Feb 7, 2012 at 12:03 am #1285304
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
When I was young, I thought it was important to know the names of things such as birds, flowers, trees and other life forms. Often I hauled a guide and identified species, then quickly forgot their names. Does it matter? Is it important?
Now over the years, I have learned to identify some species. I can identify poison oak and poison ivy; that seems important. "Leaves of three…" But the names of all the other vines I just cannot remember, nor do I really care.
I know what a Redwood, Sequoia, and Douglas Fir look like. All the other pines look the same to me. Or are they firs? However I can identify a Coulter Pine, only if I see those large cones on the ground. Am I less of a person because I can’t differentiate? Pinyon Pines and Bristlecone Pines I know. Palm Trees and Cottonwood indicate the possibility I might find water. A Sycamore I might recognize or is it a Maple? What is the difference between an Aspen and an Alder? Will I remember?
Flowers are worse. Basically I can identify red, blue, yellow and purple flowers only by their colors. Does it matter?
Some plants and shrubs are easy. A Joshua Tree, Ocotillo, Century Plant, and the beautiful Smoke Tree I can remember. Desert Willows and Mesquite seem to be correctly identified. Yuccas and agaves confuse me, but I can identify a good walking stick plucked from one. Is Catclaw a shrub, vine, or a tree. Who knows? Does it matter? I do know they are worse than barbed wire. I think I know what Jojoba looks like.
If I walk up a blistery hot desert slope and pass Manzanita and Ribbonwood, I know that the big traverse ahead is going to get cooler sooner and I might soon reach some big shady trees.
Well there are rattlesnakes, sidewinders and diamond backs. The rest confuse me. Do I need to the difference between a pacific or a speckled rattler? I know what a desert tortoise and a tarantula are. Ate there more than one kind of each?
Some cacti are easy. Jumping Cholla and Teddy Bear Cholla inflict different kinds of pain. Barrel cacti are all the same to me, fish hooks that are hard to remove. A Saguaro is so unique; it is easy to know what it is.
I can identify a Bald Eagle, Red Tail Hawk, and a Road Runner. An owl is an owl, is an owl. Is a bat a bird or rodent or something else? Is it important to know? A big white bird might be a Stork or an Egret, is that enough?
Is it better to just watch and enjoy them and not know their names?Feb 7, 2012 at 12:26 am #1835620
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
The first flower I see, I call Indian Paintbrush. The second kind I see, I call Shooting Star. The third kind I see, I'm back to Indian Paintbrush, then Shooting Star, etc. It's interesting to see how long before others' notice.
I'm good on trees and shrubs, especially 3,000 to 11,000 feet in the Sierra. I find it interesting to know about their different life histories, human uses, etc. The are also a good proxy for altitude and climate and I can usually gauge my elevation within 500-1000 feet by the plants around.
Friends seem to enjoy hearing about different plants, animals, and rocks (but maybe they're just humoring me). I don't think they're going to remember much but that maybe it's pleasant to listen just as I enjoy a planeterium show without remembering many of the star names that were mentioned.
Berries, low brushes, groundcovers and grasses, I pretty much only bother with the edible, useful, and the contact-poisons.Feb 7, 2012 at 12:42 am #1835625
can you eat it …
can you burn it …
can it eat you …
will it kill you …
after that its all just tree hugging and cute cuddly critters …Feb 7, 2012 at 5:08 am #1835646
@sarbarLocale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
I'd say Eric has it right ;-)
I hike with a couple plant nerds so it has rubbed off on me. I also like to forage so I learned what was safe. If in doubt I take photos and learn when I get home. I kind of suck on trees but flowers I am good on.Feb 7, 2012 at 5:45 am #1835651
Doesn't really matter I suppose, but it can be kinda fun. I took a couple bird ecology classes back in college that taught us how to identify birds by their song, wing coloration, and flight. So if I hear "teakettle-teakettle-teakettle" while hiking I know it's a Carolina wren or "cheerily, cheer up" it's an American robin for example. Not very important in the grand scheme of things, but I find it fun to know a little bit about the birds I see.
