Marshes to Marshes

Unwittingly, in the move from NYC to Boston, I’d left one boggy marsh for another, going from “the Meadowlands” of New York’s ill-reputed western neighbor to the sinking concrete mess that is “the capital of New England.”

Little did I know that Massachusetts’ saltwater marshes were worthy of note. That is, until I read John Stilgoe, a kooky Harvard prof who writes about American landscapes. And since I’m thinking a lot about Vietnamese landscapes for summer, especially images of water (the proj. is tentatively titled Ý Tưởng Về Nước, playing with dual meanings of “Reflections on Water/Return to Country”), my video instructor tossed Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary my way.

It’s a gem of an essay. He toys with language by means of alluding to dictionary entries as a way to chart the course of the reader’s journey (aboard the Essay) through the particularities of this Mass ecosystem. Through etymology you also get a shallow social history, always with wit and unexpected connections. His words, while depending on metaphor importantly, aren’t in the spirit of slow-drifting associations; they demand alacrity as well as elasticity of thought. I take inspiration from the essay because it incorporates language, landscape, imagery, history, social commentary — all the things I want to include in my video project — so deftly. Consider:

This dictionary, a sort of salvage operation of words drifting from dictionary language, may serve to moor the terminology of estuary English. It is, however, mostly a cruise through an archipelago of half-sunken dictionaries, reference works, touched with the drop-line of summer inquiry by a scholar intrigued with the death of topographical curiosity among the young, the young so absent from the marshes.

Crafted and crafty, the work requires multiple visits, since most of us, I reckon, are meandering readers.

Autumn in the Meadows by Doug Depice

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