Every name is a step toward the consummate Name, as everything broken points to the unbroken.
Long ago, in dimmest antediluvian childhood, we learned the basics: Flower. Tree. Bush.
Then just slightly deeper. Daisy. Pine tree. The fact that leaves fall in the fall.
We may have more or less stopped there, believing that to know plants is an elective interest, no longer a necessity for survival. But what if knowing plants is part of the job of being human? What if it’s also part of understanding people?
I learned a few plants as a child in Pennsylvania, the way I learned the names of my aunts and uncles. In our yard was a large, benevolent maple; I could not have told you more specifics than that, and now that I’ve thought to ask, it’s been cut down. There were also many black walnut trees, and the provocative scent of the limey, leathery balls they dropped is still an instant conveyance to the melancholy Septembers of my childhood. There was Queen Anne’s lace at the far borders of the yard: intricate, self-made purity of summer.
But it was many years before I circled back to the project of acquainting myself with plants. Throughout my young-adult years, I’m sure I would have said that I loved plants and trees. But even though I mostly lived in the country, I knew few of their names. I remember a walk my boyfriend and I took on the farm where we were renting a cottage: We heard a noise and looked over to see a tree collapse in on itself. Then a little cloud of dust puffed out from its ruins. It strikes me now that we had no idea, and didn’t really wonder, what species it was.
Later that year, we married at the edge of a field on the same farm, unaware (until a friend pointed it out) that we’d taken our vows in front of a redbud tree, with its heart-shaped leaves. Their sign was appropriate to the occasion and to the generalized love I bore for the natural world, a wordless, ongoing rapture at the existence of landscapes and my own good fortune at living close to them.
It’s proper for adults to know things about what they own, and we now bore responsibility for these seven acres.
I was around thirty, the year we bought our house in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, when the learning of names took on a new sort of urgency. We began to look with a particular kind of gaze at the trees and plants growing on what we now called our land. Property: propriety. Having just become homeowners, we felt we’d been christened adults by the transaction. It’s proper for adults to know things about what they own, and we now bore responsibility for these seven acres.
A friend who worked as an arborist came over around that time. He stood near the porch steps, looking north. “You guys have an ailanthus problem,” he said.
Just like that, I learned to see part of our woods not as a wilderness, perfect unto itself, but as diseased and polluted. I recalled a phrase I’d once heard, “trash trees,” and how little sense it had made. Now, as I learned the name ailanthus, I also absorbed the information that this species, also known as tree of heaven or paradise tree, is one of the major nonnative invasive trees in the United States. I read about the fearsome arsenal of botanical weapons with which it outcompetes native species. It likes disturbed areas and grows vigorously in cities (it’s the actual tree that grows in Brooklyn), as well as on roadsides and throughout logged areas in rural Virginia.
The look and smell of ailanthus became laden with meaning. If it was a problem—our problem—we were bound to solve it. The red tips of its new leaves signalled blemish, or even blight. (Another of its epithets: “ghetto palm.”) The smell of its broken stems was not only distinct, but foul. Our relationship to this plant became aggressive, like our relationship to mice in the kitchen cabinets. We developed techniques for yanking the roots cleanly out of the earth.
To learn this name was to glimpse the first pillar of a vast hierarchical structure. Love began to cleave into more distinct categories. What was the quality of that gaze we’d newly acquired? Once learned, it stuck. Thirteen years later, it is a gaze we still wield. It seeks information, like an assistant principal deciding who the troublemakers are, who the natural leaders; it reserves the right to judge; it contains the power to remove.
We were beginning to learn that an astonishing percentage of the plant life on our property, given just a little background information, could be seen as tainted. Past decades of logging and grazing had painted the land with a palette of nonnative species. In our second year here, we hosted a herd of goats for a few months in hopes that certain sections of our acreage might become more passable. In conversation with the man who owned the goats, we learned the names of many of the culprits tangling our space: multiflora rose, Chinese privet, and what he called “stickweed.” The latter is a tall, single-stalked perennial that grows in crowded swaths over much of our land, spending the summer attaining just-above-human height before producing a gangly yellow flower in the fall.
