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
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING IN TAOS, NEW MEXICO www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000
  • WESTERN REGIONAL MANAGER
    The American Forest Foundation seeks a smart and highly motivated candidate to join our Western conservation team. The Regional Manager supports the Regional Director to...
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the Integrated Transportation...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING INSTITUTE (EWI)
    with Robert Michael Pyle September 26-30, 2018, in Missoula MT.
  • REPORTING FELLOW - BOISE, ID
    Boise State Public Radio is hiring a Reporting Fellow as part of a new nationwide collaborative, Guns & America. Based in the state capitol, Boise...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Rifle, CO.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF RIVERSEDGE WEST (FORMERLY TAMARISK COALITION)
    RiversEdge West is seeking an entrepreneurial leader with solid nonprofit management skills to lead our high functioning team and help us make an impact on...
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a talented, organized person with great people skills, who is passionate about protection of the natural environment to work...
  • DIRECTOR OF REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY
    The Wilderness Society is recruiting for an experienced Communicator for our Northwest Region. This position is located in Seattle, WA. For more information please visit...
  • SALMON RIVER IDAHO WILDERNESS RETREAT HOME
    Here is an opportunity to have a piece of self-sufficient paradise on Idaho's Main Salmon River adjacent to the largest Forest Service wilderness area in...
  • RAMMED EARTH SOLAR COTTAGE
    in 5-home conservation community & botanical sanctuary on 20 acres.
  • MEMBERSHIP AND ENGAGEMENT COORDINATOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation is looking for an enthusiastic and innovative Membership and Engagement Coordinator to help grow and maintain our grassroots voice for wildife,...
  • SR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is excited to announce a Sr Environmental Planner position within the Natural Areas Department. This position will be housed within...
  • HISTORICAL VACATION CABIN
    on beautiful Snow Angel Ranch located within San Juan National Forest near Pagosa Springs, CO. Lakes, fly-fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, horse trails, horse accommodations...
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.