A “Trace” in Racial Landscape

A “Trace” in Racial Landscape

by Glenn Nelson

Among her many journeys in life and her book, “Trace,” Lauret Savoy finds herself – bits, at least – in San Pedro Valley, southeast Arizona. It is a place of migrations – avian and human, free and forced, cultural and historical. Real and sometimes imagined.

While foraging for “footprints, memory pieces and things left behind,” Savoy is stopped by a border patrolman who immediately regrets his first instinct but follows it anyway. He searches her car and leaves her altered.

“His ‘Have a good day’ ended a five-minute stop,” Savoy writes. “Five minutes that eliminated any possibility of the day being good.”

This is a harsh reality, familiar to people of color. Its happening – and its meaning – gets layered and baked into this particular place, like so many other places that Savoy visits. And those places get so layered and teeming with moments and meanings as to obscure origins and often even truth.

A geologist and professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, Savoy is practiced in cutting through the fault lines of appropriated and revised cultural histories – plus the bedrock of manifest destiny, among so many other good, old American justifications – to get to the chase, as elusive and disguised as it can be.

“Trace” signifies both voyages and vestiges, and its essays, more soothing than seething, make up Savoy’s lyrical, always-questioning quest for her past multiracial selves, whether derived from family trees or roots back to Africa, Europe and the indigenous American landscape.

One poignant stop is a heritage tour of the Walnut Grove plantation, near Spartanburg, S.C. After being plied with details about the plantation’s owners, Savoy asks the guide about the place’s enslaved workers. She gets no response, and the silence speaks to all people of color about not receiving acknowledgement of curiosity about our roles, good and bad, played upon this land, and the difficult inquiries long unanswered – or unanswered for.

“The past I’ve emerged from is also broken and pitted by gaps left by silences, stretched across generations,” Savoy writes. “By losses of language and voice. By human displacements. By immeasurable dimensions of lives compressed and deflated. And by dismembering narratives of who ‘we’ are to each other in this land.”

Writing and insight like this alone makes the book notable. That it comes from voices of the suppressed – female, black, Native – usually absent from nature writing makes it significant, if not groundbreaking.

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TRACE: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret Savoy
225 pages, hardcover: $25
Counterpoint, 2015