Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rumination on naming things...or not

In this area, the plant you see in today’s photo is called horsetail, but this isn’t anything like the officially-named plant called horsetail, so I don’t know what the official name of this plant is. But it matters little. I didn’t take the photo to tell you about the plant horsetail, of either the local or official variety. I took the photo because I liked the way the raindrops are clinging and weighing down the heads of this plant.

I am a person who has generally liked knowing the names of all manner or things, be they birds, plants or rocks. Lately, I am wondering whether knowing the names really matters very much. Oh, there are advantages to knowing the names. I can talk to other people, use the name of the thing and they will know what thing I’m talking about. But the name is not the thing, just a label we attach to the thing.

It is perfectly possible not to know the name of a thing and still know that thing in all its variety and individual splendor. Knowing the name of the thing does not guarantee that someone knows anything about the thing other than its name.

Sometimes I see this manifested in a certain kind of birdwatcher, often the kind with a long list of bird species they have seen. They have seen many species of birds, but know very little about any of them. For these folks, the “tick,” the checkmark next to the name of the bird, and having more of those checkmarks than the next person is the important thing. Nothing is terribly wrong with that activity as it may well lead, at some point, to a desire to know more about those ticks.

For myself, the knowing is more important than the name, and my own level of knowing a species, whether it be a bird or a plant or a mushroom, is not nearly as complete as I wish it was. Knowing anything well takes a lot of time, more time than any of us have on this earth. But making the effort is still important, as deepening our knowledge of anything opens us up to possibilities that will remain forever beyond our grasp if we don’t.


Cathy said...

I think the only time it should really matter if you going share it with somebody or it becomes a nagging thing in your brain.

But really, you should just enjoy the beauty first.

Scott said...


The dewy grass that you photographed is actually foxtail (not horsetail, even as its vernacular name), one of six species of Setaria found in Pennsylania. Though there is one native species (most common in southeastern PA), most of the Setarias are non-native annual weeds that come from Eurasia. They're attractive (as your image demonstrates beautifully) but real pests.