How to name a rose

A recent book provides a road map to finding literature in nature.

 

Ever since 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus introduced his Latin binomial system to the world, scientists have felt reassured that every species can be classified in relation to every other species — that order in nature could be achieved. We believe that by knowing a thing’s name, we understand something about its essence. Linguists tend to differ, arguing that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is generally arbitrary and meaningless. All names are abstractions; the vanilla scent of cliffrose is not. Still, it seems to matter if we refer to a plant as a “weed,” which is easier to eradicate than a rose.

On the flip side, the knowledge of species names betrays a certain literacy of place, and their allure might tempt us to further explore relationships and interdependencies that link Homo sapiens and all other life forms. (From that, true wisdom might spring.) Unfortunately, the proverbial city slicker’s repertoire rarely extends beyond “pigeon,” “rhododendron,” and “sewer rat.” How many of your friends can name 10 local birds?

In his creative manual, Language Making Nature, the writing instructor, L.A. Times columnist and Yosemite naturalist guide David Lukas asks us to reinvent nomenclature in an attempt to bring back the richness of language that is owed to the surrounding world. By charging scientific discourse with passion, he hopes to forge a vehicle for nascent ideas and to excite fledgling naturalists. Older and perhaps more jaded ones may feel rejuvenated as wordplay sharpens their lens on the environment.

An Alaskan wild rose (Rosa acicularis) which we could also call a "pricklepink."
Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons

Lukas, who memorized names and pictures from field guides as a child, honed his ideas while hiking thousands of miles in wilderness. As part of his love affair with the English language, he scrutinized its trajectory. Many names given to plants and animals, he argues, can be classified as “shallow” placeholders, “concocted by scientists who had little to no experience with an organism’s life or character when they named it.” Lukas explains that such impoverished names — which often reference color or shape or the name of a naturalist — were coined because new species first are named and classified and only later studied in detail. A good example is the hermit warbler, a quite social bird.

Lukas favors three-dimensional words, not flat representations, words that jolt us awake with Zen insights. “When language breaks open, what do we have left, and what does it feel like?” he questions in a koan. Seeking ways to infuse word husks with magic, this Chomsky-esque tinkerer spent four years synthesizing every book he could find on the history, formation and word-making process of his mother tongue. Eager to peer beneath surfaces, he delves into arcane vocabularies with Anglo-Norman roots (dragoncel — “young dragon;” tremble — “aspen;” bogee — “badger”); into “eairthy” Newfoundland English (pant — “the swelling of ocean waves;” conkerbill — “icicle”); ritual words; and haiku-style place names. Even our sensory perceptions have been muted. Who now thinks, or writes, of the colors “leek green,” “deep sea-foam,” or “fawn”? Who — like Chaucer — accuses speakers of “jangling like a jay”? Much that we experience is straitjacketed by verbal convention. Lukas encourages experimentation, “democratic” neologisms, rebuilding the world from the Ur-clay of language. Dissecting words into their Greek, Latin and English components, he shows how to alter or amalgamate them to great effect. In the book’s spirit, from now on I’ll refer to Alaska’s wild rose, Rosa acicularis, with my own made-up label “pricklepink.” A former classmate, should he appear in my writings at all, will be described as “toadine” (not just for his lack of chin). And if I ever buy a house, the neighborhood needs to be “aspy”: lush with silver-barked, swaying trees.

A frozen rose hip after the flowers have successfully been pollinated. What would you call this particularly ice-encased one, following Lukas' creative naming strategies?
Pixabay

People who distrust self-published books or shun discussions of grammar or etymology should not let that deter them from buying this one. Luminaries such as Robert Hass, the former national poet laureate, Beat poet-essayist Gary Snyder and the cultural ecologist David Abram have endorsed it. The author himself is a honey-tongued bard, reminding us of the task, in this age of advertising and political sloganeering, “to paint in words the feel of a meaningful life well lived, to share the authenticity of a well-worn haft in hand, the touch of something handmade, the sound of things that are real — words with real meanings, songs of friends, the whisper of wind in a healthy forest.”

Describing a region no European had written about, Lewis and Clark added 1,500 words to the English language. In times to come — with changes so profound that the emerging era has its own name, the “Anthropocene” — truthful new words will be tools of resilience, allowing us to imagine and inhabit a re-enchanted but different West.

Language Making Nature: A Handbook for Writers Artists and Thinkers
David Lukas
256 pages, softcover: $22 (available for $20 at www.languagemakingnature.com).
Lukas Guides, 2015.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Job Announcement: Executive Administrative Assistant (Part-Time) Announcement date: October 27, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: November...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job purpose The Executive Director is a proven leader with demonstrated and sustained experience managing people, budgets, fundraising, and contract compliance who guides a well-established...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...