Reclaiming a Language of Place
Next to people, plants are my closest companions. Their names and features have always come easy to me, finding welcoming nooks and crannies in the gray matter of my mind. My plant friends root there. They outlive other nuggets of knowledge -- like they year my car was made or how much I pay for my homeowners insurance. Since Before cars or insurance, plants, as food and medicine, have been necessary to our survival. Their names are windows into our relationships with them – feverfew, boneset, hog peanut.
In his masterpiece book Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane compiles a “Terra Britannica” – a record of names for places, landforms, vagaries of weather, animals and their behavior, members of the plant kingdom, and other characteristics of the British and Irish landscape. These words were made by people, however they are a co-creation with the place they were made. For example, “loom” in Cumbria means the slow and silent movement of water in a deep pool. You can almost feel the water move as the word rolls off your tongue. Similarly evocative, a “pudge” in Northamptonshire is a little puddle.
The Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Miami, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi, Sac, and Fox peoples all inhabited the place we now call Wisconsin shortly before European colonization of North America. Their descriptive languages are still with us in names like Wisconsin (originally “Meskousing” in Father Jacques Marquette’s journal), meaning "river running through a red place”; Kenosha (Kenusiw [pronounced ken-new-see] in Menominee), meaning “place of the long fish”; and Manitowoc (manidoo-waak[oog]) in Potawatomi meaning something close to “spirit tree”.
These words were useful. They helped us navigate, find food, and find each other. They also helped us with something less tangible, and as important as the air we breathe. A feeling of meaning and being at home, surrounded by plants, animals, and hills, and highways that are friendly and familiar.
This experimental and participatory exhibition is designed to help us think about and reclaim our language of place. Each piece is named only as a placeholder and to provide context. What would you name it? Please make your suggestions using the social media links to the left.