Home Commentary The Way I See It: How I Name What I See

The Way I See It: How I Name What I See

If I have a spiritual practice, it’s identifying nature. I like putting names on things. Give me a rock pool and a guide book, and I’ll happily flounder around in it, trying to identify anemones and chitons and snails. I could do this all day; I know, because there are days when I have.

Recently, I had the opportunity to put names on a whole bunch of things I hadn’t ever seen or experienced before. I went to New Zealand for two months this winter. I waited five years for cheap flights to come up, and when they did, I bought them within an hour of hearing about it. 

My work allows me flexibility of location, and with colleagues already living in New Zealand, no one could exactly tell me not to go. I worked out of libraries and cafes when I couldn’t tether easily. I slept in a van I bought online, made new friends, and visited old ones. I climbed some mountains, looked for Aragorn and Frodo in various landscapes, and spent a good deal of time imitating the accent poorly and singing songs from “Moana” under my breath. 

But mostly I took photographs and sound recordings of every living thing. Photographs and recordings are cheap these days; I estimate I took more than 5,000. Almost all of them went up on the website “iNaturalist,” which is a site where you can say, “I saw this thing,” and other people will say, “Oh, that’s a Pohuehue.” Of course it is, I’d respond in my head. And the next time I saw a Pohuehue, I’d be able to name it, too.

Sometimes this was difficult — I never did get a great grasp on the varieties of ferns. And sometimes it was impossible. You can’t always identify a lichen in the field, and it is surprisingly difficult to find tools for field microscopy on the slopes of Mount Doom. 

But, by and large, most animals and birds that humans can see easily are also easily identifiable. By the end of my trip, I was able to walk through a trail anywhere on the two major islands and name most of the plants, identify most of the bird songs fluting over them, and know where I was in the landscape, ecologically speaking.

This work was also exhausting. Uploading photos takes forever on a bad internet connection. In all that time, I only finished reading a single book — every spare moment was spent wading through streams looking for mud snails, turning over logs for crazy ants, and generally making a nuisance of myself in the landscape. I spent hours looking at braided rivers, scanning for wrybills, to no avail. 

The act of naming things is fun, but why did I put myself in that position? I was perpetually filled with an emotion akin to anxiety, constantly counting and looking to nail names from a language dead 2,000 years on trees that never did me any harm. The act seemed violent at times. Waking up at 3 a.m. to look for another type of kiwi is distinctly unamusing (especially to my partner who was trying to sleep). 

The easiest answer is that I am an addict. I was hooked as a child on small bits of dopamine, released after learning to name a thing. Not just birds. I assume my mother talked about my first words to her friends (I wasn’t there, as far as I recall). Later, I learned that I could use words to get what I wanted: apples, cheese, another trip to Mad River Glen. Using language to form and communicate abstract thoughts is part of what makes us human. Knowing that all of those little white dots flying near the ferry were fairy prions is just an extension of that.

But, more than that, I think naming things is a spiritual act. Consider the ngaio of the coasts, how it grows. What does it mean to be a living thing called a ngaio? I can describe how to know one — the leaves, the translucent pores underneath. I can give you the Latin name, Myoporum laetum, and tell you that the species name means “happy” and the genus name means “mousehole.” I can tell you the Māori believe there is a ngaio in the face of the moon. I can tell you about how beautiful her flowers are. 

And I know these things because I spent time learning how to name one. I wouldn’t, otherwise. It’s true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet — but almost nobody tells us to stop and smell the maple buds in the morning. Appreciation comes from differentiation. Put another way, wonder comes from going through a doorway into someplace new — and naming is the only way to open that door. Mary Oliver warns us that attention is the beginning of devotion. I think language is the next step on that path. 

We don’t often think of cataloging dead specimens as a spiritual act. Or flipping through Sibley’s guide to birds, trying to identify the black-capped chickadee, or Poecile atricapillus (“colorful black-capped” in Latin), or “kejegigilhasis” in Abenaki. I don’t see why that is. What could be more devotional than that?