6 Words I’m Trying Not to Use to Describe Land

Thoughts on how we talk about the world around us


Something about the land, usually a forest—giant trees dripping with moss, crusted with lichen, a tangled understory dense with growth—conjures the word primeval. But I have learned this is inaccurate. Primeval means “of or relating to the earliest ages,” and no forest is that old. What is forest today was, in the earliest ages, something else, something not forest. Forests are alive—ever growing, ever changing. By associating land with a mythic past, words like primeval (primordial, primitive, primary, prehistoric) leave little room for the present, or the future. I will not settle for history being the only reference for big, unfragmented, persistent, and wild woods.


Still, these places live on in our imaginations, often in some remote location. Remote (far-flung, out-of-the-way, distant, removed) is relative—what to me is remote land is simply home to someone else. Whose perspective are we favoring when we call somewhere remote?


I confess, I too, yearn for untrammeled, as in unruined. But as a scientist who has helped measure the drift of acid rain and settling of mercurial dust, I know better than to call any land pristine. It is wishful thinking to believe in land that polluters have not found. I say polluters, not pollutants, because people are the subjects of these sentences.  Pristine also has an unsettling association with purity, and like primeval and remote, it perpetuates an ideal state of nature as one with little, if any, human presence.


How should we convey the importance of a place if everywhere is important? Lately I see and hear the word iconic attached to so many things—the red letters of a small-town marquee, the twelfth hole of a golf green, a stretch of white water below a dam, cherry trees blooming along the Potomac, or men’s faces carved into Black Hills granite. Designating a place as iconic, beloved, presumes both recognition and agreement on its meaning. Iconic of what? Iconic for whom? Who gets to decide a place is worthy of veneration? Subjective symbolism disguised as universal experience has many motives, and I am becoming more and more aware of adjectives that may seem like harmless adornments but that also sparkle like souvenirs of conquest.


Promoting the primeval and pristine, relishing the remote, focusing on the iconic, leaves the rest of the land merely vacant, undeveloped, or abandoned. This is the vocabulary required to steal a continent, transform a neighborhood, turn a profit. But there is no such thing as empty land. To claim otherwise is to deny the dandelions sprouting in cracked pavement, fungus and algae fusing on concrete, bobolinks nesting in overgrown grass, bumblebees buzzing between blossoms of forgotten apple trees. How could we fail to recognize so many already living in, as any realtor might say, the home of their dreams?


Undeveloped land demands to be developed; vacant land cries out to be settled. Shiny signs at every town line and leatherbound histories on library shelves describe how land was granted, towns founded, villages established, as if out of nowhere. Are these the right verbs to describe human migration and displacement? I am noticing, too, the passive absence of agency in territory lost or people dispossessed. In any voice, these verbs suggest righteousness in stealing, staking, fencing, falsely assuming inevitability and linearity, as they promote one way of relating to land over others. For how could land ever truly be settled?


Subscribe to Orion Ad

Catherine Schmitt is the author of The President’s Salmon and other books, articles, and essays about land, water, parks, and history.