Last week, several newspapers picked up the report from the U.N. announcing that the world’s urban population is about to surpass the rural total for the first time in history.

They say, on August 16, 2008, the shift will happen.

It’s not accurate.

They don’t really know if, on that day, there will only be 3,349,383,005 rural inhabitants of this planet.

The events in Darfur might skew that number.

Quintuplets born to a Texas rancher’s wife, courtesy of invitro might bump it up to 3,349,383,010.

A rural woman in Africa, who refuses to have sex without a condom, might prolong her life.

It might delay the shift by a day.

The U.N. also predicts that by 2030, two-thirds of humanity will live in cities.

They don’t have an exact day for that.


I hate numbers.

Give me numbers and my eyes glaze over.

Words such as net, gross, or amortized paralyze me.

I can’t remember what they mean.

But what happens when the numbers start to erase words and images.

Can these estimated census numbers that some poor number cruncher has squeezed into a thoroughly trigonomic equation (I made that up, it might be algebra or calculus or some other form of mathematics I do not care to understand) under fleuroscent lights in an ergonomically incorrect posture erase words?

I can describe my childhood in terms of channels, blowdowns, clearcuts, banks, sandbars, potholes, pools and riffles, railroad beds, notches, floodplains and timber lines.

This is how I describe the geography of home.

The lines of my soul.

The sediment of my being.

What happens, when two-thirds of the world only knows streets, avenues, alleys, curbs, cement, sewers and grates?

Not that I think we should all live some agrarian or mountain-person life.

And I’m partial to the argument that, in order to protect the remaining rural and natural landscapes, we need humans to inhabit cities and to stop spreading their suburban lawns into rural fabric.

Yet, I’m not convinced that the people I saw on the streets of Quito, Ecuador, last spring found a “better” life by moving from their rural homes to the city.

But what does that mean for the child who knows only solid, man-made structures?

What does it mean for the ganderbrush of the New Jersey Pine Barrens?

The hanging valleys in Logan Pass in Glacier?

The rainforest of Ecuador?

Or the painted hills of Oregon?

There are more than 850 terms to describe the American landscape.

Eight-hundred-fifty technical, geographical terms to describe home.

To tell you the lay of the land and the flow of water.

Eight-hundred-fifty ways to fall in love with a place.

Eight-hundred-fifty ways to leave it.

Eight-hundred-fifty ways it can save you.

Or break you.

Most people move for cultures, cities, families, adventure.

I move for landscape.

Once, I moved for a job.

It landed me in the suburbs of Chicago.

The job, I liked.

I still have it, in fact.

But I renegotiated mountains into my contract.

Landscape won.

I have a new bible on my desk.

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.

I am entirely serious when I refer to it as my new bible.

When I find someone who keeps a dictionary beside their bed—or wherever they read—I feel as though I’ve found a kindred spirit.

I look at a person differently once I know this fact.

I once dated a carpenter who thought I’d be impressed by his reading habits: he was simultaneously reading Walt Whitman and Che Guevara’s biography.

This combination should have made me weak at the knees.

It was the dictionary beside his pillow, though, which made me swoon.

I can get lost in the “f” section of a Websters, but with Home Ground I wander even more.

I am stunned by what I do not know.

Bally, dalles, jolla, kame, karst, kipuka, playree, pocosin, sastrugi, scarp, and thalweg.

The next time the wind shapes snow into ridges, peaks, and valleys, I will know to call it sastrugi.

The writers of Home Ground avoid dictionary phrasing.

Instead they carve a history for the terms, give them sacred ground and literary references.

They explain that ranchers called pools of water left in a naturally formed rock basin “kiss tanks”—where all creatures of the desert “put their dry lips and thirsty mouths.”

Kiss tanks, star dunes and flumes make me feel tipsy, caught off balance by the mouthful of language that has left my throat, my belly, burning.

It makes me want to write about the world outside my window.

I ought to be more concerned with this impending population shift.

But you’ll have to excuse me.

The snow melted today.

Maybe next week it’ll fall again and I’ll ignore acid rain and global warming, unearth my childlike self and find some sastrugi to lick, snowflakes melting on my hot tongue.

Today, there are no numbers.

I’m off to find an open book of a rock face, and perhaps an outcropping.

I’m going to learn a few more words.

Poor damn number-crunchers: they ought to see way this river braids.

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JENNIFER DUFFIELD WHITE is neither a flower child nor a wild child, merely a hybrid of the two. She was born in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, lived for several years in the Adirondacks, and she now resides in Montana where she field-tests mountain life and the writing life. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in publications including Narrative Magazine, Drunken Boat Journal, Witness, and Terrain.org. You can find her nonfiction in places such as Adirondack Life and Women's Adventure. She is a contributing editor to The Nervous Breakdown. Her website is here and she tumbles pretty photos here.

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