Monday, June 17, 2013

The Power of Names

I recently returned from a trip back to my hometown of Salt Lake City. When I first made my plans, I thought I'd be able to fit in much more exploring than I actually had time for. I was hoping to take a trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the north end of the Great Salt Lake, and maybe also fit in a trip to Antelope Island in the middle of the lake. But I was there on family business, and as it turned out, there was little time for exploring. Still, I managed to squeeze in a few nice walks and photo sessions and that took care of some of my yearnings. I took my journeys at points in the week when I really needed a break or relief from stress, and they really helped. I came home to Florida feeling like I'd reconnected a little bit with my birthplace, which felt nice.

California Gull--State Bird. I knew this one. (And I know people make fun of Utah for having a California Gull as its state bird, but there's a whole story behind it. Read here and you will understand.)
I found it interesting that although I was returning home, when it came to the specifics of birds and plants and butterflies in Salt Lake, I felt as much a tourist as I ever did in South America. I had to look up almost everything I saw. The Utah mountains, landscape and smells felt so familiar, but I was looking with a different degree of attentiveness than I ever had when I lived there. As a child, I knew Robins and Seagulls, but had no awareness of other birds. They were dots in the sky--sparrows, every one. As for flowers, I knew the yard plants--roses, tulips and lilacs, and also Sego Lilies, the Utah State Flower that I learned about in elementary school, but have still never actually seen. I caught Mourning Cloak and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies and pinned them to a styrofoam cooler lid after killing them in a jar with a turpentine soaked rag, but had never seen a chrysalis. I knew Black Widow spiders because they lived in our basement, and the Box Elder Bugs because of their yearly infestation of the tree outside my bedroom window, but for the most part, I didn't pay attention to the details or the names of things around me. I don't know why--maybe it was that they were all too familiar, or maybe I just didn't know how interesting they were.

Magpies were so common when I was growing up. I miss them here in Florida. 

California Quail run through yards and streets, often with their chicks following in a row
I moved away from Utah when I was 19, and only started really being interested in knowing plants and animals a few years later when my husband and I moved to the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. We built a tiny cabin in the woods (maybe I'll write about that some day...) and we had much of the forest to ourselves. On our walks I found marvelous red, tubular flowers that I later identified with a field guide from the library as Scarlet Penstemon. Soon I identified the Blue Lupine and hot orange Indian Paintbrush that lit up the stark red dirt landscape, and I learned that you could smell the vanilla scent of Ponderosa Pine a lot better if you hugged the trees tight. Knowing what to call things made me feel like an insider, like they were part of my sphere. When I knew their names, I knew them. My introduction to naming the birds and other animals came several years later while camping in the Olympic Peninsula with family friends who pointed out the Cormorants, Murres and Porpoises. The same friend told us, when we were living in Wisconsin and struggling to identify the large hawk hopping around on our lawn gobbling earthworms, that if it had a red tail, it was a Red-Tailed Hawk. "But it has fluffy legs!" we complained. "Does it have a red tail?" he asked. "Yes." "Then it's a Red-Tailed Hawk." It seemed so easy for him. He knew the names.

Baby Robin gets a meal

I didn't even know there were Monarch Butterflies in Salt Lake when I was a kid.

Or Squirrels. How could I have missed squirrels?

Some Kind of Cottontail Rabbit 
Then we came to Florida 16 years ago, and this place was so unlike any other place we'd lived in. I was determined to learn as much as I could about our new home because it was all new to us. First I learned to identify the Azaleas and Live Oaks and other plants in the yard, and those were quickly followed by Palmetto Bugs, Banana Spiders and Black Racer snakes. Then the wildflowers caught my eye, and the butterflies that sat on them, nectaring, came next. As I learned the names of the plants and animals in our new home, the more observant I became. I learned their habits. It was as if I had new eyes that looked for the details that would help me get to know them better. I quickly came to appreciate and love the beauty of Florida. Later on I learned that there were names, and then there were names. This was when I was introduced to the power of the scientific names for organisms. I have given up learning the latin when it comes to animals, but with plants, I am a willing student of the botanical names because the names tell me about their lineage. Not only can I know who they are, but I can also know the clans that they come from. It all starts to make sense!

Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
But the more I know, the more I know I don't know. I'm on a first name basis with many of the natural inhabitants of my city and county. The ones I don't know, I can usually figure out after a while with some detective work because they look familiar. (And also, I have a ton of my own field guides now.) But when I venture away from home, I get lost. I don't know the names, or even their families. Things look familiar, but I'm just not sure how they fit together. And some are not familiar at all and I don't even know where to begin. I feel unsure and tentative, aware that I am in foreign territory. That's how I felt in Salt Lake much of the time this past week, despite growing up there. I didn't know where to look or what to look for. But once I got looking, I saw a lot. And now I have the basic identification tools and know where to start to name what I see. It's a challenge, like a great puzzle. And this makes every trip, whether it's to another county, to another Country, or back to the state where I was born, a great new adventure. When I add a new name to my list, I know that plant or animal and I feel a new connection to that place. That's the power of names.

I knew the American Goldfinch because they come to my yard feeders

The Great Spangled Fritillary looks similar to the Variegated Fritillary in Florida

I know this is a Crescent Butterfly, but I haven't figured out which kind yet

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Black Capped Chickadee

Black Headed Grossbeak

Spotted Towhee (I knew it was a Towhee from its call, but it sounded so strange!)

Lazuli Bunting, male (I gasped when I saw this one. So pretty!)

Lazuli Bunting, female

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