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What’s in a Name?

Monday, 20 February 2023  | Christine Sine

‘We have stunned the world out of wonder’, says Robert MacFarlane in his fascinating book Landmarks. He goes on the suggest that ‘once a landscape goes undescribed and therefore unregarded it becomes vulnerable to unwise use or improper action’. I think the same is true of animals and even something as small as an insect or the microbial bacteria in the soil. Not just a landscape or an animal, I speculate, as I think of the one million special that might become extinct as a result of human action and the millions of faceless refugees and houseless people that live around us but that we rarely notice. Each creature is precious in God’s sight and deserves a name. ‘Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment for language does not just register experience, it produces it’, MacFarlane says.

I take what I call awe-and-wonder walks each day. McFarlane’s book encouraged me to try to name each plant and tree that I pass not just with the generic name of its species but with specific names that describe its beauty and its glory. The lilac bush outside my window could become the fragrant purple flowered bush that fills my heart with delight. The bandit masked raccoon that scampers across our back fence each night becomes, not an image of an outlaw pilfering my garden, but a playful garden friend who helps spread seeds and cleans up garden debris. What if I also try to find out the name of the man who sits on the corner each day begging for money and address him with a name that gives him dignity and respect? If I can t find out his name, I can give him one the man with the rugged face and far away eyes who speaks a language I do not understand.

The way we name things matters

The way we name things matters. ‘A desert wasteland’ does not need to be respected. An undulating dune landscape hiding the wildflower seeds of future glorious bloomings does. With a wave of our hands and the words of our mouth, we have re-enchanted this landscape and the creatures that inhabit it and re-invested it with wonder and expectation.

I suspect this is what happened when Adam named the animals in Genesis. Each naming I suspect was an occasion of awe and wonder. I cannot imagine he just gave them a generic ‘horse’, 'dog’, ‘antelope’ kind of name without forethought or consideration for what the animal was. My impression is that he sat and pondered each one. Looking closely, maybe examining the creature, seeing how it was created and then naming it. The more intimately he knew the animal the more certain he was of what to call it.

How many names have we lost?

The origin of many of the names by which we now know our animals has been lost, but they still have meaning for us. Gazelle immediately conjures up an image of a swift, fast-running antelope. Elephant is a large mammal with a long nose and beautiful curving tusks. Unfortunately there are many other created creatures we no longer name. Some of them we know better as cars that speed across the landscape like cheetah and jaguar and impala, or that trample its beauty with off-road driving like rams and broncos. I was very concerned as I read MacFarlane s book to hear that in the latest version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary there was a culling of words concerning nature – words like dandelion, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark and leopard. New additions included blog, voicemail, cut-and-paste.

How many creatures no longer register on our consciousness because we have no name for them or else have given them a name with negative connotations? Like dandelions – weeds to one person, obviously something to be forgotten by kids, but the most nutritious plants in the garden to another.

What would it take to re-wonder our world?

I love the suggestion made by a friend of mine, that we need to take a wonder vacation, not to get away from wonder but to reintroduce it into our lives. To re-wonder our world we need to rediscover that this is a place of mystery and that means we need to slow down and take time to notice. Re-wonderment means noticing not just the flower, but the unique and beautiful arrangement of each petal, the stamens at its center beckoning insects to its feast. Re-wonderment means stopping to inhale the fragrance, the heady aroma, more exotic than any perfume, that often only lasts for a few short days before it fades. It means stopping to watch the insects busily move across the pavement and the bees buzz around the flowers gathering pollen. And it means being so overcome by awe that we find the words to name what we see.

My awe-and-wonder walks have opened my eyes to new depths of wonder and to a new appreciation of the animals that inhabit our world. Awe does beget awe. Wonder inspires wonder and, in the process, there is that sense that we once more walk in the garden with God.

Pause for an awe-and-wonder walk today

I challenge you to pause your day for at least half an hour and go on your own awe-and-wonder walk today. Re-expose yourself to the wonder of God s world and the delight God intends you to find in interacting with it.

Walk around your neighbourhood. What catches your attention? It could be something as seemingly insignificant as an ant crossing the pavement. Where did it come from? Where is it going? What is its purpose? What do you learn about yourself and about God as you watch it? In what ways does it open you up to the awe and wonder of our world?

Christine Sine
is a contemplative activist, passionate gardener and author. She loves inspiring Jesus followers to dig in the dirt, laugh and have fun creating spiritual practices that intertwine the sacred through all of life. Founder and facilitator for the popular contemplative blog, her most recent books are The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God and Digging Deeper: The Art of Contemplative Gardening. 

An earlier version of this reflection was posted at Edited and republished with permission.

Image credits:
San Diego Zoo by Christine Sine.

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