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Book Review: Trace by Lauret Savoy

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is both a memoir and a study of human events within the natural landscape of the United States. As an incessant traveler from childhood and on into a career as a professor of geology and environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, she has embraced and studied a significant portion of the ancient landscape of the United States upon whose surface the history of a people has only recently been written. Her informed perspective leads her to write, “Tumultuous histories, human and geological, formed the landscape in which I am implicated, and they continue.” Human history is, of course, but an instant in the history of the planet, particularly on the North American continent. In this book, Savoy invites the reader to accompany her on a quest to understand the human drama that has defined who she is, and she encourages us to take a closer look at our own roles on this stage we share with her.

trace

Throughout the book, Savoy explores the many meanings of the word “trace.” Through indefatigable research in familiar and unfamiliar places she seeks to trace the experiences of her parents and ancestors. She begins by describing her childhood journey from her native California to the Grand Canyon and on to Washington, DC, a journey in which her childhood idyll is replaced with a thirst for knowledge of the world around her and her place within it. As an adult, on a determined quest to find her heritage, she brings us to locations such as Spartanburg County, South Carolina, the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest of Arizona, and on to a summer of meditation, discovery, and writing on Madeline Island among Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. While in the Apostles, she contemplates the haunting traces of indigenous Americans who identified closely with the natural world in which they lived, of slaves whose labor contributed to building the nation’s economy from its earliest days to the Civil War and beyond, and of their descendants who fought for the country’s freedom in WWII while enduring Jim Crow traditions of the military. And along the way she reminds the reader that all of what we call human civilization is but a recent phenomenon in the evolutionary scheme of life.

Savoy’s story is about the presence of the past in the here and now and what the past portends for the future. She surmises it was on Madeline where she might have gained her first insight into the fact she was only then catching up with the past. She writes:

Catching up with the past need not mean retrograding or living in it. At least I hope not. Dissecting learned stories might yield some retrievable fragments of context and relationship, and reveal the vector of storying’s power – its direction, its magnitude, and its agency.

. . . .

To understand the storying of any place, I must also understand the storying of myself. I must follow traces beneath familiar surfaces to where ancestral structures lie.

Savoy’s story does not end with this resolve. It is much more complex. The daughter of a father who “could pass” for white and an African American mother, she is intent on explaining her own experience of Jim Crowism and the lingering prejudice that kept it alive. In writing about Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and the Land Ethic, she wonders, “Did Aldo Leopold consider me?” She is dubious, saying his only mention of slavery was in his reference to Odysseus’ treatment of the slave girls in ancient Greece. It can be argued the Land Ethic includes human property that has been abused and flung aside in the name of the expediency that Leopold condemns. But Savoy details the stories of more recent demeaning experiences suffered by her and her family and of the minority community at large through sheer prejudice wrought by ignorance.

Leopold does say ethical progress has been made in dealing with “the relation between individuals” and that later “accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.” But this does not mean, Savoy believes, these ethical standards have been accepted by everyone, in particular among those who think that their ethnicity, race, or creed makes them superior. Ethical treatment of others and the land has to be taught, learned, and abided by. Individuals need to possess a moral compass. Even Leopold’s calling for an ethic that deals “with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” is far from being accepted or understood by many. He was well aware that would be the case, even after he articulated the necessity of having an ethical relationship to the land.

For most of the population, land equals property that gives its owner the authority of control, just as slaves were legalized property until the Emancipation Proclamation and, unfortunately, have remained so for succeeding generations in the minds of many who believe there are humans fit only for subservience. After all, the English-speaking settlers to this country came to build a “city upon a hill” and often were fearful of the forest reaches into which indigenous Americans retreated and where wild beasts, if not evil spirits, lurked. They were intent upon taming the land and the natives who inhabited it. They did this by naming the territory and declaring it their property. Names meant ownership, as Savoy emphasizes, and ownership meant domination.

Even though she makes a point that Leopold’s ethical argument does not appear to reach into the present in which she and her parents have experienced unethical treatment, Savoy believes as strongly as Leopold that current-day humanity should live by the ethical prescriptions laid out for relationships between people of all backgrounds and between them and the natural world of which the human species is an integral part. Now over sixty-five years after Leopold cut the history-revealing oak on his farm (detailed in his chapter “The Good Oak”), Savoy adds a dimension to Leopold’s land ethic. She calls for an ethic of place that acknowledges people who have been there before us, a sense of their lingering presence evoked by the way the land around us has been treated.

Re-membering,” Savoy concludes, “is an alternative to extinction.”

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Counterpoint Press