Sidehill Semantics

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For years, I thought the term “sidehill” was a figment of my late father’s ignorance. That’s not to say I didn’t know what he meant—we farmed the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, so there were plenty of opportunities to use a term that referred to slopes:

“Go rake that hay on the sidehill, Brian.”

“That sidehill was so damned greasy with mud I could barely keep the tractor from sliding sideways while spreading manure.”

“Go up that sidehill pasture and chop those thistles.”

“The rain ran down that sidehill like shit through a tin horn.”

But then I left the farm and went off to college, where I majored in arrogance and assumed all that time my father had been too illiterate or linguistically lazy to say the “proper” term: side-of-the-hill. Even now, whenever I write the word sidehill, my computer’s spell-check marks it with the scarlet tag that means it’s not a “proper” word. But the other night I was perusing a wonderful book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, and there it was, a definition for the word I grew up with: “A sidehill is the side or slope of a hill—the sloping ground or descent.”

Sorry Earl, you were right. It bothers me that it took a book to teach me that someone who had spent his entire life on the land was in fact quite literate when it came to naming the elements that make it up. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? essay on “Nate Shaw,” the pseudonym for an African-American farmer from Alabama whose oral history reveals a son of the soil who “speaks always in reference to a real world, thoroughly experienced and understood.”

As I page through Home Ground, I am reminded time and time again of the beauty of language that’s formed by our experiences with the land—not by a Madison Avenue advertising campaign.

Home Ground is a brilliant idea: a kind of topographical “dictionary” containing 850 landscape terms and definitions penned by some of the country’s leading writers. It’s the belief of the editors, Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, that “to know the land is to love it,” and one way to know it is to be aware of the evocative terms for various landforms.

It’s one of those books you can either hopscotch through at your pleasure, or purposely search for certain terms dictionary-style. Some writers provide straightforward definitions, and leave it at that. Sometimes that’s all it takes to remember a phrase or word. Other writers go beyond the simple definition to provide a bit of history or literary reference—which can often be much better memorization tools. “Tiny essays in the guise of definitions…” is how one reviewer described them.

For example, the sidehill definition, which is written by Iowa writer Mary Swander, quotes James Galvin’s The Meadow: “As he drove past the sidehill where the winter road attacks the ridge he just glared; he had fought that hill for forty winters. Every winter it rose white against him and he fought it, sidling down the sidehill into deeper drifts, digging out, grinding in again.”

I happened upon “sidehill” accidently, and after that I went hunting for other terms from my farming youth: cistern, oxbow, slough, back forty, beaver slide, grove, gumbo (the soil, not the food), terrace, woodlot, windbreak, boondocks, creek, cutbank, fallow, grade, hardpan, hollow, loess, meander, pond, ravine, seep, shelterbelt, tornado alley, washboard.

Leafing through this book was a reminder that we are shaped more by our landscape than we realize. Literary references are great memory tools for terms unfamiliar to a Midwesterner who didn’t grow up around buttes, hoodoos or seracs. But for the terms that had been buried deep in the substrata of my grey matter all these years, simply seeing them in print triggered a memory avalanche—of the land forms and the people formed by them.

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