What’s in a name?

Who to believe: experts or common sense? The evidence of our senses as we live in the world or the bewildering arguments of rival scientists, journals and institutions? In her 2009 book, Naming Nature, Carol Kaesuk Yoon provides a brief history of taxonomy–the naming and ordering of all life forms–though her captivating story includes questions that touch us all.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a widespread interest in nature led people of all ages and stations in life to scrabble together their own natural history collections. Kings and queens imported elephants and rhinoceroses, parrots and monkeys from distant colonies. The aristocracy planted exotic trees on their estates and grew rare flowers in hothouses. Pressed specimens featured in herbaria. Bottles full of preservatives housed such treasures as the blackbelly triggerfish, armadillos, and fetuses both human and animal. Taverns displayed more outlandish things yet: the penis of a whale, stuffed hummingbirds, snakes from South America, and a starved cat discovered between the walls of Westminster Abbey. As Yoon writes: “The world was full of astonishing things, things that made people desperately curious and to which they felt an easy and intimate connection.”

Butterfly collector, daguerreotype, ca. 1850

Yoon introduces a key term in biology, umwelt. This German word literally means “the environment” or “the world around.” For scientists studying animal behavior, Yoon comments, “the umwelt signifies the perceived world, the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fuelled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits.” A dog appreciates the world differently from how a bee does or a mole or an earthworm or bacterium. People see the world in their own way as well.

Underlying our vision of the world is a search for order and place. We start by identifying creatures–naming living things, learning about them and gauging their relationship to other like and dislike creatures. One’s umwelt includes a feeling of connection to other living things, as best we see them, and relatedness. This feeling is very strong in us–all cultures name the creatures around them and organize them into groups such as meat eaters or songbirds or fruit-trees. As we observe different life cycles and behaviors, our sense impressions and identification skills form a background of familiar knowledge that is central to our sense of place and well being. It’s one of the first things we teach our children–information they’re eager to learn.

Sadly, as specialists take over, the insatiable curiosity of the public for natural history loses ground or diverts to other areas. Beyond a few animal shows on TV and the dinosaur phase of small children, it’s gotten to the point where the ordinary person can distinguish a “tree” or a “flower,” but couldn’t possibly differentiate one kind from another. This disaffection for nature has come in the midst of the greatest mass extinction of species in the history of the planet. Few people know it’s happening or seem to care, and have no sense of how this loss will affect humanity’s own future.

We no longer think of coffee as a plant, but as a product connected to favourite brands.

What has taken its place is our avid differentiation of brands and products. As Yoon writes: “Today, we effortlessly perceive an order among the many different kinds of human-made, purchasable items. Instead of sorting living things by size, shape, color, smell, and sound, we sort merchandise this way, obsessed and immersed as we are in a world of products … We are modern-day hunter-gatherers who do our hunting and gathering, not in the wilds, but at shops and grocery stores.”

It’s not just that specialists have taken over the field of nature. As Yoon outlines, the specialists cannot agree on anything. And one reason they cannot agree is because they are blinded by their umwelt. Human senses are deceiving. For one thing we think of creatures as having fixed, easily identifiable traits and markings. Darwin changed this view. No living thing is fixed; all species vary from one location to another, from one environment to another. The more scrupulous one is in collecting samples, the more these variations will become apparent.

So how to determine where one species starts and another ends? As Yoon outlines, scientists must ignore their umwelt. Instead of relying on observation and instinct, biologists now use statistics, lab tests, genetics and other indicators to place one creature in relationship to another. With all these tools, there is still room to disagree. Taxonomy is not unique in being a discipline marred by dissension, petty feuds and squabbles. I suspect the same holds true of most academic disciplines.

In contrast to the scientists who cannot agree on basic principles, Yoon describes a fascinating experiment conducted by Brent Berlin at the University of California Berkeley. He created a list of bird names and fish names in the language spoken by the Huambisa of the Peruvian rainforest. To get a taste of the experiment, try to distinguish bird from fish in the following lists:

A.

