Saturday, May 22, 2010

On knowing nature by name

“Is that a lilac?” the thirty-something man asked.
“No, but it’s lilac colored, so you’re halfway right,” I replied. Kindly, I think. Masking my incredulity, I hoped.
“It’s an iris.”
How can you reach adulthood not knowing an iris from a lilac? It’s like not knowing an apple from a peach, a dragonfly from a cockroach, asphalt from concrete. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t recognize the scent of a lilac, or the shape of an oak leaf. Did the thirty-something go home to mow his “turf,” trim his “foundation plantings,” and barbeque steaks in the protective shelter of his “shade trees?” Is it all about expediency, rather than the intricate web of life and the function of every living thing?
Some of us grow up knowing the names of nature. We either absorb them (cardinal, ant, iris) or seek them out when they amaze or annoy us (egret, box elder bug). We gain an intimacy with them and by extension with all living things. The damage done to the oysters and pelicans that live on the Gulf Coast by corporate misdeeds … just for an example … becomes personal. I hope that the lilac iris was beautiful enough to shake that man into my world, our world, where nature is not just a set for one’s activities. Rather, it’s the foundation of his being, our being alive. Maybe he went home and said to his wife, “We should plant some iris flowers. They’re lilac colored, and very beautiful.” Or maybe the name of the flower, in this case (how lucky for him) both the botanical and common name, traveled through his accountant’s brain without leaving a trace, either of recognition or of memory.
“Is that a geranium?” he later asked. No, it’s a rhododendron.
A beautiful native shrub, I might have added, with cousins in the Himalayas and the mountains of Taiwan. A genus of a thousand species, including the beautiful flame azaleas, and a few species with pale-colored sweetly scented flowers pollinated by moths that inhabit the night.
It is disturbing, and rather ominous, to think that this man and others like him wander through life oblivious to the beauty and impacts of the non-human components. But perhaps I should be more magnanimous. Maybe he has recently awoken from a twenty-year coma. Or maybe he just moved to Pennsylvania. From Mars.


  1. I agree completely. Unfortunately, my husband was one such person. He's now a yard putzer and is slowly but surely learning his plants! It really does reflect the fact that a lot of urban people live primarily indoors, even if they like to go hiking. It's not the same as you and I, who lived outdoors every possible minute when growing up. I look back and thank my parents dearly for it.

  2. I had a very similar experience 25 years ago when I sublet my house to a 40-something lawyer, who was meticulously tidy and kept my lovingly planted property looking beautiful even though she didn't know anything about gardening.
    I called her in the first spring and happened to ask how the daffodils I'd planted in the fall were doing. She said, "I don't know the names of any plants. What color are they?" I am still marveling. How could anybody get through grade school and not know what a daffodil looked like? Like you, I hope that her experience tending my perennials awakened an interest in gardening. The punch line: her last name was Gardner!

  3. I am happy to say that this post reminds me of my daughter saying "magnolia" in her stroller as we walked our neighborhood. My granddaughter is now intent on learning the names of the flowers in my garden, and requested "a book with the names of all the flowers" which she received from me in her Easter basket.
    Maybe someone need to invent a video game based on the names of garden plants!?