Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Naming flowers

Friday, July 15th, 2011

I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.

What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?

Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.

Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.

All there is to see

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just re-read  My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell for at least the fifth time. It’s an account of the time his family spent on the Greek island of Corfu when he was a boy. My husband and I both enjoy this book, but have discovered that we can’t read it at bedtime, at least not when one of us is trying to sleep, because the one reading will keep the other awake with laughter.

I often find, with favorite books, that I notice different things each time I read them. What struck me this time around was how much careful observation there is in Durrell’s stories. Here is someone who was insatiably curious about the world around him, and was willing to spend a great deal of time just looking at things— geckos on his bedroom ceiling, trapdoor spiders, or scorpions in the garden wall.

His curiosity was rewarded with some fascinating sights. There was the epic battle in his bedroom between a small gecko and a large praying mantis, the slow-motion mating rituals of turtles, and the sight of a giant toad stuffing an earthworm in its mouth.

I’ve had experiences like that, too, but not nearly as many as the young Durrell. The thing is, you have to get outside— that’s the easy part— and then you have to sit still.

Have you seen birds?

Monday, May 25th, 2009

This spring, for some reason, I’ve been noticing birds more than ever before. Their sounds, their colors, their omnipresence. And that reminded me of Barbara Reid’s lovely illustrations for the children’s book, Have You Seen Birds? It’s worth a look even if you don’t have a child to read it with. Reid’s Plasticine illustrations are expressive, detailed and colorful. It’s the kind of book that can make you aware of things around you that tend to go unnoticed.

In the same vein, I also recommend Saskatchewan Birds by Alan Smith. I discovered this beautifully illustrated book, and many of the birds described in it, while attending the Sage Hill Writing Experience last May. As a city-dweller, I tended to notice the obvious birds— sparrows, robins, the ubiquitous Canada geese— while remaining oblivious to the thrushes, warblers and nuthatches. This book showed me that

  1. Sparrows are more varied— and unexpectedly beautiful— than I realized
  2. In movies, the cry of a red-tailed hawk is often paired with the image of an eagle, because eagles do not have impressive voices
  3. There really is such a thing as a coot