  1. chunchikit (choon-chew-EE-kit)
  2. chichikia (Chee-chee-KEE-ah)
  3. teres (tih-RISS)
  4. yawarach (yaw-wah-RAHTICH)
  5. waikia (wa-EE-kee-ah)

B.

  1. mats (MAW-oots)
  2. katan (kah-TAHN)
  3. takaikit (tah-KA-ee-keet)
  4. tuikcha (too-EEK-cha)
  5. kanuskin (kah-NOOS-kin)

For the five pairs, here are the bird names: chunchikit, chichikia, takaikit, tuikcha, waikia. How did you do? Quite well, I imagine. That’s because “the bird names are the ones that go tweet, tweet.” Yoon comments: Humans perceive birds in a universally similar way, often named after the sounds they make. Example chickadee.

It’s part of human nature to be curious about nature, to name different species and create a system of order. Learning the names of living beings from culture and tradition helps us relate to those beings, feel they are part of our world. Even if mistakes are made, it’s better to be wrong and invested, than to relinquish the task altogether.

Science may increase knowledge, but not increase how we feel or care about the world. This is why Yoon believes there is still place for folk knowledge, a place for the amateur naturalist and casual observer. “If we hope to revive and save our dying world, to recapture our connection to it, we must breathe a little life back into our vision of it.”

Kathleen Jamie, Poet Naturalist

Kathleen Jamie in 2017. Photo by by Jemimah Kuhfeld

Kathleen Jamie is a poet who writes books about nature, islands, vanished cultures and the people who study these sorts of things. She travels and observes, often as the guest of a scientific study, yet remains remarkably free of agendas, political or otherwise. Here’s an example from her chapter on “the Storm Petrel.” (from Sightlines, 2012) 

The account begins: “We found it on Rona, the very day we arrived … “ The “it” in question is the body of a dead bird. A biologist friend recognizes it as a storm petrel–unusual to find a bird like this with an identification ring. Jamie looks it up in a reference book–she is as much a collector of language as she is of natural curiosities—and notes how storm petrels are “essentially pelagic;” “they never occur inland except as storm driven waifs.” Jamie compares this “scientific” description with a description by the poet Richard Murphy, which begins: “Gypsy of the sea/ In winter wambling over scurvy whaleroads/ Jooking in the wake of ships …” 

The bird is petite: “you’d think storm petrels too small to jook anywhere at all.” Jamie describes the ring around its foot, and provides a background on the practice of ringing birds in Britain. The ring she’s recovered bears the words: “Inform British Museum.” Jamie does so, filling in an on-line form. She shares with the reader each question and answer, very factual and explicit. Then she muses on what other questions might have been asked, such as “smell of bird?” Her answer: “mysterious, musky, like an unguent.” 

Waiting for the British Museum’s response, Jamie muses on the furious 18th century debate on bird migration. Gilbert White is quoted at length. Jamie comments on his unusual words and phrases, beginning with the odd word “hibernaculum”: “Hybernaculum,” Jamie notes, “is his word for the winter quarters a swallow repairs to, but where was this hibernaculum? His other words were interesting too. ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘mortification’ almost suggest that the Enlightenment just then dawning, all that science and discovery, might have been driven not by the will to master and possess nature, but out of chagrin. As human beings, our ignorance was beginning to shame us, because we didn’t know the least things, like where swallows went in winter.” 

