03 Mar What’s in a Title
Sometimes they come like padded cat’s feet, sometimes crashing down in a sinus headache before dawn. Some writers think of them first (they become guides) and for others they’re an afterthought.
I remember when an artist friend of mine did me the honor of naming one of her pieces. It was made of hog gut–twisted, stretched, dried into a provocative elliptical form now dangling from her Kailua (Hawai’i) home ceiling. This was the same house she had to tent and treat because of the pervasive termites that plague the tropics. But never mind. She made art of the termites too–their piled high excretions. Now, there was a title waiting to be evacuated. But that’s another story.
Titles are an honor. We should be humble before them. A Habit of Landscape, despite its awkward and plainly inaccurate syntax, came to me on one of my many walks. At the time it had nothing to crown. But I think it was inspired partially by a comment the nature writer Barry Lopez made a few years ago. Of his Oregon home of over thirty years, he said he never walked the surrounding forest there without experiencing something new. His habit of landscape was just part of his noticing eye, his witness.
Maybe I took inspiration, too, from the Laguna writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, who reminds us that the western notion of landscape suggests something separate from us–something out there. But Silko says “viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on.” This idea of kinship I’d like to believe. And so in wondering what my subconscious might be telling me about this lingering title, I went to the dictionary. And I discovered that “habit” and “habitat” share root origins.
Each emerges from Latin root words meaning “to have,” “to hold,” “to dwell.”
I guess, then, this title went looking for a book. I suggested it for Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place. But I got vetoed by my Oklahoma press editor. Too vague. She wanted that Texas connection (even though I aimed for the place-based universal).
But now it seems fortuitously that my stubborn little title has gathered together some poems which perhaps best suit it anyway. My little poems–some of them hanging around from fifty years ago, most of them brand new–gathered nicely under this shelter. Whether about family, adoption, Panhandle places, old lovers, each has some root in the universal place–language. In being placed. In being in place. To have, to hold, to dwell.