Standing Indian Mountain

Share This

To Name is to Love

My first memory of The Farm is turning over the biggest rock my four-year-old frame could handle and uncovering two writhing snakes. The sudden burst of light sent them into spasms. I recoiled from their alien forms and ran away screaming. Everything in me told me to be afraid. Afraid of the unpredictable movements. Afraid of these legless creatures. Afraid of what dwelled unseen. The Farm was a continual and multivalent presence in my childhood and adolescence. The site of that early fear was later the site of misguided four-wheeler rides through muddy creek beds and hikes along enchanted ravines. It was the place where I first held hands with my high school love beneath a meteor shower, a moment of bliss that would go on to shatter friendships. It was the place I gathered with friends where they could drink cheap beer safe from parental gaze and we could wonder openly about what the future held. Those nights on The Farm I longed to be free from that tiny town and to adventure out into the world.

The Farm was a central character in our family lore. It’s located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, nestled in the low hills at the edge of the Appalachians. There I came into contact with my family’s history. My father grew up walking that land. His father bought those fields and knew those hills. My grandfather managed the land and the people who worked it. For much of his life it was a working tobacco farm. The old tobacco barn with its high sides still stood, empty and abandoned, until a storm took it down one night while I was off at college. I loved the story of my grandfather deciding to plant groves of black walnuts, planning for them to yield valuable hardwood in eighty or ninety years. Most of the trees didn’t take or were never planted to begin with. I never knew my grandfather. But from time to time when I walked across that land, I thought of him doing the same. Each artifact I stumbled across—an abandoned homesite, the twisted steel of old logging cable, the stones flanking the mouth of a spring—conjured another time and other lives, reminding me that I was not the first to visit those places. I was part of an already unfolding story. In the decaying boards of the old tobacco barn, I imagined The Farm in its prime. Every black walnut I passed under was a reminder of the dreams of a past generation.

At the same time I came to know every field, ridge, and valley of The Farm, it was part of the backdrop of my life, and there was so much I failed to notice. Driving my four-wheeler across the pastures was often about getting from one side to the other. The place was a given—permanent, fixed. Time spent there was less about appreciating the place itself and more about what it enabled for me. I cherished the independence, the freedom from oversight. In his essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry describes his own childhood relationship to a family farm. “It had been mine by coincidence or accident,”[1] he writes. That’s how I saw it. Events out of my control may have landed me there, but it was mine. I loved it, but I did not yet really know it. I loved it for what was coming alive in me rather than for the land itself or the other lives that called it home. I noticed its beauty and found peace there, but more than anything I valued it as my place where I could retreat.


I went off to college. On top of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, with its hardwood forests spreading out in every direction, I learned a new domain intimately and intensely. It began with learning to read the landscape, to see it not as static place and image but as a dynamic force. I learned the layers of the Earth. The plateau’s sandstone cap formed in the bed of a rushing river, beneath were the deposits of an ancient delta, and its base the karst limestone formed in a seabed from ancient shells. The plateau offered a glimpse of timescales unlike any I had before imagined. Each layer represented millions of years and the multiple forces that scoured and shaped the Earth. I was awed by it. It could not be possessed, only praised. I stood before epochs of uprise and erosion, land carved by river, glacier, and sea. From the thin forests of starved plateau-top soils to the mesic coves of towering shade, I became fascinated with the textures of the landscape. I wanted to know it more deeply.

That desire to know led me to learn the names of things. It started with a tree, shrub, or herb here or there. Someone showed me the little brown jug, cousin of wild ginger, whose crushed leaves left a lingering aroma of baking spices and loam. A professor taught me to identify the telltale strips of bark coming off the shagbark hickory and the plating pattern of the white oak. I learned to see in the trees the tales of past land use: how a wide and open canopy carried the memory of an open field long after the woods had closed in thick around it. The stories written on the landscape captivated me. What happened here? What is it becoming? No place is static. In the words of the A. R. Ammons in his poem “Providence”:

To stay

bright as

if just

thought of

earth requires

only that

nothing stay[2]

I took this new knowledge back home with me. It was fall break my freshman year. The leaves on the trees were approaching peak color—all reds, browns, and yellows. I returned to The Farm to walk its familiar contours. Leaving the fields for the woods, I saw a single leaf poking out of the forest floor. Little Brown Jug. Hexastylis arifolia. Its single heart-shaped leaf dulled from seasons of photosynthesis, it crushed to the same scent—sweet and enticing—that I had come know in Tennessee. I had never seen it on The Farm before. At least not that I was aware of. But now I knew its name, could distinguish it from the forest floor, and pick it out from the rest of the residual vegetation. It was the beginning of seeing the place with new eyes, appreciating notes and layers within the landscape. It was the beginning of loving it not just for what it could offer me, the experience of beauty, a place of solace, but for what it was—a community of its own—diverse, dynamic, and evolving. It had a story that I didn’t control or own, unfolding outside of me and all around me.


