Naming the Wild “Other”
Naming connects. When we name something or someone, or learn their name, we engender a connection more meaningful than if we don’t name. When parents name their newborn baby, there is an even deeper connection that is made with their child. Likewise, when a child names a pet, an intimate relationship begins. Perhaps you personally remember a story where you yourself, or some other child, discovered a stray dog or cat and wanted to keep it. And, for any number of reasons the parents may have quickly and desperately said – “Don’t name it! We can’t keep it!” The not naming of a living being is important here, because either consciously or sub-consciously the parents understood that to name the bedraggled little animal would spark a bond that would be difficult to break.
Are you someone who admires and enjoys being in nature, walking through it experiencing “green stuff”? The trees, plants, and birds are obviously not all the same, but if you don’t know their names they remain ever distant. They are not fully known to you, and because you don’t know their names you haven’t come to know their natures. When it’s all “green stuff”, nature appears amorphous, distant, something that is other. You never really feel quite fully connected or one with it. Learning the names, connecting with each unique living organism is akin to a nearsighted child putting on her glasses for the first time – the soft blobs of green come into view as individual leaves on the tree.
In a story of earth’s creation written in the book of Genesis Adam is tasked with becoming a steward of the flora and fauna of the earth. His first duty is to name the living beings. It is through the process of naming that something or someone is connected with us, and the beginning of a bond is sparked. Adam gains insight into the nature of each creature, and understands each one. It is in this way that Adam is able to give each creature its true name. Although the Genesis story is often misinterpreted anthropomorphically as giving humans dominion over the earth and all other creatures – as if a tyrannical overlord – this is a misguided and self-serving interpretation. The Genesis story is a teaching about humankind taking responsibility to name, understand, and care-take the creatures and the earth as we would our own children.
If you are the first to name something, you must know something about it – its nature. When scientists ‘discover’ a new organism they tend to classify it, and give it a name. Usually, the name is meaningful in the grand scheme of organismal classification and relates to the organism itself. Often, there is something infused into the name that is also meaningful to the scientist. The scientist will forever have an intimate connection with an organism that they name. They will care about it, and possibly even care for it. A scientist may even become known for the organism they named.
The flip side of the coin is that derogatory, ugly, demeaning names can be given to people, places, and things. It is through this type of demeaning that entire groups of people can become dehumanized through the eyes of another person or group, simply by attaching to the “other” a destructive name. We know too well the examples of this in our own culture, especially regarding people of color, and during times of war when the enemy is reduced to derogatory names that strip these “others” of their humanity. This is necessary to make the enemy as non-human as possible in order to convince soldiers to kill indiscriminately. We all recall the shaming of perhaps ourselves and other kids in school by names such as four-eyes, fatso, wimp, faggot, and so on. Cat-calling and demeaning women with the use of sexist naming has similar results. These ugly names serve to reduce and make a person lesser-than, yet also grow ugliness in those who spread these names.
Madeleine L’Engle weaves this contrast of being a ‘Namer’ or being a ‘Destroyer’ in the Time Quintet children’s fiction series. In A Wind in the Door there is an exchange between Meg, the heroine of the book, and an angel named Progo. Meg is wondering why Progo is calling out the names of the stars. He knows they need to be named in order for peace to exist on earth. He explains to Meg that the enemy of peace is a force known as the Ecthroi – “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”
In coming to know nature – the wild other – you don’t need to be the first to name something for you can also learn its given name. You don’t necessarily have to know its scientific name, either. The local or common name is often most meaningful and useful. The process of learning the name of another living being requires you to concurrently learn details of its nature – its colors, its songs, the fruit it bears, the seasons of its movements, its behaviors.
If you don’t know your local plants, trees, animals, insects then I challenge you to begin to call them by name. Obtain identification guidebooks and learn to use them during your walks and excursions into nature. Your backyard, your community streets, the woods nearby, or a wild, natural place all contain many more living organisms than you can even imagine. Once you begin to name, you will begin to connect, and you will begin to see these living organisms everywhere you go. I encourage you to also learn about the plants that provide edible and medicinal uses, and go to a deeper level of connection with these plants that we share our homes. Check out my writing on What is Wild(ness) and why it matters.
It is very difficult to love something if you don’t know it. By naming, understanding the organism, connecting with it and learning its unique properties, you will make a connection. You will no longer walk through nature admiring “green stuff”. Instead, like Adam, you will begin to move through life as a steward of nature. You will begin to love it, and care for it. You are much less likely to destroy it or allow it to be destroyed if you know its true name. This is especially important for men to embrace – see my writing on What is a Man for?
It is also through this process that you can love yourself more, and hear your own wild heart beating. We humans have an inextricable bond with all of life on this planet. As Lakota holy man Black Elk relayed to John Neihardt in the book Black Elk Speaks he shares,
“This is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.”
The poet Gary Snyder describes in his Pulitzer Prize collection Turtle Island the necessary connection between knowing the earth, belonging, and staying together in the midst of destruction all around us – still seeing the beauty of the wildness that is Turtle Island, our home. This way of seeing culminates in the poem, “For the Children”:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Like Adam and Progo we are all called to become Namers. Through the process of learning the names of the life all around us, we can also come closer to learning our own true name. When you know your own Name you can truly Name others, helping to vanquish hate and destruction and bring about more peace and love in this world.