On the Naming of Things

by J.D. Roth

I’m still not sleeping well. Kris thinks my sleep problems come from not following my friends’ advice. I think my sleep problems come from her waking me when I’m asleep.

Tuesday night I fell asleep at nine and was dozing contentedly when Kris woke me an hour later. Yesterday I came home from work and fell asleep, and I would have slept straight through until morning except that, when she got home at seven, Kris threw open the blinds and she opened the window, which let in both the noise from the street and the hotter outside air. Ugh. And then she wonders why I’m so groggy the rest of the evening.

I’m so tired that I’ve been falling asleep at work. That’s a feat. My office chair is hardly comfortable, and reclines maybe fifteen degrees. Try to sleep in that. It’s not easy.

This morning I felt myself falling asleep again, so, to thwart Somnus, I took a little walk (yes, without my knee brace).

Proust, in Swann’s Way (you knew I was going to tie this to Proust, didn’t you?), spends pages describing his daily walks through the French countryside. (The title of the book itself — Swann’s Way — refers to the most common walk he made.) With a typical eye for detail, he describes the wide plains through which he travels, the plants he passes (especially his beloved hawthorn), the people he sees, the steeples he can discern from churches of distant towns.

My walks, that autumn, were all the more delightful because I used to take them after long hours spent over a book. When I was tired of reading, after a whole morning in the house, I would throw my plaid across my shoulders and set out; my body, which in a long spell of enforced immobility had stored up an accumulation of vital energy, was now obliged, like a spinning-top wound and let go, to spend this in every direction. The walls of houses, the Tanonsville hedge, the trees of Roussainville wood, the bushes gainst which Montjouvain leaned its back, all must bear the blows of my walking-stick or umbrella, must hear my shouts of happiness!

Reading about all his walking has made me want to do some of my own.

I’ve been telling myself for a decade that I ought to take walks during the day, to amble down these country roads. I’ve never done it.

Even the short walk I made today was quite nice. The experience was sensual: the chirping of the birds, the whirring of the grasshoppers, the buzzing and thrumming of the power lines; the sweet smell of the tree for which I have no name (more on this in a moment), the dry, dusty odor of the wheat; the sharp heat of the mid-morning sun burning my skin, the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet; the tiny spots of color from blossoms amidst the dry, brown grass.

The field across from Custom Box, just last year filled with lush strawberries, has become a lake of yellow dandelions; it almost seems like some intelligence has planted them in uniform patterns. Down the road there is a twent-foot wide east-west corridor that is a sort of superhighway for insects. The air is thick with them, especially the honey bees, and they zip along wavering straight lines on their insect agendas.

Though I enjoyed my stroll, I found myself overwhelmed — as often happens when I’m in nature — by the fact that I did not have names for many of the things around me.

Those dandelions: are they really dandelions? And what of those flowers I call daisies? They’re not really daisies, are they? They’re weeds. And what about that low, delicate blossom on the ground cover beneath the neighbor’s mailbox? What is that called? And the purple, globular bloom on the tangly weed? The other purple flower?

What about the various weedy grasses? The tufty stuff, what is that? The tall, spike stuff: surely that has a name, too. Some of the grasses are still green. Some are quite brown. What are they called?

The neighbors have a tree — a cedar? — with a sweet, musky scent that cries FOREST. What is it? And what are the tall evergreens behind it?

Why don’t I know the names of the plants that grow just outside my back door?

Kris knows the names of all the flowers she plants in her garden at home, and I’ve learned a few — clematis, verbena, foxglove, alium, hydrangea — but what of the native plants, even the weeds, that are so profuse out here in the country? What are they called? Who would know? How would I learn? Did I know at one time? Did Mom and Dad teach me the name of the tall, rubbery weed with the lacy top, the weed we used to break in half and laugh at the white milky blood which oozed from its stalk?

How can I really say that I’m living in my environment if I cannot even name the things which surround me?

I’m lost.


On 10 July 2003 (11:37 AM),
J.D. said:

Nick, who is keen to walk to my office to comment on my entries, but will not post his wisdom for all to share, thought that this bit from “Romeo and Juliet” was apt (though it took me a while to find because I thought it was from “Hamlet”):

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;–
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:–Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Nice, eh?

He also reminded me to enjoy the experience of walking despite the fact I lack the vocabulary to describe it.

On 10 July 2003 (11:54 AM),
Tiffany said:


On 10 July 2003 (12:43 PM),
Dana said:

If I had to guess from your description, I’d say the weed that you’d split open to expose it’s milky sap is probably a variety of Milkweed. 🙂

On 10 July 2003 (04:12 PM),
Kris said:

Dear Husband,

Darkness is for sleepin’; daylight is for fixin’ dinner, doin’ chores, snugglin’ with your sweetie, playin’ with the cats, watchin’ baseball and generally bein’ AWAKE! Naps are the devil’s spawn…. (evil laugh here…)

On 10 July 2003 (04:13 PM),
Mom said:

I’m not sure I know the names of a lot of the plants, especially weeds, that grow around here. When I was a kid in Utah, we had a lot of cat tails and snake grass, and they were fun to play with, but I don’t think we have either one around here. I know the names of a lot of flowers and a few of the plants that grow here in the Northwest but Steve knew a lot of the latin names from when he worked at Mitsch Nursery. He liked to impress me by reciting them while showing them to me when I first got to know him. I’m not sure that we ever really knew the names of local weeds — a weed was a weed was a weed. So your guess on that score is as good as mine, J.D.

On 11 July 2004 (11:35 AM),
Coleen said:

J.D., I think you’re ready to become a bit of a naturalist! It’s a wonderful thing to hike and know the mysteries that each plant provides. I would suggest that you take a class from Judy Siegel, an herbalist and educator, in Aurora.

Before kid number two, I went to a couple of Judy’s classes, offered in her home. There you learn about all the “weeds,” many of which are actually herbs used to treat a variety of ailments. (I remember having homemade Elderberry Wine after one class and learning how to make it!) I still have her booklet, “Dancing With the Weeds: A Guide to Using Wild Plants Respectfully for Food, Medicine, Tools and Ceremony.”

I just loved her classes but found that I had no time being a new teacher and a new mom. One of these days I am going to continue to learn from her. If her number still works and she’s still in Aurora, you might want to give her a call to find out more information: 503-981-4818.

Updated: 10 July 2003

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