Monday, December 7, 2009

The Allure of Naming

The other day, I was out walking and saw an unfamiliar bird. I was quite certain it was a heron, probably a little blue heron, but I wasn't sure what to make of its legs, which were a lovely shade of lime green. The bird stood nearby, wary of me, but not intimidated enough to fly away. I enjoyed seeing its soft blue-grey plumage at close range and hoped I might actually witness it catching a fish, but at the same time a question nagged at me—what kind of bird is this, what is its name? It was as if I couldn't fully claim the experience of seeing the bird without being able to identify it.

A short search on the Internet satisfied my curiosity. The bird was indeed a little blue heron, but specifically a non-breeding adult. The breeding adults have a more purplish tinge to their head and neck, and their legs and feet are dark blue. I felt a surge of pleasure and relief. Now I knew the bird I'd seen. But then a new question nagged at me—why is naming so important?

Years ago, when I wrote poetry, I was in a workshop with a talented poet. She wrote beautiful poems about the natural landscape, using descriptions of flora and fauna to provide insights about the human condition. While I enjoyed her use of language and her perceptions, I was blown away by her knowledge of flowers and plants. She could name every native New England flower and every northeastern bird, weaving their characteristics skillfully into her poems. At the time, I feared my inability to do this disqualified me as a poet. Even when I got past that concern, I continued to admire her ability, convinced it gave her a deeper appreciation of our exterior and interior worlds.

I'm a tidy person with a need for order. Perhaps the ability to name satisfies some related urge. By naming flowers and birds I create a sense of order in what otherwise might be a chaotic scene. That explanation is appealing, but I think it falls short. It seems to me that by learning the identity of plants and animals, I become more aware of the world around me—my powers of observation literally increase. The next time a non-breeding little blue heron is in my neighborhood, I'll spot it more quickly. By learning its name, I've created a connection in my brain that will allow me to see it more easily the next time.

Whatever the reason, one thing is sure—the feeling of satisfaction I get from the act of naming is enough to keep me at it.


  1. What bothers me about naming is that we think we know something when we know its name... whether it be a bird, a person, a rock. We shut off exploring the characteristics of the object once we remember its name. Maybe I should become nameless so that people go beyond my name.

    I still have pangs of guilt about not having a job. I feel like I'm on welfare... getting paid but not working (at a paid job). Is this something you could write about? Your last post got me thinking about this life that we lead.

  2. Yes, it's almost as though a name is a template that serves as a filing system for future sightings. It's interesting: my mother had a stroke a few years ago that deprived her of nouns, and talking with her when she's tired is like playing that game Mad-Libs with the blanks filled in with random nouns. It certainly adds a little something extra to otherwise mundane conversations! On another note, when my family used to stay in the same house on Casey Key, off Sarasota, every winter, there was a great blue heron that became a house pet, actually coming into the kitchen to get his daily ration of chicken necks (bought specially for him) and bacon. It was exciting indeed to be up close and personal with our prehistoric-looking friend ...

  3. Your blog put me in mind of Mary Oliver who retains such an amazing knowledge of the world around her, and uses it so perfectly in her poems. bonnie