Friday, July 30, 2010

Derivations on a Theme - Naming Names

Oh, the things we humans can become frustrated with! Cecil at Rambling Without Bounds wrote about one of his frustrations this morning; one I used to share.
I feel like I let myself down every time I head into the woods. I get angry with myself because I can’t always identify the plants, weeds, and shrubs in my midst. I’ve been promising myself for years to rectify this situation by making a more in depth study of the subject. I know the shapes of the plants, I know where they grow, but I don’t know their names. This keeps me from fully enjoying the forest, which I consider to be my second home and refuge from society.
There are many majestic trees in the forest beyond my backyard. Many are towering evergreens over 100 feet tall. I spend a lot of time looking at them and walking beneath them. However, if you asked me to tell you what specific kind of tree each one is, I don't have much of a clue!

When we first moved to South Bend, I vowed to get a book about trees to study. I wanted to be able to point to each specimen and know its name and all sorts of trivial information about each type of tree. It's not so much that I wanted to dazzle others with my keen knowledge; it was more that I wanted to be able to name names for myself.

I actually did checkout a book or two of this nature from the local library, but I decided I really didn't need to study them after all. I hearkened back to the words of Lao Tzu in the first verse of the Tao Te Ching.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a biologist or a naturalist knowing the names of the plants they work with, it is not something that I personally need to know. The specific name of a plant does nothing to increase my experience of it. Knowing that this one is a cedar and that one is a spruce doesn't cause me to embrace them more.

Heck, knowing the name of poison ivy is of far less importance than recognizing a plant that will cause me to itch if it brushes against my skin. Knowing the name of a toxic mushroom is of much less importance than recognizing a plant that, if consumed, could cause severe intestinal distress or, possibly, death.

Names certainly can be useful in some situations, but they hold far less importance than we give them credit for. In my personal circumstance, the names are meaningless because they will do nothing to deepen the spiritual relationship I have established with the flora in the forest. We connect daily and naming names seems superfluous.

Besides, I really don't think any of the trees or other flora know my name and I have yet to experience one of them who showed any frustration in this happenstance.


  1. Naming has no spiritual significance, but may have social value, like if you were compiling an herbalist's manual...or giving directions..."you can find the St. John's Wort (see figure 1) in the field behind the tall cedar". Without names we couldn't really communicate.

  2. i once had a coworker who had previously been an avid scuba diver. like many scuba divers, he dreamed of turning his avocation into a vocation. in fact, me did so. he captured and sold exotic fish to aquariums and gift shops. I asked why he had ever given up that "dream job." He said that one day while diving, he realized that the great beauty that had inspired him to scuba dive had been replaced with seeing dollar signs instead of beautiful fish. "oh, there goes $10. wow, there's $20 over there, i hope i can catch it."


  3. The name is useful at a certain level. I'm trying to learn the plants here where I am, because it's a beginning way to getting to know the forest community, to know just who all those lives are.

    On a practical level, as Baroness Radon said, they are useful. But for me the main point is to learn the plant, not the name; the name is just shorthand. But to know what's edible and what can kill you, what can be used for making cordage or baskets, what is good firewood and what isn't... that's what I'm after. The more you know, the more you can stand amazed at it. Finding out it's name is the doorway to that.

    But I quite understand what you're saying. Actually, I think we basically agree.


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