Beyond Plant Names

Hm, I’m feeling bloggier (is that a word?) than normal it seems lately, and particularly on the subject of plants. I guess it’s just that time of year, when I feel the green world most potently due to everything being in a state of growth and abundance, and the regular tending of my own small garden.

Anyway, the other day I was out on a walk, appreciating the lovely gardens in one neighborhood, and noticing that in the past 10 years or so I have really started to break down the undifferentiated-wall-of-green (as so many of us perceive the plant kingdom) and can now recognize many individual plants as I move through the world.

As part of this process, I have always tried to discover and remember plant names – both scientific and common – when I can. For one thing, I think it helps my brain classify and file away all the other information I learn about the plant. For another, I’ve always known that words, and especially names, hold power.

But with plants, the names we give them often say more about us, our priorities, our culture, than they do about the plant. At least, they are certainly not what the plant calls itself, if such a thing even exists. They may even, sometimes, distract from other ways of understanding it.

What struck me on that walk was how there was a different way of knowing a plant, being familiar with it, understanding it. Or perhaps, many different ways. All of which have nothing to do with the names humans have ever assigned to it – not the Latin binomial, not the everyday nickname, not even the indigenous name.

There were, I realized, many plants which I had not yet learned the names of, but which I immediately recognized and had some knowledge of. Oh yes, there’s that plant that always blooms around May Day. Or there’s the one with that amazing hue of purple, or that intoxicating scent, or the one that grows only in sidewalk cracks. There’s a little weed that’s surprisingly tasty. What’s that called again? It doesn’t really matter. Could the name really tell me anything more important than knowing how much sun it likes, which other plants it keeps company with, which animals savor its seeds? Understanding its physical characteristics, its role in its environment, and even just the feeling it gives me, all seem more relevant.

I had set aside these thoughts and decided not to bother posting them until today I was listening to a fascinating podcast episode on aniconism, where they were talking about reasons why people have, at different times, felt that images were an inappropriate, misleading or distracting way to engage with a subject. Names can similarly attempt to pin down something in the way an image can. And so one of the hosts quoted this bit from Eckhart Tolle that immediately reminded me of that moment of clarity:

When you look at [a stone, flower, or bird] or hold it and let it be, without imposing a word or mental label on it, a sense of awe, of wonder, arises within you. Its essence silently communicates itself to you…”

Well I’m not one to ignore synchronicities so I figured I might as well post this. Just in case it strikes anyone else too.

Of course, I love names. I especially love evocative folk names relating to the natural world (I own a book entirely about traditional names for landscape features in Britain). And sometimes they actually do communicate important information, not just about our cultural context for a plant (foxglove, dragon’s blood, cuckoo’s pint) or its practical human uses (bedstraw, all-heal, wolfsbane), but about qualities of plant itself (lamb’s ears, bluebell, stinking iris).

I just think it can be a good practice to set aside names sometimes, or not go seeking them at all, and learn how to experience and interact with plants (and plant spirits) in other ways, from other perspectives. Without words, just using the senses. Or only one sense. Or only the intangible impressions of the spirit. Let its essence silent communicate itself to you.

(And yes, this also applies to other entities and the ways in which we limit and pigeonhole Them with our words and images and categorizations. Extrapolate as needed.)

~ by Dver on June 16, 2021.

One Response to “Beyond Plant Names”

  1. […] Beyond Plant Names […]

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