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Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape



A narrow way: the narrows. A tight squeeze. The term angostura relates to the narrowest of mountain ravines or trails. (The harrowing scene in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian where two mule trains meet -- one going down a mountain and the other climbing -- and one mule train is forced to plunge off the cliff into eerie silence, is a classic portrait of an encounter at an angostura. Anyone who has ridden a long-distance bus in Mexico, moreover, will never forget passing on a narrow curve at midnight.) In the water, an angostura could be a particularly tight stretch of river -- expect whitewater there. One could extend it to the sea, since an angostura might be defined loosely as a strait, as in the Straits of Juan de Fuca -- a reasonably tight stretch. However, the proper word in Spanish for this is estrecho. You know what they say about the Road to Heaven: El camino al inferno es ancho, pero el camino al cielo es una angostura.

—Luis Alberto Urrea


dust dome

The dome-shaped formation of stagnant and polluted air above a city is known as a dust dome. As any summer city dweller eager to get to the country for a cool weekend knows, the air in an urban environment is often significantly warmer than air in the surrounding rural area, creating a phenomenon called the urban heat island. Industrial machinery and furnaces, manufacturing complexes, cars, and even air conditioners heat up the city's air; building materials such as concrete, asphalt, and brick retain and radiate that heat well into the night. The large number of windows and other reflective surfaces serve to trap eat, and the lack of areas of open water sustains it. Soon the city is cooking, an inversion layer forms, which, because it's capped at a relatively low level in the atmosphere, causes a dome of air pollutants to form over the city. If there is no wind, the dust dome remains intact, its pollutants sometimes growing a thousand times more concentrated over the urban area than in a nearby rural area. If the winds begin to blow strongly enough, however, the dust dome will elongate downwind, forming a dust plume. The city's pollutants are then spread to its neighbors in the country.

—Jeffery Renard Allen



The English bosk is a small woods or thicket especially heavy with bushes or shrubbery. The word comes unchanged from the Middle English bosk, meaning "bush." "And with each end of they blue bow dost crown/My bosky acres, and my unshrubb'd down," as written by William Shakespeare in The Tempest, act 4, scene 1. Bosks were often used as hiding places by escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Those hunting for them generally failed to search these small, bush-filled woods, thinking the escapees would more likely hide in large forests. Bosque is Spanish for forest and is slightly different from the English term in that it refers specifically to trees. In the Southwest, the term refers to a riparian forest situated along a river. Bosque del Apache, now a national wildlife refuge located along the Rio Grande near Socorro, New Mexico, was first named by the Spanish who observed Apaches routinely camping there. Corrales Bosque Preserve, near Rio Rancho, New Mexico, provides a migratory stopover and nesting habitat for over 180 species of birds.

—Pattiann Rogers


The word ramadero comes from the Spanish ramada, which means a place or shelter with interlaced branches overhead. Ramaderos are heavily vegetated drainage routes coursing between the low hills of Starr and Zapata Counties in deep south Texas. From above they appear like sinuous emerald ribbons winding through the dry brushlands. Choked with tall mesquites, huisache, and ebony, they are only a few yards wide and can be many miles long. They serve as migrating corridors for monarch butterflies and other insect and mammal species. A unique feature of a ramadero is that water diffuses beneath its sandy and clayey soils and does not begin to flow on top until the ramadero merges with an arroyo. The ramadero's expansive shade drops summer temperatures by as much as ten degrees. Extensive brush clearing has reduced ramaderos to less than ten percent of their historic acreage. What few existed in western Hidalgo County have been bulldozed out.

—Arturo Longoria


zigzag rocks
Used only in the plural, zigzag rocks refers to one or to a series of low chevron-shaped dams, open at their apex and reaching, usually, from bank to bank across a river or stream. They were built by Native Americans, notably in the Northwest and on rivers along the fall line of the Appalachian Mountains. Constructed on hard river bottoms swept free of soft sediments, the converging lines of boulders and cobbles were designed to funnel fish toward weirs -- traps -- constructed at the apexes. Some structures were laid out in the shape of a W, to trap both anadromous fish swimming upstream to spawn and catadromous fish swimming downstream. A staggered sequence of such separate weirs might extend a half mile or more downriver, as was once the case on a stretch of the Susquehanna near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Long-abandoned zigzag rocks, one of the most distinctive marks of human interaction with the Earth, can still be seen in some places.

—Susan Brind Morrow


Contents © 1966 to current, by
Barry Holstun Lopez. All Rights Reserved.