After a couple years of study, I could walk through the forests rattling off Latin binomials and common names. I became fascinated by the names of things, the stories embedded in those names. With each new species I learned, I was able to make further distinctions of what I saw and experienced in the natural world. To look at a patch of green in a shaded forest became a practice of recognition and knowing. I could no longer sit easy with the categories of “tree” or “flower.” Even the more specific monikers of “oak” or “hickory” seemed insufficient. I sought after the name of each new flower. I wanted to know them, their uses and their histories. Xanthorhiza simplicissima, yellowroot, has long been used to produce a yellow dye and a treatment for gastrointestinal distress. Galium repens, bedstraw, emerges early in spring and has tender stems rich in vitamin C, necessary for fighting off scurvy after a long winter. Fagus grandifolia, Carya glabra, Quercus alba, American beech, pignut hickory, and white oak—their mast, beechnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns, feed entire ecosystems and determine whether mammals will survive the winter ahead or not. A new world opened up to me. Not a world other than the one I had known or experienced, but one that was there all along, just beneath the surface. Shades of green became distinguishable from one another, the double serrations of an elm leaf from the single serrate beech, and the anise scent of sweet cicely from its nonfragrant look-alikes.


While learning the names of things opened up new textures to The Farm and the familiar forests of my home, the scientific practice of classification carries with it a fraught legacy. Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist who created the system of classification for life on the planet most scientists still use today, set out to categorize, parse, and group all life on Earth. His system would sort every living thing into a variety of ranks, setting them into fixed and immovable categories. It was the equivalent of an entomologist pinning a butterfly to a board. Once things had a single name they could be looked at, analyzed, and talked about objectively.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, challenges this way of categorizing the world. “The botany I was taught,” she writes, “was reductive, mechanistic, and strictly objective. Plants were reduced to objects; they were not subjects.”[3] While her career as a botanist forced her to operate in those Linnaean categories, her book explores the relationship of knowing that follows the teachings of her ancestors, the people native to this land. From her ancestors she describes learning a “grammar of animacy,” a way of speaking about the natural world that collapses the distances between the detached scientific observer and the object of inquiry. For her, the only way to truly know the natural world is to interact with it as a web of relations, to see the plants, trees, and all living things as relations, not objects of study. She writes that “to become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might be truly at home.”[4] She describes a way of speaking about and naming the world that doesn’t limit or restrict, but opens up to new possibilities. In this grammar of animacy, naming the trees is not the end of the connection, but the beginning. It’s a way in, a start to a relationship that at its best will be reciprocal, mutual, in which we humans give back to the Earth as much if not more than we take. That relationship can begin with naming, so long as we never mistake the name of a thing for the whole story.


A friend once asked me, “What does it do for you to know all these plant names?” The best I could explain it to her was this: Imagine yourself walking into a crowded room. If you don’t know anyone, their names, relationships, or backstories, all you see is the crowd. Perhaps you notice some details or a few things catch your attention, but it just remains a crowd. Now imagine walking into a room full of people you’ve met before. You know their names, parts of their stories, and the ways that many of them know each other. The room isn’t just a crowd. It’s full of unfolding stories, surprising interactions, and opportunities for good conversation. That’s how I feel when I step into a forest full of plants I can name. It’s like reuniting with old friends to catch up and continue the relationship where last we left off. From that familiarity springs a deeper connection, a more lasting love. Our lives are intertwined in ways they never could’ve been before I learned their names.

Armed with the names of plants, I grew to know them as distinct and unique beings, but also as connected to a larger whole, part of a greater web of being unfolding through deep time. Each species became familiar. I could spot the egg-shaped canopy of a maple. I knew a black gum from a distance by the articulation of its limbs at distinct right angles. I moved beyond an appreciation of the forest as a single, static entity to knowing it and loving it in the diversity of forms and their overlapping patterns of organization. I think often of the words that Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, spoke before a meeting of the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”[5] I was coming to know the natural world around me more deeply and falling more and more in love with it.


December 2010. I walk across The Farm in search of the right grapevine (Vitis sp.) to twist into a wreath and the greenery to fill it. I head back to the old campsite to see what’s left and to explore the patch of evergreen that sits distant in my memory. I brush against the branches of a small tree. Juniperus virginiana, Eastern red cedar. It’s not a cedar at all. The berries are green-blue from the film of yeast on their surface. Crushed they smell of gin. Mitchella repens, partridge berry, snakes along the ground. It’s in the coffee family, with tasteless red berries that remain on the vine until the very end of winter when birds are most desperate. Diphasiastrum digitatum, ground cedar, twines its way through the same understory; 320 million years ago its ancestors dominated swamp forests, towering at 30 feet to collapse in the flow of time and pressure transforming into coal seams. They reproduce through roots running under the detritus of fallen leaves. Ilex opaca, the American holly, one of the few evergreen broadleaves in this forest. The trees are sexually dimorphic. The female holly bears distinct red berries and the males have only green to show.

Walking among these familiar beings, I feel like I belong. I’m at home. Each step brings back memories of the place, a renewed connection to the past of my memory and the past that has been unfolding here for millions of years. I am surrounded by family, kin, whose names I’ve recently learned but whose ancestors and relatives evolved alongside my own. My names for them will never encapsulate the whole of who they are. But they tell a story. They remind me of the connections that exist between all living things. They remind me that I am part of a greater web of being, that I am, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “plain member and citizen” of a whole Earth community.[6] I don’t love those hills, valleys, and fields because they are mine. I love them because I am a part of them and they are a part of me. I love them because I know them and feel known by them. I love them because I am theirs.


[1] Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba, “A Native Hill,” in The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002).

[2] A. R. Ammons, “Providence,” in Worldly Hopes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 46.

[3] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 42.

[4] Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 58.

[5] JoAnn M. Valenti and Gaugau Tavana, “Report: Continuing Science Education for Environmental Journalists and Science Writers (In Situ With the Experts),” Science Communication 27, no. 2 (2005): 300–310.

[6]  Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 204.