RyanFeb 7, 2012 at 9:09 am #1835735
@andysLocale: Midwest USA
"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."
Richard FeynmanFeb 7, 2012 at 9:21 am #1835742
Ben 2 WorldParticipant
@ben2worldLocale: So Cal
"Is it better to just watch and enjoy them and not know their names?"
Do I care? So long as what I'm doing isn't illegal or immoral, I'll do it if I enjoy it. Same same with others. Who cares, really, if certain people like to name things and others don't??Feb 7, 2012 at 9:33 am #1835748
It's fine to just enjoy and not care. I care.
The plants I know something about, I notice more. I can look them up. I can tell how much water runs under ground, if the area gets windy, what kinds of birds may frequent it. I can picture places before exotic plants changed the landscape. Taxonomy allows me to see which plants are related and how they changed from a common ancestor. I also like entomology and geology. I see things that most hikers don't .
It is not necessary to be knowledgeable to enjoy the world, I guess, and that could apply to most fields.Feb 7, 2012 at 9:40 am #1835754
NmFeb 7, 2012 at 10:02 am #1835758
I do too since I was trained in plant i.d. and Horticulture. Both the woods and man made gardens are very rich -full of history and breeding . And going to China and realizing that most of our best garden plants came from there thanks to the great plant hunters gives me a sense of what has been valued. As it is Latin names are under siege and cell phone apps now offer to i.d. birds for you. Odd that our O.P. talks about Shamans one day and then is lukewarm about the Power of a name the next.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/06/opinion/the-new-universal-language-of-plants.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=latin%20names&st=cseFeb 7, 2012 at 11:31 am #1835805
Ben 2 WorldParticipant
@ben2worldLocale: So Cal
I should explain about caring or not caring. I am not saying that the subject matter isn't worth caring. What I am saying is really more along the lines of HYOH. If you like to study flora and fauna, more power to you. And if you don't, that's perfectly fine too.Feb 7, 2012 at 6:20 pm #1836007
I used to not care. In fact, I really didn't want to know the names. I felt that knowing the name separated me from the flower or plant or whatever. Closed me off from the more primitive, unmediated interaction with it.
But now I know lots of names because I lead Sierra Club hikes and I have a website with lots of pictures of flowers and people wanted to know what everything is. It hasn't hurt my enjoyment of them at all.
Now I'm totally into mushrooms. I've got 4 mushrooms now that I can identify and eat (and a few I can identify and not eat). I also identify several wild edible greens. I can actually go grocery shopping in the woods! For the mushrooms I've had to be a little more rigorous in my identification process. I make sure to follow a key and send pictures to an expert to verify my identification. I've found and eaten chanterelles, puffballs, giant puffballs and Hericium ramosum.Feb 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm #1836012
You can't be too careful with mushrooms. Solid I. D. is essential. I grew up in a household where wild European mushrooms were the holy grail. But the women who picked and canned them grew up that way in the Baltics. Good Luck , and it is no mistake that New Year's greetings from Eastern Europe feature mushrooms.An ancient culture for them and for us.Feb 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm #1836049
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
Do you find those Magic Mushrooms where you hike?Feb 8, 2012 at 7:09 am #1836164
I do not look for magic mushrooms. I only eat the unmistakable ones, the ones with no poisonous look-alikes or whose look-alikes are really easy to spot. Chanterelles are easy to ID once you've seen them the first time. I knew they were chanterelles just by having seen them in the grocery store so many times, but I still went through the whole ID process. Puffballs are easy to tell they are not poisonous by a simple test. There is no poisonous look-alike at all for Hericium mushrooms.Feb 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm #1837157
I too was really big into species identification. My favorite books were field guides and most of my childhood money went to either Peterson or Audubon guides. I got to the point where I could out classify my dad (he's a biologist) on plants during the winter where he lived, and I lived clear across the country.