As it turned out, goats, who eat everything, don’t eat stickweed. So along with our newly minted belief that goats are a huge pain in the ass, we acquired a corollary belief that stickweed is a related, and even bigger, pain in the ass. Forever would the utterance of its name—just like that of ailanthus—be marked by a scornful, disgusted tone.
Over the years of living here, I slowly absorbed the names of things and the categories to which they were said to belong. The criminals were wineberry, stiltgrass, mimosa, Oriental bittersweet. The upstanding citizens were red oak, sassafras, poplar, spicebush. The celebrities were showy orchids, pitcher plants, morel mushrooms. The masses were chicory, daylilies, jewelweed.
I learned these things from a variety of sources: field guides, and the commentary that passes casually between country people about whatever they’re appreciating, or battling, in their yards. Always the information implied relationships—dynamics between people and plants.
Suddenly the plant itself seemed like a sort of quiz that one could fail.
Someone, for instance, referred to the prolific bushy stuff along the roadside as “turkey cane” and talked about how the highway department fights it with poisonous sprays. Then a neighbor rechristened it as Japanese knotweed—a name we knew as a medicinal herb, but had never imagined might grow here in our Virginian hollow. She even brought us a sort of pesto she made with its new shoots in spring. It is taking over the creek banks behind her house: health-giving and problematic, all at once.
A friend and I, walking through the woods, noticed an elegant ankle-high plant that we couldn’t name; one of us later looked it up and supplied the other with the name, Solomon’s seal. At some point I learned that Solomon’s seal comes in two varieties, one called false and one called true: suddenly the plant itself seemed like a sort of quiz that one could fail.
My desire to know plants grew and tumbled forward, vinelike, without a clear motivator except its own survival and reproduction.
I wanted to know more and more. Which ones can we eat? At a party, a woman with earrings made of feathers recounted cooking up a panful of greenbrier shoots, and one Easter afternoon, my family and I pushed into the woods and gathered enough of these—they have a distinctive lemon flavor—to make a side dish with dinner.
Which ones evolved here, in the Blue Ridge, and were given names by the Monacan Nation? The smell of spicebush twigs broken off the bush and steeped in hot water, the taste of its modest flowers, the fetching way its rounded leaves come in various sizes, the rumors of its berries being dried and ground to use in the kitchen: all of these fragmentary experiences are capstoned by the information that it hosts the eggs and young of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, which I often see tumbling around the zinnias and coneflower I grow near the house. Knowing that link—seeing the connection between plant and insect like a line visibly drawn through the air—makes spicebush feel inextricable from this place, as much a shaping force as the creek alongside which it grows.
Which ones have I been looking past all my life? In the big gardens where my husband and I plant long rows of collards and peas and peppers, there are many plants that, by virtue of our own desire to cultivate food, we call weeds. One of these, which we usually murder with our bare hands in mid-spring when it’s three or four inches high, has shiny, pointed leaves; the ones we don’t get to, or that wisely sprout just beyond the margins of the garden, eventually produce small, pretty flowers reminiscent of cartoon faces with large blue ears. I pulled and / or glanced at these for years and years before finally bothering to look them up. They are Asiatic dayflowers, so called because their blooms last just one day. And now that I carry that name in my pocket, I mentally greet them before ending their lives.
I started to see this learning as a game. You tuck away a clue, store it for months or years in the mind, and finally the moment arrives when you can bring it back out and slap it down, an ace in the hole. Or you suddenly gain a name for something you have visually, wordlessly taken in thousands of times, and then apply that name continually as you go about your business, like a botanical Monty Python reference. Or, because the game is ongoing, you seek out and find something growing—right behind the mailbox!—that you have never noticed at all, and within seconds, because you hold a tiny computer in your hand, you can introduce another person to it as though it were a friend: “Say hello to thimbleweed!”
