Saturday, October 28, 2017

From My Nature Journal: The Oldest Profession in the World

No, it’s not what some might think. I’ve run into a couple of nature writers recently who have cleverly asserted that it’s actually the taxonomist who is a member of the world’s oldest profession, because naming the animals was the first task commanded by God of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Hmm, unarguable point, that one…

So what’s a taxonomist? In the natural sciences, a taxonomist is one who describes and names life forms, or, more specifically, the one who practices the science of biological classification. Now, I’m sure a gifted humorist could have some good, clean fun imagining poor ol’ Adam in the garden sorting through all the names without the benefit of either Latin or a field guide, or a woman, for that matter, who always seems to be better at these kinds of things. “Ummmm, OK God, let’s call this one ‘Little Brown Bug Number Eighteen-thousand, Six-hundred and Twenty-two. No, wait, hmmm, I think it’s almost exactly the same as Number Eleven-thousand, One-hundred and Sixteen… No? Say what? It’s the same but it’s a female? What’s a female?”

Humor aside, taxonomy is an intriguing thing, something about which I have actually been thinking a lot lately. Naming. The power of names. People say I have a gift of learning names easily and quickly, but I do not believe that is true, since it is always only someone whose name I can coincidentally recall who compliments me on this, and they don’t have a clue the many, many others there are whose names I do not remember at all. I can meet someone, ask their name, and not remember it sixty seconds after I walk away. Of course, perhaps that is more of an attention problem than a memory one.

But the power of names is not the only reason that I’ve been thinking lately of taxonomy. I think it has to do with the responsibility of names. To know a name is to have a specific kind of knowledge, and knowledge is not just power, as the saying goes, as if that’s the only thing people should care about in knowing something or someone. Much more than that, knowledge is also responsibility. The more one knows, the more one must take responsibility for the adjustments and accommodations that are required by knowing what one knows.

If something is significant enough to name, it’s significant enough to know about and care about. And vice versa. In other words, naming is the first part of knowing, so naming is the first part of caring.

If something is significant enough to name,
it’s significant enough to know about
and care about. And vice versa.

Which brings me back to taxonomy and naming. For those of you who never had an introduction to biology (I didn’t either), taxonomy classifies every living organism, plant and animal, into groupings based on similarities, if they have any, to other living things, isolates that organism’s uniqueness from all others, and then gives it a scientifically recognized name. Carl Linneaus kick-started this whole system in the 1700’s. It can get complicated, because it’s science, after all, but you’ve heard of species, right? Species is the final step in the classifying/naming process, the end of the line when it comes to differentiating a living thing from any other living thing. Along the way, that living thing’s Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family and Genus have also been described and defined, all before its species is scientifically named. Some biology students are taught cute sentences to remember these categories of classification, something along the order of  ‘King Philip Came Over For Great Scones,’ or the like. These finally clarified, it is thus fully named and, as a result, known in the scientific world, and this always by a two-part Latinized species name which stands beside its common name. The Common Loon, for example, is the species Gavia immer, or the Black Bear Ursus americanus. Get this: scientists have classified and named 1.78 million organisms in the 250 years this naming has been going on, all the animals and plants and microorganisms currently known, but biologists say five million more are yet to be discovered, described and named. Wow. The vast majority of these are, understandably, in the microorganism category, but not a year goes by when scientists are not classifying several new and rare animals, and scores of new plants. It seems there is still a lot yet to know, and, as humans, back to my point, to be responsible for.

This is why the natural world is such an important study, such a critical thing for normal, everyday people to know about. How can people take care of things unless they know, even in a limited way, what something is, how it works, how it relates to other things, and what impacts it both positively and negatively?

