The Naming of Plants

The Naming of Plants
Published: Dec 20, 2020
The more we publish writers who feel The Journal is the right place for their work, the more we learn from them about the term ‘wild culture’. For instance, Stephen Orr, a prolific Australian writer who trained in nature resource management, sent us a piece that shows how to observe nuances of meaning in our natural surroundings. "I was sort of half-thinking of James Agee’s ‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ when I was writing this," Orr tells us. "It’s a superb piece, all about yards and people and hoses and summer nights and learning to grow up. ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ is my all-time favourite book, and sits well, perhaps, in the JWC philosophy of humans and nature — always fighting it, never WITH it." Enjoy his stroll, with Linnaeus and a young boy at his side, through suburban back yards in South Australia.


Botanical drawings, journal of wild culture ©2020

An example of Georg Ehret's drawings to illustrate Linnaeus' sexual system of plants. [o]



If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost, too. — Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)



AS YOU WERE NAMED, you will know your world by names. People (Mum, for love), places (Woolworths, for food), ideas (spite, for Jacinta), dangers (look right before crossing), pain (greenstick fracture, aged seven), hope (Mildred Wong, aged thirteen), nature (watching ants consume a chick that’s fallen from its nest).

I never named a thing, but names happened. Common, then scientific. For example, the ponytail palm (which looks like an elephant’s foot), Beaucarne recurvata. But it is what it is, with or without a name. All things are. Unfortunately, the world you’ve been born into is all crash repairers and milkshakes, cars and their many names, and fast food.

Go into the world, sun on your arms and face. Squeeze into the gap between honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and a fence. Pull onion weed bulbs from the ground. Hide inside a golden diosma (Coleonema sp.), chaste bush, or hibiscus; one day you’ll pull one apart in a science class to learn about anthers and filaments, stamens and petals. This will be your shelter, your hiding place, your observation post. Here, you’ll be able to watch the ‘battle of humans versus nature,’ the standardisation of unreliable ecologies, the making of things to be the same as other things. You’ll see your father mowing his soft-leaf buffalo, going up and down then across until the lawn is smooth (watch how he admires it) and pleasant to the neighbour’s eye. Perhaps another day you’ll notice him on his knees, forking dandelions (Taraxacum sp.). But he’ll miss one, and a week later you’ll find the flower head, pick it and blow the thousand seeds across his lawn. Just don’t let him see you doing it.


Stephen Orr, The naming of plants, journal of wild culture ©2020

The author at home. "Australian summer nights on the porch, neighbours drifting past. Homes that were part of the streetscape, the neighbourhood, before we started building fences around our lives." [o]


He’ll mix poison and spray the ryegrass, paspalam, marshmallow and lambs tongue, from the patchy couch on the devil strip. This grass, Santa Ana, is different. He’ll water it every night with a sprinkler Jacinta will throw at you when you’re nine, splitting a lip and chipping a tooth. Santa Ana is drought tolerant. Like the people of Ramsay Avenue, it thrives on sun and heat. Once, your father thought it’d make a perfect home golf green, but like much else, he lost interest in golf. One day when a dog pisses on this lawn, he’ll go out and say to the owner, an old woman: ‘That leaves patches, you know,’ and she’ll reply, ‘Well, don’t plant it.’ Then there’ll be muttered insults.

Another time, when you visit some distant cousin in a suburb that’s far older and more established than yours, you’ll marvel at their lawn, and might one day come to know it as fescue. Tricky, thirsty, hard to maintain. Their garden will be different to yours. A sundial, perhaps, to link their world to the Greeks, or Romans, who had cypress-edged pools and villas. Rows of roses, all different colours, no mould or yellowing, no dead branches or spent flowers, because they have someone to work it. Probably a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) to invoke the tropics, or a Canary Island if they’re especially well off.


Back yard, Croyden Souther AU, journal of wild culture ©2020

White dog defending the back yard . . . They were a reminder of wilder places, wilder times. And once, a koala coming through the dog door at three in the morning, sifting through the bin. [Courtesy of the author.]


Are you learning? Truth is, you’ll only remember the name of a thing if you need to, if it means something to you. Aboriginal people named what was good, but also, what could kill them. That’s another reason - staying alive. For example, over there, beside the smoke tree, is an oleander (Nerium oleander). Every kid you know will have one in his front yard because they’re unkillable and covered in year-round, pale pink flowers, blocking the view of your feral neighbour. You will be warned by your mother: don’t eat it, don’t lick it, don’t even touch it. (Oleander, you’ll learn, is the tree equivalent of the man on Tamsin Street who killed his wife.) Eventually you’ll become curious, pick a leaf, smell it, break it, see the white, milky sap, smear it on your fingers, run after Jacinta saying, ‘This stuff can kill you!’ Then she’ll tell your mum and she’ll come out and shout at you and say, ‘What did I tell you?’ Then go and hold your hand under the tap and rinse it off.

