Syracuse University Magazine

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Lauret Savoy G'90

Landscapes of Memory and Loss

The great anthropologist Loren Eiseley once compared humankind to a twisted stem of wisteria—a “rooted vine in space” on an immense, if not impossible journey. It’s one that each of us must attempt, regardless of outcome. This is the premise behind Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015), a reflective exploration by Lauret Savoy G’90, professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, who earned a Ph.D. degree in Earth sciences from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Like Eiseley, Savoy is a master storyteller, fascinated by the connected mysteries of lineage and legacy that shape people and the natural world we inhabit. Understanding the idea of “trace” as a path and a remnant, Savoy recounts a journey across the United States, a quest of learning more about herself and her lineage. “Each of us is a landscape inscribed by memory and by loss,” says the award-winning author from her office in Western Massachusetts. “My ancestors came from three continents—Africa, Europe, and Native America, yet I’ve known little of them or their paths to my present.”

Trace Book coverTrace opens with Savoy, a child, reluctantly moving from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Shifting between past and present, she retraces her family’s background with visits to various places as an adult—from the gnarled terrain of the San Andreas Fault to the “Indian Territory” of modern Oklahoma, from scenic Point Sublime on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the “old graveyards” of the Mid-Atlantic, from an antebellum plantation in South Carolina to the United States-Mexico border, near where her mother served as an Army nurse during World War II. Savoy’s trip concludes at the nation’s capital, where her father died when she was a teenager. “In many ways, I’ve been coming to [Trace] all my life, although I started writing it only a few years ago,” says Savoy, whose book has been shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Born in California’s Bay Area, Savoy grew up in and around Washington, D.C., during the racially charged ’70s. She hardly knew her father, who kept everything close to the chest. Only after his death did she find out that he was a novelist, whose first book, Alien Land, was originally published in 1949 to considerable acclaim. He never finished his second novel, which his publisher considered too inflammatory for publication.

Savoy’s mother also was not forthcoming. That she had been stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona—a military installment with a sordid history of gender and racial discrimination—likely contributed to her reticence. “These residues of silence and displacement mark us,” says Savoy, who earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in geology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Princeton University, respectively. “This book offers my search for and discovery of these marks.”

Much of Trace revolves around the personal journeys of enslaved Africans, European colonists, and people indigenous to the United States. For Savoy, one of the biggest challenges has been coming to terms with what she calls an “erosion of memory,” due to generations of silence and displacement. Only by discovering such omissions and silences, and uncovering their relationship to what is or is not told as public history—a process she calls “re-membering”—can people avoid being “lost or thrown away.”

The author or editor of several other books, Savoy is working on a project that arises from the last chapter in Trace, and considers the origin of Washington, D.C., and its ties to her father’s family. “It’s an opportunity to give expression to the unvoiced past,” she says. “Re-membering is an alternative to extinction.”     —Rob Enslin