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What’s in a name?: Superheroes and Cedar Waxwings (Stephen Siperstein)

October 16, 2009

Last week I found myself on a perfectly clear late afternoon in a usual spot: perched on the front deck, deeply engrossed in reading.  On this particular day it was Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by naturalist and nature writer Terry Tempest Williams.  I was only half aware of the golden light as the sun dropped below Spencer’s Butte and the Ponderosas across the street showered the air with pine duff.  But a frenzy of movement in the short Black Hawthorne tree just below the deck caught my eye from the page and I looked up. A flock of medium sized birds of striking neon green color, each with a super-hero like mask of black feathers around the eyes were flitting from branch to branch, feasting on the Hawthorne’s juicy black berries.  The complete otherness of these creatures startled me.  Maybe they really were super heroes.  I imagined each one as being a small version of the Green Lantern, with unlimited powers and unlimited potential.  But what were they really?  Where had they come from?  When had they arrived?  Why had they chosen this Black Hawthorne just below my white porch on such a golden afternoon?  What was their name?  I searched for answers.  As a child I had taken up bird watching as a hobby, and from that way-back knowledge part of my brain I tried to recall the name.  Phoebe?  Green Warbler?  Flycatcher? Cedar Waxwing?  Yes, that was it! I ran inside to consult my field guide to North American birds and to my delight, the name and photos matched up.

Smaller than a robin.  A sleek, crested, green-brown bird with black mask, yellow tips on tail feathers and hard red wax-like tips on secondary wing feathers.  Almost always seen in flocks.

I moved back to the deck, my hunger for knowledge satisfied, ready to appreciate nature for what it was: Cedar Waxwings feeding in a Black Hawthorne tree.   Why do we need to name nature?  Terry Tempest Williams uses the names of different bird species to title the chapters of her family memoir:  Western Tanager, Burrowing Owl, Killdeer.   In names are power, safety, and knowledge.  Names organize.  Without names the birdwatcher could not make lists, the poet could not attach meaning to the world, the taxonomist could not do her work.   Names give power to the environmentalist.  Save the Blue Whales!  Don’t cut down the giant Redwoods.  Remember what happened to Passenger Pigeons.   Names allow us to talk to each other about what we see and feel in the natural world.  They give us words to express our innate attraction to life, what biologist E.O. Wilson terms “biophilia.”  Names connect us.  Without names we could not say hello, or goodbye.  We could not pray, or mourn.  Check out this New York Times article from a few months ago, which laments that humans no longer take the time to name nature: “We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. Give a nod to Professor Franclemont and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it.”

But do names, in their own way, also disconnect us from the natural world?  Why couldn’t I just let the Cedar Waxwings be, without feeling compelled to name them? Without a name, perhaps they could have been superheroes for just a little longer.

Next time, more on the dark side of naming nature: a paradox for the nature writer, a paradox for the environmentalist.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kmckimps permalink
    October 17, 2009 6:29 am

    I’m not one to take the route that words create meaning–perhaps the idealist and dreamer in me–but they do historicize it. I think you make a good point; words only, at best, model existence for the convience of communication and meaning, and therefore cannot fully reproduce what they represent, e.g. my cardinal may be your “red bird.” And this does seem to separate; maybe it also makes it easier to manipulate words?

    Taking a classical/early modern perspective, language has served a formative role, in that what could be shaped in words could effect a change in meaning. I notice that you were not content until you had looked up the name for the wax wing: this seems akin to subordinating cultural identity to an external source, relying on an outside authority to determine the proper perspective. I wonder if names serve to historicize how we deal with nature. By assigning a name we can set our mark upon the world, by validating (repeating) a name we not only re-stamp our mark of approval on the label (and that it meets our conception of standards), but are also validated by the person or culture that originally assigned the name.

  2. matthewshedd permalink
    October 19, 2009 5:20 am

    I like the questions Stephen raises in this post. I have also wondered why I feel more content or situated within my surroundings when I know an animal or a tree’s name. It makes me feel a sense of belonging with the natural world, despite the fact that there is nothing “natural” about the name. I am not sure why oftentimes we are not content to let waxwings be mysterious, why we need a name for them. I suppose biologist E. O. Wilson would say that the knowledge we gain from learning the bird’s name and accessing the body of knowledge accumulated about the bird will only enlarge our wonder toward the creature.

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