On the naming and not naming of things

Last week I took E out to Roslin Glen, for an impromptu picnic and a long walk in the springtime outdoors. We brought along the camera and snapped photos of one another and of the many lovely things we encountered along the way. We didn’t know much of what we were looking at, but set that aside and simply wandered along, observing, receiving, forming impressions and chatting about whatever we came across – relaxed, absorbed, and out of context. We pretended to be aliens from another world, seeing our surroundings for the first time and considering them in their fresh weirdness. All the same, we felt very much at home.

That night in the flat, we pulled out the Collins guide and set about identifying the subjects of the photos.  This naming of things – the puzzle and the hunt and the ah-ha moment of recognition – created a frisson of satisfaction, like setting a book on its shelf and pushing it into place within the row of spines, with a quiet thunk. It wiped away the lingering residue of fantasy, and the buzz I had carried back with me. It bottled and labeled the experience, to be set among my collection of memories.

I can’t pretend that I am anything but mostly ignorant about the natural world.  Once, when E was a toddler, my friend K took us out for a walk in the Norfolk countryside. As we walked along together, she pointed out to us every wild plant and insect and bird and creature in view, identifying and describing things with such easy familiarity, such sincere enjoyment, that I felt overwhelmed and wondered aloud at the breadth of her knowledge. She replied that long country walks with her family were a weekend staple of her childhood, and over many years her parents had followed the same patient process of observing, pointing, naming, teaching. Ah yes, that makes sense. My parents too were mostly ignorant of the natural world, a common modern heritage.

Later I tried to address this gap in my knowledge. I spent a few years tagging along with a group of natural history enthusiasts, many of whom pursued areas of professional expertise. These folks understood species and habitats and life cycles and migration patterns and conservation issues. They collected specimens and data and published analyses and used Linnaean classification. They owned high resolution binoculars and pocket magnifiers and echolocation equipment. Their enthusiasm was genuine and inspiring. But I never really belonged or felt entirely at ease among them, because I kept forgetting the names of things. What is the taxonomic nomenclature for “plant thingy”?

While we were at Roslin playing our alien game, E and I marveled at these modest, lovely little flowers that cheered up the gravelly and otherwise unadorned roadside.  Here is the photo we took:


Uncannily, I now find them sprouting up across the Internet. Here is one in the launch post of a new blog by S, in which she pays tribute to its beauty and its useful qualities; here are some others, elderly and fragile, in a lovely photo by James Aldridge.

And I will end this by sharing a little of what we saw on our walk.  I invite you to imagine yourself an alien, from some far off other planet with its own strange living things, seeing them for the first time.


6 thoughts on “On the naming and not naming of things

  1. Aha, the kerchink of serendipity 🙂 I’ve also been mulling over my scanty knowledge of the names of wild things – and what those names might not reveal. Plus, the dandelions are definitely trying to tell us something: this is the sixth celebration of their wonders to cross my way in the last few days.

  2. Pingback: Ah, Dandelion & Ahoy, Dark Mountain #2 | Astral Cat's Abroadcast

  3. Your well chosen words on the naming of things reminded me of a passage in Barry Lopez’s wonderful book ‘Arctic Dreams’. I hope he will not object to me quoting it in full:

    ‘To lie on your back somewhere on the light-drained tundra of an Ellesmere Island valley is to feel that the ice age might have ended but a few days ago. Without the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance, it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come. We move at such a fast clip now. We draw up geological charts at a snap, showing the possibilities for oil in Tertiary rocks in the Sverdrup Basin beneath Ellesmere’s tundra. We delineate the life history of the ground squirrel. We list the butterflies: the sulphurs, the arctics, a copper, a blue, the lesser fritillaries. At a snap we enumerate the plants. We name everything. Then we fold the charts and the catalogues, as if, except for a stray fact or two, we were done with a competent description. But the land is not a painting; the image cannot be completed this way.’

    The passage continues beautifully to evoke the vastness of arctic space and time. Ellesmere Island is a far cry from Rosslyn Glen but the argument holds good. By naming things we seek to comfort ourselves that, firstly, we are taming things and, then, that we are claiming things. The price is that we set ourselves apart from all other life, we assert dominion over it and forget how to belong to it.

  4. Beautiful photos, I’d love to see these plants in person. I think the naming and knowing of plants is a big loss to us modern humans. I grew up around a family that still remembered about plants, and everywhere we went plants were named as well as their uses, things like, “you can eat the leaves of that plant in a salad” or “drink the tea of this plant’s leaves when you have allergies and colds”, etc…I lost track of all that knowledge for many years, but am coming back to it now, am happy to do so. The knowledge can be regained, one plant at a time, but I wouldn’t limit yourself to names alone, not enough meaning for our minds to remember names only, but instead learn the stories and the uses of each plant, much easier to remember than just a name in my opinion.
    Dandelions are delicious to eat and make great medicine, too. 🙂
    I like your blog.

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