Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wall and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole, who was a tidy animal when at home, could not stand having hiw ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth heaps. On the walls hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary — Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy. Down one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing goldfish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. A description of Mole’s underground home. He returns after a long absence, and after a near death experience in the Wild Wood.
Fritz Baumgarten illustrated so many underground scenes I consider him a specialist in cosy animals living underground in picture books.
(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.
Be aware, especially since you’re probably a wide reader and will have picked up words from all over the place, that words to describe landforms are highly regional.
the flow of water against a shore or bank; inundation by water; flood; the increasing of land area along a shore by deposited alluvium or by the recession of water.
(colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material; sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent stream channels.
A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.
The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.
A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.
The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.
The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear, middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments (i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement, colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.
A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat
A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.
a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.
(Northern English) a stream
Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.
(Irish) a narrow country road
a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood
a small stream
The summit of a hill or pass.
A long and gently sloping hill stretched before him, and as he reaching its brow he paused to take some sort of bearing.
A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.
Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A burn is a stream. (cf. Robbie Burns)
A butte is formed when a mesa is further eroded until the formation is taller than it is wide. Buttes tend to be isolated from other structures, with steep sides and a flat top.
The slightly convex or arched shape of a road or other horizontal surface.”A bend where the camber of the road sloped to a ditch.” British: a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed.
an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.
A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.
Hatchet meets Long Way Down in this heartfelt and gripping novel in verse about a young girl’s struggle for survival after a climbing trip with her father goes terribly wrong.
One year after a random shooting changed their family forever, Nora and her father are exploring a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert, hoping it will help them find peace. Nora longs for things to go back to normal, like they were when her mother was still alive, while her father keeps them isolated in fear of other people. But when they reach the bottom of the canyon, the unthinkable happens: A flash flood rips across their path, sweeping away Nora’s father and all of their supplies.
Suddenly, Nora finds herself lost and alone in the desert, facing dehydration, venomous scorpions, deadly snakes, and, worst of all, the Beast who has terrorized her dreams for the past year. If Nora is going to save herself and her father, she must conquer her fears, defeat the Beast, and find the courage to live her new life.
Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A cleugh is a gorge which is the shape of the course of a stream.
a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.
a small group of trees or plants growing closely together
the part of the land adjoining or near the sea.
the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.
a row or evenly spaced trees
a city surrounded by many urban areas
uplands; higher ground of a region
a steep and dry gully
narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch
a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.
A narrow, sheltered waterway, especially an inlet in a shoreline or channel in a marsh. In America it means a stream or minor tributary of a river.
A spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand. It was as though the banks cupped green leafy hands to hold it. There was a whirlpool where the water rose from the earth. Grains of sand boiled in it. Beyond the bank, the parent spring bubbled up at a higher level, cut itself a channel through white limestone and began to run rapidly down-hill to make a creek. The creek joined Lake George, Lake George was a part of the St. John’s River, the great river flowed northward and into the sea. It excited Jody to watch the beginning of the ocean. There were other beginnings, true, but this one was his own. He liked to think that no one came here but himself and the wild animals and the thirsty birds.
the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.
A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.
ridge or fold resembling a crest
In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.
“up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)
Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic material of any size and sometimes organic matter.
A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.
The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence, multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.
Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.
Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.
A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.
A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.
a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)
A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.
(literary) a deep wooded valley or dell
A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.
A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.
a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.
American: a downward gradient on a railway or road.
The down grade tempted him to a lope.
The Yearling 1938
(US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.
the tidal mouth of a large river, where the tide meets the stream
‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)
a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)
An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”
the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow
sheep walked up the lane and into the fold
a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across
a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.
A ‘narrow valley’, especially in Scotland or Ireland. (Glens are basically flat areas with gentle slopes either side leading up to small hills.)
He was warm from his jaunt. The dusky glen laid cool hands on him.
You’ll find this word in work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Goyal is a spelling variant for goyle, which means a steep, narrow valley cf. ravine, gully.
Riding slowly in this fashion they came at last upon the hounds. These, though known for their valour and their breed, were whimpering in a cluster at the head of a deep dip or goyal, as we call it, upon the moor, some slinking away and some, with starting hackles and staring eyes, gazing down the narrow valley before them.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles
a Scottish word for a tributary; the branch or fork of a stream or river, an arm of the sea.
