Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Now in a New Edition with a New Preface!

“A landmark text.” —Robert Macfarlane

“…this sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin, dissolves all academic boundaries. Trace is a memoir, a meditation on landscape and identity, and a travelogue with a mission.” —Vulture (New York Magazine)

“I have never read a more beautiful, smart, and vulnerable accounting of how we are shaped by memory in place.” —Terry Tempest Williams

One of “10 books on American history that actually reflect the United States” —Fortune

Learn more about Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press) by following a link below or scrolling down for all information:


Awards and Recognition

  • Winner of the American Book Award (from the Before Columbus Foundation)
  • Winner of the ASLE Environmental Creative Writing Award
  • Finalist for the PEN American Open Book Award
  • Shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing
  • Finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award
  • Shortlisted for the Orion Book Award
  • Selected as a Must-Read Book on national parks for the 2016 centennial year by both Travel + Leisure and BookRiot


Book Overview

Sand and stone are Earth’s fragmented memory. Each of us, too, is a landscape inscribed by memory and loss. One life-defining lesson Lauret Savoy learned as a young girl was this: the American land did not hate. As an educator and Earth historian, she has tracked the continent’s past from the relics of deep time; but the paths of ancestors toward her—paths of free and enslaved Africans, colonists from Europe, and peoples indigenous to this land—lie largely eroded and lost.

In this provocative mosaic of personal journeys and historical inquiry across a continent and time, Lauret Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, and ideas of “race,” have marked the land, this society, and her. From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from “Indian Territory” and the U.S.-Mexico Border to the U.S. capital, Trace grapples with a searing national history to reveal the often unvoiced presence of the past.

Attentive to the rhythms of language and landscapes, Lauret weaves together human stories of migration, silence, and displacement, as epic as the continent they survey, with uplifted mountains, braided streams, and eroded canyons. Trace delves through fragmented histories—natural, personal, cultural—to find shadowy outlines of other stories of place in America.

Every landscape is an accumulation, reads one epigraph. Life must be lived amidst that which was made before. Lauret Savoy lives there, making sense of this land and its troubled past, reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory—and to be one. Though deeply personal, Trace concerns who we all are in this terrain called the United States, inviting readers to have a more honest understanding of history’s impact in our lives.


Trace Invites You to:

  • see the continuing presence of past, even in fragments, on this land, and in their lives;
  • reflect on how places are made and remade;
  • recognize rich voices, narratives of experience, and levels of meaning that have been silenced or omitted from popular narratives of this country’s past;
  • acknowledge such voices and narratives as dynamic mosaics in dialogue;
  • face ironies and residues of this country’s history, the ecological and human consequences of which continue to play out; and
  • cultivate broader, deeper perspectives that acknowledge enduring injustices of our society, and realize the contexts of racism on the American land in a deliberate way.


Praise for Trace

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Edith Savoy Trace is the most eloquent, moving and insightful exploration of race and the American landscape I have ever encountered. As a woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, Lauret Savoy interweaves history, culture, and the environment in a search for the largely eroded paths traced by her ancestors.” —Jeffrey K. Stine, Smithsonian Magazine

“We have waited a very long time for Trace by Lauret Savoy.  Too long. Her words are a stunning excavation and revelation of race, identity, and the American landscape.  I have never read a more beautiful, smart, and vulnerable accounting of how we are shaped by memory in place.  This braiding of personal history with geology and the systematic erasure of ‘Other’ in pursuit of Manifest Destiny is a stratigraphy of conscience and consciousness.  What Lauret Savoy creates on the page is as breathtaking as the view she saw as a child as she stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon with her parents and learned land does not hate, people do.  I stand in awe of Lauret Savoy’s wisdom and compassionate intelligence.  Trace is a crucial book for our time, a bound sanity, not a forgiveness, but a reckoning.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, author of Erosion: Essays of Undoing, The Hour of Land, When Women Were Birds, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Trace is a very important book—for me, and for the wider field or terrain of landscape-and-memory.  Delicate in its thinking, and bold in its style and form.  And so subtle in the way Lauret Savoy lets earth-processes and emotional/historical processes illuminate one another as metaphors, without subordinating either to the other by means of a system as fixed as allegory.  Erosion . . . silting . . . flow . . . concealment . . . exposure . . . I relished seeing through her different beholding eyes, in their several forms of ‘difference.’”

—Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland, Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and Landmarks

“Savoy’s well-researched account, which includes numerous lyric eyewitness descriptions of place, also delves into recently declassified National Archives records to note how prisoners of war ‘expressed to the nurses their surprise that Americans would fight to preserve democracy abroad and at home exhibit prejudice to other Americans solely because of their skin color.’  Springing from the literal Earth to metaphor, Savoy demonstrates the power of narrative to erase as easily as it reveals, yielding a provocative, eclectic exposé of the palimpsest historically defining the U.S. as much as any natural or man-made boundary.”
Kirkus Starred Review

“In reverential, elegiac prose, Savoy . . . meditates on the meaning of history and identity as related to place . . . Savoy’s deep knowledge of the land opens up intriguing new avenues for exploring the multifaceted, tumultuous nature of American identity.”
Publishers Weekly

“Savoy is a geologist at Mount Holyoke, but this sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin, dissolves all academic boundaries.  Trace is a memoir, a meditation on landscape and identity, and a travelogue with a mission. ‘As an Earth historian,’ writes Savoy, ‘I once sought the relics of deep time.  To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness.’  Digging for her family roots in America’s tripartite legacy—natives, African slaves, and European settlers—she unearths some genealogy, but more fruitful are the connections she makes between philosophy, ecology, and race.”
— Boris Kachka, Vulture (New York Magazine)

“What if written history bears no trace of our existence, our contribution to the land?  What do these silences speak of and bear witness to?  Savoy’s illuminating treatise teases apart these questions as she traces her family’s African African heritage . . . Each told fact holds meaning to the recorder, and each historical narrative (re)presents accidental and deliberate silences or omissions,’ Savoy writes. As she assuredly shows, these silences can be telling, reminding us to watch for bias, and that when it comes to interpreting history, the viewing lens is almost as important as the narrative.”

“Lauret Savoy’s Trace is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long time, a book about landmarks—how the land is marked—that in itself may be something of a landmark.  With searching, smart, arrestingly beautiful writing, she tells stories of places, their names, their layers, and the ways history covers, alters, shifts the stories of people within them.  That she does so bringing race and ethnicity into it makes this an even more singular, vital, necessary book.  Writing of her own family mysteries and wayfaring within larger racial, social, and cultural contexts in a way that is, at once, intimate and personal, and larger and more universal, Lauret Savoy has given us an invaluable work of better knowing our past, seeing our present, imagining our future.”
— Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle, WA)

“Ever since reading Lauret Savoy’s wonderful Trace: Memory, history, race, and the American landscape (Counterpoint Press), earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about our relationships with land, and the social stratiographies of wild places in particular. . . but part of the urgency around the subject comes from a feeling of increased cultural alienation from place itself. It’s a trend that expresses and compounds itself linguistically. . .”
—Jenny Hendrix, London Times Literary Supplement (June 30, 2016)

“In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of “race,” have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.”
—Catherine Buni, Los Angeles Review of Books (January 10, 2016)

Trace is must-reading for anyone who cares still about life on Earth right here and now.  Heaven help those who follow. In her contemplative essay, Lauret Savoy locates, relocates, and celebrates the majesty of America’s natural landscapes . . . her loving, exhaustless examination of American language alone distinguishes this quietly powerful, nuanced, well-lit reflection.  Trace cuts more than one gleaming, sharp-toothed key to help unlock some of the hard questions that challenge and haunt the environmental and climate-change movements.  Why does toxic waste get dumped onto poor neighborhoods, poor communities, debt-drowned nations?  Why should any darker-skinned citizen feel vulnerable to violence or abuse while hiking or camping in America’s remote playgrounds or rural settings?”  Lauret Savoy reminds us: ‘Our lives take place.’”
— Al Young, former Poet Laureate of California, novelist, and essayist

“An earth historian by trade, Lauret Savoy journeys through the landscape—and her own roots—in this sweeping book that’s part memoir, part travelogue, part scientific text.  Savoy digs into her Native American, European, and African-American history and maps her discoveries against our thoughts about place in this fascinating book.”
— “20 Notable Non-Fiction Books You Might’ve Missed This Year,” Huffington Post

