William Drenttel | Essays

Shallow Water Dictionary

A number of years ago, I stumbled across an out-of-print tract called the Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English by John R. Stilgoe, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard. This almost-a-book, really-a-long-essay, is of the type described by Lawrence Weschler, writer and former The New Yorker editor: "the extended, writerly, not necessarily immediately topical piece of non-fiction reportage ... that is one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature."

An excerpt, the Letter C, from the index:

canoe 6, 22, 25-26, 28, 54
   burning from a log 22
Cape Cod (Massachusetts) 37, 40, 48
Cape Cod (Thoreau) 34, 37, 40, 47, 48
Cape Fear (North Carolina) 9
card 49
Carthusians 50
Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language, 27, 37, 39, 41, 45, 46, 53
century storm 36
chart 49
chartreuse 48, 49, 50, 52
Chaucer, Geoffrey 38
Civilian Conservation Corps 36, 40
clamming 40
Connecticut 10, 35
Cooper, James Fenimore 9
cordgrass 12
Cornwall (Britian) 14
cove, 10, 11
creek 9, 11, 12, 14, 16
   vs. brook 13

This textbook for landscape architecture is, of course, about the language of landscape, the language of estuaries as physical place and ecological system. Perhaps more importantly, as his skiff, the Essay, explores and records the estuaries of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, his writing is a record of the experience of place and language. As Stilgoe notes, "Landscape that lacks vocabulary cannot be seen, cannot be accurately, usefully visited. It is not even theoretical, if theory means what the Greek root theoria means, a spectacle, a viewing."

I never thought I would care about the difference between creek and brook, sea-marks and flotsam, guzzles and gutters. The Shallow Water Dictionary changed my mind, and suggests a richer, more historical approach to what is a design vocabulary. "Scrutinizing requires discrimination, and discrimination must be learned. And the learning proceeds with words, whatever the so-called visualists say."

Recently reissued in a handsome clothbound edition by Princeton Architectural Press, I recommend this little gem to Design Observer readers.

Posted in: Architecture, History, Media

Comments [2]

I'm obliged to Heidi Schallberg at memyi.us for pointing out that John Stilgoe has another book out on a similar topic: Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places.

Stilgoe was also recently on CBS News 60 Minutes.
William Drenttel

There is a long and interesting discussion about John Stilgoe's 60 Minutes segment and his other book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. on Speak Up. Started by Debbie Millman, the discussion explores Stilgoe's observations about subliminal advertising and design.
William Drenttel

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