Curiosity is important. You won’t get far without it. This will happen, too. Jacinta will climb the jacaranda (J. mimosofolia) at the top of your drive and by that point it’ll be so high the power lines will run through the tree. She’ll stand on the top branch, inches from a thousand volts, and say, ‘It can’t kill you.’ You’ll realise what she’s about to do and say, ‘You’re nuts!’ You’ll see it all happening, see her zapped, thrown from the tree, neighbours coming over to try to save her life. You’ll think, I’ll remember this, in sixty years, the day my stupid sister died. But then, she’ll reach out, touch the line, laugh and say, ‘It can’t hurt you unless you’re on the ground, silly.’ And you’ll say, ‘But the jaca’s touching the ground.’ And she’ll say, ‘That’s different, stupid!’ And this curiosity will continue.


Stephen Orr, 'The Naming of Plants', journal of wild culture ©2020

In the Australian suburbs of the fifties, all that really mattered was conformity. But for the thousands of migrants from war-scarred Europe, these small fibro boxes were a sort of heaven. [Courtesy of the author.]


Walking home, grabbing a handful of soursobs (Oxalis pes-caprae), tasting them, grimacing, spitting out the acid as your sister laughs and says, ‘Dogs have pissed on them.’ And you, ‘Have not!’ and her, ‘You ate piss!’ Running home and down the drive and calling, ‘Mum, he ate piss!’ And when you walk in, your mother saying, ‘Sometimes I wonder if you were born with a brain in your head’. You’ll think of telling her about the power line, but you won’t. You would’ve learnt how many forms of torture a sister knows.

Some days will be like heaven (not that you’ll know at the time) when you’ll wake to smells coming in your window — freshly-mown lawn and stewing tomatoes drifting in from the kitchen. You’ll get up, run outside, watch your dad weeding (chickweed, nutgrass) around the few carrots and say, ‘What can I do?’ And he’ll say, ‘You could put the weeds in the incinerator.’ Your job. Done with care. Because he’s trusted you.
You will become confident in this world, but learn that you are only partially safe, that your parents can only protect you so much. You would have heard of people falling from trees, dying of cancer, hit by cars. So maybe your mind would’ve turned to defence. Having a bulwark against the world that gaveth (you would’ve been sent to Sunday school by now) and taken away. Tedious words on a hot Sunday morning in a cold Baptist hall. So maybe you would’ve worked out that you could protect yourself by gathering a fistful of bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.) or callitris cones, to throw at your enemies.


For every dead almond tree (the skeletons in Mrs W.’s yard), your father has planted a dozen apricot trees, orange and lemon, plum, peach and apple.


You might learn that not everyone has been as fortunate as you. I’m talking about Mrs W., next door, her husband dead a few years after the birth of the boys. Single mum, struggling, no time to keep a well-clipped yard, despite your father offering to help. Mrs W., with her fifteen or twenty unfixed cats rooting in her pissy-smelling rosemary when they’re in season. You’ll learn about life. You’ll discover litters behind the viburnum near the back fence, or in the lattice of an unpruned fig when you go through the fence and explore her yard. Six or seven kittens, abandoned by their frisky mother, all rib and bone. You’ll tell your father, he’ll blow his top, but he won’t say anything to Mrs W. because she’s had so much to cope with. But one time, you’ll find six dead kittens and one nearly dead, gasping its last, and you’ll know what it is to be well-fed and loved. And without telling anyone you’ll dig a hole and bury them, even the one that’s still alive, and you’ll press down on the dirt to force the last bit of air from its lungs, because you’ll think that’s the kindest thing to do.

Mrs W.’s yard will be full of mint (Mentha sp.) that got away and signifies, as you grow older, disease. Goosefoot, purslane, bindii will be interruptions, endings. You’ll learn that weeds earn names like goat-head, devil’s face and three-corned jacks because they’re untameable, but you’ll also learn that the world will provide for you. For every dead almond tree (the skeletons in Mrs W.’s yard), your father has planted a dozen apricot trees, orange and lemon, plum, peach and apple. You’ll learn that plants tell stories, and stand guard. For example, every school yard has a pair of pepper trees. Thousands of kids, every day, climbing them, crushing their fruits and thinking, This is where pepper comes from! Although it doesn’t. One of many misunderstandings you’ll have about the natural world.


