Friday, 16 March 2012

The naming of parts

Why do we have a compulsion to want to name all that is observable?  Is it because, once we have given something a label, we therefore imagine some sort of ownership of it? Do we also imagine that we have, at the same time, tamed it?

I would like to be able to observe the wildlife that I come across without the need to know exactly what it is. Why can I not be satisfied with watching the tumbling display and haunting calls of a particular bird, and appreciate it for being just that without needing to know  that it is a Lapwing? As much as I can wallow in the stygian gloom of a damp woodland dell, my day is sullied by my inability to identify the mosses that are present within it.

This ‘naming of parts’ is a recent human phenomenon. It is only in the past 350 years (give or take a few) that we, as a species, have got involved in cataloguing what is also sharing the planet with us, purely out of curiosity and the wish for knowledge. There were of course names for certain organisms before this, but they were given out of necessity, to be able to identify those of use (either for food, medicine or artistic purposes) or to be safe in knowing which were harmful.

I think that the unquestioning identification of ‘life’ is a modern ill. Psychologists suggest that we assume superiority over what is being named. ‘Man’ used to believe that ‘he’ belonged to the land – we now think that land belongs to us along with the life forms on it. I still carry on trying to name what is before me. I enjoy doing so. But I do stand back from that and wonder whether or not it removes me from a more pure form of appreciation of it.

Please let me give an example of what I'm on about. A few years ago I went to Malaysia and spent three weeks in the rain forest. I was birding and focused on that and that alone. My knowledge of other life forms in that habitat was poor. During this time I came across many butterflies, maybe as many as a couple of hundred species. I couldn't name one of them. Instead of being frustrated by this I was liberated. When I came across a crowd of them feeding at a puddle or underneath a fruiting tree, instead of trying to identify the many species present I was able to just watch them for what they were - beautiful insects. I still treasure these moments as among the most vivid in my natural history experiences. Tellingly, not one of those species that were a part of these experiences was named.


Dave Boyle said...

I reckon you think too much Steve! Fancy a pint?

DorsetDipper said...

agree entirely.

I think we should designate a day as "non-identification day" On that day we leave notebooks at home, keep no lists, identify nothing, and just look at wildlife.

Steve Gale said...

Dave, where are you?

Dorset D - nice to hear from you again!