Epilogue: What's in a name?

Epilogue: What's in a name? McGill University

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2007 > Winter 2007 > Epilogue

Epilogue: What's in a name?

According to orthodox environmental ethics, Adam’s great faux pas in the Garden of Eden wasn’t sharing the apple with Eve. It was naming the animals. The use of words – chosen by one and conferred upon another – immediately set Homo sapiens apart from the rest of creation. Thus began a tension-rife, us-and-them relationship between human and non-human that has lasted to this day. Names designate, isolate, classify, signify and clarify – and whoever is doing the naming, however well intentioned, has the upper hand.

Although I generally agree with this interpretation of Christian mythology, vis-à-vis the human penchant for naming other beings, it saddens me to see words blamed for anything. Words are wondrous things, full of history and music, suggestive of the length and breadth of the imagination. I am well aware of how easily the products of creativity can be turned into weapons – anyone ever taunted in the schoolyard knows that – but I have too many fond memories of words, names and naming to dwell on the ugly side for long.

A montage: a frame with age-cracked green paint surrounds what looks like an old illustration from a botanical reference work.
Betsy Bauer / Corbis

I grew up in a word-loving family: witty, book-loving parents; younger brother (Marc, MA’95) who later became a phonologist, employing his musical ear in the study of linguistics. I had started writing poems and stories by the age of 11, and became an incorrigible punster.

All of us, plus several cats, had multiple nicknames. In fact, when I was four or five years old, I could not give a quick answer when someone asked me who I was. We all considered wordplay to be kind of a metalanguage, and found foreign vocabularies and esoteric lexicons fascinating. The world of words was a world of wonders.

But, for me, the natural world had an even stronger pull, so when I enrolled at McGill in the late 1970s, it was as a major in biology. The first courses I took were huge affairs held in Leacock 132. They emphasized the nitty-gritty of life: biochemistry, molecular genetics and microbiology. I was too befuddled by enzymes and energetics, too dazzled by memorizing pathways to delight in any terminology. (Still, I could not resist drawing cartoons – usually visual puns – of microbes and unicellular animals in my notebooks as an outlet for my frustration.)

Then, in the fall of 1978, I took “Canadian Flora.” At last I had a whole-organism course, rich in nomenclature. I was in heaven.

Under the steady tutelage of Professor Marty Lechowicz, augmented by field trips and access to the Stewart Biological Sciences Building greenhouse and the herbarium, my classmates and I learned to “botanize”: go out and identify local plants. Two fundamental shifts in my world view occurred very quickly. First, the hitherto vast, largely unknown, and mostly green world of plants became organized into individual species, linked like-to-like into families we could recognize by certain traits. Second, my working vocabulary easily doubled within a few months – and continued to grow long after the course ended.

Going through the glossary of Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Gleason & Cronquist (1963 edition), which I’ve carried through umpteen moves, I can still recognize the agents of my transformation if not, immediately, their meanings. Autotrophic, corymbose, decumbent, endocarp, glabrous, lanceolate, pinnipalmate, reticulate, scabrous, tomentose, villous, xeric, zygomorphic: how their robust Latin and Greek etymology enchanted me.

Some words stayed within the botanical realm forever, while others slipped into poetry – literally. When, after working in the McGill libraries for almost a decade, I did my Master’s in Environmental Studies at York University, I wrote many poems that drew on that botanical lexicon (as well as the zoological). Those poems comprised my first book.

Thanks also to that first course in botany, I have become a nutritionally savvy Slow Food cook, an amateur herbalist and a much better gardener. And I continue to botanize whenever the opportunity arises. But the effects go beyond all that, shaping my entire regard for the natural and the cultural. By naming, by forming associations as well as distinctions, one cannot help but love and appreciate more fully the tremendous diversity of life – and how interrelated everything is.

That’s plenty to take from a single undergraduate course, I’d say. Thanks, Marty.

Louise Fabiani is a science writer, naturalist and author of The Green Alembic (Signal Editions, Montreal, 1999). Knowledge of Eastern North American flora is also significant in the novel of speculative fiction she has just completed.

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