While rereading Beryl Markham’s classic West with the Night recently, I stumbled across an old friend, a rare word of much power. Beryl describes her 1920s Kenya as “an untrammeled country,” and in that simple phrase says so much. I was reminded of Wallace Stegner, in On the Teaching of Creative Writing, who asserts that every word counts, and we must choose each with great care.
Untrammeled – not hampered or restricted, not deprived of freedom of action.
Those who treasure wild places have seen this word before. The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “. . . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Nearly everybody assumes Congress simply used a highfalutin’ version of untrampled. And yes, it will be nice if the wilderness remains untrampled. But that’s such a narrow term, describing only the destructive clomp of heavy feet on fragile nature. Untrammeled, however, gives us the vibrant song of natural systems in full cry; water cycles nourishing, food chains selecting, the fire and ice, the wind and water molding, at a pace they alone choose, a Nature for the next eon. To praise an untrammeled wilderness is also to humble our own species, removing our presumptions of dominance.
In America, common discourse employs 2500 words or less. While a writer can and should use this vocabulary creatively, I believe that much of the art of writing hides in the next 2500 words, those lying just beyond the mundane. Nothing high blown. Nothing over-written. But a carefully chosen word with a special nuance, inserted at just the right place, can provide a fillip (there’s another one) to the writer’s art.