Discuss: The Failure of Names
I enjoyed Prosek’s article. Biological nomenclature is a fabulous tool without which making sense of the natural world would be impossible for us, but it’s good to be occasionally reminded that it’s only a tool, and that phyla, genera and species are inventions, not real things.
When we name things we think we understand them. Nothing could be further from the truth. How many of these things we name behave, interact and support each other are still mysterious- and may be lost to extinction before we understand, scientifically, what they mean to the earth and to our survival? Such a tragedy in the making.
As a naturalist and artist, I too was obessed with knowing the names of the plants and animals and birds around me. But I slowly came to realize that knowing the name of something was almost an excuse to check it off and move on to the next one. I thought that knowing the name of something meant I knew it, but as the author implies, that’s not true at all. If anything, it’s merely the beginning. But all too often, having the name is enough and make most people stop paying attention any longer. Which is too bad and rather indicative of our culture’s relationship to nature at this point and time.
As my husband and I struggle to name our first and unborn son, this conversation strikes me as particularly pertinent. Although creatures change and sometimes outlive the usefulness of their names, names often do evolve with the creature. Growing, living things are not static. Naming is incredibly important, yet such a human thing to do, to try to control and understand things that may always have an element of mysteriousness.
The artwork that accompanies Prosek’s article is so compelling and very expressive of the ideas he put in writing. As a botanist, I completely agree! I imagine a similar approach to botanical illustration combined with herbarium specimens. So interesting that much of classification is based on appearances in death rather than life. However, I would say that having name for a group/species/population or even and individual of a trout/bird/plant etc. is important if we are going to have meaningful dialogue about any life form. The diversity within any species or other taxon can be broadly described within the context of the label we give it, with the common understanding that the boundaries between taxon are often very fuzzy or overlapping. And if you’re an entomologist, this gets even more confusing because of various life stages! Great essay!
i’m a visual artist, as well. i also write poetry, so i, too find the crossover between words and images very interesting. for years, i’ve been wanting to write a poem called, “name the birds,” which will feature many of the very beautiful and exciting bird names, but ultimately conclude with the truth that no name can possibly capture the essence of a living thing. lately i’ve been reading and listening to eckhart tolle, and i feel that he compasses the larger questions this idea comes from/goes to so wonderfully. and therefore recommend him heartily to all who ask them…
I enjoyed Prosek’s writing and art, as I always do. It put me in mind of John Fowles’ great essay “The Green Man,” obscure these days, but one of the most brilliant essays I’ve read on art, process, and nature. It’s not easily distilled, but Fowles says of naming:
“In the 1950s I grew interested in Zen theories of ‘seeing’ and aesthetics: of learning to look beyond names at things-in-themselves. I stopped bothering to identify species new to me, and I concentrated more on the familiar, daily nature around me, where I then lived. But living without names is impossible, if not downright idiocy, in a writer. . .. I discovered, too, that there was less conflict than I had imagined between nature as external assembly of names and nature as internal feeling; that the two modes of seeing could in fact marry and take place almost simultaneously, and enrich each other.”
The essay examines naming further, and goes on to say: “The subtlest of our alienations from [nature], the most difficult to comprehend, is our need to use* it in some way, to derive some personal yield.”
The word “use,” to Fowles, includes “to make ourselves feel more positive, more meaningful, more dynamic.” These, he concludes, are not reasons to preserve nature. It’s a fine essay written far before its time in 1979, in The Tree, by Fowles.