“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.”
–Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Taxonomy is the “orderly classification of plants and animals.” Meaning this is an orchid, this is a lupine, they are both flowers. Meaning raccoons are not flowers. Meaning the world was given to us without labels and we are trying desperately to scratch them in.
During training this past spring, we spent time with a seasoned naturalist named Dean, a towering man with a beard who knew the exact inflection to give every word so that you held on just a bit longer. He told us that when guiding hikes people would constantly ask him, what’s this? what’s it called? can you eat it? They wanted to know the taxonomy. The name mattered to them. He would answer. Eventually. But first he would ask them what they noticed. The shape of the leaves. The texture of the stem. What did it smell like? What colors did they see? It was the observing that mattered. Giving a name is easy. But giving a name without noticing shrinks the moment. We are used to instant answers, but we are not used to sitting with our questions, with our own budding wonderment.
It was on a hike that I discovered Ceanothus, also known as the California lilac. They were small blue flowers blossoming on large twiggy shrubs and the thing that tortured me—and still does to this day—was how to describe the smell. Online sites say “floral” or “sweetly scented,” but none of those are quite right. There was a hint of spice to it, something I can’t put my finger on. I do not have a single apt adjective for how they smell. But I took the time to smell them. I noticed the color and the shrubby bush and I looked up the name when I got back.
The thing about describing something, labeling something, is that we are often wrong. We want things to be neat and orderly. We want everything to fit inside the narrow molds we’ve made with our own flawed hands. So we call Sarcodes sanguinea (snow plant) a plant even though it contains no chlorophyll and instead gets its nutrients from fungi, but we don’t call Nereocystis luekeana (bull kelp) a plant even though it does contain chlorophyll and photosynthesizes, which makes me think that all our words exist with a sense of hollowness in their bones and we are trying desperately to define things we don’t really understand.
Our human knowledge, our human senses are subjective. They too can fail us.
For example, our own eyes deceive us. Water is approximately 800 times denser than air and as such, absorbs light. Water appears blue not because it is actually blue (it’s clear), but because the frequency of blue light can penetrate the furthest. This is a fancy way of saying that something you see 40 meters below the waterline will not look the same when you bring it to the surface. The colors will look different. The fish you saw at 40 meters and which you thought was gray is actually red. But were you wrong? Maybe the fish is a Schrödinger fish. Maybe it is both. And does it matter that the fish is red? Maybe what matters is that you were in a submersible and you saw this breathtaking fish and you squealed and grabbed your partner’s hand and shouted looklooklook as you jabbed your finger at the glass. Maybe that matters more than the true shade of its scales.
And besides, what is red anyway? Different species have different numbers of rods and cones in their eyes, which allows them to perceive the world differently. Some animals see in UV. Some animals use sonar to create mental, visual maps of where things are. So maybe in the grand, natural order of things identifying red is relatively unimportant. Maybe we need to worry less about names and about being cosmically right, and to understand that the way we perceive the world is our own personal truth, and there are so many truths out there and all of them are wonderful, and it’s not about being “right,” it’s about standing there in the water ankle-deep, feeling tendrils of algae brush against your leg, and then seeing a fish hiding beneath a rock and wondering where it sleeps at night, wondering if it feels fear when it senses looming human shadows.
It is a sculpin. It is brown. I love him.