‘Trace’ Author Lauret Savoy Shares a Personal Journey Through the Southern California Landscape – Orange County Register

My book “Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land” (Counterpoint Press) began as a struggle to come to terms with questions that have persisted since my childhood – about where I come from, where I belong, what it means to inhabit this land and be a citizen of this nation.

From an early age, the mountains, coast and quality of light of Southern California imprinted on me, the only child of older parents who had migrated west, my father looking for opportunities, my next mother without too many questions.

However, I had questions.

I grew up in a family largely silent about its past: how my ancestors – from Africa, Europe and native America – converged in me seemed out of reach. Although, as an Earth historian, I could trace the continent’s deep past from rocks and fossils, the traces of my own family’s generations seemed eroded and lost.

Has my family’s past been lost to the ages? I was wondering if my work reading earth history could help me probe a human past on earth, so I’d like to tell you a bit about my journey to understanding.

Devil’s Punchbowl in the Angeles National Forest (Getty Images)

Sand and stone are the memory of the Earth. Each of us too is a landscape inscribed by memory and by loss. At a young age, I began to hope that despite such injuries, a feeling of wholeness could endure. May each of us possess a hardness – not hardness, not harshness, but the quality of stone or sand to hold a core though broken again and again.

This internal struggle has taken me on many journeys across a continent and time to understand how the country’s ever-changing history has marked the land, this society and a person: the twisted terrain in the San Andreas. The rim of the Grand Canyon. A plantation in South Carolina. An island in Lake Superior. “Indian Territory” and black towns in Oklahoma. The US-Mexico border and the US capital. National parks, burial sites and even the names that this land bears.

Once, on a trip to Devil’s Punchbowl in the San Gabriel Mountains, I began to see how the structure, materials, textures, and history of the rugged landscapes of Southern California offered metaphors for thinking about. to the deposition and erosion of human memory, to fragmentation and displacement. of human experience.

In my book “Trace”, I write about this ancient but vibrant landscape near the San Gabriel Mountains and its lessons for a searching soul:

Steeply sloping sandstone ledges hundreds of feet high line the Punchbowl, a “geological curiosity” in the San Andreas Fault area. Flowing and patient in its work, the small stream that drains the rock bowl gathers and reworks pieces of the adjoining cliffs and San Gabriel Mountains, today as it has through centuries of days. It’s a tactile reminder that here is a land of process and response. The driving forces of water from cloud to stream – the forces of weathering and erosion – and the abrasive, quavering movements along the boundary faults have shaped and continue to reshape the cliffs and basin. What one might perceive as timeless is just one image from an endless geological film.

I descended through stands of pinyon, manzanita and mountain mahogany to wade through the cooling water. To watch grain after grain of entrained sand roll, bounce and be carried aloft. Long-avoided questions emerged as the current pushed me downstream with its sediment. I was five when I last went to Devil’s Punchbowl, having a picnic with my mom and dad. Decades later, the cliffs and basin still stand as part of memory, satisfying the desire to feel the sun-warmed sandstone and the gritty flow of that creek. But maybe I also came back to reach beyond memory an origin, a direction. This five-year-old child had imagined that these waters had been flowing since the beginning of the world. . . .

The San Gabriel Mountains rise to ten thousand feet, overlooking Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert. Between the peaks and the basin of the city is the turning hinge of a geological trap hidden by alluvium, highways and sprawl. These mountains continue to rise at some of the fastest rates on the continent. But as they grow they erode, grain by grain, the residue being carried down to spread around their base like a fallen skirt. Daily activity here is uplift and erosion, mountain building and decay.

The nearby Devil’s Punchbowl is made up of sandstone and conglomerate, once sands and cobbles from ancient mountain streams that flowed millions of years ago, now overturned in rock shelves.

What to take away from this?

Every speck, every pebble embedded in the rock of Punchbowl, began as the detritus of the denudation of the ancestral highlands. Now-extinct waterfalls once carried sand and gravel down now-extinct mountains. If you and I were to examine the pieces, consider their texture and composition, we could infer a lot about their places of origin, about the climate over time. But the Punchbowl as a place of inclined rock also means moving and deforming later. Earthquake after earthquake has dragged and pushed this terrain against the San Gabriel Mountains like a crumpled carpet driven into a wall.

Origin and material source. Deformation displacement. We can still detect both types of provenance, even though most of what once existed for a long time has eroded away.

And U.S ? What are we due to memories of blood or culture, custom or circumstance? To hardness? What makes an individual in a series of generations?

These questions simmered on my drive east of the Punchbowl. June was advancing towards its longest days as I followed the waterways towards the Pacific to their source and then across the Continental Divide. It seemed easier to piece together the geological history of almost any place on Earth than to trace the past of my ancestors. Easier to construct a plausible narrative of a long-gone mountain range from the remaining pieces than to recognize the interweaving of generations in a family. Than to know the reasons for the turns taken by my parents.

• • •

The past-present from which we all emerge is broken and lacerated, much like the fragmented record of Earth’s history. For me, these shortcomings are born of many things. Centuries of omissions and erasures. Loss of language and voice. Of dispossession and enforced servitude. Complex dimensions of lives flattened and distorted by the weight of ignorance and stereotyping. Public narratives that further dismember who “we the people” are for each other and for this land.

And for you? What about your own life, the life of your family? I ask each of you, please, to reflect on your own origins and ancestry, to reflect on your relationship to the past and present on this earth. Our stories will be different, but this wealth of experience is so essential to understanding who we are.

Recognizing the nature and reasons for silences and gaps is as important as putting together the pieces found. In “Trace”, I begin this calculation to re-remember.

Lauret Savoy is a writer and David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. “Trace” won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the ASLE Creative Writing Award. He was also a finalist for a PEN American Award and a Phillis Wheatley Book Award, as well as shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and Orion Book Award.

Lola R. McClure