How do you meet a plant?

How do you meet a plant? That is a social skill I hadn’t known I was missing until a few weeks ago when a woman named Dina Falconi asked our group that very question. Dina is a skilled forager and herbalist. She instructed us to walk up to a flower with a square skinny stem and a purple pom pom for a head. Pairs of symmetrical leaves clung the length of the plant. 

“Who is this?” She asked. 

I had no idea. It was purple, green and spikey. We kept looking. We had to feel it, touch it, smell it, crush it, taste it with the tip of our tongue, and otherwise engage in an organoleptic experience with this plant. We began to know this plant only as it was showing up in that very moment. It was pungent and spicy. I thought of oregano and mint. The flavor hit me in the lungs.

Only after about 10 minutes of mingling did we learn the “name” of this plant–Monarda dyidyma or Bee Balm. With this name I was able categorize it, and organize its existence within my understanding of existences. Once placed, I also stopped listening to Bee Balm.Rather, I figured anything I needed to know about Monarda dyidyma I could look up in a book. And generally, what I need to know about plants is how I can use them. Can I eat it? How does it help me? What can it do for me? This is the tension that scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer brings up in the chapter this week. On her walks in the forest, she works to turn off her official science brain and just listen to the plants as they show up in front of her.

“I’ve noticed that once some folks attach a scientific label to a being, they stop exploring who it is. But with newly created names I keep looking even closer, to see if I’ve gotten it right. And so today is is not Picea sitchensis  but strong arms covered in moss. Brance like a wing instead of Thuja plicata. (Kimmerer, 208). 

She acknowledges that knowing the names of our surrounding plant and animal relatives is a way for us to build relationships with them. But she is clear to distinguish knowing a name from knowing the being. 

On our tracking walk with Mike yesterday, we found a track in the mud. He asked us not to name out the species we believed the print might belong too. Instead, he asked us to ask, “what is going on here, how did it get like this?”

He echoed Kimmerer when he warned us that “once you’ve named something, people tend to stop looking and asking questions.” 

It has me thinking about what the intentions are behind the names we use. Are they relational? I think at their best sharing names are certainly the foundation of any relationship. 

But what about those beings that can’t tell us their names in Latin or English. How do we hear them? How do we share names instead of imposing them?

Sophia Hampton