Lost, But Happy

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)


  1. I agree, knowing the name of things can be a real stopping point as we get stuck in our head knowledge. Action is what’s needed to deepen our understanding of its nature and how it connects with us so we have a sense of it in our heart.

    1. I need to discipline myself to look, look and look again. I was better at this 30 years ago. I’d go somewhere and sit, and sit, and sit some more. I’d sit until I was convinced I’d extracted everything out of my surrounds, and then keep sitting. Eventually, after a lag, entirely new stuff would emerge. I’d start to see as through a hyper-polished lens

  2. It’s a stunning part of the world Michael isn’t it? A different kind of beauty to where we both live. The Aussie outback gets in your bones and draws you back. The landscape is a perfect example of how scale and contrast plus nature’s textures blends to make something amazing, even if half of it is dead at times and up close appears a bit ordinary. Your trip sounds amazing!

    1. It’s totally stunning. I’d never experienced such an eloquent – and verbose – landscape. It was so…conversational. It didn’t stop talking.
      And you’re right about the amazing blend – way, way more than the sum of its parts.
      As for it drawing me back, the experience is not sufficiently distant to be able to tell how addicted I (may) have become. I’ll keep you posted

  3. I think the scariest thing about working, writing and teaching in the broad aspects of horticulture is that people do expect you know every plant name you come across. That is I think why we become disappointed in ourselves when we don’t know the name of every plant we come across. I have had people openly question my profesiionalism of many decades standing, when I say I don’t know this plant but I can find out for you. I think it is just as important to know how to go abuut identifying plants as it is to instantly know them off the top of your head. I was asked recently whether I knew the name of a more obscure Eucalyptus species. I just said well there are 900 species approximately and many more varieties, subspecies and cultivars, so it would be quite a feat for me to be able to indentify each and everyone of them unless I specialised in that field. When you think of the miilions of plants species and varieties etc.in the world and how plants from diverse regions are spread across the world … how could you know the name of every plant you come across? It is a big ask. It is much more important to gain a deep understanding of the plants you do know and gradually work to extending that knowledge to other plants that maybe interest or importance to you or your environment.

    1. Excuse the typo!

    2. Yes, I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to avoid the expectations placed upon the ‘expert’. I have no desire to be the most knowledgeable person in the room, but I’d be proud to be the most curious person in the room.
      As for Eucalyptus names, when I’m asked them, I tell my enquirer about being at Melbourne Uni in the early ’80’s when the now Prof Pauline Ladiges was there. There’s probably no one that knows more about the genus. We were on some kind of field trip with her, and pointed out some Eucalypts through the bus window, asking what they were. Her answer? ‘Bring me juvenile foliage, adult foliage, buds, flowers and seedpods, and then I might hazard a guess!’. Come to think of it, she probably asked for a sample of bark as well.

  4. I like to know what a plant it, it’s a compulsion mostly. I also have to confess for having a fetish for botanical Latin/Greek/nomenclature in general. All those tongue twisters and names that look as though they’ve been attacked and robbed of most of their vowels, the remaining letters tossed into the air and let fall and loosely arranged to be seemingly barely coherent. Wonderful. Proper names also express more than common names and sound, to me at least, more attractive and certainly more descriptive.

    We just finished walking the Larapinta Trail in June-July and the landscape was just astounding. Stop you in your tracks-level stuff. I tried not to get too hung up on identifying the plants – I stopped counting the different eremophilas when I got to 17 on day 7. Sometimes the only thing to be done is to soak up where you’re present, especially when you’re only passing through. I think I semi-successfully achieved being present and not being overly compulsive in the naming department. I was definitely much more restrained than usual – I didn’t even take a guide to the flora and I fancied I might regret it. But I didn’t, so I guess I won.

    1. I can’t say I share the compulsion. I wish I did, then I could claim that my need to know was driven by poetics, or a love of language. My need is about appropriation, or sheer showing off.
      I love your description of the random shake-up of letters. So, so good to have squeezed a comment out of you again, James! I laughed out loud. And your description puts me in mind of a lecture that Otto Fauser once gave about the genus Crocus, and he quoted some wonderful quote from, I think, Reginald Farrer, who claimed that, given the impossible combination of ‘S’s’, ‘H’s’, ‘C’s’ and ‘Z’s’ in one particular species, the name was better sneezed than spoken.
      As for your nomenclatural discipline on the Larapinta – I’d call that a triumph! We must get together and talk about this some time. I need to know so much more!

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