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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Language of Landscape

Air Date: Week of

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

Living on Earth continues its series exploring features of the American landscape. The feature is based on the book "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape," edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. In this installment, Eva Saulitis reads her definition of “frost line”.


GELLERMAN: Now if somebody asked you what a frostline was, you might think Robert Frost, who had a lot of good lines: ‘Good fences make good neighbors’ or maybe ‘Whose woods these are I think I know.’ Frost had a great sense of the countryside around his New England home, and he might well have appreciated a book we’ve been featuring occasionally on Living on Earth. It’s called Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney edited the book, choosing authors to define features of landscapes near and dear to them. Today, Eva Saulitis of Homer, Alaska defines frostline

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

SAULITIS: Frostline: in arctic and subarctic landscapes the frostline is the lower limit of permanently frozen ground, or permafrost. In places such as Barrow, an Inupiat Eskimo village on Alaska’s arctic coast, the frostline is more than a thousand feet deep. On a fool’s errand in 1881, Lieutenant Henry Ray, the leader of the first arctic science station in Barrow, supervised the digging of a pit to measure temperatures of frozen ground. Of this experiment, writer Charles Walforth writes ‘according to local legend, he wanted to find the bottom of the permafrost.’ Weeks of digging produced a pit over 37 feet deep. ‘We have no record of what the natives thought of this activity,’ Walforth writes. But practically enough, an Inupiat family appropriated the hole as a prodigious ice cellar. It was used to preserve whale meat for over 100 years. In temperate climates, ‘frostline’ has a different meaning and is as important to farmers as tides are to mariners, as it indicates the maximum depth that ground freezes in winter. Those who have crops at stake speak of the frostline of a particular winter, of a series of winters, or of the most extreme depth ever recorded. Even warm, mountainous places such as the Hawaiin islands have their frostlines—altitudes below which freezing doesn’t occur.

GELLERMAN: Eve Saulitis is a writer, teacher and marine biologist from Homer, Alaska. Her definition of frostline appears in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.



Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape


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