I have this urge to give names to things—to identify, classify, separate and compartmentalize. I say “give,” but in reality I am taking these names from others, from those who’ve seen these things before I have and bestowed titles upon them. I am no explorer, no scientist; all my discoveries are merely secondhand. What is the name of that mountain? I ask. How about these flowers here? See that bird there, what’s it called? It helps orient me, to impose order on the universe in the form of alphabetic characters strung together in prefixes, suffixes, Latinate designations. Call me reductionist, but nomenclature helps me sort through the dizzying multiplicity of life—there are so many nameables, and to nail even a modest amount down only enlarges, not diminishes, one’s scope of the natural world.
In my new digs, near the Black Rock Desert, almost everything is novel. Even the mundane practice of sizing up distant objects proves distressingly unfamiliar. The dry air distorts my depth perception—it seems I can no longer gauge height or distance with any semblance of accuracy. Example: I set out to walk over to that hill yonder; I figure it will take me half an hour. Two hours later, I have gotten maybe three-quarters of the way there, and I turn around because I’m out of water. Another example: I gaze longingly up at the Granite Range every day from where I sit in the visitor center. The peaks appear as mere knolls to me, sparsely dotted with shrubbery and a few twisted junipers. I endeavor to climb them. One evening, on the range’s flank, halfway through my bottle of water, I realize the summit of my chosen “knoll” hasn’t gotten any closer; in fact, it seems higher, even, and further away. I curse the desert for playing tricks on my eyes, but I know there’s no malice behind it. It’s simply a matter of acclimatization.
There is a pair of Say’s phoebes nesting under the carport at the station. I know they are Say’s phoebes because David Allen Sibley tells me so, and because they look, sound, and behave as such. There are—or at least there were—black widows in the Conex containers near the garage; I see their characteristically disheveled webs glinting in the corners and have found at least one definite molt. All around the station grow dense clumps of Halogeton, a salt-loving weed native to Eurasia. Its stems are covered in minute bristles which lodge easily and irritatingly into flesh—I know this because I yank them by their taproots daily, despairingly, to little overall effect. I’ve learned to wear gloves, at least.
I’m just naming names. It pleases me, in some small way, to match these animals, plants, landscapes, images, ideas, with words, as simplistic as that sounds. It helps familiarize me with—and ultimately endear me to—this place.