Molnar: Naming Names

Jan 10, 2014

The garden catalogs are arriving too early, when I have other things I must do, but I steal a guilty glance... or two. The pages of eggplants are particularly gorgeous. Each catalog has a dozen or more varieties, each with a mystifying name. Hansel and Millionaire and Ping Tung Long. In fact, there are 2,500 unique varieties of eggplant in the world. But it’s too much to try to understand even the most basic differences, much less remember any names. And why would I?

I feel very differently about the plants that grow on our Vermont hill. Since my first walk in these fields and woods, I have struggled to know and name what I see. Nine years later, this taxonomic yearning continues to drive me mad.

When I know the name, I can’t always retrieve it from my swampy memory bank. When I don’t know it, but should, it’s discouraging. When I can’t realistically expect to know it, there’s hope in the guidebooks. But that often ends in frustration too. Because when I finally zero in on the most likely plant; when I’m certain I’m learning to decipher the complex key to these books… I find that the plant grows only on mountain peaks or bogs. Clearly, not in our meadow.

This fixation on putting a name to every tree, shrub, grass and flower that grows here is a mystery to me. It doesn’t make the greens greener or the golds more golden. I don’t need to have proof that the blueberries that one spring magically covered the slope are dwarf sweet or low sweet. They are low, and they taste sweet, and knowing what label botanists slapped on them will make them neither tall nor sour.

Yet every people everywhere have tried to order the living world. And all have seen the same basic order, because beneath the great variety, there are deep underlying principles. Psychologists have found that some brain-damaged patients are unable to order and name living things; it turns out that all have suffered damage in the same part of the brain. So scientists hypothesize that there must be a physical location where the ability to order and name the living world resides, making this drive a basic function of being human.

I have learned a little. I proudly note that the young whips by the fence are poplars, not birches nor aspens. In midwinter, I know a sugar maple by its trunk. Even the frozen grasses yield up their mysteries. I note where the orchard grass is spreading and timothy is not. When compared to the massive biodiversity in the Amazon, Vermont is poor in plant species. So if I continue to struggle, I may one day unravel this small place into its strands. I will know each tree and grass, and then I will know the woods and fields. And when I know this one place, I’ll know the world a little better.