There is a small hill about fifty miles north of here, and like many hills, small and large, it bears no public name. This anonymity is regrettable, albeit more regrettable for the public than for the hill, and this is because all human companionship begins with the exchange of names. As a hill is mute by nature, and therefore unable to divulge its real name (assuming it has one), we are obliged to supply the want and give it a nickname.
It is true that nicknames are sometimes resented, but most are bestowed as tokens of affection and intimacy. Like diminutives, they especially flourish in the hothouse of a loving family (and are therefore often repudiated when a child grows up and moves away).[i] A relative stranger who presumes to give or use a nickname is therefore guilty of overfamiliarity, of an unsupported claim to companionship.
Human companionship may begin with the exchange of names, but it is fulfilled in the breaking of bread, for shared food lies at the heart of every human community. My companions are, indeed, those with whom I share bread, for the word was made from the Latin roots com (together) and panis (bread). When it was said that a man or woman had “a place at the table,” it was until very recently understood that this was an eating table, and that those gathered round it were companions who had come together to share bread. It is telling that our age increasingly takes the phrase to imply a bargaining table where antagonists gather to swindle and browbeat one another.
A man cannot, of course, invite even the smallest hill to take a place at his eating table; and even if were this possible, he could not induce it to share a morsel of his bread. But he can familiarize a hill, and enter into a sort of companionship, by giving it a name. As the poet James Russell Lowell put it while gazing at the hills of New England from the Isles of Shoals:
“I love these names,
Wherewith the lonely farmer tames
Nature to mute companionship.”**
* * * * *
I have given the sobriquet Stranger to that little hill north of here. This name may strike you as poorly suited to the establishment of even a mute companionship, but it was at first suggested by the name of a hamlet that briefly flourished, and then slowly failed, upon the back of this little hill. Stranger is today nothing but a name on the map; its churches and schools have disbanded, its places of business have dissolved, and the descendants of its two hundred inhabitants have dispersed to places no less strange.
No one knows for certain how this hamlet came to be called Stranger, but I have no objection to the accepted legend, which seems to me poetic as the name itself. The legend tells us that, one day just after the Civil War, a traveler rode into the hamlet and asked a blacksmith, then toiling at his forge with hammer and tongs, what the name of the place might be. We do not know if the blacksmith’s answer was curt or cordial, but its substance was that he was also a stranger recently arrived in the place, and therefore did not know its name, or even if it had one. It is said that the hamlet took the name of Stranger from this encounter between two strangers in a strange place—two strangers who felt the need for a companionable name.
Discussing place names in his great work The American Language, H. L. Mencken wrote that “survivors of a more lively and innocent day linger on the map.”*** I like to think that a place name lingers on the map in the hope that it is suffering only temporary obsolesce; that a day will come when someone will rescue it from the map and find a new use for it. Thus I like to think that this name of Stranger was lingering on the map in the hope that someone like me would come along and use it as the name of Stranger Hill.
* * * * *
For more than a hundred years, scholars have referred to place names as toponyms, to the study of their meaning and origins as toponymy, and to the happy few who take delight in toponomy as toponymists.
Toponomy is naturally related to onomastics, or the study of human names, and within onomastics there is a dusty and unfrequented wing known as onomancy. Onomancy is the art of divination by names, and it is undertaken (when it is undertaken) in the belief that there is an occult significance to names because nothing happens by chance.
When happy parents name their newborn child, they may imagine that they have freely chosen the infant’s name, but an onomancer will reply that the name was destined, just as the child was destined, just as the future of the child was destined by ineluctable Fate. And that onomancer will add that Fate has likely hidden a clue to the child’s future fortunes in the occult significance of the child’s name.
I am not about to make any large claims for the workings of Fate in the meeting between that traveler and that blacksmith, in the subsequent decision to name that hamlet Stranger, or in my more recent fancy to take that the name I found lingering on the map and give it to the hill. But since forming that fancy, I have been nagged by the thought that it was more than a fancy, and that Stranger Hill is a name of occult significance that is deeply connected to a hidden strangeness in this place.
Toponomists often discover hidden significance in the name of a place. When they (or rather I) discover hidden significance in the name of a place, I call it toponymic serendipity, a phrase that is meant to take in both the faculty of discovering hidden significance in a place name, and the fact that there is, at least sometimes, a hidden significance to be discovered.