Gradually, over the years, the field fills in. That general affinity I’d once felt for plants now seemed like a kind of negative, as in negative space: just chlorophyll, undifferentiated, blank of human meaning. The naming (“positive identification,” as they say) inscribes language over this space, and brings human stories with the monikers—stories of colonization, immigration, intention, accident, damage, desire, affection. It brings science and culture, inquiry and mastery. It makes one think two things at once: that the world already was very full of meaning, and that now it is full of meaning.
The world was more legible now, with a finer grain.
I found that the more I learned, the more any trip outdoors (on a hike, or just to the toolshed) had names shooting upwards from the ground like popcorn kernels, and that this was an affirming sensation. Wild geranium—pop! Black cohosh—pop! Mullein—pop! There was a chasing, capturing feeling. When I spotted what I thought was wild ginger, and bent down to lift the heart-shaped leaf, and found the wine-dark flower at ground level, right where it was supposed to be (it is pollinated by a crawling beetle), and knew I had earned the right to apply the name, I felt as clever as Odysseus, filled with satisfaction, and it lasted for days and days, and I’m feeling it now again as I write this.
I don’t know why! Is this because I love plants? I certainly fell in love with plants I’d never noticed before. The world was more legible now, with a finer grain. There was that. But then, I also love words: the elegance of taxonomy and Latin, the irresistible temptation of organizing and dividing things, the whole grand idea of science.
It is easy to regard oneself as a monarch—to think that because one possesses some knowledge, one possesses the world. And to forget that that knowledge is a lens that, when you look through it, bends what you see.
From Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees:
The first reward of tree study—but one that lasts you to the end of your days—is that as you walk abroad, follow a rushing stream, climb a hill, or sit on a rock to admire the view, the trees stand forth, proclaiming their names to you. Though at first you may fix their identity with more or less conscious effort, the easy-to-know species soon become like the faces of your friends, known without thought, and bringing each a host of associations.
I came to know the sensation of that prelanguage visual chime, the faces of my friends. Yet language is so key to the building of the friendship, the moving beyond a vague sense of recognition that attends the image of any plant I know by sight, but not yet by name.
Peattie—who seems to have known more about trees, and to have known trees more closely, than anyone—put it backward, I think, when he had the trees proclaiming their own names to the seer. The truth was that now when I walked abroad it was I who proclaimed. Or, perhaps, the usage of a name made it seem as though the plant had stepped up to meet me, somehow, whereas before it simply existed; its half of the relationship was simply to be.
And if I was busy proclaiming and recalling and associating, was there still time to see?
It felt like I was seeing more, but maybe I was just looking more.
For years it was mostly books and people who supplied me with names. Some of these occasions are unforgettable, like the time I followed a biology professor along a trail while she pointed out trees and wildflowers in a state of total glee. It was a thrill to be near a person who knew not only the names, but the whole ecological picture, and had not only the knowledge, but so many feelings about the knowledge. She was geekily funny, braying at her own jokes: “This is called spotted wintergreen, of course, because it’s striped!”
The leather-tough appearance of this woman, her voice, the chilly feeling of that day—all of it embeds that piece of information for me in a matrix of meaning, something like what must have accompanied the ancestral human transfer of plant knowledge: the mother or the elder, standing near one’s shoulder in the sun or shade, touching a plant, crushing leaves to hold under one’s nose while saying its name.
Then digital sources began to arrive. In spring 2020, as human contact became effectively illegal, I slipped in one last hike with a friend, on which we identified celandine poppies and talked about coming food shortages, my stomach churning with dread. Soon I swore off all such in-person rituals and turned to two substitutes: plants and screens.
Out in the garden, I expanded beds, tore up sod, trundled cartfuls of compost, and transplanted native elderberry, winterberry, columbine, aster. I touched and smelled and looked at my plants dozens of times per day. I walked alone in the woods, off trail, sometimes crying and sometimes eagle-eyed for morels, which I never did find.
