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What's in a name OR do you even care?
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Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
What's in a name OR do you even care? on 02/07/2012 01:03:16 MST Print View

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?

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: What's in a name OR do you even care? on 02/07/2012 01:26:42 MST Print View

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.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
what matters on 02/07/2012 01:42:53 MST Print View

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 ...

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: what matters on 02/07/2012 06:08:23 MST Print View

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.

Ryan Smith
(ViolentGreen) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: What's in a name OR do you even care? on 02/07/2012 06:45:34 MST Print View

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.


Andrew Stow
(AndyS) - F - MLife

Locale: Midwest USA
See Feynman on 02/07/2012 10:09:55 MST Print View

"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 Feynman

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: What's in a name OR do you even care? on 02/07/2012 10:21:06 MST Print View

"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??

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
I do on 02/07/2012 10:33:02 MST Print View

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.

Edited by Kat_P on 02/07/2012 10:54:42 MST.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Re: What's in a name OR do you even care? on 02/07/2012 10:40:59 MST Print View


Edited by Kat_P on 02/10/2012 11:15:47 MST.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: I do on 02/07/2012 11:02:47 MST Print View

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.

Edited by Meander on 02/07/2012 11:03:44 MST.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Re: I do on 02/07/2012 12:31:18 MST Print View

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.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Re: Re: I do on 02/07/2012 19:20:43 MST Print View

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.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Re: Re: I do on 02/07/2012 19:34:48 MST Print View

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.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: Re: I do on 02/07/2012 20:39:19 MST Print View

Do you find those Magic Mushrooms where you hike?

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I do on 02/08/2012 08:09:32 MST Print View

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.

Dustin Short
(upalachango) - MLife
Name vs History on 02/09/2012 21:12:30 MST Print View

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.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Name vs History on 02/09/2012 21:27:46 MST Print View

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.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Name vs History on 02/09/2012 22:37:18 MST Print View

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.

Edited by butuki on 02/09/2012 22:37:58 MST.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Re: Name vs History on 02/09/2012 22:46:57 MST Print View

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.

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
Ecosystems on 02/10/2012 05:44:04 MST Print View

"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...