being described it fit against it like another kind of air. A language capable of conveying the most evanescent of the place's characteristics.
Today, the majority of us raise our families, go to school, find employment, and locate much of our inspiration in urban areas. The land beyond our towns, for many, has become a generalized landscape of hills and valleys, of beaches, rivers, and monotonous deserts. Almost against our wills the countrysides of our parents' and grandparents' generations - the Salinas Valley we might have once pictured reading John Steinbeck, images of Sarah Orne Jewett's Maine or the barefoot country of Eudora Welty's stories, of Willa Cather's Nebraska and New Mexico - almost without our knowing it, the particulars of these landscapes have slipped away from us. Asked, we might still conjure them, but we probably could no longer still name the elements that make them vivid in our memories.
It has become a commonplace observation about American culture that we are a people groping for a renewed sense of place and community, that we want to be more meaningfully committed, less isolated. Many of us have come to wonder whether modern American life, with its accelerated daily demands and its polarizing choices, isn't indirectly undermining something foundational, something essential to our lives. We joke that one shopping mall looks just like another, that a housing development on the outskirts of Denver feels no different to us than a housing development outside Kansas City, but we are not always amused by such observations. No more than we are amused when someone from the rural countryside implies that his life is spiritually richer than ours because the place we've chosen to live is Park Slope in Brooklyn or the South Side of Chicago.
What many of us are hopeful of now, it seems, is being able to gain - or regain - a sense of allegiance with our chosen places, and along with that a sense of affirmation with our neighbors that the place we've chosen is beautiful, subtle, profound, worthy of our lives.
It is with these thoughts, about the importance of belonging, of knowing the comfort that a feeling of intimate association with a place can bring, that we began work on Home Ground. We wanted to recall and to explore a language more widespread today than most of us imagine, because we believed an acquaintance with it, using it to say more clearly and precisely what we mean, would bring us a certain kind of relief. It would draw us closer to the landscapes upon which we originally and hopefully founded our democratic arrangement for governing ourselves, our systems of social organization, and our enterprise in economics. If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better.