So, as I have been thinking lately of taxonomy and the significance of naming, I ran across a couple quotes that struck a personal chord. The first is from a delightful collection of essays by urban naturalist and Chicago newspaper columnist Jerry Sullivan, now deceased, whose writing is all the more evocative to me because his essays feature many of my familiar nature haunts growing up on Chicago’s north side. And besides, his book, Hunting For Frogs on Elston Avenue, engagingly conveys a truth I’ve always maintained, that one can find astounding natural beauty even in a hardcore urban setting. Sullivan says:
When you step off the pavement and into a natural area, the depth of your experience is directly correlated to the number of things you can name. If you operate with preschool categories like “tree” and “bird” and “bug” you are going to miss a whole lot.
I like that. Just for starters, naming leads to knowing, and knowing deepens and enriches our experience. Throughout his entertaining book, citified Sullivan makes clear how simple things contribute to his passionate love for nature. And it all may start for any of us by knowing as simple a few things as a Douglas Fir, a Black-capped Chickadee and a Tiger Swallowtail.

You see, it goes far deeper when we not only name and know, but also care, even love. This brings me to Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots. In contrast to Sullivan, Gruchow wrote from a rural perspective, but like Sullivan, his also is a lovely book on environmental stewardship. Now, I want to point out that this book was written nearly twenty-five years ago, but notice how relevant his statement is:
A very old but not outmoded idea is that we will find our salvation in what we love. We have learned in recent times to fear for the earth, for its suddenly apparent fragility… But fear is no basis for an intelligent relationship… We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it contains. Can you, I asked my students, imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for the whole world.

Room for the whole world. The same whole wide world that God holds in his hands. So if taxonomy is the world’s oldest profession, I guess I want to get very good at it myself. Maybe we all could get better at it, and, in the process, do a whole lot better job of taking care of things around here.

~~ RGM, October 27, 2017

Saturday, October 14, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Nature and Sports (In a Very Random Sort of Way…)

I had an interesting reverie this afternoon while on my daily walk. If I’m not with Gail or someone else and conversing, or alone and conversing with God, I often will try to occupy my mind with something that will help the time pass: nature observations, word or number mind games, shatteringly profound theological thoughts, things like that. Without having thought about it much yet today, in very quick succession I noticed several birds – a blue jay, cardinal, hawk and eagle -- and then realized, in this weird time of the year when pro and college football, postseason baseball, and preseason hockey and basketball all strangely crowd upon each other, that these first few birds I observed were also the names of major American professional sports teams. Sorry, it’s a shame what sports can sometimes do to one’s mind. Then my thoughts moved to U.S. college teams, and while my forty-eight minutes progressed, I began to think of the huge number of cities and schools that had chosen from nature for their team name or mascot, and was surprised by the number. OK, OK, so it’s not the deepest subject for the tight theological mind I possess, but it was an off day. 

So let’s have a little fun with it anyway, no matter how avid a sports fan you are, or aren’t, and play a little trivia game. How many of these nature-based team names do you know the city or university where they play? And in the case of pro teams, what sport? Can you name them all? I doubt it, but see how you do. Those of you who are really good (and I imagine my son Jarrett and three dear sons-in-law will be quite excellent) will quickly find that some nature mascots are represented by more than one pro team, even in different sports, and most are also used by college teams, sometimes many different schools. Can you spot some of those, too? If I were to keep score, I might give a point for each pro or college team you know that shares the same name, but I’ll leave that for the diehards. I’m not going to give answers either, but will be glad to have any of you play with it and see how you do. You can even let me know how many you came up with. (All right, now that I am thinking more carefully, I think Jarrett may kick my sons’-in-laws butts…)

Start with the birds that I first noticed, the Blue Jays, Cardinals (even singular, as in Cardinal, though in at least one case, it’s not referring to the bird, or even a prelate, but simply the color!), Hawks and Eagles. These are easy. What city and sport or university do they represent? There are lots more birds – Raptors and Ravens, Orioles and Owls, Ducks and Hens and Gamecocks, even Penguins and Pelicans. And don’t forget the other raptors, the Seahawks and Falcons. And is there really such a thing as a Jayhawk? My friend Dave would sure say there is…

