When I was a child … I guess I still am a child … and that is a good thing … but, when I was a younger, smaller, less educated and experienced child than I am now, I knew the names of lots of trees and birds that now I do not know.
My father grew up in Ireland with a strong connection to country life and when he came to England, despite being located on a commuter route, out to the East of London, he took every opportunity he could to take his family out into the fields and woods that surrounded our housing estate, and that was where and when he taught us the names of natural things.
I have three elder brothers and one younger sister. The two eldest brothers also played a part in this ‘natural’ education of the younger siblings, an education which ran parallel to our official education in school and which largely took place at the weekends. One of the two eldest brothers had a set of encyclopaedias of natural history, something my dad had perhaps seen as a special offer in a newspaper and bought as a Xmas or birthday present.
He started ‘nature clubs’ with the younger children, who even chipped-in subs to a specially decorated tobacco tin and were used perhaps to buy snacks for our own outings. This brother also became fascinated by fossils, many of which could be found in the many exhausted quarries that also featured regularly on our long weekend walks.I can recall the special hammer that he carried proudly on his belt for breaking open flints and revealing quartz, or a fossilised sea urchins, or … and here, once again, I have forgotten the name of a natural object that I used to know.
Both elder brothers carried binoculars and one was a member of the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. So, the younger children, including myself, benefitted from all this expertise and developed a precocious vocabulary for naming and describing natural phenomena that set us apart when we did go to school and when questions were raised about our specialist subject.
Trees can be recognised and named according to their leaves, their overall profile and size, their fruits and their bark. Birds, by their size, colour, flight and song, as well as their nests and eggs. But as I say, today I often feel frustrated, stymied, when trying to name the trees and birds I encounter on walks.
It’s frustrating but at the same time it also feels appropriate – somehow morally – that I should not be able to simply name everything, as if, by naming, I know things. Clearly, the trees and birds do not have the names for themselves that we have given them. After all, the flora and fauna of central and South America were all named and categorised using a system of Eurocentric Latin terms, which seems quite ridiculous. I might also wonder if or what the birds and trees call me as I walk by?
So perhaps my amnesia is simply appropriate to my maturity. I don’t think it is a sign of weakening mental strength, but rather a sign of my unwillingness to impose human language on other creatures.
There is something liberating about this thought, not just for the objects thus un-named, but also for me, for us, for the un-namer. Just imagine the world all un-named, freed of all that identity, knowledge, understanding etc.
The biblical image of a perfect garden in which human life begins is of a garden without knowledge and therefore without shame. We take pride in our knowledge and in being able to name, to give and find the right word for something, at the right time, gives us a sense of satisfaction and power over ourselves, over others, and over our environment.
But of course, that imaginary paradise, in which nothing is named and where we are just as un-named as everything else, and therefore equal, is at least as desirable as any demonstration of our knowledge and power over our environment by means of naming.