Book Review

Some landscapes feel haunted by past presences. Walking recently through Weetamoo Woods & Pardon Gray Preserve in Tiverton, Rhode Island, I thought of the people who previously trod this earth. Some traces are visible: the stone walls that snake through the forest, the Gray family cemetery. Some traces are inferred in place names: Weetamoo and Pardon Gray. And some are sensed: in the contours of the land as it rises up from Nannaquaket Pond and the tidal Sakonnet River; in the way the low hillside absorbs what little warmth an early spring afternoon sun could bring in New England; in the scrubby vegetation that evokes an intuition that the land was once used differently. This is the sort of landscape Lauret Savoy interrogates in her book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

In Trace, Savoy, a professor of environmental science and geology at Mount Holyoke College, refers to landscapes as palimpsests, specific geologic formations that have been written over again and again as each group of people, each historic period uses the land. Our lives are etched over prior lives lived in the landscape we occupy now. Most traces of past lives are—intentionally or unintentionally—first obscured by what follows and then forgotten.

Although Savoy is inevitably informed by her knowledge of America’s geologic history in her writings, Trace is a deeply personal book. In it, Savoy, who is of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, explores her family’s silences, the gaps in their stories about their ancestry. “Silence,” she writes, “can be a sanctuary or frame for stories told. Silence also obscures origins. My parents’ muteness once seemed tacit consent that generational history was no longer part of life or living memory. That a past survived was best left unexposed or even forgotten as self-defense. But unvoiced lives cut a sharp-felt absence.” And so she set out on her search to uncover her own family’s “unvoiced lives” in the American landscape.

“One journey,” she writes, “seeded all that followed”: her family’s journey to Point Sublime. A seven-year-old Savoy bumped along the dirt road in her family’s leased Coupe de Ville out to the promontory overlooking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, one stop on a cross-country journey taking them from Savoy’s beloved Californian home to a new life in Washington, DC. She had her Kodak Instamatic ready, but the camera couldn’t capture the awesome landscape she encountered. “The suddenness stunned. . . .  Canyon walls that moments earlier descended into undefined darkness then glowed in great blocky detail.” If we’re lucky, the seeing comes first, the wondering later. Savoy now asks: How did the native Hopi, the Spaniards searching for gold in the sixteenth century, the surveyors working for the U.S. Geological Survey in the late nineteenth century, the first tourists perceive what they saw when they looked down at the canyon from that point? Who got to name it Point Sublime? What did it mean to that seven-year-old, and what does it mean to Savoy today?

The journeys through the American landscapes that Savoy traces take her to Oklahoma, “where an elderly cousin of my mother’s had once told me some ancestors might have lived”; to the borderlands of Arizona, where her mother had worked as a nurse during the Second World War at Fort Huachuca, a training station of an “all-Negro” infantry division; to the “shores of Gitchee Gumee, the shining Big-Sea-Water,” Madeline Island in Lake Superior; to Washington, DC.

One journey brings her to Walnut Grove Plantation in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, where, in the cemetery of inscribed headstones, she finds, “unnoticed at first, angular rocks spread like stepping-stones beyond the footpath, through an understory tangle of leaf litter and vinca.” The rocks, as she learns in a brief aside on a tour when slavery is otherwise unmentioned, are the unmarked graves of the plantation’s slaves. She writes:

To whom and what is history responsible? What I realized at the burying grounds was that each of us is implicated in locating the past-to-present. As I might dig through earth and time to open a grave, the task is to uncover the strata of obscuring language and acts, of meaning shrouded over generations. The question had to be turned around and made personal: What then is my relationship with history, told and untold, on this land?

There are landscapes that ask questions of their viewers, just as Walnut Grove did of Savoy: Whose steps are traced and remembered? Whose buildings are left standing and identified? Who gets to use the land and how? Who names it? Who tells its story? Some landscapes call up questions of social justice, past and present: Who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp at the border between Virginia and North Carolina? For whom was the Great Dismal Swamp not dismal at all but a place of refuge? Next to whose land was a toxic waste site placed? These days, we might add such questions as: Who lives in a community where lead leaches into drinking water?

Many of Trace‘s chapters initially appeared as essays in rawer form on and in other journals. The book still reads like a collection of separate journeys, although they are connected by Savoy’s probing interrogation of the American landscape, the traces of obscured lives it holds, and her search for her family’s past. One senses she has only begun her quest. “I must continue the search,” she writes at the end of her last chapter on her father’s hidden roots in the Piedmont and Chesapeake Bay area.

In her seminal Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes:

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

As Lauret Savoy traces her own life along with her parents’ lives and attempts to at least place dots on the spots where her ancestors may have lived on this earth, she asks us to try to see what has faded and almost vanished to invisibility and to “wail the right questions” into the darkness. She has begun the difficult, important task of uncovering the answers to “choir the proper praise.”

And what of our own participation in what Savoy calls the “ongoing past-to-present”? What of Tiverton’s Weetamoo Woods & Pardon Gray Preserve? In the Gray family cemetery, set in a pasture and bordered by a waist-high stone wall and a grove of trees, there are inscribed graves of generations of Grays and some unmarked fieldstones set in the ground. Who is buried there? And who is Weetamoo? The Preserve’s trail map informs that she was the last sachem of the Pocasset people who once fished, hunted and farmed, quarried for quartz, and sought winter shelter here; she died, so it says, in King Philip’s War. The trail map marks what it labels the “Scipio Cook cellar hole and remnant garden” on the edge of the Cedar Swamp, near High Rock. It does not mention who Scipio Cook was, but, as Scipio was often used as a slave name, more questions arise. Who was Scipio Cook? On its Facebook page, the Historical Society of Little Compton, Rhode Island, posted an entry on January 29, 2016, noting it has found that a “Sippo Cook was freed by his master David Cook of Little Compton in 1784. This receipt shows that ten years later Sip was working for Nathaniel Briggs Junior in Tiverton mowing and threshing.”

Traces remain in our landscapes. Ask questions of them.


About the Reviewer

Lisa Harries Schumann lives outside Boston and is, among other things, a translator from German to English, working on texts whose subjects range from penguins to poems by Bertolt Brecht and radio shows by the cultural critic Walter Benjamin and the radio pioneer Hans Flesch.