Does Knowledge Blind Us to Nature?

The debate dates back to Plato if not the dawn of language itself. By learning to identify an object by name do we see it more clearly or do we lose the ability to see its particularity? Would the roadside meadow I walked by the other day have looked like more than a jumble of dried plant stalks if I’d brought my Winter Weed Finder to key out the papery brown seed heads and branch structures? Or would the field have lost its densely textured beauty if I’d tried to take it apart name by name? Certainly, nobody needs a field guide to appreciate a museum painting.

For me, the answer is clear. I don’t believe that I really see a tree or a bird or a flower until I know its name. Oh, I see it, of course, perhaps even find it lovely or unforgettable, but like so many of my dreams my impressions, no matter how enthralled, rapidly evaporate. I need to name in order to fix a spot in my brain for the natural wonder. Take the striped maple, my first tree.

I was in mid-thirties before I picked up my first field guides. I was no stranger to the outdoors, having been a Boy Scout and an avid hiker through college in California and now again on weekend getaways from Manhattan. I knew the basics such as maple leaves (from the hockey team) and robins (from suburban yards), but now that I’d gotten a job at an environmental magazine I felt inspired to learn what I’d now be writing about. (I didn’t yet know how many environmentalists are not naturalists.)

Of course, buying a field guide isn’t the same thing as learning from a field guide. Being one of those people who reads the directions only under duress, I don’t doubt that I carried my new Peterson Eastern Trees in my day pack for a while before its moment came. We were returning down from Alander Mountain on a sun-dappled afternoon with plenty of time to spare on our Berkshires weekend. The leaf before me as we paused for a canteen break looked so unusually large yet maple-like that I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find in Peterson, and I was right. There it was on the same page as the red and sugar maple leaves, though this striped maple had three lobes instead of five. What made the striped maple unusual, however, was its green bark with white stripes, a rare feature among eastern trees. Sure enough, looking up from the tiny italicized print I saw that the thin trunk was the color of pea soup streaked with fork tongs. How had I not noticed such strange bark before? Striped maples, I also learned, often looked more like saplings with trunks an inch or two thick. They weren’t the stately trees I associated with maple leaves. Yet their leaves were comparatively huge, easily the size of my hands. Best of all, the detail that made me think I might like field guides, was the fact that the other name for striped maple was moosewood. (Moose must like that green bark.) Back in college, the Moosewood Cookbook had been my survival manual for my meal responsibility nights while living in group houses off campus. I’d loved that book. Now I knew the tree it was named after. Surely, I’d been walking past striped maples for more than twenty years, but I would have sworn I’d never seen one until that moment. Now, another twenty years later, I still feel a special affection when I see one in the woods, a fairly common sight.

This experience has repeated itself many times. My first pileated woodpecker. My first tiger swallowtail butterfly. Once I opened my field guides to familiarize myself with what to look for, I began making dozens of discoveries, many of plants and animals now as familiar to me as robins and maple leafs. For me, there is no debate: naming is the key to seeing. So I had to smile upon reading George Drew’s poem in his marvelous new collection, The View From Jackass Hill. Leave to George to stir up trouble.

The True Wood

“…is the sum of all its phenomena.”
—John Fowles

(For Debi)

For an hour we sat on the flagstone patio
combing through my Golden Guide to Trees.

We looked at color plates, compared leaves
of the lobed and toothy kind, matched barks.

What exactly was that tree beside the patio?
To which family did that triple-spiked leaf

belong? To what that prickly pod?
It wasn’t chestnut, and it wasn’t hickory.

Ah, there it was—Sweet gum, by gum!
The very same my grandfather gushed

over, lauding its wood. Sweet gum—no
doubt about it. The leaf was a match,

the prickly pod, even the bark. Eureka!
our nineteenth-century cousins would

have shouted, our gleefully clever sleuths
of the botanical. Tagged by language

and stored in the thick declensions
of Latin taxonomy, the tree receded

to what it was: green shadow on a patio.
We’d gained a name and lost the tree.

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