Names, True and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about names. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given that I’m either doing science, which is rife with complicated names and nomenclature, or writing stories where names are just part of the process of building a world.

I think the thing that got me started on this tangent was discovering this app, Seek, that tries to identify plants and animals from your pictures. It’s something I’ve kind of wanted to exist for years, and while it’s not perfect, it does a pretty good job, especially with plants with flowers and things that hold still long enough to get a good picture. As a person who mostly knows a molecular world, it’s been fun to learn the names of things around me I didn’t know about – names like Farewell-to-Spring, Love-in-a-mist, Redclaws, and Heart’s Ease. Red Hot Poker and Pride of Madeira and Hound’s Tongue. Brass Buttons and Blue-eyed Grass.

The names are wonderful. They provide insight into the nature of a thing, what it looks like, what it’s good for, where it came from. But beyond the fanciful descriptions and hints at stories behind the names lies more than simply strings of words. I’m now hooked on identifying random plants in my neighborhood because they make me stop and make sense of seemingly small things around me. They ground me in place. A name suggests a thing’s significance and thus knowing a name gives access into an overlooked world full of importance outside of one’s self and species. A good name is like a signpost in the mental map of the world, saying here is a thing that matters, here is thing to remember.

And you know, everything really matters, and humans name absolutely everything, given the chance.

It really all reminds me, while scrolling through the list of flowers, algae, fish, and fungi I have observed through this app, of how prevalent the idea of true names is in fantasy. The idea generally shows up in the magic system of a story world, where a character must know the true name of a thing in order to have power over it. I can think of half a dozen examples of this trope without working at it, but my favorite is of course in the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin (favorite series by favorite author), where there is great emphasis on restraint and balance in how you use the knowledge and power you gain.

What interests me then, is that there’s this whole understanding of the power of names and yet, despite this, we have serious societal amnesia when it comes to knowing something about the world around us, especially the natural world. Plant blindness. We don’t know the names of the organisms that co-inhabit our cities let alone those that live wild and unseen. I don’t mean to say this in a kids-these-days kind of way, or imply that it’s a failing of individuals exactly. The world is changing, and fast-paced life with high demands on time and limited opportunity to interact with nature doesn’t exactly facilitate environmental education. And there’s so much information to process, that of course we get overloaded and processing plants of all things on top of it all is a bit too much. Add into this an unequal access to green spaces, and it feels like something vital is cut off from a wide swath of the population.

I want to say there’s something about nature and imagination and having variety and other living things that is good for a person, and it’s not that one can’t be imaginative and healthy and full of a sense of place where nature as generally understood is not, but it feels like there is something inherently displacing about urban spaces when they lack space for life, green or otherwise. I love my biology/geology education for giving me a sense of place – it’s difficult to feel lost or ungrounded or adrift when you can look around and see the long geologic history of the earth beneath your feet and identify the organisms that are living their lives around you. But this tapestry of interaction is only appreciable when you can see it – I may be enjoy a coastal meadow, a tidepool, a deep forest, but what does this knowledge mean to somebody who lacks access to even manicured and fairly sterile city park? What good is an app to identify wildlife if the only habitat available to them in your neighborhood is one of concrete and glass?

A name can reveal a history of injustices and misunderstandings. In that way the real world will never work out as neatly as it does in stories (there are no True Names), but it does reveal hidden narratives that can be brought to light and reexamined. There’s that difference between the scientific name and the common name – the scientific name has purpose in the cataloguing of things, but it doesn’t capture everything, and doesn’t always pay homage to the names that came before. Neither do common names. What we see is, like much of history, a story written by those in power, with all too often the names given to plants and animals by the people native to a land overwritten by those of the people who drove them out. I think of endangered languages, so many names and so many stories lost, so much of humanity.

It’s all thorny territory. I look again through my list of plants, and see so many that are invasive. What does it mean that my vegetal landmarks, contributors to landscapes I love to live in and admire, have strangled a landscape I never had the chance to see? My baseline for this place is already one of destruction. How can we rebuild an environment when we don’t really understand it’s history? When the names and the knowledge has been lost?

I don’t know how to fix things, but I do believe that it’s here, in the names and narratives, in the language we use, that the roots lie. Understanding the stories we tell about places, why a thing is called by X name instead of Y, who came before us and how they spoke of the place, is a powerful thing.

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