Pandemic isolation gave me a more intense urge to name and know plants, and also more time to do so. As people receded from my life, plants came forward. What had started, back in the early days of home ownership, as a proprietary interest, was now a loneliness for something, anything, to keep me company. That feeling of control, which learning names had long afforded, had become a lifeline.
Every observation was now an Observation, a discrete entity that bore only a tangential relation to real attentiveness.
Which was why my phone suddenly inserted itself into the process. I’d put off joining the species identification app iNaturalist for years—in fact, I’d put off the smartphone itself until the previous summer. But now I couldn’t resist the seduction of the digital tool. Under a veneer of humility (“We’re pretty sure this is in the genus Tussilago . . .”), iNat hid a motherlode of information. It was so efficient; it promised never to leave me stymied, like field guides sometimes do; it functioned almost instantaneously. It seemed like a form of black magic.
By that magic, the knowledge I might have carried in my head became housed in the device, which I carried in my clothes. Every observation was now an Observation, a discrete entity that bore only a tangential relation to real attentiveness. I wanted to move closer to that world that was still accessible to me, the world of the woods where I rarely saw humans, those dangerous, virus-laden others. And I did.
But equally, I was moving closer to the phone. Merging with it, even. I found myself whipping out the phone every time I saw a plant I didn’t know. The phone and its tools made each name into a token of knowledge: pennywort, Virginia saxifrage, wild pink, golden Alexander . . .
It was a little like the feeling of shopping a thrift-store bag sale. Why not take this one too? It costs nothing. Or maybe it was more like the feeling of grabbing at candy thrown from a parade float. And that! And that! Under my username, the Observations piled up. And a walk without my phone came to seem, in a strange way, irresponsible.
Those field-guide illustrations, even the ones that disagreed with my own visual experience of a plant: they distilled someone’s hours of close, close looking. Before I got the phone, I used to make drawings in a sketchbook and briefly studied botanical watercolor painting, enough to acquire respect for the sheer patience of attending to a real plant, a phenomenon of form. Enough to know that my photos are greedy and cheap.
If a botanical garden is an overly languaged space (think of all those little brass plaques on trees or stuck in the ground, the patrician fonts in which they communicate), then I was moving toward understanding my yard, and the forests around it, as a kind of self-curated botanical collection. (One particularly delusional day, I started an inventory of All the Plants on Our Property.) I was behaving as though someday—never today but someday—I could account for, and put language over, every single thing growing within my sight.
It was a taxonomy based in the urge to control, to encompass, to possess—an echo of the advent of Western science—with all the specific human history, and inevitable failure, thus implied. Our entire classification system, after all, is based on the work of Carl Linnaeus, whose division of Homo sapiens into four racial varieties arose from, and flattered, his own European perspective. The grim consequences for the people colonized and enslaved under this system of meaning should tell us something about the fallibility of any supposedly objective description.
I remember with a kind of bright-eyed rush the day in early June when I was hiking with my daughters down a very rocky creek, and after we squeezed past a big boulder we emerged onto a hillside covered with colonies of two plants I’d never seen in my life. One had wide, flat, orchidlike leaves, holding up plain stalks crowned by clusters of fat green flower buds. The other, with a comical-looking topknot of leaves, we christened the Dr. Seuss plant. Later it turned out to have an equally spurious name, laden with cultural baggage, the colonizer’s corralling of the unfamiliar through comparison with the known: Indian cucumber root.
For the former, we had no name. iNaturalist couldn’t help me with it, and it lived for weeks in my head as an image and a fierce urge to return to see those buds in bloom. We did, and although for some reason I’d been absolutely certain they’d be yellow, they were white.
I still don’t know its name. What I do have is the memory of seeing it, and the memory of the steep, perfect place where it lives.
