Sunday, July 24, 2011

Names of Things

One of my favorite places in my little house is on the sofa facing the wooded area adjacent to the property. It's where I curl my feet under me to read, watch TV, sip tea or coffee or wine, write my poetry, and jot ideas or ruminations down in one of several notebooks. But without the view, it would be just a sofa. What I see when I gaze outside makes it a revered space in my corner of the world. So this morning, when I read an excerpt from Mark Doty's The Art of Description, I knew I must do more than has been my custom. 

"...the more we can name what we're seeing, the more language we have for it, the less likely we are to destroy it. If you look at the field beside the road and you see merely the generic 'meadow,' you're less likely to care if it's bulldozed for a strip mall than you are if you know that those tall, flat-leaved spires are milkweed, upon which the monarchs have flown two thousand miles to feed, or if you can name sailor's breeches and purslane, lamb's-quarter, or the big umbels of wild carrot feeding the small multitudes. Isn't the world larger and more valuable, if you know what an umbel is? Thus, in Eden, paradise became a more intricate place, artfully arrayed, and its loss was felt all the more sharply."

When I tried to name the things I saw--oak trees, bougainvillea, bleeding heart, grass, squirrel, butterfly--I was lacking. What is that vine other than just a vine, what is that fern other than just a fern, what is the name of the tree with the large glossy dark green leaves, or the one that blesses with those magenta orchid-like flowers in February? I know the blue jays and cardinals, but which bird  has the tail with the brown and white stripes? Whose wingspan is it that swoops down at dusk, and which insects sing like a thousand violinists on high notes warming up before a concert? Is that a lizard or a chameleon or a gecko? Are they white oaks or scrub oaks or water oaks? And how could any butterfly be just a butterfly?

One of the most memorable pieces of writing which contains the naming of things comes from The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. A woman was reading notations describing winds, written in the margins of a book:

     There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm,a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
     There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days -- burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob -- a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain. The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. Imbat, a sea breeze in North Africa. Some winds that just sigh towards the sky. Night dust storms that come with the cold. The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the Arabic word for "fifty," blooming for fifty days -- the ninth plague of Egypt. The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance.
     There is also the __________, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it. And the nafhat -- a blast out of Arabia. The mezzar-ifoullousen -- a violent and cold southwesterly known to Berbers as "that which plucks the fowls."  The beshabar, a black and dry northeasterly out of the Caucasus, "black wind." The samiel from Turkey, "poison and wind," the simoom, of North Africa, and the solano, whose dust plucks off rare petals, causing giddiness.
     Other, private winds. 
     Travelling along the ground like a flood. Blasting off paint, throwing down telephone poles, transporting stones and statue heads. The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. Mariners called this red wind the "sea of darkness." Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood. "Blood rains were widely reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901."
     There are always millions of tons of dust in the air, just as there are millions of cubes of air in the earth and more living flesh in the soil (worms, beetles, underground creatures) than there is grazing and existing on it. Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. One nation was "so enraged by this evil wind that they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred."
     Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The column. The sheet. In the first the horizon is lost. In the second you are surround by "waltzing Ginns." The third, the sheet, is "copper-tinted. Nature seems to be on fire."

And can we ever again think of (Lord help us) just the wind

1 comment:

  1. Oh Carol, I am so there with you. I don't have one of those special spots in this house and I'm positive the lack has drained away much of my essence. I'll have to do something about that.... get/make myself one.

    Aaaaand, I'm going to have to get "The Art of Description" too.

    Thanks for another bit of lovely through your blog.