Monday 9 May 2011

The naming of things

 Whilst fretting about his inability to recall certain plant names
Richard Mabey in Nature Cure examines his need to know.

It seems to be a basic human reaction,
the first steps in beginning a relationship:
'What's your name?' 

So why bother, an unfamiliar, relaxed voice inside me says.
Why not simply relish the spring's new life
(and your new life, for goodness' sake) -
its exquisite variation, the interplay of the yellow moss ground,
the filigree sedges, the solid mass of tussocks,
the growingness of it all? 

Well I can, I think, but don't find it easy to stop there.
Some inner tic - not just an intellectual reflex -
makes me want to know who they all are.

Some years ago, when he was toying with Zen Buddhism, 
John Fowles suggested that,
'the name of the plant is a pane of dirty glass
between you and it.'
I've never been able to share this feeling,
even though I understand what he was getting at.
It seems to me that naming a plant,
and for that matter any living thing,
is a gesture of respect towards its individuality,
its distinction from the generalised green blur.
It is, in a way, exactly a gesture:
as natural and clarifying as pointing.
The kind of name - scientific, popular,
fantastical, pet - scarcely matters,
provided someone can communicate it.


  1. Daisies are probably my favorite flower if one can have favorites when you love them all.

  2. I agree absolutely with you. And to be the recipient of a name is to be acknowledged as an individual (person, plant, animal, whatever).

    Beautiful photos of the wossermacallit too......

  3. I was a hardened addict of naming. I think education got me hooked. But advancing age and diminishing faculties have almost broken me of the habit.
    In retrospect, I wonder if the urge feeds an illusion of some sort of power over life's complexities?

  4. I've never been one for individual plant names, or animal or human for that matter. What concerns me is friendliness and dependability with a healthy appearance.

  5. Exactly! How beautifully put.
    (I was very lucky today - found a wildflower guide for a pound in the charity shop this morning!)

  6. I'm so terrible at remembering names, of people, places or things, that I'm better off just enjoying the moment for that will stay with me long after the names are gone.

  7. I was just talking with a friend about how naming something, or figuring out what it's name is, matters. I think it helps you distinguish Indian warrior (flower) from Indian paintbrush (also a flower). I don't know why, but it seems helpful. When you see a black phoebe all the way across campus, you know it's the same sort of bird you've got in your tree. If you hadn't bothered to figure out what its name was in the first place, you might not have even noticed it.

  8. I think naming is also part of an ordering of your universe - but it is an ordering in a wordy way. My husband is dyslexic, and struggles with names, and I sometimes accuse him of living in a disorderly world, but truth to tell, he just orders it in a different way, a way which makes sense to him.

    Pomona x

  9. Well said. I agree, but it is partly due to my love of putting things in words, I think.