Washington, DC, was to me a place of Saturday trips, museums and concert halls, subways and my sister’s house in endless Northern Virginia towns. My mother and I drove up from Central Virginia and crossed the Potomac to go to piano concerts. One windy day, we decided we’d write a mystery story called “Whitecaps on the Potomac.” We were pretty pleased with our literary genius and tried (and failed) to think of worthy sequel titles all the way home.
I did not know the capital city was built between Virginia and Maryland so that George Washington could keep his slaves, something he would have been unable to do in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. And of course Washington’s slave-holding colleagues—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—agreed with him. Lauret Savoy, in her book Trace, examines the history of place and land and family in DC and elsewhere.
Savoy writes about subjects that history and literature gloss over: the unthinking racism of Aldo Leopold, African American settlements in the southwest, and the erasure of Native American place names and their attendant culture. As a geologist, she is used to telling the story of the land, but in Trace, she tells the story of the land and people.
What DC was to me says a lot about my class privilege. Not many of my classmates went to piano concerts once a month. But my mother was raised in a wealthy, Jewish San Francisco household, where piano lessons were valued. She was encouraged to go to college and majored in music. She could afford the mahogany Steinway baby grand piano in our living room.
Science and nature writing often imitate science by pretending to be entirely objective and above concerns such as class and privilege. It tends to stick to the scientific and shy away from the human and the political. Savoy shies away from very little. And her book is all the better for it.
In Sick of Nature, David Gessner excoriates nature writers for objecting to him (or someone else, I read the book a while ago) saying that a mushroom looked like a penis. He hated the prissiness of his critics. Savoy takes his complaints further and links nature to settlements, invasions, historical narratives, and culture. She shows us that there are no limits to what you can write about the land.