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The Power and Wonder of Names: Where Nature and Language Coincide


Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator at Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado. She is an aspiring writer, runner, gardener, composter, and teacher, among many things. She is interested in how small, rural towns build community and infrastructure to be more sustainable. She prefers the plains and prairies and finds her greatest sense of place in New Mexico.

“I have no Latin, but as I began to botanize, to learn to call the plants around me up here on my hill by their Latin names, I was diverted from my lack of wits by the wit of the system.”
Sue Hubbell, “Spring”, A Country Year, 1987.

We spent a week exploring biomes. We wrapped ourselves in the language of names and natural history to guide us. We turned to field guides and leaf rubbings, we looked for similarities and distinguishing features. We started to open our eyes and really began to look. The names tumbled all around me, like droplets in a light summer rain. Some I caught, others whizzed by, but always I was comforted in the names. What is human in us is the ability to point and look and name. Language separates us, but ultimately joins us in that tight connection all around. We use names to look closer and to begin to categorize and make sense of the world around us. We find connections and similarities. We find families and connections between species and the features they share. Names appear to give structure to what seems a vastly chaotic world; the language, the taxonomy gives us a way to relate that information with one handle.

Names are the invisible gaining ground, the visualization of summer on a cold winter day. Language and names allow us to share and experience outside of ourselves. Language is the commonality, the antithesis to separateness.

For years I have wondered about the “great name debate” that seems to buzz around naturalists, interpreters, science teachers, and environmental educators. I have read articles and listened to passionate professionals espouse their tightly held opinions and philosophies. Some say it is important to instill a sense of wonder to children and learners and that by naming everything, we limit a child’s curiosity and that we curb their own discoveries. Another school of thought says that with names, we help to impart knowledge and that we should not be afraid of scientific accuracy. The act of naming helps one to pay attention to detail, to learn the qualities and distinguishing features that give it that name, which is a much more in-depth look than merely seeing several flowers in a prairie.

What I find fascinating in the whole debate is that both sides are striving for educators, interpreters, and naturalists to help children and others have an authentic experience, a way to build knowledge and experience in the natural world, a world in which we separate ourselves from far too much today. I do not see this so much as two sides of a debate, but just different teaching methods and types of experiences, both of which can be valuable.

The week-long class brought this debate to the forefront for me. The discussions I had with other teachers on this topic were valuable, as I explored my own teaching and learning style and how I will try to bring some of the field experience to my own teaching and learning. What was wonderful was to have the time to immerse oneself and to spend the time exploring and learning.

As I learn more plants and discover new ways of seeing, I realize how important both methods are in learning. Sometimes, when I go hiking with a friend, who is an excellent field botanist, I’ll ask the name of a plant or grass we see alongside the trail. She will look and then rattle off a common and a Latin name. I will try and latch on to the name, often forgetting to pay attention to the details that give it that name, that distinguish it from other species. However, when I am hiking alone, I might remember the details in my wonderment, so I can consult my field guides and find the name for myself. Names are important, but only when accompanied with the eyes and moments of discovery: the time to sketch, the time to decipher leaves and structure, the time to notice grown patterns and surrounding habitat among other features.

The class renewed this passion of discovery and the act of naming for me. I long to explore and learn in detail, to become a more knowledgeable resident of my biome; all the while learning my place and the place of others within a biotic context. I hope to spread community and love through my own learning and the passions I can excite as an educator and as a citizen of the local biome. As we begin to learn of our place in the world, our senses of connection, of place, of community grow. In this way, humans transform from exotic to native species, part of and essential in their biomes. We know what we love and we will protect what we love. In that moment, it all comes together. This is where I find purpose in my own life, and the purpose I aspire to professionally.

A week of exploring a state I lived in for six years was a great way to spend a week. It put in context for me what I loved, as well as giving me excitement about my current home and those biomes I am getting to know better. That week, with lots of time for reflection, was a turning point, with a birth of knowledge that I only hope will grow and be retained and used. As I reacquaint myself with my true home, I know that I will be taking a more earnest and thoughtful approach to really learn about the biomes and all that live within. The seeds of discovery have been planted and they bloom with passion to be shared along the way.


This class brought me back to my first experiences with naturalists. In a high school environmental science camp, we were given binoculars and a bird field guide. As my fingers explored the crisp new pages of the guide, I found birds I recognized and I made connections with childhood hero Thoreau. When I moved to Wisconsin for college, a whole new landscape emerged for me. My college boyfriend, an exceptional naturalist, constantly amazed me with the names and fact that bubbled from his brain, but it was his passion and excitement that were most infectious. I borrowed his field guides and tried to catch up as I struggled with field i.d. and as my tongue tripped over the Latin names. After college, I was less in the habit, as full-time work weeks replaced my everyday exploring. Just like my high school Spanish, the language began to disappear as the dusty relics of my limited natural history knowledge began to fall away. Changing jobs and careers and getting out more has helped, but a week-long class really opened my eyes.

Stephen Trimble writes of that same excitement, the same wide-eyed wonder that I feel. In his essay, “The Scripture of Maps, the Names of Trees” in The Geography of Childhood (1994), he writes, “I remember the thrill of appropriating the object, the first step, and then, at the next level, of harvesting the power of its name. This was a new kind of knowledge: cottonwood, catalpa, silver maple, boxelder, locust, elm. These sources of power lay around unclaimed and unowned, there for the taking.”

The challenge, of course, is to keep the excitement alive and to incubate this curiosity. Letting it fall by the wayside returns me to the rut I have found myself in before. How do I begin, and how can I translate my own learning into teaching and helping others? When there is so little I know, where do I begin? I like to think in terms of building blocks, so I have decided to start with (or return to) birds and trees. They seem easier to learn than grasses at this point, and more available year round. I pulled out the field guides from my shelves and put them within easy reach. I need to start exploring in my own neighborhood and on weekly mountain hikes. It’s a starting place, a commencement and I feel the sense of wonder as Latin names tickle my tongue, connecting them to my everyday existence. As Sue Hubbell writes of Linnaeus, “Whatever faults the man may have had as a scientist, he gave us a beautiful tool for thinking about diversity in the world.” (A Country Year, 1987)

It is with excitement and a sense of challenge that I begin and where my loves of nature and language coincide and merge, where I join the “other nations” as Henry Beston called them. How can we help our students with this excitement? How can we help them join “other nations”?

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