(British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord
a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)
a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.
(British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.
A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.
Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.
Many years ago, in the kingdom of Fenwood Reach, there was a powerful Windwitch who wove the seasons, keeping the land bountiful and the people happy. But then a dark magic drove her from the realm, and the world fell into chaos.
Brida is content in her small village of Oak Hollow. There, she’s plenty occupied trying to convince her fickle magic to actually do what it’s meant to in her work as a hedgewitch’s apprentice—until she accidentally catches the attention of the wicked queen.
On the run from the queen’s huntsman and her all-seeing Crow spies, Brida discovers the truth about her family, her magic, and who she is destined to be—and that she may hold the power to defeating the wicked queen and setting the kingdom right again.
a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.
a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.
An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).
a prominent round hill.
a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.
a narrow road, especially in a rural area
the sheltered side of something; the side away from the wind.
A piece of grassland, especially one used for hay. Also, a piece of low ground near a river.
(Chiefly British) an expanse of standing water : lake, pool.
The papers may ask why the mere was not dragged in the first instance, but it is easy to be wise after the event, and in any case the expanse of a reed-filled lake is no easy matter to drag unless you have a clear perception of what you are looking for and where.
“The Problem of Thor Bridge”, Arthur Conan Doyle
The mesa might be the most common geological formation found across the American West. A mesa is a large, isolated, flat-topped hill or mountain, usually with steep slopes. Mesas are formed when the forces of erosion remove the softer sediment from around a harder caprock.
A stretch of swampy or boggy ground. From that, a verb: To be stuck in mud, unable to break free. Etymologically related to the old Germanic word for moss.
(Chiefly British) a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. A moor is untilled. Think Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).
after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
In The Hound Of The Baskervilles, the moor is described as the ‘God-forsaken corner of the world’ and is a stand-in for a Hellish place.
behind the peaceful and sunlit countryside there rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills
The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.
A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.
A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.
a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)
a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.
A landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.
In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.
A plateau is also an abstract spatial category.
According to Gaston Bachelard, who wrote the famous book Poetics of Space, a plateau designates a very special “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.”
a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.
Scottish word for a slow-moving stream
a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides
Lutwack’s notion of faraway horizons, distant hills and the vision of the ocean. (Cf. the Victorian enclosure.) In this normative concept of Victorian space there are geographical features of flatness without extreme slopes such as high mountains or rough seas, as this would represent tumult and high aspirations. These things weren’t desirable to Victorians.
In Victorian novels, family harmony shifts to drawing rooms, whereas romantic illusions and expectations must stay outside. Illusions and expectations are therefore associated with distant hills and mountains or with the sea. The sea is often associated with achieving freedom, but is also associated with danger, threatening a character’s very existence.
See: Leonard Lutwack,The Role of Place in Literature (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1984)
the international word for a ‘draw’.
a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.
The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.
the lowest area between two highlands.
In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.
A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.
a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.” “I got to my car, but before I could get in I had to run to the scarp of grass and weed that surrounded the parking lot.” (Louise Erdrich, “The Years Of My Birth”.)
the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.
A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.
A skerry is a small rocky island, or islet, usually too small for human habitation. It may simply be a rocky reef. A skerry can also be called a low sea stack. The word comes from Old Norse.
a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate
A spire is a rock tower that has a uniform thickness throughout its height and tapers from the ground upward. Buttes, over time, can be eroded into a spire.
A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.
Scottish word for a pond
a small, narrow river
Scottish word for a small stream
A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”
A long, narrow ditch. Also, a long, narrow, deep depression in the ocean bed, typically one running parallel to a plate boundary and marking a subduction zone. Trenches have also often been dug for military defensive purposes, so have associations with war and death. Gullies and ditches are wider than trenches.
(in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock
a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.
In contrast to the Romantic expanse, the Victorian enclosure is based on reassurance. Distance is maintained between nature and humans. Space is concentrated in the house and on family authority. This spatial concept is influenced by the Gothic. Associated motifs: prison, insanity, the threat of destruction.
See: Leonard Lutwack,The Role of Place in Literature (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1984)ro
a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.
Tad (2019) is a picture book written and illustrated by Benji Davies. This is an especially good mentor text for illustrators because I’ve never seen a better example of a fairly muted colour scheme that suddenly pops after the page turn at the end. I literally said, “Wow!”
