Many of us speak English, but what do we use it to speak about? How often do we use this language to name and understand the beings beyond human civilization?
When we cannot name
Micah White, a community organizer and author of The End of Protest, worries that, “when we cannot name the species of trees, animals, and insects around us but we can recognize instantly the commercial logos… We don’t see the world that is disappearing around us.”
In a similar vein, Robert Macfarlane in his book Landmarks argues that we must practice naming and describing the landscapes around us, because this act of describing leads us to love the landscapes, and in turn to defend what we love.
With the enormous trends of human migration – people changing lands – and urbanization – people leaving lands for cities – I wonder how many of us even feel we are from a distinct landscape.
Trees of Vancouver
A couple of years ago I realized that I could identify almost none of the species around me in the Vancouver area, an area that has a pretty diverse mix of native and non-native plants and animals. I started an Instagram account about trees, aided by The Vancouver Tree Book by David Tracey, just to start practicing identifying trees, as a start.
Now I can identify a few:
monkey puzzle tree (I knew this from my mother)
western redcedar (official tree of British Columbia)
amabilis fir (a.k.a. Pacific silver fir for its silvery underside)
ginkgo (easy, as it’s the only one with fan-shaped leaves)
Persian ironwood (what a name)
quaking aspen (too rare in Vancouver)
People have sent me links to new apps for identifying plants, but I haven’t downloaded any yet, mostly out of my own slowness to adopt new technology. I do enjoy crowdsourcing information by posting photos and asking the community about identification. I also enjoy being corrected for misidentification – that definitely helps it stick.
Indigenous plant knowledge
The plants of what is now called British Columbia have of course been known, named, cultivated, and used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. I hope to learn more about the longstanding relationships between plants and people going forward. One great resource I came across is this website from the Royal BC Museum: Native Plants on the South Coast. The site will connect you to books on Coastal First Peoples’ food plants (yum) and plant technology (wow).
In whatever direction you are drawn, and whether English is your first or fourth language, I wish you well in your learning journey of describing the landscape around you.