Over the years, making the acquaintance of plants has inevitably drawn me in to a series of reckonings with human dichotomies. I am interested in any plant, but once plants are named, Western conventions sort them into teams, and the teams face off: native / invasive, natural / naturalized, wild / cultivated, edible / toxic, common / rare, agricultural / ornamental, evolved / selected. It wasn’t hard to see that plants often function as proxies for human controversies about immigration, belonging, who is desired and who is feared.
With those two words, she recast poison ivy, previously a menace, as a kind of hero.
But plants jump teams all the time, and one discussion leads to another. An expert on foraging showed me how to make a salad from violet leaves and chickweed, and as we wandered from my relatively tame lawn toward the unrulier parts of my property, she segued into a declaration that poison ivy is what she called a “warrior plant”: one of the fierce early re-colonizers of land that humans have cleared.
With those two words, she recast poison ivy, previously a menace, as a kind of hero. And this year, when I noticed it blooming for the first time in my life, I saw it as sweetly vulnerable, like a lioness with cubs.
It was similar to the day I realized that kudzu—the ultimate rapacious invasive—has flowers that smell like grape soda.
Only this year, more than a decade after our adventure with the goats, did I learn that stickweed actually carries the much more graceful name wingstem. And only recently, with my phone in my hand, did I learn that it is not a nonnative invasive species, as I’d assumed, but native, valued by pollinators, with a deeper claim on this place than I have, and with deeper rightness here than the roses and green beans I assiduously water.
Sometime before I learned to call stickweed wingstem, I observed the pale paths of leaf miners through its flat, dark-matte leaves, nonsensical scribbles that grow wider as they progress, as the miners themselves grow wider from and within the leaf they are eating.
Midsummer, as it annually does, in 2020 brought lassitude, lethargy, a wallow under humid air, a muffled thunder of the earth’s life force that overwhelmed whatever brave little shoot of will had been trying to stand up inside me. The world proliferated, outpacing any mental map. In the spring, I had followed several botany-related Instagram accounts in the hope of knowing more. Instead they delivered a sense of knowing less: a growing awareness that underneath my fragile sense of mastery—my mental brass plaques—was a giant ocean of what the earth has evolved, full of unknowns and fine distinctions.
I learned that common milkweed might be considered a single species up and down the East Coast, but the individual plants growing in Pennsylvania are genetically distinct from those growing in Virginia. I learned that people from the Appalachian Mountains had recognized and named several different varieties of what I know as a single species, the tulip poplar tree. And I revised my understanding of stickweed yet again. It is in fact a separate species from wingstem, though they look extremely similar, and grow on our land in mingled drifts.
I may recognize a few extroverted plant actors from my neighborhood, but according to a Kew Gardens report from 2016, there are nearly 391,000 species of vascular plants on earth.
Of course, there were other factors too. Somewhere around the solstice in 2020, the pandemic yielded the spotlight to national racial justice protests. I realized that not only were there far too many plants—I couldn’t even keep up with mowing the lawn—but the very desire to master them could represent yet another exercise of privilege.
I’d sensed for a long time that learning plants had to do with the urge to control. But I’d thought maybe it was still a good thing to do. A little bit noble, even. A way to stay positive, to do something constructive, during isolation.
Suddenly that assumption seemed embarrassingly naïve, a delusion, even. Weren’t the photos stored on my phone—an endless wash of green—proof that I was living a life apart, perched safely on my hillside, hiding among the trees? Might it not be a tremendous self-indulgence to fritter away time naming plants, like a little girl playing princess and tapping her dolls’ heads with her wand?
Maybe it wasn’t good. And maybe it wasn’t even good for me. Around the end of July, I saw a video made by a mindfulness teacher that recommended walking outdoors while applying as few names as possible. If one must name, she said, use only what she called first-generation names. Just tree, not maple tree.
