Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Through personal journeys and historical inquiry, this PEN Literary Award finalist explores how America's still unfolding history and ideas of "race" have marked its people and the land.
Sand and stone are Earth's fragmented memory. Each of us, too, is a landscape inscribed by memory and loss. One life-defining lesson Lauret Savoy learned as a young girl was this: the American land did not hate. As an educator and Earth historian, she has tracked the continent's past from the relics of deep time; but the paths of ancestors toward her--paths of free and enslaved Africans, colonists from Europe, and peoples indigenous to this land--lie largely eroded and lost.
A provocative and powerful mosaic that ranges across a continent and across time, from twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from "Indian Territory" and the U.S.-Mexico Border to the U.S. capital, Trace grapples with a searing national history to reveal the often unvoiced presence of the past.
In distinctive and illuminating prose that is attentive to the rhythms of language and landscapes, she weaves together human stories of migration, silence, and displacement, as epic as the continent they survey, with uplifted mountains, braided streams, and eroded canyons. Gifted with this manifold vision, and graced by a scientific and lyrical diligence, she delves through fragmented histories--natural, personal, cultural--to find shadowy outlines of other stories of place in America.
"Every landscape is an accumulation," reads one epigraph. "Life must be lived amidst that which was made before." Courageously and masterfully, Lauret Savoy does so in this beautiful book: she lives there, making sense of this land and its troubled past, reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory--and to be one.
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About the Author
Winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation
Finalist for the PEN American Open Book Award
Finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award
Shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing
Shortlisted for the Orion Book Award "An earth historian by trade, Lauret Savoy journeys through the landscape--and her own roots--in this sweeping book that's part memoir, part travelogue, part scientific text. Savoy digs into her Native American, European and African-American history and maps her discoveries against our thoughts about place in this fascinating book."--Huffington Post "a thoughtful collection of essays ... Savoy raises more questions than she answers, but they are the kind of questions that provoke discussion. This is not a book to be read quickly. Rather, each of the eight essays deserves consideration on its own. ... her images are often poetic and her personal revelations can be striking ... the close read is worth the effort."--Boston Globe "Savoy is a geologist at Mount Holyoke, but this sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin, dissolves all academic boundaries. Trace is a memoir, a meditation on landscape and identity, and a travelogue with a mission. "As an Earth historian," writes Savoy, "I once sought the relics of deep time. To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness." Digging for her family roots in America's tripartite legacy -- natives, African slaves, and European settlers -- she unearths some genealogy, but more fruitful are the connections she makes between philosophy, ecology, and race." --Vulture "[An] illuminating treatise . . . 'Each told fact holds meaning to the recorder, and each historical narrative (re)presents accidental and deliberate silences or omissions, ' Savoy writes. As she assuredly shows, these silences can be telling, reminding us to watch for bias, and that when it comes to interpreting history, the viewing lens is almost as important as the narrative."--Booklist "In reverential, elegiac prose, Savoy ... meditates on the meaning of history and identity as related to place. Savoy's deep knowledge of the land opens up intriguing new avenues for exploring the multifaceted, tumultuous nature of American identity."--Publisher's Weekly "Savoy's well-researched account, which includes numerous lyric eyewitness descriptions of place, also delves into recently declassified National Archives records to note how prisoners of war 'expressed to the nurses their surprise that Americans would fight to preserve democracy abroad and at home exhibit prejudice to other Americans solely because of their skin color.' Springing from the literal Earth to metaphor, Savoy demonstrates the power of narrative to erase as easily as it reveals, yielding a provocative, eclectic exposé of the palimpsest historically defining the U.S. as much as any natural or man-made boundary."--Kirkus Starred Review "Lauret Savoy's Trace is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in a long time, a book about landmarks--how the land is marked--that in itself may be something of a landmark. With searching, smart, arrestingly beautiful writing, she tells stories of places, their names, their layers, and the ways history covers, alters, shifts the stories of people within them. That she does so bringing race and ethnicity into it makes this an even more singular, vital, necessary book. Writing of her own family mysteries and wayfaring within larger racial, social, and cultural contexts in a way that is, at once, intimate and personal, and larger and more universal, Lauret Savoy has given us an invaluable work of better knowing our past, seeing our present, imagining our future."--Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company "Savoy...successfully leads readers on an illuminating journey through history---her own and her ancestors', U.S. native and nonnative peoples', and the country's, via insights on varied American landscapes and cultural and personal narratives. Savoy's immersive, accessible, and evocative narrative interweaves questions of morality, social justice, and stewardship of the land we call home with discussions of history and the American landscape and will interest readers of history, social science, and earth science." --Library Journal "Trace has passages of really exceptional beauty. I found myself marking sentences here and there, just for their poetry and depth. And the interweaving of Lauret Savoy's awakening to geography--her own and the planet's--is powerful and fresh."