Of course, mammals are hugely represented. We could start out with Lions and Tigers and (da) Bears, oh my! While on the subject of bears, there are also the Bruins, and look, there’s even a cute little baby animal, my beloved Cubs! (Bear cubs, they are, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want you to confuse my Cubs with lion cubs, badger cubs, raccoon cubs or hyena cubs. Yes, they may be the only sports team in the universe named after an animal baby, but by the way, did I tell you they won the World Series last year? Sorry, I digress…) But we easily move on from there to the Badgers and Bison and Beavers and Bobcats, Rams and Razorbacks, Wildcats and Wolverines and Wolf Pack and Timberwolves, even wolves in Spanish, the Lobos. There are Grizzlies and Gophers and, yes, even Gorillas. How about Cows and Horses? I know of none of these, but there are Bulls, Longhorns and Mavericks, and Chargers, Colts, Broncos and Mustangs. There are no Dogs or Cats either, but the Panthers, Jaguars, Bengals, Lynx, Cougars and (here’s a hard one) Catamounts are all there, as well as the Bulldogs, Huskies, Coyotes, Terriers and Salukis. Nope, no Deer or Elk, Rabbits or Hares, but the Bucks and Stags and Jackrabbits are in.

Reptiles and amphibians are not neglected -- Horned Frogs, Diamondbacks, Gators, Terrapins. The fish are playing, too, at least when they’re not in school: Marlins and Sharks and Rays and Dolphins. (Oh, wait, dolphins aren’t fish. Stick them up there with the mammals...) There are even insects – Bees, Hornets, Yellow Jackets and Monarchs, though I don’t think the latter are of the butterfly variety.

Hey, even the trees get their day in the sun – the Maple Leafs and Timbers, and what do you know, there’s even a nut, the Buckeyes. How appropriate. And water, you ask? Well, there are Whitecaps and Waves.

Finally, there’s a nature category that might have to be called the ‘acts of God’ group: Cyclones and Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Crimson Tide, and Avalanche, as well as the perfect trifecta -- Storm, Thunder and Lightning. There are Flames and Heat and Fire, and we can’t overlook the Suns, though you’re not supposed to look at it. The Stars are still in the Sky. And rocks get their due, at least in the first case a large pile of them, the Rockies; but a small pile will also do nicely, the Nuggets. And in the other big and small sub-category of the acts of God, there are always the Sparks and the Galaxy. Whew. That one’s ostentatious.

OK, now for you nutcases whose marriages or relationships are shaky because of your infatuation with sports, here’s the extra credit paragraph; and if you get any of these, maybe you should check with available night jobs on ESPN. How about the Retrievers, Anteaters, Camels, Roadrunners, Great Danes, Blackbirds, Greyhounds, Ospreys, Leopards, Pride, Foxes, Rattlers, Peacocks, Spiders and Kangaroos? Kangaroos? Don’t you think a case should be made for American teams using only American animals?

So, how did you do? Leaving aside the fifteen in the extra credit paragraph, there are 92 nature-based team names listed, and these include all those in the six major pro leagues and the D1 schools. But did you get 80? Excellent! Even 70? Still quite good! I think I’d’ve only gotten 75 myself before I researched this inane subject, but I still know my four aforementioned and beloved sons will beat me. So what does that make them? Hey, guys, pay more attention to your wives…

Nature names are good names, because nature is good. God made it that way (Genesis 1:31). And nature names surely beat the dumb names like Packers and Red Sox. I mean, what’s a packer anymore, a frequent traveler? And who wears red socks except maybe Pee-wee Herman? Yes, nature names are good.

The Bible also says that nature understands its significant place in the cosmos as well, which cannot always be said for us sports-minded humans. Consider:

Ask the animals – they will teach you,
The birds of the air – they will tell you.
Speak to the plants of the earth and they will inform you,
Even the fish of the sea will declare to you:
Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing,
Even the breath of all humankind. (Job 12:7-10)

So I hope you enjoy this little gamey essay as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, but I also hope it gives you, if even just slightly, a little more appreciation for nature in the midst of sports. It’s certainly more about sports than it is about nature, but you might find it a fun way to spend a few minutes, or at least to kill a little time on a long walk. Try the quiz and see how you do.

Game on.

~~ RGM, October 14, 2017