Helianthus by John Miller, journal of wild culture ©2020

Helianthus by John Miller - Plate 68 from "Illustratio systematis sexualis Linnaeani" [o]


But here’s the problem. One day, aged thirteen or fourteen, you’ll come in from the garden, sit in your room, switch on the television, and forget. You’ll know the names of things, but you won’t understand them, or care. You’ll have become bored with the journey you started, what seems to be so long ago, and you will, I suspect, be happy to sit and listen to brighter, louder, flashier words for the world. But in time, hopefully, you’ll remember what you’ve learnt. The way crushed ants smell like sarsaparilla. The way the dusky light blends everything into a sort of dream. All of these lessons learnt in your own good time, in your own particular way.  Somewhere in there, I guess, is the world your ancestors inhabited. They’re trying to tell you something, but after so long, they can only speak in whispers. ≈ç


WC para break



by Stephen Orr

What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?

I remember smells. Plasticine, at kindergarten, and the teacher’s perfume. My mum ironing handkerchiefs, and the lemon spray she used. Diesel exhaust, cos this meant buses, and buses meant school excursions. I still understand the world by smell.

Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?

I grew up in the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, a small, post-colonial enclave of cricket, private schools and Kitchener buns (yes, named after him). An Antipodean Savannah, Georgia. A place that breeds a sort of Flannery O’Connor weirdness. As a kid, people were very house-proud, not so worried about books, culture, ideas – because they didn’t seem necessary, I suppose. That sort of vacuum (still) leaves creative kids with a need to go looking to see what’s beyond suburbia.

What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?

Riding my dragster around my neighbourhood, reading Asterix and Hardy Boys books

At what point did you discover your ability with writing?

I had a high school English teacher who loved my stories, read them to the class, and I think this got me started. Teachers are so important. I wrote my first (bad) novel at 16, sent it away, had it rejected all over the place, and didn’t try again for another ten years.

Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?

I was obsessed by Dickens when I was twelve or thirteen. Read his novels way too early. When I went to London I visited his house in Doughty Street and couldn’t work out where the magic had come from.  

If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism  — what would they be?

Fiction: Collected Fictions, Borges. Poetry: The Cantos, Ezra Pound. Non-fiction: The Rings of Saturn, WG Sebald (a draw with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee); literary Criticism: Peeling the Onion, Günter Grass.

Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?

It may be ego; it may be obsessive behaviour; it may be a hunch that being creative is more fun, value, sensible than designing spreadsheets or some other crap. But I suspect you’re born with the gene – the need, the hankering. I think this is the greatest mystery of life (sorry to sound grand).

If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?

Year ago, I would have encouraged them, but now I think that’d be cruel. The (lack of) pay, the struggle, the sacrifices, and only for a shot at some recognition. I mean, as much as you love it, you may end up resenting and regretting it. And the most unique, original (wild) culture is being subsumed by corporate culture. It’s an internal life, and so much will pass you by. I’d say to this person, "Will you be happy with that?" But really, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got the bug, you’ll end up doing it anyway.  

Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?

So many people are so bloody unhappy. I just don’t get why we keep playing along with a life that makes us miserable. We’re going to have to resist what’s being served up as ‘progress’. We’re going to have to look back five, six, more generations to learn the best way forward.

What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?

It means the meaning we make from the world around us. That’s all people are good at – making meaning. I’d like to see the old meanings, the wisdom, the dances, the feel for the seasons and sun and moon – that is, most of what we’ve lost.

If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?

Are you sure you turned the gas off? ō


WC para break


Somewhat related, but definitely inspired by 'The Naming of Plants', here is a 12-minute video about getting out of the back yard and venturing forth . . . to catalog plants and learn their names in faraway places, and, with luck, come up for a theory of evolution.


The most famous voyage in the history of science.





WC para break



STEPHEN ORR is an Australian author of novels, stories, essays – and writing that fits (or slips) into the gaps. He has a special interest in unwelcoming landscapes, and the sorts of people who thrive in them. Originally trained in Natural Resource Management, he has written books set in the Great Sandy Desert, the Barossa Valley, Frankfurt, the Mallee, the Finke River Valley. He was a 2017 Australian Book Review Fellow, completing a long-form essay on the most Australian of all plant genera: (Eucalyptus sp.). He lives in Adelaide. View Stephen's site.





Add new comment