Jamie receives an answer to her ring inquiry. The bird was ringed on the island of Yell, one of the northernmost Shetland Islands, which she knows well. Jamie gets out her maps and sea charts to trace the journey her storm petrel made. She senses the absurdity of the exercise: “They migrate from Shetland or Rona or their many other breeding places, down to the vast pelagic hibernaculum off Namibia and South Africa. A few come to grief … some bearing a return address. An address! Ludicrous thing for a storm petrel to carry. ‘The Ocean’ would be their address …” 

She concludes: “So that’s why I keep the bird’s remains, here in this room, my own hibernaculum—if only for a while … I keep it for the intimacy, and for the petrel smell: fusty, musky, suggestive of a distant island in summer. And I keep it out of sheer respect because, in life, this ounce of a bird had made twenty-four return trips the length of the Atlantic. Twenty-four at least—which is not bad at all, for a waif, wambling

Biodiversity Museum

The Beaty Diodiversity Museum in Vancouver

How is a museum like a morgue? The bodies inside have tags on their toes. That’s the feeling I get walking through these pristine displays of bones and stuffed birds in the black-walled basement of the Beaty Diodiversity Museum on UBC campus. There’s a sense of being in the storage vaults of a collection rather than being in a showroom.

Dinosaur bones

For example, these dinosaur bones are not assembled into some spectacular crowd-pleasing giant. Instead the bones are randomly tossed into a box that evokes an archaeologist’s dig—the raw materials of a collection without layers of interpretation shaping the viewer’s response. 

This museum boasts an unusual but functional water feature.

That’s not all that makes this museum different. Bulrushes and other swamp-loving plants naturally purify water and so there’s a channel of blue-green algae leading to the museum, winding its way through tall unmowed grasses and piles of compost. 

Wild grass with students

Outside the entrance to the museum, students preoccupied with messaging, pass fields of grass, swamp and brambles of trees. This urban wilderness makes everyone more relaxed, even those who don’t quite know they’re walking through it. 

Signage

What’s a museum without signage? Good communication uses striking details with comparisons to familiar things to help us grasp the wonders of whales and other creatures. This fun fact is placed near the blue whale skeleton hanging in the foyer.

Carnivores

In keeping with the sense of being behind closed doors of a research facility, the curators have arranged long cabinets with pull out drawers containing specimens and explanations of current projects by faculty of UBC biology department. The focus is on relationships between creatures living in a shared environment rather than on individual species. You’d need to spend some time to appreciate the scope of the inquiries. The quick glance we had was fascinating.

As we were leaving, we found this card game with a theme of ecology.

Mountains, B.C.

Mountain, mist, lake

I travelled to Whistler, British Columbia recently with my wife Kathleen. This was a different vacation for us. Much of our time was spent outdoors. We’d come off season, just before the ski hills opened, but it worked out well for us as we mixed family time with small doses of nature and got a better appreciation of where Kathleen’s son Jay lives and why he’s there. 

Sunlight, shadows, mountain
I encountered this glowing wild flower on the side of the ski hill.

While I was there, I took a few photos. My current art project starts with close-up details of nature, but I also step back and record a wider view, the way filmmakers construct reality. One of the hardest things to photograph is sunlight, to appreciate how life depends on the light and energy of the sun. Light is the first element of art, as is shadow. A mystic might say we journey from a life of shadows toward the light.

Mountains meets the sea

I had feared living amongst a ring of mountains might get claustrophobic. The reality is they’re always changing, especially if you’re on the move. I get glimpses of them on our peregrinations around lakes and forests and along stretches of highway, power lines and ski slopes. 

Crows watch over a parking lot in Creekside, with mountains visible in background.

I’m reminded of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, a travelogue of 19th century Japan, showing the country through a series of pictures. In each picture, the landscape and activities change, except for one element, the mountain in the background. As I travel the back roads and hiking trails of Whistler, I get the idea that I could do a similar project, featuring Canadian mountain peaks.

The Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler was greatly improved for the Olympics. Here Kathleen poses with her son Jay, who served as agreeable tour guide.
The cranes of Horseshoe Bay.

The Sea to Ski highway has conveniently placed viewing stations. We stopped at Horseshoe Bay for lunch. It’s a lovely spot, picturesque with its views of ocean, busy with ferry traffic to outlying islands. In my nature shots, I often like to include traces of human intervention. These cranes gave a sense of scale to the mountain. One senses how precarious it is to build on these steep slopes, combined with the imperative to balance human activity with appreciation for the wonders of nature.