We have the word serendipity from the eighteenth-century English writer Hugh Walpole, who coined it as a name for what he called “accidental sagacity,” or the faculty of “always making discoveries” that one is “not in quest of.”† Men often show “accidental sagacity” when they name a place. The name is suggested to them, they think by fancy, but in time it becomes clear that the name had prophetic power and contained more meaning than they knew.
And when a toponomist stumbles upon this hidden meaning, that is also toponymic serendipity.
* * * * *
As you can see from this map, Stranger Hill has the form of an escarpment or cuesta, with its scarp slope facing northwest and dropping abruptly to the floodplain of Big Creek. The descent is only one hundred and sixty feet, but a descent of one hundred and sixty feet is sufficient to form a notable eminence in these parts. The dip slope of Stranger Hill runs more gently in the opposite direction, down to the channel of the Little Brazos River, a curious creek about which I may tell you some day.
Stranger Hill owes its eminence to a bed of durable calcareous sandstone known locally as Tehuacana limestone. It is the first in a line of similar hills that runs away to the northeast, one of which I mentioned in last summer’s post called “A Little College on a Hill.” This line of hills marks the great division between sediments laid down in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, which most people understand as the Age of the Dinosaurs and the Age of the Mammals.
Looking out to northwest from the head of the scarp face of Stranger Hill, one is therefore surveying the ruins of a lost world. Big Creek drains the Blackland Prairie, a great bed of stiff and fertile clay that was formed from the mud flats and stagnant lagoons that lined the Gulf of Mexico more than sixty million years ago. The English naturalist Richard Jefferies described something like the view northwest from Stranger Hill in this line:
“I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of lizards flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam . . .”††
And there are not many views that are stranger than that.
* * * * *
It is strange to look out on the floodplain of Big Creek and imagine that lost world of tree-ferns, flying lizards, and lizard-dragons wallowing in sea foam. But it is even stranger to look out and imagine the destruction of that world in a vast and sudden hecatomb of fire and water. Stranger, but not at all difficult here on Stranger Hill, for Stranger Hill is not only a boundary stone that marks the end of the Mesozoic world; it also overlooks one of the places that the end of that world began.
That black mud at the foot of the hill was nearly the first to be churned and roiled by the stupendous tsunami that drowned the dinosaurs, and mixed within that mud remain the ashes of the mighty beasts and trees that were burnt in that terrible cleansing fire.
The men of science tell us that the wrath of God came in the form of an asteroid some seven miles wide, that this asteroid struck and penetrated the earth not quite nine hundred miles south of Stranger Hill, on the Yucatan peninsula, and that the explosion that resulted was five thousand times greater than the all of the thermonuclear weapons ever produced by modern man.
These men of science call this asteroid Chicxulub, taking the name from the Mayan town nearest to the point of impact. As so often, there is a mysterious toponymic serendipity in the name Chicxulub, although this seems to have escaped the men of science.
In the Mayan tongue, Chic Xulub means to cuckold a man by penetrating his wife.†††
Well, that terrible asteroid certainly penetrated the earth; and when it did so, it certainly cuckolded those dinosaurs.
The mesozoic monsters that were sporting in the mud of Big Creek were incinerated, along with the rank swamp forest that lined that slimy shore. An hour or so later, the inferno was doused by a wave that may have been one thousand feet high. And in the backwash of that great tsunami, the cinders and ashes of the Mesozoic world were swept into the abyss of the Gulf of Mexico.
Thus the age of the dinosaurs ended in much the same way as some have said our own age will end.
“And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.”♘
Chicxulub did not destroy all Mesozoic life, but most life forms that survived the impact perished when the oceans were poisoned with acid and the heavens were clouded by dust.
“Weary and lorn the dark;
Drowned is the stars’ sweet light;
All things are sad and strange,
As in the world’s last night.”♘♘
Indeed, that scene of destruction was very sad and strange, and this adds to the toponymic serendipity of Stranger Hill.
* * * * *
At the foot of the scarp face of Stranger Hill, Mesozoic mud gives way to the sandy soil of a New Creation. Biologists call this New Creation the Cenozoic, which means the age of new animals, and although mammals existed before the great firestorm and deluge that put an end to the Mesozoic world, they afterwards prospered and dominated the earth as never before.
