Monday, January 14, 2008

What's in a Name?

'My name is Alice, but —'
'It's a stupid name enough!' Humpty Dumpty interrupted.
'What does it mean?'
'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.
'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh.

— Lewis Carroll

Aside from the fact that the naming of things is a fundamental human activity, it is important because our ability to name both reflects and determines our ability to perceive differences among the components of our environment. Most of us have no need for the high level of nomenclatural distinction practiced by academic botanists and zoologists (and geologists, soil scientists, etc.), but as a society we ought to be able to recognize that there is a qualitative difference between a golf course and a native prairie, although both may serve as open space. We need to cultivate sufficient discrimination to recognize that most plants we see along our roadsides are not wild nature at its best, but are as much a part of our modified human environment as street trees and backyard zinnias, though infinitely more interesting. Why is this important to anyone but a practicing taxonomist?

First, our ability to name helps us perceive differences more clearly. On a hike with a group of adults one spring, we came across a young bullsnake on the trail. As one of the women present admitted a fear of snakes she wished she could overcome, I picked the snake up so she could get better acquainted. But before I picked it up, there was an extended discussion of whether or not it was a rattlesnake. I was sure it wasn't, as I had no intention of picking up a rattlesnake, no matter how small. But others in this group, most of whom spend a great deal of time outdoors, weren't confident of the differences (and there are admittedly some similarities) between a rattlesnake and a bullsnake.

Similarly, I'm told that each year people confuse wild onions and death camas with disastrous results. Although I can see some resemblance in the linear leaves, the whole effect of the plants is, to me, now distinct. But I've been practicing, and can see a lot more now than I could a few years ago. The ability to distinguish can be developed, but without the ability to name, there's no way to mentally tag the items you've learned to distinguish. On a personal level, it may not matter whether we call the green butterflies 'Charlie' and the black and white ones 'Bob', as long as we start to become aware of the diversity around us. But there's no way to communicate our discoveries to others without a common set of names.

And you can learn something from knowing the proper names. Superficially, knowing the correct name allows you to look up many interesting tidbits about a creature, should you care to do so. More subtly perhaps, the name itself may be of interest. It may directly tell you about the creature described: 'yellow- bellied sapsucker' tells you a great deal about a bird (if inaccurately), as does 'red-shafted flicker'. Thus a well-crafted name aids in recognition and remembering. I recall the first time I saw a largish black insect rolling a ball of horse manure. 'Dung beetle' I called it in my mind, rejecting a few alternatives as unsuitable for general use, and dung beetle is indeed how these creatures are commonly known. I was similarly lucky with 'yellow- bellied racer', an unknown snake I described thus to a naturalist who confirmed its identity. However, I'm at a loss to describe the large ornate spiders that frequent our yard accurately enough to discover their name(s).

There seems to be a trend in environmental education to de-emphasize names as insignificant to understanding life forms. Is it that learning so many names places an excessive burden on our, or on children's, mental abilities? Or is it that such knowledge has become irrelevant to our daily lives in ways that it wasn't 50 years ago? Is it that we so rarely encounter a rattlesnake or a death camas that recognizing them accurately no longer matters?

The fact that what used to be natural history— concerned with the names and behaviors of plants and animals— now is environmental education—concerned with toxic wastes, rainforest destruction, ozone depletion, greenhouse effect, and so on—demonstrates the shift in our understanding. These frightening worldwide issues are part of our lives today, perhaps because we allowed ourselves to get so far out of touch with our surroundings and their inhabitants. As we no longer bother to know them by name, perhaps we've also neglected to notice what was happening to them, and to us.

Originally written 1988. These days we should add "global warming" to the above list of environmental education topics.

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