--C. S. Manegold, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Ten Hills Farm "Trace is must-reading for anyone who cares still about life on earth right here and now. Heaven help those who follow. In her contemplative essay, Lauret Savoy locates, relocates and celebrates the majesty of America's natural landscapes... her loving, exhaustless examination of American language alone distinguishes this quietly powerful, nuanced, well-lit reflection. Trace cuts more than one gleaming, sharp-toothed key to help unlock some of the hard questions that challenge and haunt the environmental and climate-change movements. Why does toxic waste get dumped onto poor neighborhoods, poor communities, debt-drowned nations? Why should any darker-skinned citizen feel vulnerable to violence or abuse while hiking or camping in America's remote playgrounds or rural settings?"--Al Young, former Poet Laureate of California, novelist, essayist "How does one find a home among ruins and shards? That might be the question that leads Lauret Savoy to follow traces of life's past in landscapes, rivers, fossils and graveyards as she works to undo the silences of our nation's wounded history. As an Earth historian, she reads the land with an informed eye. As a woman of mixed heritage, she reads into the land the lives of enslaved laborers and displaced tribes. This is a work of conscience and moral conviction. Reading it I understood how the land holds the memory of our history and how necessary it is to listen to its many voices."--Alison Hawthorne Deming, Author of Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit "We have waited a very long time for "Trace" by Lauret Savoy. Too long. Her words are a stunning excavation and revelation of race, identity, and the American landscape. I have never read a more beautiful, smart, and vulnerable accounting of how we are shaped by memory in place. This braiding of personal history with geology and the systematic erasure of "Other" in pursuit of Manifest Destiny is a stratigraphy of conscience and consciousness. What Lauret Savoy creates on the page is as breathtaking as the view she saw as a child as she stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon with her parents and learned land does not hate, people do. I stand in awe of Lauret Savoy's wisdom and compassionate intelligence. Trace is a crucial book for our time, a bound sanity, not a forgiveness, but a reckoning." -- Terry Tempest Williams, author of When Women Were Birds, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place "With a voice that is both lyrical and authoritative, this important illuminating book might be thought of as a map, or a group of maps laid out edge to edge...This is a book that will promote and help shape our nation's urgent conversation bout race." --John Elder, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, editor of the encyclopedia American Nature Writers, and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing "The personal manner and historical scenes are concise, explicit, and marvelous...the gentle deconstruction of the historical sources is truly moving, potent, and convincing." --Gerald Vizenor, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas "Lauret Savoy's writing reveals both the pain and the hope located in landscape, place, and name. It is a wonderfully powerful and deeply personal exploration of herself, through this American landscape." --Julian Agyeman, author of Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice "The narrator is an engaging figure, sharing with us her process of discovery, conveying her indignation without stridency (although stridency would have been justified), tracing her research, acknowledging her uncertainties, suggesting why this quest matters so deeply to herself and why it should matter to us." --Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Private History of Awe and A Conservationist Manifesto Praise for Bedrock "How can you comprehend the immensity of the Earth's past? Pick up this inch-thick book. In sections covering everything from 'Faults, Earthquakes, and Tsunamis' to 'The Work of Ice, ' its six-dozen narratives of action and endurance, stasis and change, convey the wonders of deep time. Some of the geology writing is great, all of it absorbing, taken from the works of a marvelous array of writers. It fast-forwards two millennia from Pliny the Younger's description of his uncle's death in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 to Ursula K. Le Guin's front-porch view of Mount St. Helens blowing sky high in 1980. No less riveting is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's account of landing his plane on a sandy Saharan plateau so remote that his are the first footprints there and the only rocks are fallen stars." --Wall Street Journal Praise for The Colors of Nature "Our perception of nature is a cultural construct formed in part by nature writing, which has long been dominated by Euro-American voices. The exclusion of writings by people of color about place, nature's wonders, and our species' uncanny ability to wreak havoc on the natural world has skewed and limited the genre, and cheated society out of a fuller understanding of the connection between social injustice and environmental destruction. Coeditors Deming, a poet and nature writer, and Savoy, a geologist, begin to remedy this omission with their unprecedented and invaluable collection of forthright and bracing essays by writers of "diverse cultural origins and disciplinary backgrounds." Jamaica Kincaid and Francisco X. Alarcon write about nature and imperialism in the "New" World. American Indian writer Joseph Bruchac writes about owls, turkeys, turtles, and protecting his ancestors' burial grounds from developers. Memories of her Kentucky hill childhood inspire bell hooks to portray nature-wise "country black folks," while poets and scientists ardently and knowledgeably discuss everything from parrots to ethnobotany, and environmental racism. A salient contribution to the increasingly important nature-writing canon."