It was too late to go back to beginner’s mind, but perhaps I could offer some practical help; if not an actual researcher, I could be a citizen scientist. I registered with the National Phenology Network and pledged to collect data on four plant species on our property, uploading the information for the benefit of climatologists tracking shifts in certain seasonal events. Every few days I’d visit these plants and mark down their doings: when they bloomed, formed leaves, set fruit. Back in the dining room, I checked endless boxes on the program’s clunky website.
But these four plants became neighbors I actively called on. They were my subjects. Through the flow of time, they presented to me a bottomless world of being, one I could never fully plumb.
It would have felt hopelessly removed from any real act of ethics—and it certainly did nothing to solve my crisis of conscience—except that the looking also led back to love. To attach a label is one thing. But these four plants became neighbors I actively called on. They were my subjects. Through the flow of time, they presented to me a bottomless world of being, one I could never fully plumb: the naked there-ness of bloodroot along the creek where it has evolved to thrive, its life a drama of leaf-lobe and seedpod, a fecund occurrence which would have uprisen whether or not I was there to witness—this was a type of raw, swelling mystery. And its shadow, the potential loss of it to climate change or displacement: equally inexpressible.
Of those 391,000 plants, about twenty percent are threatened with extinction.
Pure presence; the silence of the algorithm; the incompleteness of the field guide; the recognition that every name is a human, not an earthly, act.
The world continued to fall apart. A new book arrived in the mail: Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. I ran my fingers over its coated pages, like those of an art monograph; they lent dignity to portraits of inglorious weeds. There were photos of ailanthus in sidewalk cracks, quaking aspen on the roof of a train depot, reeds growing in the permanent puddle outside an abandoned loading dock in Detroit.
In his field guide, Del Tredici makes clear that the effects of human disturbance are vastly more complex, and less straightforward, than we often think. We cause untold damage but make new opportunities too. His book is full of defamiliarizing terms like “spontaneous trees” and “novel ecosystems” and “cosmopolitan”—terms that go beyond the simple tropes of wilderness, invasives, or destructive Homo sapiens. “An enormous variety of nonhuman life has managed to crowd into cities,” he writes, “to form a cosmopolitan collection of organisms that is typically more diverse than that of the surrounding non-urban areas.”
It might be that the taxonomy is another evolving organism, an outgrowth of our own collective development
Part of me wants to unlearn all the names and categories, and I can’t. But seeing how fluid and flawed they are, at least, allows me to take a step back. Reclassification lets me fade again into a wondering state of mind, though it’s now more refined. Once upon a time, this wonder amounted to “Look at the beautiful fact of plants.” Now it’s “Look at the big mess of hierarchy and value that the animals called humans have laid over top of the plants.” It’s wonder at how easily every certainty can dissolve.
It might be that the taxonomy is another evolving organism, an outgrowth of our own collective development: in itself, a plant.
We are living in a world we have inherited and created, in which people have become a prime determinant for which plants spread and survive. Like people, they have names bestowed by people. Their future, and ours, looks strangely full of both loss and rampancy.
If those names are at once tools for understanding and instruments of possession, they are not all we have—there are still and always the plants themselves—but, inevitably, we see the world with human eyes, not through the patient, chlorophyllic mind of a plant.
If we want to approach, we have little chance of doing so without words.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.”
Perhaps, in some language we’ll never learn to translate, the plants are naming us.
One day in fall 2019, before we had ever heard of coronavirus, and before I had learned many of the names I now claim to own, my daughters and I were walking in a nature preserve along with a ten-year-old friend. We had left the trail and pushed across a tiny creek to enter a shaggy field, thickly colonized by what at the time I knew as stickweed. It was so tall that we kept losing and gaining sight of each other, as well as whatever goal had enticed us off the trail in the first place.
Our friend exclaimed, “It’s a meadow maze!”
But I misheard him. Being that his parents are the type who know plants, I assumed he was giving me a different name for the species. And it just felt right: we were brushing past these tall women, these yellow-headed maidens who populated the field, as though we were weaving through a concert crowd. For a few enchanting minutes, in my private lexicon and nowhere else on earth, their name was “meadow maids.