The Names of Things: Larissa Pham on Nature Walks and the Grammar of Animacy
When I’m Not Writing, a Series About Writers and Their Hobbies
There’s two types of walks: the kind where you stop to name every living thing, and the kind where you don’t. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my earliest memories of the outdoors include working slowly through the state park near my childhood home, learning the names of ground plants and trees. Surrounded as we were by primeval forest, every science class and hike was accompanied by a litany of names and identifications. Trillium. Laurel. Maidenhair fern, sword fern, cedar, Douglas fir—the last you can tell by its pinecones, where between each woody scale peeps a tiny, papery bract that looks like the hind legs and tail of a mouse tucked away in hiding.
The observations even continued to the sidewalk: dandelion, California poppy, Queen Anne’s lace, also known as wild carrot flowers, white and orbital and waving in the wind. At first these lessons were merely lessons in memorization. Later, much later, I understood the value of naming the things we see.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer grapples with the problem of names: that is, to use or not to use Linnaeus’s classification? As a scientist, she must be in dialogue with its lexicon, but scientific names reflect a taxonomy, a way of classifying plants and animals that can feel hierarchical and cold, severing the relationships between living things. The naming of things, too, can feel like an act of ownership, reframing our relationship to nature, making it object instead of subject, a resource to be used.
So, Kimmerer writes, “When I am in the woods with my students, teaching them the gifts of plants and how to call them by name, I try to be mindful of my language, to be bilingual between the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy.” Kimmerer sees this “grammar of animacy” come alive in her lessons in Ojibwe, which treats nouns as verbs—as acts of being. Instead of saying “It is a lake,” one says: “It is being a lake.” Instead of a bird, something—or someone—is being a bird. Kimmerer’s grammar of animacy underscores our connectedness, our status as a universe of intertwined beings.
At first these lessons were merely lessons in memorization. Later, much later, I understood the value of naming the things we see.
During the pandemic, like a lot of people, I started going on walks. It’s easy to elude nature in New York City, easy to spend all your time looking at steel and concrete. Perhaps aware of this, I’ve always lived by the park, but I rarely went before Covid hit; after, I went for walks three or four times a week. I started meeting up with my neighbor, Dzana, who is also my best friend from high school, and we’d walk through the park, catching up and complaining. It wasn’t our intention, but once we’d run out of things to vent about, we started paying attention to what we were passing, and our walks turned into that first kind of walk. The kind of walk where you go really slow, and squat close to the ground to see the green tips of sprouting crocuses, and when you stand you see a bird fly by, and you ask each other, what was that bird called again?
So, as with most modern questions, I downloaded an app to answer them. It was called iNaturalist, and it used a mix of AI and previous identifications to suggest what I might have seen. And, very quickly, a whole realm appeared: the domain of sky and water; the birds that were always there, being birds, before we were patient enough to see them. There were the usual sparrows and finches. Robins and cardinals and jays. A couple stray pigeons—less than you’d think. Ducks, sure, and swans, and a red-eyed, white-beaked, black-feathered coot. But there were also red-winged blackbirds, a snowy egret, and four separate cormorants, each in a different state of repose, their dramatic silhouettes outlined against the lake. And in looking, we began to slow down. And when we slowed down, we truly began seeing.
The naming of things, too, can feel like an act of ownership, reframing our relationship to nature, making it object instead of subject, a resource to be used.
The first time we saw the egret in the park, head-on, standing nearly motionless in a stand of rushes, we mistook it for a piece of white PVC piping. Wait, I said, is that a bird? It’s so skinny, said Dzana, but I think you’re right. It turned and we saw the sinuous curve of its neck, bright white against the gray-green foliage, and in that movement its essential shape was revealed, like a hitherto unknown sigil suddenly gaining meaning. We hadn’t even known egrets lived in the park—they seemed too rare, too beautiful, too wild.
After we saw it once, we started seeing it everywhere. We understood where it lived; we understood what it ate (fish and frogs, mostly). We watched it hunt and peck and elegantly dart its pointed head under water. And I came to understand that the animals in the park weren’t just categories of animals, plopped in to populate an anthropocentric scene—they were individuals, with homes, and territories, and families. The snowy egret wasn’t just “an” egret, once it became familiar to us; it was no longer an it, but someone. A friend, even.
Looking at a bird to know what kind of bird it is allows me to see the bird better than I ever did before. I can spend my time with it—the egret as an individual, rather than a shape that I categorize as “white bird” and dismiss. There’s so much around us, so much being asked of us, all the time, that the natural world can disappear into a blur of brown, blue, and green. Naming things—knowing the names of things—brings that world into focus, separating plant from plant, flower from flower.
Bird from other bird. What seems like an amorphous, mysterious, outside environment suddenly becomes legible, interconnected and real. And, crucially, when I see the world in its variety, it becomes a world that I feel part of, a world that I take actions in.
It’s not just birdwatching, though it’s become a new love of mine; the experience isn’t dissimilar to cloud-watching, or learning about foraging. Deepening my knowledge of the natural world helps me understand my place in it. So when I feel disconnected from the real; when I’ve spent too much time online, or gossiping, or been caught up in some tricky, formal fiction problem, there’s a way out. It’s slow. It means going outside, and letting my eyes adjust to the minute movements in the trees. But it’s there, if I wait for it, allowing my ego to recede into the background and make room for other selves—other animate, living creatures, taking up space in the universe alongside me.