Fields, Named and Unnamed 🦃

Figure 1. A pair of wild turkeys crossing Turkey Slope toward the easement two-track, May 14, 2022.

A few weeks ago, a friend who guest lodges at the one room Wonder Hollow Moon House from time to time sent midday a text to A. and me mentioning that a lone chicken had found her way to the “the road by the high property.” And this eyes-up, helpful message as if on bended arrow pointed me back to a passage only a few days earlier from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. Berry was visiting Peruvian potato fields and attempting to describe in detail all that he saw there.

In this field, which could not have been larger than two acres, were twenty-two people, including a few children and two babies. In sight, in and around the field, there were also nine dogs, seven pigs, twelve sheep, nineteen horses, and fifteen llamas and alpacas, The name of the field was Tronco, Tree Trunk.

Nothing better reveals the long human history of the Andes and the topographical intimacy of Andean agriculture than this naming of the fields. In his book on the Vilcanota Valley, Daniel W. Gade wrote that “almost every parcel [of land], no matter how small, has a name to identify it. Property is identified by the names of the individual parcels and not by surveyor’s measurements which are in most cases non-existent. Every field…and every enclosure has a name, many of them plant names, reflecting their immediate natural environment” (20).

Once there, lingering in that frame where I leaf and find the page, stare at the words, mull them over, I began to consider again the correspondences between this named field and that named field, the importance of these locative references, ad hoc and informal as they tend to be in my own everyday life. You see, “the road by the high property” didn’t immediately click for me. Where now? I wasn’t sure what it referred to. But once we discussed it, A. and I between us sorted out that it probably meant the middle right of way, halfway up the climbing two track between Turkey Slope and the chanterelle patch. This switch from “the road by the high property” to places we knew in common, owing to our having gained an indexical handle on sharing these field names over time, helped us grasp where, exactly, the hen in question, be it Cinnabon or Tiny Honey, had wandered.

Field naming questions also happen to come up all the time in the academic discipline I consider as much of a home base as one must claim to carve out a career path. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity being in great if blurred fashion for the past twenty years, I continue to accept that identifying my own work with Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies, generally, holds both true and reasonably specific, tempting as it has been in some contexts to untether and float the smokier alternatives, “interdisciplinary scholar,” or “transdisciplinary nomad,” or “Sophist.” But Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies, even if you shorten it to RCWS, is kind of a spillway, as naming goes. The slash used to stake its hold between Rhetoric/Composition, but the double-slash is just too much algebra, especially when we pause on the question of hospitality and remember that this discipline’s name is usually paired with a sign that says, “Welcome.”

Over the years, I have encountered folks who reject the conjunction and who call the field only “Rhetoric” or only “Composition.” Are they territorialists or purists? I couldn’t say. Some would have us crumple and toss “Composition” into the dustbin of time, rending it gone, replaced instead by “Writing,” because people know what writing is. Some would have us ditch “Rhetoric,” because it is too caught up with pedicuring the carved marble feet of ancient Greek statesmen and philosophers. No matter how much thoughtful effort goes into pluralizing the tributaries, ethos, pathos, and logos roll on. Were we to entertain for a few more lines–on the controversial if minuscule (I think?) demarcations sequestering technical and professional writing, or scientific and technical communication, or business communication, and so on and so on–we can see the free-wheel spin, and each in our private moments yearn for something more like Tronco, Tree Trunk, for RCWS. On second thought, this name wrangling, even if it diminishes wide-stance footing in English Departments, gives us something to puzzle over, an old riddle about the impossibility of calling a river any name at all, since you can’t stand in the same river twice, thanks to Heraclitus.

I’ve curlicued this entry, commonplace book style, into a good enough for now stopping place. I have more to say about field naming, about Young, Becker, and Pike’s jump to particle physics and wave, particle, field–distinctions requiring a microscope–to make sense of repeating patterns. I’ve been in this field for 25 years, depending on how you want to count those early years when I was an idealistic MA student teaching composition, and so by now I might have expected to be able to say I teach and research in an academic discipline you’ve possibly not heard of, called Never Head Of It. To be continued, as such: wave, particle, whatsit; Berry’s poem “IX,” and a short yarn on underlying conditions (for fields more-so than human health).