I'm having a crisis. Well, I'm having severally actually, but this one is potentially relevant to other people so I'm going to use it for blog fodder. Consider yourself warned.
It all started with a little yellow bird that zipped past my office window while I was helping my third-grader with his math homework. Kids are dangerous to your peace of mind, in case you didn't know. Mine is prone to asking unanswerable questions like "why does 'answer' have a 'w' in it?" and "why do we only get one life?" And no, I haven't been letting him watch Bladerunner. He just comes up with that stuff on his own.
Back to yesterday and the Crisis Bird. It flashed past the window while N and I were having a scintillating discussion about The Denominator and so we spent a few minutes watching it (the bird, not The Denominator) hop from the Sebastian palm to the magnolia tree that's just about to bloom. It finally flew away and while I was congratulating myself on that nice mother-son nature bonding moment, N turned to me and said, "What kind of bird was that?"
My answer: "I don't know" opened up a world of things to think about, personally and professionally.
Most of the time I tell myself it doesn't really matter that I can't identify all the birds that regularly appear outside my window. And honestly, in the larger scheme of things, does it matter that I couldn't identify that little yellow bird? How important is it that I be able to pass the names of birds and trees and flowers to my son when he asks? How much do we really need to know about the natural world right outside our doors?
Maybe more than I was willing to face. And that's when I started to think that this is how more than just language dies. This is when the crisis started. Because then I started thinking about all of the other things I've never taken the time to learn about.
Maybe not knowing the names of the plants and animals around us is just one more example of the disconnect between nature and people. Maybe this is how we bring ourselves to a place where we can live with a catastrophic loss of species around the world. We don't know what we're losing because we don't even know what we have. If all I know is "little yellow bird," then aren't all little yellow birds essentially the same?
It's all about your chickens
And then I started to think about the importance of knowing the names of the things you value. And that made me think about chickens. Stay with me. I'm going to bring this home in a minute. I think.
When I was a kid, I used to spend summers on my grandmother's farm. One year, I named all of the chickens in the coop. (There. Now you already see where this is going). I knew their habits and their quirks, their chickeny personalities, such that they were. This was back in the Dark Ages before cable and satellite. My grandmother's television got one channel. On clear days. And it was PBS. Trust me, those chickens were the best thing going.
It was like Meerkat Manor on a small farm in Georgia. And then, of course, one Sunday we had chicken for dinner. And, also of course, it came out that it was one of the hens from the coop. I ran outside, did a quick survey, and knew exactly which chicken was laid out in fried up parts on a platter in the middle of the dining room table.
Her name was "Binnie" and she was not an abstraction. I learned two things that day: The first, if you eat meat, it's not a good idea to name your chicken (or your pig or your cow). The second, naming something is the first step to caring about it.
Name your chickens early, name them often
So I started thinking about this in terms of getting people to care about conservation, but I think it applies equally well to other issues. I spend much of my time looking for the magic words that will make people care about the things I care about, or that will inspire them to give money to support the work of the organizations I write for.
And it occurs to me now that I've been missing an important point. I've been missing the power in names. Maybe we speak too much in generalities, about "biodiversity" and "ecosystem sustainability," and "conservation capacity." Understanding those things is important, but in the end, don't people care most about the things they know by name?
Afterall, who would worry overmuch about a little yellow bird? But what if I told you it was an American goldfinch and its name means "sad little thistle eater?" Are you curious now? I am. Now I want to know what it eats. Is it common in Florida? Why is it called "sad?"
Now I care about it. Are you naming all of the things you want your readers to care about? Can you identify the plants and animals that regularly share your world?
Flickr Creative Commons image by pbonenfant