Every year my kid and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that they’re 12, they’re ready for the books. The kid picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge.
They also appeal to the wish fulifillment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communities, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.
Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X — the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.
This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:
BUT IS QUICKSAND EVEN REAL?
Yes, but quicksands not as quick as all that, unless you flail about in a panic, or deliberately try to sink yourself deeper:
I do know sand in general can be dangerous. My high school friend’s older brother suffocated to death under a collapsed sandcastle on Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach in the 1970s at the age of nine. Though nowhere near as common as drownings, children dying in sand still happens. However the popularity of the old quicksand trope suggested quicksand was a disproportionate hazard, when I should have been warned instead about burying myself too deep in sand holes:
It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.
There’s a disturbing misogyny behind many of the live action quicksand scenes of the 20th century. Look up famous quicksand scenes from cinematic history and it readily becomes apparent that a sexually desirable woman flailing about and pleading in quicksand is a common male saviour fantasy, which is one thing, but I suspect it’s also a ‘trapping and dispatching with women’ fantasy.
When it’s two men flailing about in the swamp, it’s likely there’s a comedy vibe to it. Stanley is a revenge film from 1972. It gets 4.2 on IMDb and I doubt anyone would watch it for the serious drama. Quicksand tips a dramatic story into melodrama:
This how-to video makes me feel a lot better about quicksand.
The horror of sinking into some suffocating substance apart from water remains a powerful trope. It is used in the horror film A Quiet Place, but in that film it’s not sand — it’s grain in a granary.
According to this guy, who lives in a part of the world with genuine, slightly scary quicksand, it’s probably not going to be the suffocation that kills you. He also makes a good job of describing what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand.
The quicksand trope is used far less commonly these days. You know what basically killed the quicksand trope? The moon landings.
Quicksand is a common and deadly element of swamp, jungle, and desert terrain. Science Fiction stories written before the Moon landings are also liable to describe thick layers of extremely fine lunar dust on the Moon’s surface that are treated as functionally equivalent to quicksand.
Strange as it seems now:
Prior to the first Moon landing, scientists had good reason to believe the lunar surface was covered in a fine layer of dust. While this might not sound like a big deal, it presented a host of concerns to the Apollo mission planners. […]
First and foremost, and as proposed by Gold, the lunar dust might swallow astronauts like quicksand. Indeed, without any prior experience of standing on a celestial body aside from Earth, a concern emerged that the soft regolith on the Moon wasn’t compact enough to support the weight of the Lunar Module or astronauts out for a stroll. Nightmarish thoughts of astronauts getting swallowed up into the lunar dust prompted further investigation.
“The Scarlet Ibis” is a classic short story by James Hurst about an older brother who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. One day they are both out in a thunder storm. The older brother runs for shelter, leaving the younger brother behind. The younger brother is struck by lightning (we extrapolate) and dies.
The symbolism and pathetic fallacy of this story is clear. When the big brother teaches the younger brother to walk, they go down to a swamp.
Where there is swamp, there is the possibility of death and danger. But it’s not just about sinking to death. Bogs, swamps and marshes have a murky history. Case in point:
My favourite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MARSH, BOG, SWAMP ETC?
The different kinds of wetlands:
MARSHES— no trees, lots of grass, exist at the edge of lakes and streams
SWAMPS— murky water, lots of trees, muddy, full of pits and quagmires
FENS— dominated by grasses, alkaline water
BOG— accumulates peat (deposits of dead plant material), mosses aplenty
All varieties of wetland are essential to the ecosystem, but symbolically, in stories, they function quite differently. The fen is basically a watery meadow, offering little real danger to humans — on fens we can see for miles around — we’d see predators approach. As for the swamp, well that’s a different matter. The swamp contains the worst of all worlds — the shadowy depths of an ocean combined with the foreboding of the forest. We have no visibility in either direction.
Bogs and swamps seem more ‘sinkier’ than fens and marshes, probably because of the English language collocations such as ‘swamped at work’, bogged down by homework’ etc. I’ve never heard ‘marshed at work'(though someone should make that happen).
When a story is told from the point of view of, say, a frog (who needs it for survival), then swamps can function as utopian landscapes.
The wetlands of The Wind In The Willows are a genuine utopia.