Geologist divide this New Creation into seven epochs, each of which bears a name that ends with the suffix -cene, which like the prefix of Cenozoic is based on the Greek word kainos and means new. The root also appears in the Latin recens, a synonym of kainos from which we have our word recent.
So, if you stand on Stranger Hill and turn your back on that ruined world of blasted reptiles and Mesozoic mud, you will look out over a land what was a New Creation some sixty-five million years ago. Even the soils were new, for as I said, the slimy mud gives way to sand, some of which is concreted in the sandstone that sustains the modest eminence of Stranger Hill.
At about the same time that Chicxulub was screaming with fiendish desire through the void of outer space, on its way to penetrate the earth and make cuckolds of the dinosaurs, western North America began to swell into a great upland. This elevation of the land gave new energy to the lazy rivers that had, until then, brought nothing but light loads of fine silt down to those mud flats on the slimy shore. As in the new kingdom of Cenozoic animals, there was now a new life in the Brazos River, and the former sluggard became a willing workman that hauled large loads of cobbles and sand.
That willing workman built the New Creation that one sees southeast from Stranger Hill, down the dip slope, across Little Brazos, and away on south to the shore of the Gulf, now two hundred miles away.
* * * * *
Time and change is what we see in the view from Stranger Hill. Like great immensities of space, time and change are vertiginous and awful when they are too abundant. A valley can be comfortable, even companionable, but a man teetering on the lip of a stupendous chasm can only think of his own annihilation. I can easily swallow you up, that great maw seems to say; and in a trice, it will be as if you never were.
It is likewise vertiginous and awful to stand at the cavern mouth of Time. A few steps down can be pleasant enough, especially on a sweltering day, but it will not do to go too deep and to lose the light of the living world. It will not do to breath too much of the stale air that rises from the silent depths. Time is another great maw waiting to swallow you up. And in a trice, it will be as if you never were.
You and every creature like you, you and your whole world; for like those dinosaurs that wallowed in the slime, you and your world are heedlessly waiting to be cuckolded by a Chicxulub that is, even now, screaming with fiendish desire through the void of outer space.
“Many an aeon molded earth before her highest, man, was born.
Many an aeon too may pass when earth is manless and forlorn.” ♘♘♘
Like nearly everything Tennyson wrote, these are lovely lines, but I do not suppose the earth will be forlorn when she receives her next flaming demon lover from the sky. The earth is a faithless companion, and one is reminded of her past infidelities in the view from Stranger Hill. And it is in these reminders of her past infidelity that we find the occult meaning, the accidental sagacity, the toponymic serendipity of the name Stranger Hill. It stands as a warning against a presumption of overfamiliarity, against claims to companionship that can never be fulfilled by the breaking of bread.
It stands as a reminder that we can never be more than strangers on this or any other hill.
*) It is not directly relevant to the topic of this essay, but the repudiation of a childhood nickname is an important milestone in personal development, much like destruction of childhood toys. Consider this quote. “Since the pet name of my childhood may occur often in the following pages, perhaps I had better say at the beginning, that incredible as it may seem now, I was then always called ‘The Kid . . . . I have great sympathy with the modern revulsion against the use of nicknames and diminutives, having all my life been the victim of one. Was it not hard for a sensitive girl who rejoiced in the fine high-sounding name of Caroline Howard King, to be doomed to the ludicrous insignificance of being always known among her friends as Kiddy King!” Caroline Howard King, When I Lived in Salem, 1822-1866 (1937).
**) James Russell Lowell, “Pictures from Appledore” (1869)
***) H. L. Mencken, The American Language (1919)
†) Hugh Walpole, “Letter to Sir Horace Mann” (1754). Serendip was an Arab corruption of Sindhalawipa, an old name for the island we call Sri Lanka. The dominant ethnicity on the island is still called Sinhalese. Walpole latched onto the name after reading an old romance called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” in which the eponymous protagonists traveled about making fortuitous discoveries.
††) Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883)
†††) Daniel G. Brinton, ed, The Maya Chronicles (1882).
♘) Luke 17: 26-29.
♘♘) Lewis Morrison Grant, “Last Times” (1892)
♘♘♘) Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886)