Today I find knowing the names is useful when I'm with friends. They like the "tour guide" aspect. But even more useful is knowing the natural history of a species. Find something unique in the behavior and it's far more enriching. That way a drab cowbird becomes known as the nest robber and is seen in a far more interesting light.
Cardinal flowers may be one of the most exquisite flowers on the planet, I've never seen a photo (film or digital) that can come close to capturing the vibrancy of the blooms. However every time I see one I'm even more thrilled because I know they can only survive in relatively pristine watersheds, making the sighting all that more special. To know a tern may have flown clear across the planet, from pole to pole, to be seen by you on a beach makes the moment that much more connected.
It's this context of the species that actually enriches the experience more so than knowing the name.Feb 9, 2012 at 8:27 pm #1837161
I agree. The name is just a tool that helps you find out more information about the plant, or bird or …
Just knowing the name is of little use, although the botanical name often already tells us something about the plant.Feb 9, 2012 at 9:37 pm #1837187
@butukiLocale: Kanto Plain, Japan
I agree. The name is just a tool that helps you find out more information about the plant, or bird or … Just knowing the name is of little use, although the botanical name often already tells us something about the plant.
Actually vernacular names often tell us more about the plant or animal than the scientific names do, in great part because the people who relied on their knowledge of plants and animals needed a way to accurately identify the species and the names often helped.
I think it really shows how far removed we are from the natural world, even when we're out in the middle of the wildest places, when we can nonchalantly say, "I don't care." The more of us who become like that… able to live without intimate knowledge of the natural world… the much bigger the probability that the natural world will be destroyed by us. Just think, a child who has never seen a forest cannot possibly know what the difference between a healthy or sick forest is. Who is going to take care of the animals and plants that need deep knowledge of them to have a fighting chance against us?
It may not be necessary for any of us to care or have the knowledge, but the necessity that there are enough people who DO care and have the knowledge is vital to the future of our wild places.Feb 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm #1837193
Some common names are very descriptive, but so are some botanicals. Take Poison Hemlock; the common name tells us something very important. The botanical " Conium maculatum" tells us that it is spotted, which is crucial to tell it apart from fennels, parsley and Angelica, and that it can induce a " drugged state" ( if it does not kill you). I find value in both names, but different plants have the same common names when you change regions and it becomes difficult to communicate with people from another area.Feb 10, 2012 at 4:44 am #1837256
"Is it better to just watch and enjoy them and not know their names?"
The names, or taxonomy of different species is really just a framework that allows scientists, naturalists, you, me to get down to specifics when specifics matter.
To me, what is more interesting is how each unique organism fits into the ecosystem. What role do they play? What's their habits? What do they eat? Who eats them.
When you start putting the pieces together you can begin to appreciate how it all fits together, how we, as organisms (yes, humans, too) are all interrelated.
Watch and enjoy, I say. If you want to write what you see in a journal or on a blog, then the name may come in handy, but a name is just a name…Feb 10, 2012 at 10:07 am #1837386
I agree that the lack of being able to identify things in the natural world is a symptom of how distant we are to it. I think what is worse is that a lack of knowing or caring seems to come along with a lack of being able to see at all. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people.
Most people I hike with are extraordinarily unobservant. They haven't a clue where they are in the geographical OR biological layer of the Earth. They cannot see the plants, birds and animals. They cannot see the side trails leading off the main one. They can't find their way from week to week hiking the same trails over and over again.
This lack of interest and ability to see their surroundings seems impoverished and limiting to me. I know where I am on the globe even if I don't know the exact GPS spot on the map. I recognize that bush, that rock. I saw that little side trail and have an idea where it probably goes. Maybe I followed it once. I know that bush has great berries on it and I know what month to come back to find them. I know there are mushrooms here and what month. I know I can eat those greens. I can lead you right to a Chocolate Lily in April or a patch of Mission Bells in March. Most people think this is a super-power or something. This totally bugs me. I am not special. We all were born with the ability to know where we are and what shares this space with us.
