“The American land preceded hate,” writes Lauret Savoy. Growing up an American of mixed heritage, she reflects, “My child-sense of its antiquity became as much a refuge as any place, whether the Devil’s Punchbowl or a canyon called Grand.” Within that refuge of ancient earth, she began her career, conducting graduate research into Rocky Mountain sedimentology as she earned a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from Syracuse University.
Savoy is now Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. But her work is no longer a refuge: “As an Earth historian, I once sought the relics of deep time. To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness.” And so she has in her new book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015). Earning her comparisons to John McPhee and James Baldwin, it has won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was shortlisted for the PEN Open Book Award, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Edge Effects editor Carl Sack had the chance to sit down with Savoy to discuss her path to Trace and where she is headed next.
Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Lauret Savoy: I’ve always been interested in the stories we tell of the land. And the stories we tell of ourselves in the land. And I learned at an early age that, unlike people, the land itself doesn’t hate, people do. And because of experiences that I had as a child—very damaging ones—I sought refuge in nature, in the land. And I originally wanted to be a writer and an artist, but all around writing about earth, images about earth—photography, painting, sculpture using earth materials. And then I switched more to history because I wanted to know more about how people lived on the land. But where I went to college I wasn’t really encouraged in those endeavors, and I finally picked geology because I wanted to study the science that understands not only how the land came to be but what earth materials are and [their] history through time. And so that’s really how I came to it.
But, if I could add one other thing…I loved watching old movies on television [and] there’s a movie called The Long, Long Trailer that stars Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz. It’s a story of two newlyweds, and she convinces him that they should take their honeymoon in a long trailer. So they buy a trailer and everyplace they go, from national parks to just beautiful places in the country, she picks up a rock. And she doesn’t pick up a fist-sized rock, she picks up a boulder. And so the trailer gets full of boulders and then they have to climb this steep pass, and he tells her they have to get rid of the boulders. But Lucy being Lucy doesn’t. She hides them. And I won’t tell you what happens because it’s a hilarious movie that follows very much in the vein of their T.V. show, I Love Lucy. But those rocks in Lucy’s trailer also helped me pick geology.
CS: That’s a great story. So how did you get from geology to writing this book?
LS: It [was] returning to my original interests—and I don’t mean intellectual interests so much as heart interests, what really was inside me and what had to come out. It’s what I always wanted to do. That it’s come out so many years after I began to really look at this is, for me, a little bit sad. But maybe these life experiences were needed in order to come back to it.
But really, I would say, it’s because I always defined geology as not only understanding earth but understanding our place on earth. It’s a sense of place writ large—not only a sense of where you are but a sense of where you are through time. And because I grew up in a family, an African-American family of mixed heritage, that for whatever reason did not speak of its past, I grew up not knowing who I was or where I was. And this book was my coming back to that journey, that literal journey of trying to place myself in time and space.
CS: Can you talk a little more about how a sense of place informs your work and what places you feel most affinity for?
LS: I have long felt displaced, unplaced, untethered, homeless. And it’s really a feeling of not having a sense of who I am as a citizen of this country or as an inhabitant of this world. I really had no sense of direction—literally. So, for me, place is a way of coming back home, situating myself and placing myself in the context of not only family, not only geography—that is, specific places in this country or on this continent—but also in the context of this country’s history. For me, a sense of place means coming back to all of those.
There are very particular places in this land that have touched me for many different reasons. I was born in California [and] always considered that home, even though we left there when I was seven years old, after those early years when a child’s sense of taking in the world about her had been set. The impressions and the light of California, the texture of the land, that became the home textures. That’s how I measured myself in the world. But that California doesn’t exists anymore. It’s decades past. And the people who were part of that sense of place are gone, too.
CS: You describe some childhood experiences in the book that are incredibly painful [and] you also talk about the history of slavery in many of the places you visit. Do you see those two things as related?