“First off, Lauret Savoy’s sentences are beautiful.  They flow with a sure diction and graceful rhythms, never a stumble or awkward turn.  And they deliver plenty, whether historical or scientific information or sensory evocation.  The occasional figurative image—‘the residue carried downward to spread around their bases like a fallen skirt’—is always fresh and apt.  She evokes rock formations and landscapes with a focus so pure and fine it seems effortless.” —John Daniel, author of Rogue River Journal and The Far Corner

“How does one find a home among ruins and shards?  That might be the question that leads Lauret Savoy to follow traces of life’s past in landscapes, rivers, fossils and graveyards as she works to undo the silences of our nation’s wounded history.  As an Earth historian, she reads the land with an informed eye. As a woman of mixed heritage, she reads into the land the lives of enslaved laborers and displaced tribes.  This is a work of conscience and moral conviction.  Reading it I understood how the land holds the memory of our history and how necessary it is to listen to its many voices.”
— Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World

“With a voice that is both lyrical and authoritative, this important illuminating book might be thought of as a map, or a group of maps laid out edge to edge . . . This is a book that will promote and help shape our nation’s urgent conversation about race.”
— John Elder, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, editor of the encyclopedia American Nature Writers, and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing

“The personal manner and historical scenes are concise, explicit, and marvelous . . . the gentle deconstruction of the historical sources is truly moving, potent, and convincing.”
— Gerald Vizenor, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas

“Lauret Savoy’s writing reveals both the pain and the hope located in landscape, place, and name.  It is a wonderfully powerful and deeply personal exploration of herself, through this American landscape.”
— Julian Agyeman, author of Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World and Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities

“The narrator is an engaging figure, sharing with us her process of discovery, conveying her indignation without stridency (although stridency would have been justified), tracing her research, acknowledging her uncertainties, suggesting why this quest matters so deeply to herself and why it should matter to us.”
— Scott Russell Sanders, author of The Way of the Imagination

Trace has passages of really exceptional beauty.  I found myself marking sentences here and there, just for their poetry and depth.  And the interweaving of Lauret Savoy’s awakening to geography—her own and the planet’s—is powerful and fresh.”
— C. S. Manegold, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Ten Hills Farm

“Savoy . . . successfully leads readers on an illuminating journey through history—her own and her ancestors’, U.S. native and nonnative peoples’, and the country’s, via insights on varied American landscapes and cultural and personal narratives.  Savoy’s immersive, accessible, and evocative narrative interweaves questions of morality, social justice, and stewardship of the land we call home with discussions of history and the American landscape and will interest readers of history, social science, and earth science.”
Library Journal

“Lauret Savoy’s Trace may be the most relevant book published this fall.  This lyrical and sweeping essay on race, memory, and the American landscape covers ground sadly neglected in much nature writing.  Its ethical argument — that the way we treat the environment is inextricable from how we treat our fellow human beings (and vice versa) — is one we should all pay close attention to, now more than ever.”
— Stephen Sparks, Point Reyes Books

Trace is many-faceted: eight densely-researched essays that take us from California to Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon, a plantation in South Carolina, a segregated army base in Arizona, and through the tangled political and racial realities of past and present Washington, D.C.  Trace is also Savoy’s personal journey, of self and ancestors and family. . . Savoy is most preoccupied by history’s power to obscure peoples and critical events.  In Trace, she undoes this harmful silence.  The very existence of Trace is a reckoning of the whitewashed nature writing that came before it. . . Beyond joy, Trace offers, finally, intense inquiry, unanswered questions, and a difficult but beautiful and more whole understanding of America’s storied landscape.”

