When I read a New York Times article earlier this month that the Entomological Society of America got rid of a disparaging common name for a moth and an ant, I was startled. The pejorative is the word “gypsy.” Of course, I thought. That moth was wildly unpopular, because the caterpillars would spread out and strip leaves from trees. And then it dawned on me…oh no! This is the same term I’d joyfully chosen to describe my wandering life that defined the onset of Kingfisher Journeys in 2015.
Today, I scoured my blog posts for the slur and deleted every reference. Instead, I chose adjectives like wandering, roving, and roaming that all convey what I intended. As a child, one of my favorite Halloween costumes was to be a Romani girl dressed in bright colors with scarves and bangles, except I knew nothing of the history and terrible oppression. I simply loved to open my mother’s big box of dress up clothes and play.
I am humbled. I am culpable. Changing our language to be inclusive and sensitive is a critical step in addressing both historical and current racism. As part of the cultural awakening, scientists are looking at many common names for racist origins, including birds named for people. The process has begun–starting with renaming the McCown’s Longspur. Instead of referring to John McCown, a Confederate general , the name references a physical feature–hence the new name of Thick-billed Longspur.
As I grow older and more forgetful, I’m comforted by what I do remember–and those are often the names of plants, trees, animals, and birds. I think my stuffed brain makes room for the natural world and kicks out what doesn’t resonate–like the names of many actors and musicians (although I retain my favorites).
Now with the application “Seek” that you can link to INaturalist, I’ve become more obsessed with learning and retaining names, especially of plants that stay put and are often repeated along a trail. I’m also delighted when in some deep recess of my mind out pops a stored Latin name like Castilleja (genus for Indian Paintbrush), Dodecatheon (genus for Shooting Star), or Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-fir). They tend to have lovely resonations on the tongue. However, as I write this I noted the common name, Indian Paintbrush. Why not simply stick with Paintbrush and avoid a reference that is unnecessary and potentially disrespectful?
Yesterday, as Wes and I sauntered along a favorite coastal trail of Cape Arago, I opened “Seek” on my Iphone to snap photos and recite the common names I knew and add those I didn’t know to my trove. The list included Seaside Daisy, Sea Thrift, Black Crowberry, and Henderson’s Angelica. (Who is Henderson?).
Learning plant names is the first step in a relationship in the same way you meet a new person, look them in the eye and repeat their name as if to acknowledge, “I see you.” Then, I’m moved to take that next step to find out more, something else that Seek and INaturalist offer.
For example, Black Crowberry is a member of the heather family, has a circumpolar range, is adapted to extreme conditions, and the shiny edible berries are feasts for crows, as well as gulls and even bears that disperse seeds. The scientific name is Empetrum (growing on the rocks) nigrum (Latin word for the color black). While the species name triggers connotations of the “N” word, the original Latin referred simply to color. Still that makes me uneasy. I’ll stick with the apt Black Crowberry.
Kneeling down to touch the leathery leaves of crowberry, I noted an entire community of plants snugging tight in the salty air of the open headlands. Relationship. Tolerance. Community. Cooperation. This is what plants can teach us. As part of our reciprocity toward their gifts, we should assure the names are just to people and to the plants. For instance, maybe we ought to re-name Fireweed– a native plant called a weed only because of the fabulous ability to come up in abundance after wildfire. Why not Fire Primrose (the family name is primrose)?
Taking a break from writing this blog as fog lifted on Cape Arago to hike the coastal forest, I thought more about naming. Rather than trekking along taking in a blur of layered green plants as you would a passing crowd of anonymous people, I could call them out like friends–salal, deer fern, sword fern, evergreen huckleberry, and twinberry honeysuckle.
Revel in the diversity and all the scents, textures, and ways of thriving in proximity. Wonder at the interconnections I cannot see–of spiders, insects, and the interwoven fungi and mycelia underground linked to the towering spruce far above.
I believe in the power of names and the importance of changing those that are slurs, insulting, and show prejudice. As we pay attention to names in nature, I hope we will take that deeper dive of appreciation for the complexity of our highly evolved ecosystems of which we are a part, and to practice a relationship that is humble, learning, and open to change for the better.
Let all names lead us there. Meanwhile, I will continue my meanders, wanders, roams, and sauntering ways of a naturalist-always a novice, and always open to learning.
Note–in this blog I capitalized names of plants in ways that are not journalistic, but seemed right when exploring Naming.