Follow the Herd

Cave Paintings of Lascaux in the Vézère Valley, southern France, thought to be around 20,000 years old. The cave art was discovered in 1940.

The cave paintings of southern France and Spain present one of the great mysteries of art. Why were these works created? The paintings are mostly of animals: bulls, aurochs, horses and bison. In the Lascaux cave, one of the giant bulls is 17 feet long. The animals, painted with earth-coloured minerals, appear to be in motion; none of them are grazing.

What is the meaning of this prehistoric art? We can only conjecture. The usual explanations touch on magical properties, hunting and religion, or having to do with initiation, ancestry and entertainment. Does any art in the 20th century deal with similar material? And can we learn anything from modern-day examples of herds, cattle and humans?

Andy Warhol. Cow Wallpaper, 1966

For example, Warhol’s cow wallpaper mocks the way landscape art, often featuring cattle, can become a piece of decoration in a room. The repeating heads of identical cows are absurd, yet powerful–the hypnotizing effect of mass media.

Perhaps the 20th century artist most associated with bulls is Pablo Picasso. “As a Spaniard it was inevitable that the bull, the bullfight, and eventually the Minotaur, would concern Picasso.” So writes Martin Ries in Art Journal (Winter 72/73).

Picasso draws and paints bulls in a variety of contexts. The bull could be a symbol of Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, or a symbol of sacrifice or death. Picasso portrays the minotaur as a monster, a lover, an embodiment of brute strength. At other times, the half bull-half man appears vulnerable, a homeless wanderer or uncomprehending actor in elaborate scenes of war and human suffering.

There is a dream-like quality to the image below that suggests a surrealist paradox: the violent solitary man lives under threat of being civilized. In his personal life, Picasso’s marriage had fallen apart–he couldn’t divorce because he was Catholic–and his mistress had just gotten pregnant.

Pablo Picasso. Minotauromachy, 1935
Alex Colville. Stop for Cows, 1967

Not bulls but cows. Canadian artist Alex Colville’s magic realist vision, with its pastoral theme, sense of deep space, luminance, and cool confrontation with the viewer, could not be more different from Picasso’s dark dramas. However Colville’s woman and Picasso’s Minotaur make similar gestures with their outstretched arms.

Standing before the Colville painting, the viewer feels like he or she is stopped in a car on a country road. The animals are momentarily in control and there’s not much to do about it. The young woman who makes the gesture is a cross between a modern-day shepherdess and a traffic cop. Perhaps she’s a stand-in for the artist–all artists want viewers to stop before their paintings. Are we being asked to slow down to share the world with the forces of nature we depend so much upon?

Two ads: McDonald’s ad (1971 TV Guide) features a hamburger made from beef; the 1974 Marlborough ad uses cowboy imagery to sell cigarettes.

When I look at images, a question I ask is: can we learn more about a time and place from art, from ads or from pop culture? For me, the answer is all three. For instance, the McDonald’s ad above is an artifact of our fast food culture, firmly entrenched by the 1970s. It is not an ad for a restaurant–the information makes no mention of atmosphere or a sophisticated and varied menu. The food is to go and it’s an identical product wherever you buy it. The ad stresses “great” and “big” — (has to compete with whoppers). Its message is the opposite of the Alex Colville painting, Stop for Cows. The last thing a consumer needs to think about at McDonald’s is where did this food come from or were any animals involved.

The Marlborough ad features an action picture of a cowboy about to rope a steer. The image has the iconic appeal of the Old West, portraying a man who’s both free and engaged in work. It suggests a robust way of life, living outdoors, attuned to nature. The man is a skilled horseman and rancher; the young bull has no chance against him. In the unfolding scenario, which we’ve been primed for by a endless stream of related Marlborough ads, we imagine the man will shortly light a cigarette as the camera moves in for a close up of his handsome grinning face.

Buffalo Bill appears in a St. Louis newspaper ad from 1885. Paul Newman stars in the 1976 revisionist Western, Buffalo Bill and The Indians.

