I love a book where the outdoor setting becomes an epic character in its own right. From mountainous hikes of ’Lord of the Rings’ to flatland and river crossings of ’Lonesome Dove’—from the pine forest battleground of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ to the bucolic countryside where rabbits(!) battle in ‘Watership Down’—in the hands of a talented writer, the landscape can become an active participant in the story, driving the plot, dominating the mood, or dispatching characters as ruthlessly as any living adversary. I love when I stumble upon new words that describe types of terrain. Here are a few of my favorite:
Talus: A slope of loose rubble. Fallen and broken rocks that pile up at the foot of a cliff or mountain. I believe ‘Reamde’ used this term a lot during its climactic firefight scene in the wild lands of northern Idaho.
Scree: A slope covered with small loose stones. (Okay, very similar to ‘talus,’ but still a great word!)
Saddle: A ebb in a mountain ridge: A small depression or flat space between two higher peaks. I’m pretty sure I first read this term during a hair-raising scene that George R.R. Martin wrote, describing a passage into the Vale of Arryn.
Foothills: The rolling terrain that signals the higher slopes of mountains to come. I’ve lived my whole life near the start of the Appalachian foothills, either in North Carolina or Atlanta.
Spur: A line of higher ground, extending out from the side of a taller ridge or mountain.
Draw: The shallow depression between two spurs. A good place to find water runoff.
Arroyo: A gorge or ravine in a desert or typically dry area. The gully is cut by a river during heavy rains. In Arabic, this is called a ‘wadi.’
Serac: A ridge of ice on a glacier. I think this phrase was used again and again in Dan Simmons’ historical fiction horror novel, ‘The Terror.’ The book is about a ship in the 1840s that is stranded on ice in the Arctic Circle. The first image in my mind was a flat wasteland of ice, with a ship trapped in the middle. But Simmons explains that the pressure of gigantic ice floes coming together thrust up thousands of jagged ridges and hook-shaped spires that turn the arctic into an inhospitable maze—that’s especially for sailors with nothing but 19th-Century technology to help them survive.
That’s a few of the types of terrain I could think of. Can you think of any others you love?