I don't think it matters if you know the scientific name or even the common name to experience this kind of connection. It's the lack of connection more than anything that diminishes the experience. The flip-side is that phony connection where you walk around all dreamy in rapture with the beauty of nature. Like these hippie kids I met on the trail once with their bare feet and holding a bunch of banana slugs dripping gobs of slime from their fingers. Ew, that's just gross, can't you see the slime is them telling you to leave them alone?Feb 11, 2012 at 9:24 am #1837940
@gregfLocale: Canadian Rockies
I perfer to look at the macro enviroment and really think about it. Looking at the vegtation in relation to the landscape and contemplating how the area evolved into what it is now. What does the vegetation say about the climate and what wildlife should be around.
I am not to concerned with the names we have given them although i do often debate which flower i am calling indian paintbrush is actually indian paint brush.Feb 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm #1838517
The times when I would like to know the names of the plants and animals I see are mostly when I want to describe to others what I have seen. I also enjoy knowing something about the plants and animals that I see. I once went on a backpacking trip with a plant pathologist who knew the names of all the plants we saw, and various tidbits about them ( which I have generally forgotten, of course) it was fun to have him telling us these things as we sat and ate lunch or as we walked along.Feb 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm #1838578
@hhopeLocale: East Bay
nick, in another life I would have loved to know the real native names for all the plants, the names that is, given to them by the people who interacted with them and used them for centuries, based on experience of their qualities.
These names tend to be very accurate and descriptive. The 'scientific names' are pure fictions and mean nothing to me at all. Some guy or woman just made it up on the spot based on some random factors they decided were important at that moment.
Big difference between the two methods. Some things even had inner and outer names, names most people used, and names given for more secret uses. Those names would be even more interesting to know. But I suspect this type of knowing of where you are requires staying around for a lot longer than a quick pass through on a hike. But I would love to be able to read and know the plants around me as well as people used to. The notion of passing by great foods out of pure ignorance, then cooking up a drab dried meal and ignoring all that actual food, is somewhat annoying I have to admit, and not knowing the herbs and healing qualities of plants is likewise pretty annoying, but there's only time for so much in a life I guess.
Fungus are especially fascinating, piper s, The Kingdom Fungi is I think the name of a recent book on them, really solid and enlightening, albeit a bit dry and scholarly, he spends too much time debating what should be applied to what genera etc, gives a good feel for the pointlessness of scientific naming, but after that, it's all fungus action, cool read.
"It's the lack of connection more than anything that diminishes the experience. "
You nailed it, slam dunk. Exactly right. Don't be too hard on those hippy kids though, their hearts are in the right place, way ahead of most. At least they saw that banana slug in the first place, and considered it noteworthy enough to keep pestering it, heh. If I have to pick between some yuppy ul type, or type A overdriven speed hikers, or some clueless hippy kids wandering around thinking how wonderful it all is, I'll take the hippy kids every time.Feb 22, 2012 at 7:47 am #1842922
@sparkyLocale: Southern California
I would like to have more knowledge with plant Identification. Like others have said, not the name, but the function if it has one.
"A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet."
Plants are full of benificial and toxic alkaloids, it is all quite fascinating. Shamans have been close to plants and practicing thien own brand of organic chemistry for thousands of years. A big part of that is identification, but that goes beyond a mere name.
Nick, you wont find any magic mushrooms in the desert, but there are a couple species of cactus containing mescaline and other active compounds used as a decorative plant. Something tells me there are some monsters waiting in the front yards of the coachella valley. Waiting for you specifically to find them, eat them, so you two can interact. The cactus will impart its knowledge to you and vice-versa.
Its amazing the compounds found in plants and fungi are literally like lock and key with receptor sites in our body. Unlocking the psychedelic consciousness, communicating with us, showing us our ignorance and our ego driven waste.
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