naming nature

American children, ages two to three years old, are able to identify, on average, two thirds of the twelve brand logos presented to them. Eight year olds could consistently identify all twelve. Surrounded, even bombarded, by advertising, they cannot help but recognize McDonald’s arches, Nike swooshes, Apple’s bitten fruit, or Target’s bull’s eye. And, oddly, it seems many psychologists are interested in this phenomenon, using it to study children’s cognitive abilities, symbolic processing, or cultural investment. Yet if those same children were asked to identify different tree leaves or bird types or animal tracks, how would their knowledge compare? Evidently, psychologists are not equally interested in this phenomenon, since a comparable Google search yielded no results on the subject. It is an unfair comparison, of course, since brand recognition develops incidentally through pervasive exposure, whereas the natural world is not so glaring and is usually only learned through deliberate effort.

But this distinction is also the point: we do not make an effort to teach our children–or even ourselves–anything much about the natural world, though, arguably, it is nearly as pervasive and unarguably, more vital to our everyday existence. A generation ago, most students were required, at least, to assemble a leaf collection, identifying each type, or to skewer bugs on stick pins stabbed into paraffin-filled cigar boxes. Now, if my own children’s experience is typical, students no longer get even this rudimentary introduction to nature.

This being said, I recognize my own ignorance in this area, and its attendant irony. As much time as I spend in the natural world, in awe of the beauty and variety I immerse myself within, still, my knowledge of what I observe is embarrassingly limited. True, my interest in wildflowers when I was a girl gives me recall even today: names come to my tongue like teenage guitar chords return to my fingers, instinctively. Trillium. Sweet Williams. Pinks. Bluebells. Knotweed. Wild geraniums. And I know the more obvious trees–maple, oak, sumach, elm, hickory–yet know very little about the distinctions between each or about the far greater variety that lies beyond my narrow scope. I cannot yet distinguish between a pin oak, a burr oak, or white oak; silver maples, sugar maples, or red maples are all alike to me. What shape is a sycamore leaf? What sort of bark does a sassafras tree have?

Or birds. Beyond the few that are so obvious and pervasive–like bird brand logos: cardinal, jay, robin, chickadee–how many do I know? Especially in bird families that have few obvious distinctions–for example, sparrows, the poster bird for insignificance even in Biblical times–it is much easier to generically lump them into a general group instead of recognizing the twenty varieties that live in my region of the United States alone. So lately, ashamed by the paucity of my knowledge, I have been adding intelligence to my admiration, facts to my awe.

This urge to learn more is what prompted me to set the bird feeder outside my cabin window. Though it is not yet winter, and the birds are therefore not yet driven by desperation to peck at my seed, still they come. I am amazed by the variety that exists even in my small patch of woods. It is no longer enough to know that the larger bird with a flash of red is some kind of woodpecker; instead, I take out my Audubon’s guide and thumb through it, going back and forth between the pages picturing woodpeckers, narrowing my options. Its head is not completely red and its body feathers are variegated, so it cannot be a red headed woodpecker. It shares a red nape with a flicker, but it isn’t nearly as brown as that. It is larger and sleeker than a downy and seems to have more red on its head than that, though it does have the mottled black and white body feathers of a downy. Looking more closely, too, its beak is much longer. I have almost decided that it is a ladderback, because of their similar beaks, size, and coloration, until I notice that it doesn’t have a black eye line. Besides, according to the book, ladderbacks aren’t common to Indiana. That leaves the red-bellied woodpecker as nearly the only remaining candidate. But this bird doesn’t seem red-bellied at all–maybe this is a less colorful female? Then I read, “reddish patch on lower abdomen is seldom visible in the field.” I look more closely and wait until the bird perches in profile on the side of a tree: a blush of red. Yes, a red-bellied woodpecker. Now, when this bird swings down to my feeder, almost daily, he feels like a well-known friend. Through learning about him, I also became more intimately acquainted with others in his family–now it seems odd that I could have mistaken him for a downy or a flicker, even for a moment, so distinctive and individual does he appear.

Two names for God are used in the Old Testament: Elohim, the plural of Eloah, which we translate as God, and Jehovah, or I AM, which we translate, weakly, as LORD, using all capitals. This latter name, to the ancient Israelites, was so holy that they would not speak it aloud. When writing it, they would omit the vowels so his name would not be profaned by the page, or, as in Leviticus 24:16, they would replace it with shema, The Name. So seriously did they interpret the command, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” that they created a long list of synonymous titles for God in an effort to preserve the unspeakable holiness of the name by which God referred to himself. Most commonly, God was called Adonai (Lord); other names, like El Shaddai, were also used. These names reference his character, describe his nature, but evade the essence of his being itself and miss the richness of Jehovah, which, because it includes the Hebrew verb form for “to be,” suggests the eternal being of God and hints at the inadequacy of any effort to reduce or define him. Eventually, the name of God, in Jewish practice, became almost generic. What began, ostensibly, as an effort at honoring God and sanctifying his name became a loss of the personal and intimate identity of God. It would be like my students calling me Teacher instead of Dr. Warren, my friends referring to me as Woman, or my husband calling me Wife rather than Colleen.

When Moses, commissioned by God at the burning bush to lead the Israelites out of slavery, asked God who he should say sent him on such a mission, God replied, “Tell them I AM sent you.” God pronounced his name aloud to Moses, told him to repeat his name to others, shared his intimate identity with Moses. Today, from every bush comes the name of Yahweh. A red squirrel chatters God. Red-bellied woodpeckers call out I AM. All creation proclaims the name of God. It seems to me, then, an act of worship to call things by their right names, to preserve the personal identity of every living thing. In knowing the names in nature, I can know more intimately the nature of God, a pursuit that honors both the unfathomable God and his infinitely varied creation.

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One Response to naming nature

  1. Dianne Biehl says:

    I love your comparison here. There is so much richness in understanding the naming of certain birds and connecting that to their characteristics. In the same way, there is a deeper understanding and knowledge of God’s character, just in the complexity of his names. Words have so much meaning and we are losing it all because we are less and less a culture about words. Images are the only thing we seem to care about. This is a beautiful blog!

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