What’s in a name?

I still remember the decisiveness with which I decided to give up biology in higher education after glancing at the books that seemed to be filled with taxonomic nightmares. “How does memorizing the name of plant count as education?” I remarked to a friend. The teachers made no efforts to make the subject remotely interesting, and so I left in a huff, utterly convinced that I would have nothing to do with botany, zoology or any other discipline that insisted on pouring over directories of plants and animals. Perhaps, my conviction then also bore the quintessential arrogance of modern civilization that lives under the illusion of being above the natural environment. Why bother with names when life seems to hold its course through knowledge of local malls and Google search? However, years later I find myself helplessly staring at plants I have come to admire, yet know nothing about; if only I had a name to search for. Back then, I was staring at seemingly dull words; Now, I am hoping the plant introduces itself, turning one of those words into a name I can call.

Native American biologist Robin Kimmerer writes, “It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other but also with plants.” By guiding my attention to the intricacies of different plants, what was earlier a uniform green backdrop amongst trees begin to exhibit diverse variety, and I am stunned by my earlier blindness. Once seen, I can’t unsee it; still the mute spectator fumbling for a name I don’t know. Words allow a certain intimacy, a chance to remember something not available to one’s senses otherwise, and more importantly imagine what might be.

Most environmental education usually focuses on global scales of destruction, of a looming apocalypse that needs to be avoided. However, it more often than not leads people to tuck themselves into a sheltered existence, secretly hoping they are long gone before calamity strikes. All along it seems, our main worry lies in contemplating about our own survival. If only we were to realize how closely our survival maps onto well-being of other life forms around us. This realization, however, is not the outcome pedantic thought, it is to be found in sharing intimate bonds with the environment we are a part of. A sense of loss requires an act of love, and a feeling of love begins with a sense of familiarity. How can we be expected to act in an environment whose loss was never felt? We hardly even knew that it ever existed. Names are but a humble beginning to a relationship we ought to cherish. The words, however, become salient only in the context of experiences that serve to strengthen a bond. This is a glaring gap in our approach to education, which ends up arming children with words when they need names; they need stories to be told; they need to write one of their own. I was convinced of this when I first saw some children from an urban populace harvesting some Okra, ecstatic to see the fruit and the flowers. They had been eating the vegetable probably all their life without knowing how it grew. Now, for these children, Okra means something much more than the word. It is a name for a joyous experience they look forward to by growing more plants. There are many such names that require calling, may we know them all. After all, as Richard Powers writes, “Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by the forests for longer than we’ve been Homo Sapiens.” Time for rewilding, I say.

At Gurukul Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad, India

Published by debbiebornfree

I am cynical, yet hopeful. I am scared, yet take a step into the dark. I am an introvert, yet I can fill the room with conversations. I listen to stories, as I write my own. I am human.

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