Friday, April 29, 2011

The names of things

Anenome patens, we call it Pasque Flower, a name that seemed just right this year, because I took this photo on Easter Sunday.

Like a lot of men, I often find myself asking forgiveness of the woman who puts up with me. What I have noticed lately with my wife is that when I am too obtuse to realize I have goofed up, she gives me a look that lets me know. Hard to describe, but it’s one of those graceful things a woman seems able to manifest without a lot of forethought.

Yesterday morning Karen joined me on a morning walk in the city and we stopped to listen to a junco singing from the top of a spruce tree. She said something about all the “fir trees” in the neighbourhood. Rather than outright correct her, I thought I would be more gentle, skilful, even a bit inclusive, and ponder aloud, “Odd, isn’t it that we have hardly any actual fir trees in the whole city, and spruce trees everywhere but we still call them ‘fir’. Hmmph. Strange.”

Turning to Karen I saw her face flash from incredulity to the Buddha who suffers fools inclined to say one too many times that a paddle and an oar are two different things. I opened my mouth to make apologetic noises but was stopped by another look.

“Don’t even bother,” the look said. And so I didn’t.

Then spent the rest of the day wondering why the names of things matter to me, apart from their obvious utility as merit badges for the know it all and convenient handles for communication. Why not just have direct, unmediated experiences of each thing in its thingness, each being in its (inter)beingness? Why let any “spruce” or “fir” intervene between our apprehension and the green cone of branching, prickly matter shooting up from the lawn?

Naming seems like the most human of acts. Yes, dolphins can recognize one another by unique signature whistles, but can they refer to one another by repeating that whistle? Other animals use non-linguistic communication to recognize their own offspring of course, but naming allows more than recognition; it allows for reference. A name makes it easy for me to tell you about a subject that is neither you nor I.

Pasque flower again next to a piece of limestone sprinked with lichens I cannot name though the yellow one is likely a Xanthoria

We have no way of knowing whether any other animal can stick a referent on something and use it in language, but it seems unlikely. Interesting too that in Creation myths, it’s usually man and not God or nature that does the naming of the myriad forms. There is a built-in arrogance there, and assumption of primacy or dominion, but perhaps it is not unfounded. For a primate with very dependant offspring travelling in extended family clans, the capacity to use words to differentiate and tag the differences must have been a tremendously helpful advantage. A few hundred generations later, however, these naming hominids have taken the adaptation to the hubristic extremes now threatening the planet’s life systems.

Even as we homogenize the earth with the bland over-culture of our desires writ large, we are losing the names of the things. Entire indigenous languages have been extinguished and degraded so that the names of places and creatures most intimately christened by human tongues are lost to our wisdom. Prairie school children not very long ago would learn the names of several birds and wildflowers as part of the curriculum, but that is gone. A fifth-grader today can recognize and name twenty corporate logos, but would be unable to put a tag on the red-breasted bird yanking worms from his front lawn.

Science and faith seem to agree that we live in a relational cosmos, a universe where things are intimately interconnected and wonderfully complex. Naming helps us to participate consciously in and to make some sense of that relationality. Even revel in it if we choose. But it does something else too that could perhaps help us renew our relationships, the oh so crucial ones that might keep us from destroying the earth. In traditional narratives of romance between two people or religious narratives of blessing between Creator and created, the saying of a name is a deep expression of love.

In our hearts we understand that we can only love what we know and only know what we can distinguish within the many forms that surround us. To love a child is certainly to love all children, but paradoxically, to love a child is also to recognize that child as unique, to say its name.

I may never be privileged to see creation from the mystic’s or the quantum physicist’s perch and know that all is truly united in a singular flow of matter and energy, despite the illusory spin of time and space. Like most people, I am caught in an ego that sees itself as real and distinct and looks outward on a lot of other creatures that seem very real and distinct too. I confess to enjoying the distinctions and am endlessly curious to know more of what it is that makes one being a little bit different from another.

this time of year on the prairie, every willow that looks like this is a "Pussy Willow" and maybe that is name enough


  1. The popular names of wildflowers are among the last remnants of old English language and world view: Johnny-Jump-up, Bladderwort, Cowbane, Jack-in-the-Pulpit,Bugloss,Gill-Over-the-Ground, etc.

    And of course, Pussy Willow!

  2. Pete:

    I was away for a few days and just found your comment now. Those flower names are treasures of the language. I'd be interested to hear more about what you mean by the old English world view.


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