Sunday, June 28, 2015

What's in a Name? Much I'd Say or Nothing

One can easily get caught up place names and I find myself often lead astray by them.   As a young one, I lived in a farming hamlet call Sugar Tree Ridge and found the name defining of a place, bucolic in nature, with an old timey charm where no bad could come.  I moved from there to Happy Valley, a place named so optimistically so fraught with expectation that one feels ashamed to have a bad day.   “How bad can it be for Christ’s sake; you live in Happy Valley.”  Such names are evocative and stimulate the emotions and imagination as places named for people cannot. Cape Woronzof comes with no image, but imagine having Dangerous Cape finally behind you and Cape Fairweather ahead.  How small would your boat feel entering Icy Straits or what could be less attractive than a trip to Mud Lake.  In Day Harbor, boaters can choose to anchor in sinister Killer Bay or cruise just a bit farther to the comfort of Safety Cove.   In Alaska, we are surrounded by clever and stimulating place names that draw us to or keep us from them with names like  Paradise or Majestic Valley, Poorman or Wiseman, Dead horse or Troublesome Creek.   I’m sorry, but unless a place is named after your grandfather something named after a person doesn’t have the impact of lively names that evoke a story, an emotion, or suggest some great adventure.  In Kentucky, my mom was born near Cut-shin Creek, named for a mishap by my great-great grandfather, a much better name than if they named it Barger Creek after him.   

Some names are so over-used that are merely the hand-written name tags at a conference full of strangers.  Bear Creek, initially a name fraught with threat and wildness, has been so over used that it might as well be “Bob”.   And most places named for people have that unemotional emptiness to them.  Frazier River, Johnson Pass impart no drama unless some one has a personal story that lights up the neurons.  That’s the problem with Mount Mckinley.  For the geographic novice this might be a lowly hill in Ohio and not he highest peak in North America.  Denali, however, has that one name ring the honors things that are so unique so special that no clarification is needed.  Like Elvis, Madonna, and Manhattan one name is enough, Denali.  

My friends on the West Coast of Alaska where rich Yupiik names make music with the language, the landscape is dotted with the names of dead white men.   The census district that Includes Hooper Bay, Chevak, and Scammon Bay in Kuskokwim Delta is named for a South Carolina governor and Confederate war hero, Wade Hampton.  Where does that come from?  When it comes to place names, its not who you are but who you know I guess.  Too bad. Hopefully the campaigns to fix problem place names like this will be successful.  Unfortunately, people seems to be willing to fight hard to keep ancestors alive by using their names.   Until things change look for me along Bear Lake or Pear Lake –– I have property on both.  Pear is found down Oilwell Road with no oil well and Bear Lake is on Old Sawmill Road with no Sawmill.   Have a great week no matter where you are.  

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