Book Begins with Beech

Lana Lin explores legacies of imperial naming practices, and the urgency to speak out against injustice.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.



In Deutsches Wörterbuch (1860), a kind of “natural history of words,” the Brothers Grimm proposed that the etymology of “book,” Buch in German, developed from the Germanic words for “beech tree.” This etymology was canonised by philologist Johannes Hoops in 1913. Although the accuracy of the etymology has been questioned, it is often true that the name of something derives from the material it’s made of, a series of carved beech tablets comprising a collection or archive of words we have come to know as a “book.”

            What, then, does a beech share with a book? How are they family members?

            I, too, share my name with a tree, or trees in general. Lin in Chinese means “woods” or forest.” I recently discovered at my teenage home a small piece of wood with my Chinese name burned into it that I used to wear as a necklace—though I cannot remember exactly how it came into being.

            Perhaps my father pencilled in the calligraphy on the 2” block, after which I took a soldering gun and traced over the characters. I think I recall sanding down the corners of the rectangular wood to smoothen and round them. I still feel a lingering sense of pride as it settles in my palm, now at least four decades, if not closer to five, since this wooden amulet emerged.

            What possesses an adolescent girl to announce her name to others in a script unfamiliar to herself and illegible to most around her? She can practically count the times on one hand that her given name has been spoken in her presence. Yet somehow the three characters making up her full name are bonded to her. Though she rarely uses and has difficulty pronouncing them, she takes possession of the foreign syllables. She both owns and owes her name. A debt comes with a gift.

I learn from poet C. D. Wright in her book Casting Deep Shade that Cherokee carved arborglyphs on beech trees along the Trail of Tears, possibly as markers for buried belongings they later intended to collect. These cryptograms were illegible to the White men who were driving them from their homes. They were likely written in the syllabary that Sogwali or Sikwâ’y, known today as Sequoyah, invented in the 1800s.

Plans for the Tellico Dam, situated on the Little Tennessee River, were approved by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1963, and neared completion in the early 1970s despite local opposition to displacement and environmental destruction for the sake of economic development. Activists sought to protect the snail darter fish under the Endangered Species Act. Not unlike the native peoples who had co-existed with the fish for centuries, a legal exception allowed for the eradication of this endangered species.

            In 1979 Amoneeta Sequoyah, great-great-great grandchild of Sequoyah, filed a suit against the TVA to prohibit further construction on the Tellico Dam which would flood sacred Cherokee lands. The petition to save the spiritual centre of the Cherokee nation on the basis of the free exercise of religion was dismissed because the judge ruled that the Cherokee people could not claim the land as their legal property. An appeal was filed which was also denied, but on different grounds—the Cherokee relationship to land was deemed cultural rather than religious.

            The entry on Tellico Dam in The Encyclopedia of Water Politics and Policy in the United States makes no reference to the many Cherokee villages flooded by the dam, including Tanasi, the origin of Tennessee’s name. It does, however, state that the snail darter fish survived transplantation and has been upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” Could one say this about the indigenous people who survived transplantation and have gone from endangered to threatened?

            Construction of Sequoyah Nuclear Plant began in 1970 and commercial operation in 1981. On the Tennessee Valley Authority website, under “Sequoyah Nuclear Plant,” we find the “History of Sequoyah,” which attributes the nuclear plant’s namesake to “a famous Cherokee scholar…who developed the only written language of any Native American tribe.” TVA’s commemoration of the neographer might have been conceived as perverse compensation for its decimation of Cherokee homelands. One can hardly imagine a more striking demonstration of the violence of naming and its complicated legacies. A name can stake a claim, and in that sense, it is an exercise of entitlement.

In a scathing critique of the imperial naming practices of colonial science, Jamaica Kincaid narrates how Carl Linnaeus, who becomes known as the father of nomenclature and taxonomy, inherited from his own father his surname which was adopted from a linden tree. The “little botanist” who loved flowers and plants as a youth went on to name them and all the other organisms he made contact with from the remote regions of the globe.

