Friday Open Thread (with Names and Naming)

Japanese Andromeda, or miniature lily-of-the-valley; clusters of small white bell-shaped flowers with pink tips that hang in clusters like grapes on the vine.

Dear Friends,

Stu and I have been making a habit of going on one long walk a day together, and as spring pushes its way out of bare branches and earth I find myself photographing every flower I don’t recognize, trusting that I can share them with my bloom-savvy friends and learn a thing or two. But this week, as I shared photos of what I learned were Japanese Andromeda, Iceland Poppy, and a variety of common daisies called, among other things, “Pomponette,” two dear friends told me about this great app called PICTURE THIS, which very accurately identifies plants and flowers from the photos you take of them.

Common daisies, cute and button-like, white inside and pink at the edges.

This has been a gamechanger for me, and as I wander around on walks now the inflection of my gaze is a little different. A step’s been eliminated, an intimacy bred: I see a flower and take its photo and learn a bouquet of names suggestive of different regions and histories, and when I see those flowers on subsequent walks, I can’t help but point them out to Stu, say, look, this is squill, windflower, forsythia, aren’t they beautiful. To name them is to greet them, and my heart swells towards them as it would towards a friend.

I felt this way about birds and animals before flowers; I want to feel this way next about trees, about native plants, about mushrooms, match names to all the growing things around me. And I find myself wanting to sit with this and think about it more quietly, more deeply: what is it about names, about naming, that makes me feel this kinship? Because it is kinship — it isn’t, as a more cynical part of me worries, about ownership, except inasmuch as we belong to each other in Mary Oliver’s family of things.

I think it may in fact be, instead, a quality of attention: to name something, to learn something’s name, is to pay attention to it as we perhaps didn’t before. To grant it some portion of ourselves in giving it a story, or in observing a narrative emerge from the patterns of its reality. Squill is also called “Glory of the snow”, windflowers are also Pasque flowers — names for the seasonal circumstances in which they’re encountered. In a world where attention is a currency and a whole economy, to turn away from advertising and engagement and performance and give my attention to something that isn’t asking anything at all of me feels like a perpetually reciprocated gift.

I’d love for you to tell me of a time you learned the name for something that became precious or important in the wake of that knowledge — or a time it fell to you to name something, and you felt you got it deeply, immensely right.

PS: One of the friends who told me about the app is the brilliant champagne-in-human-form author CSE Cooney; as it happens, I always think of her when I see forsythia, ever since she give a prince’s hair its yellow around the time I learned the word. Today saw the cover reveal for her debut novel, and I’m ludicrously excited about it, and I hope you’ll take a look and think about pre-ordering it because she is absolutely one of my favourite living writers in addition to being one of my dearest, deepest heart-friends. Just look at this glory!