LS: Part of what I said earlier about placing myself in time and space also means understanding how this country’s still unfolding history has marked me as a person—not only me, but society and the land itself. Understanding my situation in this country requires understanding all of that. Slavery is a big part of it. My visit to that South Carolina plantation called Walnut Grove—if I could just describe it really briefly: It is a site that is on the national historic register. It’s a plantation that was established in the 1760s, and it later grew to become a very large cotton plantation, through the 1800s, through the Civil War. But the tour there doesn’t speak of any of that. The tour speaks of the Revolutionary War, the heroes there; it speaks of the objects in the house, a very well kept house; but it never spoke of those who worked the land to make that house prosper, or to make the people who owned it prosper.
After taking the tour, my friend and I walked along the path to go see the cemetery, and we saw these beautifully cut marble headstones and footstones for the family members there dating from the late 1700s into the 1800s. And I always like to look at the inscriptions on tombstones—the names, the dates—and to imagine what those people’s lives were like between the time of birth and the time of death. But after leaving, we walked back through the woods and we noticed there were these fist-sized stones, one by one into the poison ivy, the vinca, into the underbrush, and ultimately [we] could count [more than] a hundred of them. And those were the markers of graves of people who did work the land but who had no voice at all in the public story.
So, for me, recognizing this unvoiced past—finding voice, giving voice to it—is a way of recognizing how the legacy of that past lives on today, because silences which may have existed then are perpetuated even today—silences that contributed to my sense of not knowing who I was and where I was. It wasn’t just familial silences that impacted me, but those of popular culture, media, what I learned in school. Even though I have no family members buried in that plantation or in those graves, I do have family members buried elsewhere who are lost in time, whom I will never know about, as well as family members who owned the land, who owned the people. And trying to reconcile this is very important to me.
CS: You have a great description of Erwin Raisz’s North American landforms map in the book. What roles do maps play in shaping how you see the landscape?
LS: I have a troubled relationship with maps. When I consider some historical maps—some maps, let’s say, from early European explorers of the land, of the American land, this continent—I can see how naming and mapping were tools of claiming and possessing. And in order to do so, so much of indigenous people’s knowledge was appropriated [and] the land itself was taken—almost a sense of a European-washing, or a white-washing, over what existed. So maps as a tool of power, of possession, claiming—that is a difficult aspect that I do address in the book.
And at the same time [Raisz’s] map in particular is a map of texture and beauty to me. I was given this copy in my senior class in geomorphology at Princeton University by Professor Sheldon Judson, an extraordinary geomorphologist. And I’ve taken this map on every single journey I’ve taken across this county. Not just across the whole country, but let’s say going from New York to D.C., anywhere—flying, train, car, busses—because I like to read the land, and his drawings, his texture, his hachure, his shadows. The lines here are lines of land, of landform, of elevation, of plains, of broad rivers coalescing, of the life of the American continent. This map is a gift. And I would recommend it to anyone who likes to fly across the country and look out the window. Bring a copy of this map with you. Even in the mid-continent, you can find exactly where you are by reading Erwin Raisz’s map.
CS: Can you talk a little bit about your time on Madeline Island? That was an interesting part of the book to me because it didn’t seem directly connected to your personal history [and] genealogy, but yet became an important part of the story for you. Why did you go to Madeline Island and what did you find there?
LS: I went there to open my father’s box, a box that I had found in recent years. My father died when I was sixteen years old, and he was at that point a man with whom [I] had a strained relationship, as a teenager might with a parent. But I found a box that had materials in it, including novel manuscripts and so much more that offered the life of a person whom I never really knew, because when I came along he wasn’t a writer.
So I needed to be in a place that was removed from all distractions, and a friend gave me the chance to use her cottage on the north shore of Madeline Island. So I went there to open the box. And I went there thinking because I had never been to northern Wisconsin, I’d never been to the Apostle Islands, that nothing about that place connected to me. I was going to be a visitor to a new setting. But in my time there I came to realize that that land and the history of that land touched me from my childhood on up and I actually believe that it may be impossible to be a stranger to any place, even though you may not set foot there. I learned from Gerald Vizenor, an Anishinaabe elder, writer, scholar—thinker of the highest order—about survivance and the traditions of his people on that island, which [was] called a different name by the Anishinaabe.