At this point I’d like to mention The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter has the undeserved reputation for writing sweet, utopian stories about animals dressed like people. But that’s not true at all. Jeremy Fisher is the story of a frog, set by some wetlands. These wetlands are no utopia, but a dangerous, deadly place. There is nothing happily ironic about Potter’s wetland environs.
“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”
Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.
I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.
In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.
Because there’s always the tennis ball.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.
Wolf Hollow is an interesting setting because it is an snail under the leaf setting. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune.
She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.
M.C. Higgins the Great is set in Kentucky on a fictitious mountain in the Appalachians, in an area recently strip-mined for coal.
Mayo Cornelius Higgins sits on his gleaming, forty-foot steel pole, towering over his home on Sarah’s Mountain. Stretched before him are rolling hills and shady valleys. But behind him lie the wounds of strip mining, including a mountain of rubble that may one day fall and bury his home. M.C. dreams of escape for himself and his family. And, one day, atop his pole, he thinks he sees it—two strangers are making their way toward Sarah’s Mountain. One has the ability to make M.C.’s mother famous. And the other has the kind of freedom that M.C. has never even considered.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her anagnorises.
A character often has a revelation in a high place (mountain, hill, knoll, rooftop… any high place will suffice).
The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
In Remains of the Day, the butler has a high-altitude revelation early in his journey:
It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face. And I believe it was then, looking on that view, that I began for the first time to adopt a frame of mind appropriate for the journey before me. For it was then that I felt the first healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me. And indeed, it was then that I felt a new resolve not to be daunted in respect to the one professional task I have entrusted myself with on this trip; that is to say, regarding Miss Kenton and our present staffing problems.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The cliff face does not have the same meaning as the beach. Cliffs are elevated areas without sand. Cliffs work quite differently in English literature.
Cliffs in English (England) are gloomy settings
Cliffs also exist in Australia of course, but they are most often considered dangerous e.g. the Twelve Apostles in Victoria give way to rough ocean rather than a safe beach.
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
high desert landscapes
buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.
The manmade equivalent of a natural high place is a rooftop. Characters often experience anagnorises on rooftops, or go there to achieve an overview of a situation, and to work out a plan to achieve their desires.
One hot summer night in the city, all the power goes out. The TV shuts off and a boy wails, “Mommm!” His sister can no longer use the phone, Mom can’t work on her computer, and Dad can’t finish cooking dinner. What’s a family to do? When they go up to the roof to escape the heat, they find the lights–in stars that can be seen for a change–and so many neighbors it’s like a block party in the sky! On the street below, people are having just as much fun–talking, rollerblading, and eating ice cream before it melts. The boy and his family enjoy being not so busy for once. They even have time to play a board game together. When the electricity is restored, everything can go back to normal . . . but not everyone likes normal. The boy switches off the lights, and out comes the board game again.
Using a combination of panels and full bleed illustrations that move from color to black-and-white and back to color, John Rocco shows that if we are willing to put our cares aside for a while, there is party potential in a summer blackout.
For the most part, Hannah’s life is just how she wants it. She has two supportive parents, she’s popular at school, and she’s been killing it at gymnastics. But when her cousin Cal moves in with her family, everything changes. Cal tells half-truths and tall tales, pranks Hannah constantly, and seems to be the reason her parents are fighting more and more. Nothing is how it used to be. She knows that Cal went through a lot after his mom died and she is trying to be patient, but most days Hannah just wishes Cal never moved in.
For his part, Cal is trying his hardest to fit in, but not everyone is as appreciative of his unique sense of humor and storytelling gifts as he is. Humor and stories might be his defense mechanism, but if Cal doesn’t let his walls down soon, he might push away the very people who are trying their best to love him.
Told in verse from the alternating perspectives of Hannah and Cal, this is a story of two cousins who are more alike than they realize and the family they both want to save.
FANTASY VISIONS OF FUTURE CITIES
If we take a look at imagined futures, cities always seem to go up and down. This is indeed the general trend, as population density grows, building technologies improve and city buildings get taller and taller. What I find surprising is how far back these visions go.
Header painting: Louis Bosworth Hurt – A Highland Drove at Strathfillan, Perthshire 1
This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, partly due to how much I relate to the characters. When our daughter was five some new neighbours moved in next door. The adults were super unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.