Why I obsess about the names of plants and animals

Naming things makes individuals out of a landscape of birds, trees and bumblebees.

 

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an ornithologist, essayist and poet living in Ashland, Oregon.


I’m big into names. As a professional ornithologist and a lifelong naturalist, I’ve spent years learning the names of things. That drab little yellow-green bird skulking in the bushes? It’s an orange-crowned warbler, Oreothlypis celata. What about the bushes? They’re snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. And that bee buzzing among their flowers? Why, it’s a yellow-faced bumblebee, Bombus vosnesenskii. 

My hiking buddies often grow impatient at this identifying habit of mine. Obsessing about names, they say, is a distraction from the pure appreciation of nature, preventing people from simply seeing. Not surprisingly, I disagree. The close attention to details needed to identify and name plants and animals deepens my appreciation, alerts me to the differences that reveal creatures’ adaptations to the world. 

I understand their point, though. Figuring out what something is, that’s only the beginning of understanding. If it becomes an end in itself — as for some bird-listers, I’m sorry to say — then naming is a dead end. The problem, I’ve come to believe, is not that we give things too many names, but that we don’t give enough.

A hiker scrambles up to Bandera Mountain in Washington state amongst the beargrass.
garshna/Flickr

In Buddhism, the creatures we share the world with are termed sentient beings. In some Native American traditions, those beings are spoken of as people: Salmon are the salmon people, bears are the bear people. These are both ways of signifying that we humans are just another part of the world, not above it.

That’s not how most of us think. We look down on our fellow species. We don’t consider them our equals, with equal claims to the good things of life, or to life at all. And we certainly don’t give them attention as individuals. After all, who can tell one deer, one crow, from another?

Well, they can. Meticulous field studies have proved beyond doubt that birds and mammals (at least) have amazing powers of individual recognition. Elephants remember each other even after years of separation. A seabird flying into a colony of thousands can unerringly locate her chick, even if it has wandered away from the nest. As a graduate student, I studied a color-banded population of birds, which allowed me to document their individual behaviors. In this species, called the cock-of-the-rock, the males spend all their time displaying to attract females. Some males, I found, were skillful lovers. Females definitely remembered those males, returning to them year after year, even if they changed their display sites.

It is simply lazy to think of animals as part of a faceless horde. They are individuals, each with histories, strengths and weaknesses. Not like us, you might say, but just like us.

All these thoughts went through my mind recently as I spent an afternoon surrounded by a stunning field of four-and-a-half-foot-tall flowering white beargrass. I admit it’s challenging to honor plants as fellow sentient beings, to greet them as a people, to see them as individuals. And yet, they are. If all members of a plant species were the same, they would quickly die out. Individual variation is the stuff of survival, the fuel for evolution. But looking over a hillside of California poppies or a field of goldenrod, it’s easy to see only a colorful mass.

That’s not the case with beargrass. In flower, these extraordinary lilies, Xerophyllum tenax, are undeniably individual. In the open conifer forest of the Siskiyou Mountains, where I spent my time with them, each stands a bit apart from its fellows, distinct. They have much in common, of course: Each has a dense basal cluster of tough, wiry leaves (prized for basketry), and each flowering head is a tall spike covered with delicate white blossoms. But some flowers are narrow wands, others bulbous as a blimp, others round as a cupcake. Some spikes are straight; others curve; and some bend beneath the weight of their heavy heads. Each one deserves its own name.

I don’t know those names, of course; I don’t speak their language. But moving from flower to flower, taking photograph after photograph, I see how each one exhibits its own perfection. Each is the product of at least as long an evolutionary journey as my own; each has grace I will never attain. True, a beargrass plant can’t read, or write, or think abstract thoughts. Well, I can’t turn sunlight into food or re-sprout after wildfire. Let’s not quibble over who is the more miraculous.

It was getting late. I said goodbye to the beargrass people and drove down from the mountains, naming names as I went. Good night, dark-eyed junco. Sleep well, leopard lily. See you tomorrow, oak people, raven people, deer people. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.

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