I spent much of yesterday truant in the Bedai Hills, my truancy partly owing to a mood resembling that of Tennyson’s prophet when he said,
I am wearied of our city, son, and I go
To spend my one last year among the hills.
I was not, I hasten to add, intending to linger in the hills for a year, or to make that year my last; but in all other salient respects, this Prophet and I were of one mind.
I set out on a misanthropic ramble, but the hills put me right.
You won’t find these hills on a map, for Bedai Hills is a name of my own invention. And without keen eyes, you won’t find them on the horizon, for the Bedai Hills are not easily seen. This is not because they are imaginary hills (fond as I am of those), but because they are hills of such modest stature that no one has yet thought to name or notice them.
The Bedai Hills are subtle sandstone knolls that rise a mere fifty to one hundred feet over the circumjacent prairie, but an observant explorer will find them just east of Gibbons Creek in the county known as Grimes. They are said to be relicts of a prehistoric river; fossilized sandbars, in fact.
The soil into which these fossilized sandbars decompose is, strange to say, a sandy soil; and one consequence of this sandy soil is that the Bedai Hills are blanketed with stands of yellow pine. These pines are, indeed, the one way in which the hills draw attention to themselves, for they are on all sides surrounded by a contrasting savannah of post oak groves and blue stem prairie.
Now that will have to do for natural history, since my subject is the need for poetry in places and their names.
Every place should have a name, even the Bedai Hills. I sympathize with the fictional character who said of an anonymous landscape that “nothing is more tiresome,” and I do not hesitate to go farther and agree with the traveler who wrote, “I hate an anonymous landscape” (1, 2). I hate an anonymous landscape because there is no feeling at home in it. Such a landscape can never be more than tenanted. And tenanting landscape is awkward and discomfiting, like sharing a terrible meal with taciturn strangers, or stretching out on a park bench to read an unannotated edition of Finnegan’s Wake.
No doubt there are people in this world who prefer to be tenants, but I’m not one of them. I prefer to dwell in a familiar landscape, to which I have been properly introduced
“Names, bare names, are surely more to children than we poor, grown-up, obliterated fools remember” (3).
So wrote Robert Lewis Stevenson, himself a man of keen topographic sensibility. Well, I’m about as grown up as I’ll ever be, and I can’t disown the name of fool, but I am not yet an obliterated fool if the mark of obliteration is indifference to places and their names.
And not just any names will do, since a landscape barbarously named is (to the man of topographic sensibility) nearly as distasteful as one in which names are as rare as visions in the day when Samuel served under Eli. By a landscape barbarously named I mean, of course, a landscape bureaucratically named: named on the advice of engineers, advertising agents, and professional educators.
“In the eighty-seven departments into which the French Republic was divided at the outbreak of the Great War there was political and administrative expediency. In the old divisions of the land which have come down from Feudal days there are the magic of names and the romance of history and fiction” (4).
To avoid barbarous names, it seems that it is best to stick with the names of those inexpedient barbarians.
I took this name Bedai from the Indian band whose village once lay just north of these hills, but who survive today only in this name. There is pathos in this, since a name, and land, and the names on the land, properly pass from fathers to sons. Indeed, these legacies are the essence of patrimony. And in this patrimony, it is the names on the land that that make it fatherland.
Without such names, it is nothing but real estate.
The difference between fatherland and real estate is what Stevenson called “the poetry of circumstance.” It is the difference between tenancy and possession. In the words of another novelist, poetry of circumstance is found only in a land “freighted with the magic of names and place associations and those things with which the life and language of a race are bound up.” It is this that makes land into fatherland, a romance that “is half the divulging of the soul of places, half immemorial tradition” (5).
Where there is no poetry of circumstance, a country is nothing but real estate tenanted by obliterated fools. Where there is no poetry of circumstance, a country is nothing but a discomfiting weariness to Tennyson’s prophet and I.
(1) Prosper Mérimée, “Colomba,” in Works (1905)
(2) Max O’Rell, A Frenchman in America (1891)
(3) Robert Lewis Stevenson, Memories and Portraits (1887)
(4) Arthur Bartlett Maurice, The Paris of the Novelists (1919)
(5) Ernest Rhys, Romance (1913)