I spent last week in the second-most remote community on the continent. Which must make it one of the most remote communities in the world.
Besides loving the work I was doing, assisting with an arts project with aboriginal kids, I was totally captivated – mesmerised – by the surrounding landscape and its vegetation. At a quick glance it looked like there was nothing in bloom, but when I walked right in amongst it all, looking down instead of across, I discovered there was loads in flower.
I couldn’t name a single plant. When I got over the blow to my pride and confidence, I loved not knowing. It put me in mind of an entry that Christopher Lloyd made into the visitors book of the owner of an Australian native garden that he and I visited together in 1992, that left him bewildered and excited in equal proportions. In the comments section, he scribbled ‘Lost, but happy’.
All that triggered a deep memory that had me trawling back through old articles, looking for something I’d once written on this subject. Took a while, but I got there
What is it, that smugness of knowing a plant name? It’s somehow an act of power. There’s a sense in which by identifying and naming a plant, I’ve conquered it. Sure, there’s the one-upmanship, or bragging rights, associated with pointing out what you know to others who don’t. I’ve been at both ends of that painful exchange. But it goes further. With or without an audience, I feel a curiously comforting sense of familiarity with plants I can name, and a degree of alienation from those I can’t. This may be natural, but it’s lame. For I can’t, in any ‘natural’ sense claim to know a wildflower’s name. It doesn’t actually have a name. It survived for millennia without one. All I can claim is that I know what someone else has called it, and that the botanical community has agreed to call it, for the purposes of identification and communication.
The best argument I can come up with for wanting to be able to identify a wild plant, or even a garden plant, is so that I can learn more about it, or can communicate with others effectively about it. But there’s a real danger that, having come up with a name of one of these wild flowers (no doubt following some serious brain-googling, trawling through faded old head-files, accompanied by knockings of the fist on forehead, and clickings of the fingers), I’lll take a pic and walk on, without further thought.
In fact, if by not knowing the name of a plant, I’m summoned into the action of finding out more about it, then it may result in a net gain. If by knowing, I don’t follow up with further enquiry, then my minimal knowledge has only cemented my ignorance.
I’ve been pondering this paradoxical power of name-knowing for some time, then just last week stumbled on this quote by one of my favourite writers (who, rather pertinently, re-named himself David Grayson in order to escape the limitations associated with his parent-provided name). Given its clarity and economy, I’ll make it the last word on the subject
‘When someone discovers that creative knowledge does not end with names, but begins with them, they are learning to think’
(Would love your thoughts on this. A recent post on instagram brought out some interesting stuff. Check out michaelmccoyongardens post on 31st July 2022)