Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A-Z Challenge. T is for Toponyms

Edward Abbey once wrote about the human propensity to ascribe everything with a name:

“Unless we can name things, they remain for us only half-real. A man’s name can become more important than his person. A plant, an animal, a thing without a name is no thing – nothing. No wonder we humans like to think that in the beginning was – the Word. What word? Any word at all, anything rather than the silence and terror of the nameless.”

Having shared that viewpoint all my life, I often make up names for things already named. Sometimes things remain nameless. Even people. 

I live in a place where many things clash, including names. It is the desert. 

This area of the southern Big Bend country encompasses a state and national park, a wildlife refuge, small scattered human communities, and a river. All collectively called many names, such as “The Big Empty”. Or “God’s Country”, “Paradise”, “Devil’s Playground”. I recall perusing topo maps before my first trip down there, smirking at some of the names given to landmarks: Dealer’s Gap, Mule Ears, Dog Canyon, Elephant Mountain, and more. Some quite entertaining, some named after a long-dead person, others with religious names, many with assigned descriptive names, such as ‘The Window’.

But when you are there, you sometimes invent your own personal name for a landmark. I christened a peak in Black Gap as “Randy’s Monolith” because my friend Randy was enthralled with its presence. I’m sure it probably has an accepted toponym decreed by someone long ago and propagated over time without dissent, eventually being recorded on a map and copied over and over again.

But if you are truly in the desert, and a part of it, you don’t remember or care about names. You can make up any name you want for anything there. Or see and know landmarks without a name. 


I've always been interested in how people perceive places and how people create meaning through places. I try to listen to the voices, the versions and the scenes. I don't restrict meaning to organized tours, glossy brochures and pamphlets, but try to really find and listen to the many voices of a landscape. Even the quiet voice of the physical environment, for it is not really silent.

Learning how we ascribe symbols to places, events and other people, or names in general, reveals much about ourselves and those that came before us.  We are products of language, thus, language imparts power. Place names, or toponyms, provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region.  These names attached to the physical landscape inform us of its past and present culture, including ethnic settlement patterns.  The other association with toponyms is the dominant voices in the past and the present, and those voices that have been silenced.

Place names can be quite revealing. The Native Americans sometimes gave many names to non-living things, including each other. Not uncommonly, one individual could have many names. Never were they names that Europeans use. No Native American chose to be Robert or Ester without a strong European influence, or even Anglo-American coercion. Even after death, many natives were buried the Anglo way and assigned Anglo names that were inscribed on their headstones. I witnessed this in several cemeteries, such as in Fort Sill (Oklahoma) where Geronimo was buried.

Here is no different. With reluctance I have referenced this region in south Texas as ‘Big Bend Country’. I also call it 'Occupied New Mexico'. But inside my head and heart, it is the desert and canyons, with special locations called 'Home'.

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