Last Saturday morning I was delighted to walk through the woods with someone who introduced me to all of these parts of God’s creation. Of course I had seen them all before, but there is something about being officially introduced, something about learning the name of the tree with narrow jagged leaves (chinquapin), the plant that, this time of year, turns a red that is so intense it is almost unbelievable (sumac).
When I was a college English and religion teacher, I made it a point to learn my students’ names within the first two or three class sessions. Partly so I could use their names to get attention in class. But also because I wanted to know them, to have a face in my mind when I was writing comments on their papers.
Those who train soldiers for war can tell you that in order to get someone to commit violence, you must first dehumanize the “enemy.” And names are one of the best and quickest ways I know to humanize a person. If you know someone’s name, you know they have a life of their own; a life beyond being your “student” or “client” or “enemy.”
If knowing the names of people helps us to be more respectful, even more kind, to those people, what might it mean for us to know the names of the trees and the plants and the spiders and the frogs?
Cottonwood, maple, elm, cedar, chinquapin, honeylocust, willow, bur oak, red oak. Duckweed, sumac, and poison ivy. Wolf spider, garter snake, bullfrog. Nice to meet you.