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is a superb mixture of genres and methods of inquiry. Part historiography and anthropology, part memoir and geography, this book is a real survey—of landscape, ownership, work and burial, colonization and freedom, custody and destruction. It makes me remember that “ecology,” in its earliest usage, simply mean[t] “study of the house.” Savoy is a deep ecologist, studying where and how we live, and how we might live better, together.”
— David Baker, Kenyon Review (Summer Reading Recommendations)

Trace . . . excavates the history that remains buried inside the American narrative, giving an honest assessment of how this buried history still shifts and splits the surface of the nation’s culture and geography . . . Trace is a call to action, a reminder that we all have a responsibility to ask what is left unseen or unsaid, to find the many layers of unmeasured or undocumented existence embedded in the land.”
— Marissa Landrigan, Orion

“What starts as a journey to discover more about her past is expanded to include the history of humans on the land.  Ms. Savoy uses the word palimpsest to describe the layers of history on the land and the traces that are remembered.  Uncovering history layer by layer, trying to answer the questions: how do we see ourselves, both individually and as a people, what gets remembered, what gets lost, and what gets buried.  She also delves into how the language of place and landscapes tells us about the history of the land, the power of names to reveal or hide.  This book gave me a new way of looking at history, both human and geological.  Her use of evocative, poetic language captured my imagination, and her views about race, history, and the land still have me enthralled.  Reading Trace will have you thinking of your place on the land and in history, who you are and who we are.”
— Percy Sutton, Brown University Bookstore (Providence, RI)

“This book is a brilliant and unique musing on American history and landscape.  Lauret Savoy is a mixed race woman and professor of geology and environmental studies.  Her search for family ancestors leads her to many landscapes, including the borderlands of the southwest, the Piedmont, the Grand Canyon, Lake Superior, Washington DC, and her birthplace in California.  Inevitably the role of race in American history is part of her family’s history.  Savoy details the inaccuracies, silences, and omissions throughout American history, including the Black Codes in Washington D.C. and South Carolina, land grabs from Mexico and Native peoples, segregation at Fort Huachuca, and the disappearance of African American towns in Oklahoma.  An important book as we struggle to understand and overcome the wrongs of American history and the impact on our current lives.”
— Joan Grenier, Odyssey Books (South Hadley, MA)

“A geologist and professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, Savoy is practiced in cutting through the fault lines of appropriated and revised cultural histories – plus the bedrock of manifest destiny, among so many other good, old American justifications – to get to the chase, as elusive and disguised as it can be.  “Trace” signifies both voyages and vestiges, and its essays, more soothing than seething, make up Savoy’s lyrical, always-questioning quest for her past multiracial selves, whether derived from family trees or roots back to Africa, Europe and the indigenous American landscape.  Writing and insight like this alone makes the book notable.  That it comes from voices of the suppressed – female, black, Native – usually absent from nature writing makes it significant, if not groundbreaking.”
The Trail Posse

“. . . a thoughtful collection of essays by Lauret Savoy . . . This is not a book to be read quickly. Rather, each of the eight essays deserves consideration on its own . . . [A]n interesting and important work . . . [H]er images are often poetic and her personal revelations can be striking . . . the close read is worth the effort.”
The Boston Globe

“In 2015, we have seen the release of many talented authors making connections across disciplines.  Writers like Rebecca Solnit and Ta-Nehisi Coates are flanked by the great American voice of Lauret Savoy.  In Trace, Savoy laces geography, geology, and critical race and ethnic studies into a meaningful and felicitous dialogue.  We are shown that the landscape of the body and mind can mirror Earth’s faults and craters.”
— Louise Barros, Bookshop Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)

“Drawing from her innate curiosity of her own roots and a lifetime spent discovering America (as traveler, teacher, photographer, pilot, and earth scientist), Savoy brings poetry and perspective to race and place unlike anything I’ve seen.  What you get is a survey of great depth and significance that completely widens our understanding of the word environment.”
— Jenn Witte, Skylight Books (Los Angeles, CA)

“[Lauret Savoy’s] brilliant new book “Trace” combines geography, cultural history, and personal history to tell a unique story about race and place in our nation . . . The reader stands alongside Savoy as she visits and revisits each of these landmarks.  With readers as her witnesses she explores the ways a place is infused with both broad national dialogue and voices that have been silenced by dominant culture . . . Savoy’s writing is passionate and poetic . . . Her stories may not be happy — but they are essential reading for anyone who cares about place and people in the United States of America.”
The Recorder

“Impressively and consistently well written, organized, and presented from beginning to end, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is a unique work that will prove to be a fully absorbing and informative read from first page to last.  Very highly recommended for both community and academic library collections.”
Midwest Book Review Bookwatch


Contact Lauret for more information.