Among The Beargrass People

Sep 1, 2017

I’m big into names. As a professional ornithologist and a lifelong naturalist, I’ve spent years learning the names of things. 

Each is the product of an evolutionary journey at least as long as my own, each has grace I will never attain.

That drab little yellow-green bird skulking in the bushes? It’s an Orange-crowned Warbler, Oreothlypis celata. What about the bushes? They’re snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. And the bee buzzing among their flowers? Why, it’s a yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii (say that one five times fast!).

My hiking buddies often grow impatient at this identifying habit of mine, and some even have a principled objection. Obsessing about names, they say, is a distraction from the pure appreciation of nature, preventing people from simply seeing

Not surprisingly, I disagree. The close attention to details needed to identify and name plants and animals deepens my appreciation, alerts me to the differences that reveal creatures’ adaptations to the world. 

I understand the point, though. Figuring out what something is, that’s only the beginning of understanding. If that becomes an end in itself—as for some bird-listers, I’m sorry to say—then naming is a dead end. The problem, I’ve come to believe, is not that we give too many names, but that we don’t give enough. 

In Buddhism, the creatures with whom we share the world are termed sentient beings. In some Native American traditions, those beings are spoken of as people—salmon are the salmon people, bears are the bear people. These are both ways of signifying that we humans are just another part of the world, not above it. 

That’s not how most of us think. We look down on our fellow species. We don’t consider them our equals, with equal claims to the good things of life—or to life at all. And we certainly don’t give them attention as individuals. After all, who can tell one deer, one crow, from another? 

Well, they can. Meticulous field studies have proved beyond doubt that birds and mammals (at least) have amazing powers of individual recognition. Elephants remember each other even after years of separation. A seabird flying into a colony of thousands can unerringly locate her chick, even if it has wandered away from the nest. As a graduate student, I studied a color-banded population of birds, which allowed me to document their individual behaviors. In this species, called the cock-of-the-rock, the males spend all their time displaying to attract females. Some males, I found, were skillful lovers. Others...not so much. Females remembered those males, returning to them year after year, even if they changed their display sites. 

It is simply lazy to think of animals as interchangeable units, part of a faceless horde. They are individuals, each with his or her own histories, strengths, and weaknesses. Not like us, but just like us.

All these thoughts went through my mind one day this summer as I spent an afternoon surrounded by the tall white blooms of flowering beargrass. It’s particularly challenging to honor plants as fellow sentient beings, to greet them as a people, to see them as individuals. And yet, they are. If all members of a plant species were the same, they would quickly die out. Individual variation is the stuff of survival, the fuel for evolution. But looking over a hillside of California poppies or a field of goldenrod, it’s easy to see nothing but the colorful mass.

That’s not the case with beargrass. In flower, these extraordinary lilies, Xerophyllum tenax, are utterly, undeniably individual. Beargrass occurs in scattered local populations, and each population displays an exuberant mass blooming at unpredictable intervals, typically years apart. This was such a year for the population in the open conifer forest of the Siskiyou crest, where I spent my time with them.

In the multitude of flowers, each stood a bit apart from its fellows, distinct. They have much in common, of course: each plant has a dense basal cluster of tough, wiry leaves (prized for basketry), and each flowering head is a tall spike covered with delicate white blossoms. But some flowers are narrow wands, others bulbous as a blimp, others round and compact as a cupcake. Some spikes are straight; others curve; and some bend beneath the weight of their heavy heads. Each one deserves a name.

I don’t know those names: I don’t speak their language. But moving from flower to flower, taking photograph after photograph, I could see how each one exhibits is own perfection. Each is the product of an evolutionary journey at least as long as my own, each has grace I will never attain. True, a beargrass plant can’t read, or write, or think abstract thoughts. Well, I can’t turn sunlight into food or re-sprout after wildfire. Let’s not quibble over who is the more miraculous.

Absorbed in these reflections, I barely noticed the passage of time. Suddenly, it was evening. I said goodbye to the beargrass people and drove down from the mountains, naming names as I went. Good night, dark-eyed junco. Sleep well, leopard lily. See you tomorrow, oak people, raven people, deer people. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.

Pepper Trail is an ornithologist, essayist, and poet living in Ashland, Oregon.