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