Monday, 16 March 2009

Naming things

I'm moored by a copse of mature trees and woke to the lovely sound of woodpeckers. The canal is quite narrow here so I have a good view of the trees on the other side of the water, that has escaped the chainsaw massacre thank goodness and where there is loads going on!
As well as the the squirrel hanging on to too-small twigs over the water, I watch a beautiful rat swimming efortlessly to the tree roots, then clamber about, looking into holes, rummaging among leaves, pausing to chew. I drop a spoon in the sink and they both stop still for a moment and stare back. I imagine them, bearing their various persecutions well in the knowledge that one day, we humans will mess up big time and they'll be ready!

I can see treecreepers skittering up the trunks like Spiderman, digging into the bark with long sharp beaks; a robin perches for a moment and is seen off by a great tit, then I'm filled with nerdish joy as I recognise a female great spotted woodpecker (just about see-able in the photo).

I remind mysef that it's only called a great spotted woodpecker in this country and in this century and that names are fluid, changing things. I'm wondering why I need to have names at all. I know there's a group understanding reason, so that when someone says "Ooh look, there are 2 magpies" we know what to look at. Perhaps there's a showing-off reason ("It was a female great spotted woodpecker, doncha know!").
But why do I hurry to find the right name when I'm alone, with no-one to share it with? Perhaps it's a replacement for holding or touching the bird/animal etc. I don't want to dig up that plant but I can carry its name home. Then I recognise and name it when I see it again, like happily greeting a friend ( in my head that is, I don't want to be named as 'that mad woman'). Perhaps it's simply a way of making the world familiar and unthreatening. I don't know. I think about my friend still in Gaza who is getting to grips with Arabic and wonder if she has an urge to learn the names of the birds and animals and plants around her. I'll ask when she comes home and isn't taken up with the small matter of saving lives!

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