Ah, language. Isn’t it great? Through speech and through writing we convey complex messages for infinite purposes. Words help us inform, comfort, instruct, warn, entertain, question, and commiserate. But first and foremost, it is through language that we label and name.
Classification: /klasəfəˈkāSH(ə)n/ noun. The action or process of classifying something according to shared qualities or characteristics.
Way back when, in biology class, we learned about taxonomy which is the classification of living things. I wasn’t a fan. I saw no purpose in memorizing things like the domain, phylum, genus and species of a lemur. My head was clearly elsewhere at the time… I wasn’t seeing classification as humans’ innate need to name, and in turn make sense of the diversity around us.
I think of small children though whose enthusiasm for naming and classifying hasn’t been spoiled yet by the formal education system. For little ones there is that innate wonder and amazement at our burgeoning ability to identify and name this or that.
I remember watching my sons going through the “What’s this?!?” phase, full of pointing and repeating. I could actually sense the buzz of neural connections being made behind their adorable little eyes. After hearing something named only once or twice they could miraculously remember. “Banana! Cat! Shoe!” (Clearly, their brilliance came from my side of the family.)
I also think of the iconic scene in the 1962 film, The Miracle Worker, the story of deaf and blind Helen Keller. Through her teacher’s signing fingers she learns the “word” for water. This is followed by a frenzied dash to learn names of other objects around her creating a powerful and sudden shift in Helen’s perception of the world.
I, myself have begun to re-experience the thrill of naming, not entirely unlike a giddy child discovering language for the first time. It began a ways back though with a bird; a black-capped chickadee, aka, “poecile atricapillus.”
Dee dee!! That sound… kind of like two notes sung together, a high one and a low one. It sounded like a birdy equivalent of the English, “Yoo hoo!” It took me right back to younger days living on the sunny south shore of Long Island. It was a sound that filled the backdrop of my first twenty eight years of life before moving to Florida.
I never gave much thought to the tiny, winged creature creating the sound, nor did I ever consciously think of or miss the double note while I was living in a tropical climate with an array of different creatures creating the outdoor din. But hearing it again after a number of years made me wax nostalgic in my native temperate forest climate. I suddenly had to know… What the heck IS that thing?
I found my answer after a laborious internet quest through sites with images and sounds of tons of Long Island birds. Eureka! Since then, I have been using a sound identification app on my phone to differentiate between the likes of a bluejay, red-winged black bird, grackle, sparrow, and cardinal. I even learned the difference between the creepy crow and the absolutely terrifying raven (my new favorite).
I haven’t stopped at birds. A plant identifying app is my new favorite hiking accessory. In a flash my photo of any mysterious plant is scanned and checked against the images posted by hundreds of other fellow app users. In an instant I know the common name, scientific name, origin, growing conditions, and even cultural symbolism. It’s like a dream for this mindful librarian!
Bird and plant identifying apps have truly altered the experience of my mindful morning walk. By “mindful walk” I refer to the mental process I consciously undergo as I move in order to make a stroll a truly meditative experience. I become fully present in my surroundings. My brain’s preoccupations slip away as I tune my awareness to my footfalls, breathing, and senses.
The difference now is that when I focus on sounds as they enter my ears, I hear more than “chirp.” My brain conjures images of the rust colored feathers of a robin in the distance to my right, or a flash of yellow that is the goldfinch up ahead When I tune in with my field of vision, I see more than “green” when I gaze into the brush or up at the canopy. I see red maple in a silent battle with the invasive poison ivy and wisteria.
Being able to name and to classify the nature around me has added to its vibrancy. I now notice and appreciate what is common and what is rare. Instead of merely thinking, “how pretty,” I am filled with wonder when I see something like mountain laurel growing on a hiking trail. How can something so delicate looking be so very toxic?
The witch in me picks up symbolism on my walk as well. When I can identify the sound of a cardinal, I sense spirits from the other side paying me a visit. A blue jay means I need to observe the bigger picture. A patch of clover is obviously lucky, as is a glimpse of the white bark of a birch tree in the thick of the otherwise dark-colored forest.
Being able to identify the birds and plants around me has only inspired me to learn more. Next on my agenda is to travel and note the subtle and stark differences in what is growing, moving, chirping, and croaking around me in different places. There is a lot out there and my advice is to start small. Identify one plant or bird each time you are out. Notice the shift in your mindful awareness over time.