Essays
8:30 am
Fri October 11, 2013

What’s in a Name?

News-Press story teller Amy Bennett Williams not only loves tromping around in wild places – she also likes to be able to place wild things in their proper taxonomical context. But she’s discovered not everyone has the same need or appreciation for detail.

I had a strange moment with Clyde Butcher once, probably a decade ago, that has haunted me ever since.

Fortunate enough to be along on one of the world-renowned photographer's wet walks, we'd paused in a sunlit stand of small cypress trees, their gracefully windswept branches winter-bare and reflected in the sky-mirror of water below.

This little cypress variety, I asked Clyde — pond cypress, I believe it's commonly called — what's its binomial?

He looked at me as if I'd asked him to untie the knot in my tail.

Their scientific name, I said — Taxodium something-or-other — not T. distichum like their cousins the bald cypress, but what was their species? Embarrassing, but I'd forgotten it.

Clyde just shook his head.

Scientific name? Why bother with that?

I don't remember his exact words, but they were withering — something to the effect that to fret about picky little scientific details like genus and species while standing thigh-deep in the middle of the wet miracle that is the Big Cypress Swamp — well, sister, I've got other things to think about, he told me.

In the grand scheme, taxonomy and nomenclature are small indeed, he believed, and to try to capture and confine nature with words and human definitions does it a grave disservice.

Well, that shut me right up, and I spent the rest of the walk fretting even harder. Was I some Prufrockian priss who needs her wild things safely pinned and wriggling on the wall of science? Was my impulse to name, dissect, experiment, categorize simply a small-minded way to keep the raw glory of the universe at a stiff-armed distance? It pained me to think so.

So I kept thinking, and thinking and thinking, and have continued to do so, circling back to his idea every so often, while at the same time realizing that some of the most thrillingly expansive thinkers I've ever known are scientists.

Clyde's words bubbled up again recently as I was trying to extract a turkey femur from a plastic jug of white vinegar, where it had been soaking for months. It had been easier to shove it into its acetic bath than it was proving to get it out, no matter how hard I tugged, shook the now-empty bottle or turned it over and thumped it.

Finally, I managed to get a grip on the bone's head and wrenched it free with a satisfying pop. The femur wavered in my hand like steamed asparagus, to 10-year-old Nash's delight.

My own parents taught me this: to decalcify a bone in mild acid (vinegar), which dissolves the hard, mineral portion of the bone, leaving just the flexible collagen matrix. But a wiggly, knot-able bone was more than an icky-cool kitchen trick: For me, it was an unforgettable lesson in how we're put together with limestone caught in nets of protein, in bone physiology, in science.

I understand what Clyde means — that to get snarled in picayune definitions and formulas can separate us from what truly matters.

But for me, learning about how the universe is made and what its parts are called doesn't diminish the wonder of wading in winter among bonsai pond cypress (T. ascendens, by the way) — or of shaking a jelly bone at my laughing kid after a weeknight dinner — it only deepens it.