This spring, my friend Vera and I have explored wild scraps of land – wetlands, hillsides, ditches – in our part of Southern Saskatchewan. Vera says she can never remember the name of this plant or that plant, and how she sometimes feels “less than” when she is with someone who knows the name of every bird or every plant. I might just be a guilty party here, enthusiastically greeting many of the plants I see by name. I get a little carried away.
But, like Vera I have also been on nature walks when the lead naturalist is rhyming off the names of what we see – insect, plant, bird, grasses – and I feel a little lost and sometimes, intimidated. So, I know a little of how she feels. Spurred on by Vera, I have begun to question whether it really matters if we know the names of these beings – three flowered avens, Wilson’s snipe, swallowtail – or not? Does finding the right name for a being sometimes get in the way of truly noticing it?
As I pondered this, I received an email from my friend Laura Stewart, who is a plant ecologist as well as a journalist, a writer, and a musician. She described a walk she took on a silent retreat where she “had the idea to not only not speak, but to try to quiet my internal “naming” and “narrating” of everything”. Laura continues, “As I walked, I gently declined to think the names of plants and birds, or to imagine how I might later blog about what I saw. Incredibly, the entire walk burned itself into my memory far more vividly than usual, and for months after (and to some extent even now, many years later) I could bring it to mind as if I were seeing it at that moment.”
Laura asks me, “Could you encounter the beings differently if you approach them like meeting a stranger, without another person there to introduce you, and let them name themselves to you?” I like this idea; it challenges my usual way of being part of the natural world.
Next time I am with Vera, I try to lessen my compulsive naming, following her to see what plants she observes and points out. I try to notice what about this plant catches my attention. I like Laura’s suggestion to come up with our own name. Vera did this recently, calling a pincushion cactus “the prickly brain”. It is a name that she will never forget!
When we become acquainted with someone – a person, a plant, an insect, a bird – we don’t always know or even inquire about their name first. Sometimes we just observe. What is it that caught my interest? What do I notice? Would I like to know more? When being introduced to a new person, I often forget their name immediately, but if we have a chance for a chat, I will remember something about them.
I am so accustomed to naming plants when I walk, that it feels awkward not to do so. Our habits run deep. I wander slowly, a meditative walk, stopping to greet each plant who calls my attention. Many plants are old friends and sometimes I see one who is unfamiliar. Whoops, there I go again – wishing I had my phone (so I could learn her name, of course!) I wonder if we sometimes identify a plant by name, and then dismiss it, not observing further? Identify it, and then tick it off the list?
I find I can live with not naming, not recording, and not narrating some of the time. It doesn’t come naturally but it does add new dimensions to my love of wildflowers. I can see that it is going to take more practice.
Learning Names can be Very Satisfying
At the same time, learning names is satisfying in other ways. Here is an example.
Recently, I heard a loud rhythmic PI PI PI sound followed sometimes by a startling descending whinny in the wetland across the road. Was I hearing two birds or one? Was it a bird? Probably. But could it be something else? Maybe. In my distant memory, I had heard this call before but I never really zeroed in on it. Now, for no seeming reason, I was drawn by this call time and time again.
I spent a few dawn mornings in a sit spot in the wetland listening and observing. Eventually, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to learn who made these sounds by listening to audio recordings of marsh birds. I had been hearing a sora rail. “Common, but seldom seen”, the field guides said. Once I saw a picture of the sora, I could imagine her moving through the shallow edges of the marsh.
I learned that the sora makes both calls – the rhythmic PI and the squealing whinny that sometimes comes at the end of a series of PI PI PI’s. I began to pick out at least two sora rails, sometimes seeming to call back and forth from different ends of the wetland. Learning her name helped me learn more about this elusive bird. Day after day, the call of the sora seemed very close, in fact, right under my feet. But, I could never see her.
One day, I sat in a chair by the edge of the marsh knowing this bird was near, when suddenly there she was quietly and calmly wading through the marsh, bobbing her pointed tail. She was much smaller than I had imagined. Truly at home as she manouevered through the underbrush of the marsh edge, she had delicately patterned slate gray and rusty feathers, a standout yellow beak and paler yellow legs. I love Blaine Klemek’s description of the sora:
“Small and plump with longish legs and slender non-webbed chicken-like toes, the minute-sized birds deftly navigates the tangled jungles of wetland habitats as effortlessly as a snake crawling through grass.
Both species (the sora and Virginia rails) have the ability to practically walk on water, utilizing floating vegetation and other debris for support as they go about their lives. In the case of soras, they also negotiate wetland vegetation by clinging and hopping from plant stem to plant stem, thus making as much use, if not more, of vertical substrate as the horizontal.”*
Fun fact: Rail’s bodies are laterally repressed which allows them to escape into dense grass or reeds. Hence the expression, thin as a rail!!
What a thrill! Since then I have seen her a several times, and am still amazed at her dexterity and way of moving. Because I had never imagined a bird moving through the marsh in this way, I had to learn how to notice her. Most certainly, I had failed many times when her call was close. This little sora is teaching me to see in new ways, to slow down, to listen carefully, and to be very patient. I wait for a sound in the water, a quick movement, a feeling that she is near.
I think back to the loud sound that initially caught my interest, and never in a million years would I have put this small bird together with this loud call! Learning the name was indispensable to my inquiry. But, I also enjoyed the period of mystery. I went out to listen with a sense of heightened awareness and curiousity.
I am grateful to Laura and Vera for opening up the possibility of being with the land and not naming or narrating what I am experiencing some of the time.
I think a story Robin Wall Kimmerer shared says it best . A botanist was praising his guide for his knowledge of local plants when the guide answered, “Yes, I have learned the names of all the bushes, but I have yet to learn their songs.”~
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p.43
Photographer Vera Saltzman and I are collaborating on a long term project we call “Where will the frogs sing?” We are interested in the small scraps of wild or naturalized land between farm fields and roads in our part of Saskatchewan, including wetlands, aspen bluffs, pastures, native prairie and more. We spend wonderful time in these wild remnants – sitting, watching, listening, wondering. Some of the questions in the post below have arisen from our experiences together.