One Sunday morning a while back I walked out early and experienced a pretty sunrise. As I stood watching I was aware of birdsong swelling around me. Our property is a large area of cleared land surrounded on most sides by woods, and it felt like being in the midst of a symphony of song. But my mind, like so many people, quickly descends to the trivial, and within moments I was pestered by an old problem of mine.
I can’t name birds by their song. I mean, crows and owls, sure, and cardinals, I think, and who doesn’t recognize the screech of a hawk? But of all the dozens of sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, robins and starlings that inhabit these woods and fields, I can identify none of them by their song. I need to look online and find a guide to birdsong, or get a recording for in my car and listen to it while I commute, committing each song to memory. That would impress family and friends, wouldn’t it? ‘Ah, there’s the black-capped chickadee,’ I would say, casting a knowing glance to the west . . .
I read a birdwatching guide years ago, and one piece of advice stood out more than any other. When you spot a bird you do not know, it said, linger on the bird. Look at it as long as the bird stays still for you, and memorize things about it. What color are its feathers? Are they uniform, or are there different colors on the breast, the head, the tail or the tips of the wings? Is its beak straight or curved? Only after observing the bird for a good while, open the book and see if you can find it. Not only is this the best way to identify the bird, but it makes the experience of viewing the bird that much richer. What you are doing is watching birds, not naming birds. Yes, you will eventually want to discover the names of the birds you view, but not to the detriment of enjoying their beauty.
Naming things is a human prejudice. We do not know something until we have named it. In Genesis, God has no sooner created all the animals than he makes Adam sit down and name them. Why this naming of the animals is so crucial at this early point in creation is mystifying, let alone why God has Adam do it: unless we acknowledge that scripture is written by humans, and this passage in the Bible is us rationalizing not only our practice, but our God-given right to name all the things in nature.
As I have researched the seasons in human life, I have found people from many disciplines–geography, meteorology, philosophy, history–who insist that the seasons as we understand them don’t really exist. Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-American geographer, said it well in his excellent (though difficult) book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values: ‘In the middle latitudes temperature changes continuously in the course of a year but it is customary for people to divide it into four or five seasons, often with festivities marking the passage from one to the other.’
In other words, there are seasons largely because we see them that way, we name them, and thereby define them. In centuries past, we prayed and sacrificed to deities whose deaths and resurrections or sojourns in the Underworld governed the seasons. In modern times, when a season does not arrive on the date expected, we pretty much just complain about it. Which is odd, given the fact that there are different theories about what constitutes a season. To meteorologists, seasons begin on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern predominates: thus March 1 to May 31 is spring. But to most of us, the seasons begin on the solstices and equinoxes. Neither of these schemes take into account the fluctuating weather we get around the beginning of each season. March can come in like a lion or a lamb. It’s often not until the middle of any season when we get that season and no other. But it does not stop us from slapping definitive names on them.
Yi-Fu Tuan calls it segmenting reality, dividing it into nameable portions that we can digest and understand bit by bit. A mountain sloping into a valley and thence out into a plain is also a continuum, unbroken in its run, but we have these different names for each part of it. Japanese people have a system of twenty-four sekki, or climatic segments of the calendar year: February 19 begins Rain Water, June 6 Grain in Ear, and September 7 White Dew. This is an ancient system, adopted from China, and one wonders how rarely climatic reality harmonizes with these lovely names.
Everything is an admixture of experience and intellectual exercise which creates an irony and a tension. I want to experience nature and the seasons; at the same time, running through my mind are these naming conventions that only detract from my pure experience. I am aware of this, but will likely not change. I still wish I could name each player in the symphony of birdsong.