Knowing the Names of Things


Every second day, I put on my shoes and perambulate. I take a tour. I go for a stroll.  There’s a paved trail that goes around Lake Thoreau.  I inspect everything like a scientist, cool, detached, reasoned; and when I’m done with that, I bask in the state of things like a poet.

This morning I noticed the lush speckled green of the morning as light shone through the hardwood forest. I noticed a five-leaf plant I’ve never seen before. Lots of people walked dogs on the trail this morning. They sniffed and peed, sometimes showing undue interest in my hairy legs. I probably smell of cat. The morning light catches the lake in such a way that it becomes bright and opaque.  In humid shady areas, I walk through a swarm of gnats. I hold my breath and pinch my nose. A week ago I swear that I could see dafodils blooming amongst the rocks and roots, under the water. Today, there’s only only mangled and soaked cardboard box, and something metallic shimmered beneath the water. A big rainstorm a few nights ago washed everything from the edges into the lake.  There is the smell of rotting wood and dead unseeable things in the more placid corners. Stepping carefully so I wouldn’t hit a pile of runny goose crap, I came within feet of a very large turtle. It poked out its head until I was too close for our comfort, then with a stream of bubbles and a strong paddle of its legs, it submerged. I tracked it for about a minute until it became clear my new reptilian friend wouldn’t come back.

I see fat-leaved walnut trees. I read somewhere they are the last trees to get their leaves, and the first ones to lose them. Or maybe the other way around. The dogwood trees are blooming, dark green leaves and white four-lobed flower opening like a startled gift at the end of each branch. They look like the blossoms would glow in the dark. They don’t, of course. Fireflies will be out soon. Then, in July, cicadas.

It’s so different here in Virginia. The reason I often write about Curry County is because I know the names for things there. Because, guess what? When you know something’s name, only then can you start to love it.

But mostly, I’m not from here, and because of my apartness, I simply don’t know the Names of Things. I don’t know if I’m staring at hickory or beech trees. I can’t tell a white oak from a red oak, or any other color of oak. I’m careful not to touch suspicious-looking plants because Poison Oak is part of my experience but, I’m still not quite sure what Poison Ivy looks like, even after ten years of East Coast.

I’ve noticed trend in the books I’ve been reading over the last fifteen years or so: names have power. A lot of the work by JK Rowling, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss (and others) have, to a lesser or greater degree, embraced the fact that names have power. Everybody knows you don’t use Voldemort’s name. A good wizard says He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Jim Butcher tells us if you say the name of a creature of Fae three times, you can summon that creature. You can even trap that creature. Patrick Rothfuss has an entire book about the magic of Naming. These are all fantasy authors, but even if names haven’t got actual magical properties, they do a thing that, in the literal sense of the term, is fundamentally fantastic.

At its simplest, a name is just a very, very specific category, often a category of one. Richard Dreyfuss. Marg Helgenberger. George Siefert. There are a few names.

But naming has power. Don’t believe me? Have you ever met anyone named Sharona? Or Roxanne? I defy you to keep yourself from singing “that one song” with their name in it. And what about a Kermit? I bet you can’t stop yourself from mentally referencing A Certain Muppet, for whom it’s not easy being green.

My wife’s name is Judi. Do you know how many people, thinking they’re being clever upon meeting her, say “Judi, Judi, Judi!” like Cary Grant? It makes her fume, just a little bit. I don’t think it’s because she has a sense of being insulted, but because, by virtue of having learned her name, they think they know her somehow.

I’ll say it again: When you know something’s name, you start to know its story. And when you begin to know the story of a thing, you can start to love it.

Every Christmas (well, most Christmases), we pull four or five boxes out of the darker corners of our house, and unpack them. What’s in those boxes? Smaller boxes. Strings of lights. Shiny ornaments. Small wire hooks. Spun glass angels. Tiny brass hunting horns.

We have an ornament with Star Trek’s Commander Worf holding his bat’leth (it’s not Lieutenant Worf. He has a red command uniform and not the yellow uniform of a tactical officer). When Daniel was born, we nearly named him Worf. One friend offered to give us money if we did. So, Daniel has no idea how close he was to being subjected to our fandom. So we’re nerds. So sue us. Maybe if Craig had offered us a bit more cash.

OK… back to Christmastime. We have a painted ornament that’s black and teal, with a shark biting a hockey stick. We have an enormous clear glass ball that Wes and Mari Sanders gave us at a gift exchange. I hate that ornament because it’s prone to fall off its branch. Judi loves it, uh, because she loves enormous balls?

Well THAT came out wrong…

Then there are the ornaments our kids made. Paper tracings of our children’s hands covered in glitter. Cloth Father Christmases with plastic googly eyes. Stuff constructed from popsicle sticks and glue. Yarn and macaroni and a bit of acrylic paint. You know… the stuff memories are made from.

That’s what naming things is like. The more memory you imbue into something–a rock, a place, a tree, a person. An ornament–the more that thing needs a name. And the longer it has a name, the more it becomes itself. Names soak in memories.

If I want to be less romantic about it, names are simply ways of making subcategories. The big box that says “Christmas Decorations” contains a smaller box that says “Ornaments”, which holds an even smaller box, marked “Handmade”. Inside rests Rudolph, paper-and-pipe-cleaner reindeer, the one Daniel made when he was four.

Names give us common ground. If Judi says “Hello, Don Ryall!” in her best Yiddish accent… which is quite bad. No, really… You can’t begin to understand how bad her Jewish Mother impersonation is. Anyway, when she evokes Don Ryall, all three of us have the immediate response of a synapse spark. We both know Don Ryall. And hopefully he knows himself. We know that out of the entire universe of earthdwellers, There are many Dons. There are fewer Ryalls. There might be a handful of *Don* Ryalls. But how many Don Ryalls would respond appropriately to Judi’s ridiculous accent? Only one. Maybe even less, depending on his mood.

Here in Northern Virginia, where I don’t know the names of things so well, There’s a Frying Pan Road, Gallows Road, Lawyers Road, Wolftrap Creek.  A name is a story. I can think of a half dozen “stories” in Curry County right now. Wake Up Rilea Creek. Buzzard’s Roost. Bruce’s Bones Creek. BrokenCot Creek. Pistol River.

Or even Carpenterville.  Carpenterville’s story is part of me. It’s part of my name in both a literal and figurative name. It is built inside my DNA. It’s an old, roomy white house. It’s a lodge and post office I never saw. It’s a ruined sawmill, and a swampy place when it rains.

The native Americans had a name for Carpenterville too. They called it Shxiihe-let, or “Child Top”. Right above Great grandparents’ house, there is a very rocky ridge, covered in lizards and poison oak. It stood up, like a finger. Maybe a child. It was the highest place for miles. And it’s all mine. It’s part of me, tied like a knot in one word.

If you’re listening hard enough, each word, every name, begs you to stop and listen, to learn their story. When I walk the path around the lake every second morning, each flower, each sort of bush, even the animals, call out to me: Learn me. Learn my name. Then, someday you can tell my story.

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