And I also learned that Henry Roe Schoolcraft came there as part of expeditions searching for the lay of the land, as far as native peoples, but also the lay of the land as far as the possibility of mineral resources. While there he married the daughter of a trader and an Anishinaabe woman and then extracted or appropriated many indigenous stories that he then presented as being authentic Indian stories, taking them out of context and reproducing them in static form and claiming it was an authentic American literature.
Schoolcraft was someone whom I idolized in fifth grade, whom I thought was a hero. This intrepid explorer, he found the source of the Mississippi River, he was an Indian scholar, he was the first real ethnolographer in this country. [I] realize[d] that this hero [who] was presented to me in that form as a child actually had a much darker side, and then [found out] that that the treaty of dispossession of the Anishinaabe, largely driven by the search for minerals, was implicated, or tied to, the development of geology as a field because the search for iron and other materials funded, or fueled, geologic exploration.
And so from this “Indian” explorer whom I was really taken by to finding out that the career that I had picked was very much implicated in the dispossession of native people and not knowing or even thinking about any of this until I was in that place. It just helped me recognize how colonized my education was.
CS: You ask at the beginning of the book, “From what do we take our origin?” The rest of the book really seeks to answer that question. Did you come to any satisfactory answers?
LS: I came to a beginning. A beginning of understanding. A beginning to understanding why silence existed in my family. A beginning to understanding my position—that is, in time and space. I think if anything it has opened up more questions. What I’ve tried to offer in Trace are some examples of how the unvoiced past continues in the present and how this unvoiced past has touched me and the land.
But what it’s also pushed me to do (and I do mean pushed—I have no choice) is to dive in more deeply on one particular topic: to search for familial origins in a place where I now realize there’s a history extending back to at least the early 1700s, in the Chesapeake landscape. It’s not so much expanding the last chapter in the book, but entering it as in excavating strata—deeply, bit by bit—to really come to a sense of origins. This would be understanding my father’s people. A family of mixed heritage—African, of course, but also indigenous, and also primarily English, as well as Irish—and a history of these peoples coming together from colonial era to later in the Chesapeake area and what their coming together meant as far as their literally becoming a family, but also their lives on the land and how that landscape changed. Another way to put it is it’s a parallel story about the changing landscape there over time—and that is a history of the land, human history as well as before—but also seen through the eyes of an African-American family of mixed heritage and what that history, and what that land meant to them.
That’s what Trace is leading me to, and I think (as I said before) it’s an opening, it’s a beginning, and I think it will lead to many other things. For example, the next book project. I noted that I found my father’s box and found the novel manuscripts and found these pieces or artifacts or relics of a person’s life that I had no access to when he was alive. Part of what’s in the box includes a manuscript that was published by a big New York press, E. P. Dutton, called Alien Land. It’s about—using the language of the day—a mulatto boy becoming a man who tries to make his way in the world and escape prejudice and he has to decide whether or not he’s going to pass, because he easily could with his blue eyes, his golden hair. He didn’t, but he could have. It was published to some fanfare, and Dutton put him under contract for two more books. But Dutton canceled the contract because the would-be second novel concerned a “negro” artist trying to fight against segregation in the nation’s capital and considering the possible benefits of communism. And my father found himself blacklisted. I don’t know if, at that time, he knew what was happening. But when I came along many years later, he was an angry, bitter man who did not write. And often did not speak. For me, silence was very easy to learn.
I think my coming to Trace is finally realizing that I can speak, and it’s about time that I did. So this next project is a conversation, a dialogue with my father, using those writings and also using the material I found in his F.B.I. file, which is a bit substantial. I think many people that have no idea they were under surveillance actually were. So Trace is an opening to many things, to more paths down the road—including more stories about the land and how the texture of the land came to be, because I can’t leave out the geology.
Lauret Savoy is Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of several books, including Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015) and the co-edited volumes The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions, 2011) and Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology (Trinity University Press, 2006). Website. Twitter. Contact.
Carl Sack is a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies the cartographic representation of landscape values, the ethics of volunteered geographic information, and the teaching and use of emergent web mapping technologies. Contact.