MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block with some terms you hardly hear anymore: bar ditch, drift fence, mud pot, scabland, rill, and trap rock.
Whether we know it or not, those words define specific parts of the American landscape. Now a groups of writers and poets is trying to save them from extinction. They've collected and defined several hundred of these fading terms in a new book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.
NPR's John Nielsen recently went in search of some of these rare words with one of the book's authors, the poet Michael Collier, of the University of Maryland.
Mr. MICHAEL COLLIER (Poet): Why don't we walk a little bit more and just see what happens.
Collier and I are lost in the swamp near Washington, D.C. We're looking for a kind of mud that used to have a special name, but right now we can't get through the cattails.
Mr. COLLIER: Well, I can see right over here that we're going to have trouble.
Oh, someone lost their sock.
Nielsen: When Collier was asked to write about this special kind of mud four years ago, his first thought was, why would I want to do that? But then he thought, why wouldn't I?
Mr. COLLIER: As a poet, I'm constantly thinking about etymologies and where language comes from, and how language is the DNA of the culture because it holds the past and it also leads into the future.
Nielsen: I'm still wondering about those socks as we crash out of those cattails, then the ground beneath my boots turns soft and weirdly bouncy. This is it, says Collier. This is the mud we were looking for.
Mr. COLLIER: See, look at that. See that's quaking a little bit.
Nielsen: The ground.
Mr. COLLIER: Yeah, the ground. You can see how it's trembling a little bit.
Nielsen: Swampy mud, that wobbles like a really dirty waterbed. Mud that used to have its own name.
Mr. COLLIER: A quag(kwog) or a quag(kwag).
Nielsen: What's a quag?
Mr. COLLIER: A quag is a marshy bit of ground that trembles underneath you as you walk on it.
Nielsen: Quag is the front half of a word that Collier defines in Home Ground. The back half is mire, which used to name a different kind of mud.
Mr. COLLIER: The mire is an impassable swamp or morass. So if this were a real mire, we would probably sink down into it.
Nielsen: Collier says nobody refers to a swamp as a quagmire anymore. Wars and bad relationships are quagmires now - but never swamps.
Mr. COLLIER: No. No, it's not used as a technical term for this kind of landscape. Quagmire is one of 20 nature terms defined by Collier in this book -832 other terms are defined by writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Jon Krakauer, and Barry Lopez.
Lopez, a well-known nature writer, is the man who launched this project. He says it started several years ago when he walked into a library in Colorado. He was there to doublecheck the meaning of the phrase blind creek, which happens to refer to creeks that flow beneath streambeds.
Mr. BARRY LOPEZ (Nature writer): And I looked around. I couldn't find anything. I got a reference librarian to help me. We couldn't find anything. And I quickly came to the conclusion that there was no such definition.
Nielsen: That got Lopez wondering.
Mr. LOPEZ: How big is this hole? How big a missing piece is here?
Nielsen: Lopez started finding other landscape terms that had fallen out of common usage: pingo, hog-nosed scarp, and cow belly to name a few. He also collected words that were no longer tied to natural things. For example, glen, heights, bluff, and dale are now the names of suburbs, and glade is a trademarked brand of air freshener.
Add them up, and these changes become alarming, he says.
Mr. LOPEZ: To not be able to speak definitively and evocatively about your relationship to your place is potentially a grievous loss.
Nielsen: These are words that everyone should care about, according to Lopez. First of all, once a place has lost its name, it's hard to save it.
Mr. LOPEZ: City commissioners and county boards and zoning officials are talking about this all the time. What is the disposition of this piece of land? Does it have a character? And then, what are we going to do as a community about preserving or developing this place?
Nielsen: Lopez hopes Home Ground will revive some powerful and evocative landscape terms, words like barranca, which is defined in the book as a cliff that runs like a scar along the edge of a river. Or Nabatean(ph) hollow which is defined as a rocky valley trail where boots go to die.
The poet Michael Collier says he spent three years polishing his 20 definitions. He says his favorite is the one that brought us into the middle of this quagmire.
Mr. COLLIER: Related meanings for quag are soft and fleshy. For mire, they are mucky, muddy, slimy, oozy, sloppy, and slushy. You want more?
Nielsen: Collier, like Barry Lopez, thinks Home Ground could help restore some lost words to the language, but he also admits that there's no hope for words like quag and mire anymore. Nowadays, it's all just mud.
John Nielsen, NPR News.