Jun 21 2010

What’s in a Name?


When I travel to different areas, I always try to find guide books to the local plants and animals (although now I have guides to most areas of the U.S.). I want to know what is there. And if I can’t find out what something is, I will check with the rangers and naturalists that are at so many of our parks.

Now I understand that it is difficult to know every plant and animal everywhere. I have to constantly remind myself what things are when I revisit an area that I have not been to in a while. But names can be important.

I think it is very interesting that in the second story of creation in Genesis, the Biblical writer makes a big deal about Adam naming “every living creature.” There are a lot of references to names in the Bible, including names of God, but I think a relevant passage is from Psalms 91, verse 14, “I will protect those who know my name.” This can be interpreted as being in a great relationship with God because you “know” His name.

Names connect us with God, but also with anything we know the name of. It is easy to ignore a person we do not know, but not so easy if we know their name, so to speak. I think this applies to nature. If a landscape is simply a bunch of brush, it is easy to ignore it and even denigrate its stature. If it has a name like chaparral, it suddenly gains some status and stature. If the Gulf oil spill is soaking some birds, that is a lot harder to relate to than to know it is soaking the feathers of pelicans and any number of other species of water birds.

So I think the reference to names in Genesis is very important because it says that the life around us is important. If it were not, what would be the point of giving it names? Names make the world specific and offer us a solid connection to it. If we know the name of someone, they can become a friend, even if we don’t always remember their name at first. Even if we don’t remember the name of a flower, once we know it has a name from a book or a naturalist, that flower gains a stature. The opposite of that is when we don’t know a name (0r think that a plant or animal has a name), the creature involved becomes anonymous and easy to ignore, and then perhaps, to forget so it becomes vulnerable to destruction and loses our care. God’s creatures do have names even if we don’t know them, that is another point of the writer of the second creation story, and that gives them stature and importance with God.

I think photography is a little like that, too. It gives us a very specific vision of nature. A photograph of trees is never simply a generic forest. It always has specific characteristics of the trees, characteristics that are as unique as names. Photography and names help us connect directly with God’s world.

The little butterfly seen here is a skipper, a very specific type of butterfly, and it is sitting on a bidens flower.