            Kincaid does not know what to call the system of exploitation set in motion with the conquest of the world, a world named as “new” because Christopher Columbus “couldn’t find enough words to describe what he saw before him.” The Caribbean American writer who changed her own name from Elaine Potter Richardson resists the designation of “history”—because the history handed down by those who name without knowing constructs reality as a web in which she is caught. To be “In History,” as the essay is called, is to breathe an open wound that, like a lacerated tree, does not heal. A tree can seal its injured site with a callous, but it will always retain its wound.

            A beech tree does not know itself by the name our forebears gave it. Like a gift, a name cannot always be refused. As with the etymology of “book” deriving from “beech,” the etymology of the sequoia tree is contested. The widely accepted explanation is that Stephan Endlicher, an Austrian botanist who also studied linguistics, named the mammoth, enduring redwoods after Sequoyah, taking its Latin spelling, Sequoia. Hence one of the most massive living organisms on earth shares the name and tragically may share the same fate as the indigenous man they are meant to honour.

            Climate-exacerbated wildfires, drought, and increased bark beetle populations are ravaging this planet’s West Coast monarchs. Beech bark disease is attacking the arboreal guardians on the East Coast. The seventy-plus-year-old majestic copper beech that stands upon the mossy plot of land where my partner and I live is struggling with beech leaf disease. We cannot bear the prospect of the closing of this cherished book, which holds so much history from before we settled here. Sequoyah called the written papers of the White man “talking leaves.” The leaves of our copper beech companion have fallen silent this summer.

I have been playing The New York Times’s popular game, Wordle, which trains the mind to ponder words of five letters. “Beech” might be included in Wordle, but “book” would be excluded. If not for its seven letters, “sequoia” would surely be the preeminent starter word as it is the only commonly used word in the English language that uses each of the vowels. I am stunned it took five guesses, pulling out my laptop, and creating a spreadsheet to finally come up with “mossy,” when it is both underfoot and around me every day.

            As Wordle enthusiasts know, July 4’s word was “irate.” It’s difficult to avoid making a connection, if only subconsciously, between the word of the day and the day itself, especially if one Wordles over breakfast.

            For at least the past several years, Democracy Now! has broadcast Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” on what many US residents call “Independence Day.” James Earl Jones’s baritone oozed “irate” as he deliberately enunciated Douglass’s venomous address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society:

Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

            Douglass’s speech has lost none of its relevance, painfully adaptable to “What to the Black Is the Fourth of July?,” “What to the Native Is the Fourth of July?,” or “What to the Undocumented Is the Fourth of July?,” even “What to the Tree Is the Fourth of July?”

            July 5th’s Wordle was “venom.”

            A passage from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals frequently hums through my mind like a refrain one cannot get out of one’s head: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” This passage was an impetus for a film I made revisiting Lorde’s text.

As I am held captive by these words, I think of how Lorde linked words that you cannot yet articulate, that exceed your grasp, with the need to quell the silence that constricts you. This is not a simple matter of being at a loss for words. It is almost as if the urgency to speak out against injustice is so momentous that it surpasses words, and it is our obligation to ourselves to tame the monstrosity. We might carve words as messages to ourselves, perhaps to return to later to find one’s belongings, as I found myself etched into the balsa wood that bore my name.


A book begins with beech.






Lana Lin is an artist, filmmaker, and writer. Her work has been shown at international venues including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; REDCAT contemporary arts center, LA; Busan Biennale 2018; China Taipei Film Archive; and the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum, NY. Her feature, The Cancer Journals Revisited (2018), premiered at BAMcinemaFest, and won Best Feature Documentary at the San Diego Asian American Film Festival and Favorite Experimental Film Award at BlackStar Film Festival, Philadelphia. Her most recent collaborative film, Three Missing Letters (Lin + Lam, 2021), has screened at Mimesis Film Festival, Boulder, CO; Onion City Film Festival, Chicago; and European Media Art Festival, Osnabrück, Germany. She has received fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and has been awarded residencies at Civitella Ranieri and MacDowell. Her writing has been published in World Records, Millennium Film Journal, ASAP/Journal, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and Asian American Literary Review. She is the author of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer (Fordham, 2017) and is an Associate Professor at The New School, NY.


All photos by Lana Lin with thanks to H. Lan Thao Lam.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 




Lana LIN

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live