I had the pleasure of visiting home for a week last month. I walked around the gardens with Mom and Dad as I have countless times before and they pointed to flowers that were in bloom or were about to and told me their names. The names are just as often Latin ones as common. Epimedium. Echinacea. Dogwood. Then there are the variety names of Dad’s specialties: peonies and hostas. Paula Fey. Nellie. Striptease. Moonstone. Sum and Substance. Praying Hands.
I have heard these plant names as often as I have those of many neighbors and acquaintances that make up my parents’ community. To know something by name is to have a relationship with it. To have been properly introduced. You are no longer be strangers. I am at home at my parents’ place because I know the people surrounding me, including neighbors driving by and friends who stop in for a visit, but just as much because I am familiar with the natural surroundings, including birds, fauna and flowers. I can say, “Oh, there’s a kingfisher,” right where I would expect it to be sitting on the power line above the creek.
When I first moved to Seattle it was disconcerting to me to walk by people’s gardens and not know the names of things. I could admire the beauty of a brightly colored flower or an intricate leaf and perhaps recognize it again in a different location, but we weren’t properly acquainted, I didn’t know its name.
As I have gotten to know a few of the common plants here I feel more relaxed, more comfortable, and yes, more at home. I still have a lot to learn, but even just being able to identify a few helps. I love Japanese Andromeda. We have nothing like artichokes growing back in Wisconsin, but at least I know one when I see it now. As well as rhododendron, lavender, and California Poppy.
Outside of the natural arena too, knowing what to properly call things is a clear sign of being an insider versus an outsider. I quickly learned that Qwest field is pronounced “quest” and not “Q-west.” And University Way, inexplicably, must be referred to as “the Ave,” and this UW is the “u-dub.”
These local place names we pick up quickly in conversation, but it is much less common to know the names of our natural surroundings. If people did know the names of the birds they heard overhead or the flowers in the ditch, these things might become much more important to them. I have a whole different relationship with the birds whose call I recognize. I hear them and I think, “hello Mr. Chickadee.” Or, “There’s the red-winged blackbird, a sure sign of spring.”
Other bird song goes by as background noise, unrecognized, which is sad to me. I would like to be much more proficient at naming things both here and back in Wisconsin. There are only a few bird calls I recognize and still loads of flowers and trees I can not name. Repetition is important. It’s taken years of walking around the gardens with my parents to remember the names there. Here, I have whole new categories to learn, like marine life found at low tide on the beach, an entire world we don’t have in the Midwest. I love combing the sand and tide pools with my eyes for sculpin, sea stars, and the spouts of geoducks. And I love that I know it is pronounced “gooey duck.”
Perhaps it is a sign of being too heavily dependent on or giving too much weight to the verbal left side of my brain that I want to be able to name everything. I want a word to go with my experience. It almost becomes my experience. If I can’t name what I see, I can’t remember it or feel as deeply into it. It’s just not the same to say I saw a pretty pinkish flower in the woods, as to report that I enjoyed seeing wild geraniums.