At the same time that Philip Morris Corp was running these cowboy ads, a few irascible filmmakers in Hollywood were causing a stir with their edgy Westerns. No film was more iconoclastic than Robert Altman’s satirical bio-pic, Buffalo Bill and The Indians, 1976.

Reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe the film: “The time is 1885. Colonel William F. Cody (Paul Newman) is the chief attraction in a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: An Absolute Original & Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre.” Around this vaudeville environment, Buffalo Bill and his entourage have packaged the history of the Wild West in circus stunts and carnival spectacles. When Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) asks Buffalo Bill why he doesn’t tell the truth in his shows, the superstar replies, “Truth is whatever gets the most applause.”

Throughout the film, Buffalo Bill wears fine clothes and is groomed to the max, but his flowing locks are really a toupee–he’s a manufactured icon who shamelessly turns the story of wild buffalo and native Americans into a show-biz hustle! The implication is that this pattern of false history and self-deception is deeply ingrained in American politics and public life.

Lady Gaga wears a Meat Dress for a 2010 awards show. Right: Jana Sterbak, the Canadian artist who created the original Meat Dress in 1987.

Pop culture tends to focus on stories and personalities. Fine artists often go in for a more visceral and shocking impact. The Canadian conceptual artist, Jana Sterbak is best known for her blood red Meat Dress, composed of 50 pounds of raw steaks sewn together in a seductive and revolting garment. The artist called the work a “contrast between vanity and bodily decomposition.” Critic Deborah Irmas commented how “Sterbak likes to arouse discomfort” by using objects to trigger controversy and disgust.

The dress idea was revisited by pop star Lady Gaga, who wore a similar concoction to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010. “Lady Gaga divides opinion,” Laura Roberts reported the next day for The Telegraph. “The singer collected eight awards while wearing the Franc Fernandez-designed outfit, complete with boots, purse and a hat made from cuts of beef. Cher, who presented the prizes, wrote on her Twitter account that as an “art piece it was astonishing! Everyone’s talking about it!” Lady Gaga later expressed to her friend, talk show host Ellen Degeneres, that sexual politics lay behind her publicity stunt: “I am not a piece of meat!”

Sebastião Salgado. Nenets of the Siberian Arctic, Russia

The epic book project, Genesis, 2013, took photographer Sebastiao Salgado eight years to complete, as he documented parts of the world–rainforests, deserts, volcanoes, islands, and arctic regions–untainted by modern life. This photo of migrating reindeer in Siberia captures the mass movement of a herd of animals, on a 1,000 km trek to northern grazing grounds each spring. The human presence is so small (in the sled at top) it’s easy to miss at first glance.

In her review for The Observer, (14 Apr, 2013) Laura Cumming writes: “Salgado wants to go back to the beginning, to find a world that has not yet been ruined by mankind so that we may see the Eden that time forgot.” Redemption project and personal voyage of discovery, this Utopian photo-journalism, with its Biblical overtones, confronted present day fears of self-destruction, shame and loss of the natural world.

All of these works present different takes on the natural world, seen through lenses of war and peace, commerce and fashion, propaganda and history.

What do they tell us about the Lascaux cave paintings? Every device I’ve mentioned, from mass hypnosis to tribal identity (brand loyalty) to embracing a mobile “cowboy culture”, applies equally to both modern and prehistoric societies. Early humans relied on wild bulls for food and clothing. And I suspect some of the clothing used for special ceremonies was just as outrageous as the meat dress and may also have tested limits of what is revolting and what makes for a good story around a fire. The stories, no doubt, were always changing and turning into myths.

And finally, prehistoric nomadic societies, like the ones that passed through Lascaux, may have witnessed or caused or feared or heard of a few extinction events (loss of species) that would have deeply rocked their world. Their art, like ours, was a mixed bag of fears and dreams, expressions of tribal solidarity, affirmation of a mobile lifestyle–while dependent on other creatures, proud of their skill as trackers and hunters, fearful that they might be too skilled and overshoot their limits and natural laws.