The Failure of Names

My site has been a field of a failure of names. (Or rather I’ve got a failure of names going on in a site that’s perfectly well and good). Things have no names, of course, except the ones we give them, but every bit of vocabulary I tug spills a lexicon of parts, pieces, pistols, stamens, feathers, accipiter, wing angle, draft, cirrus, mares’ tails. The American Raven’s felt like a friend not only for its soft prruh, prruh and rolling awk as it turns the soft rosary beads of its throat, but also because it’s been so easy to identify. My geography falters when I try to situate myself more closely. No matter how many photos I take, I’m still left saying, “There’s a…tree. There. Kind of. Something. I don’t know.” I try to immerse myself in the field, imagine what it might be saying, what it could say if it would through all the layers of time—400, 500, 600 years ago. But I know so little. I have so few terms for time or place. Did the Ute cross here? Did dinosaurs trek across here before the mountains shook themselves out? What did it look like? How do I not tell a lie buried in language like starhurt and foxheart and the sound of orange in trees when mostly it’s a lot of me sitting and getting poked by broken stems in the grass?

In autumn, my field’s turning into wings. Even though I can’t name them, I can guess or grab onto some broad pieces: a bee lingers near the harvested alfalfa, still drawing sharp lines back and forth among plants, hovering close to my knee before slicing north again. An orange butterfly, wings trimmed black, rises up and out of the field. (Do you know how many orange butterflies there are in Colorado? Like, a lot.) And as I look up at what I think is my cottonwood tree—I mean I don’t know if it’s a cottonwood—a hawk tips out of it, a sudden opening of mottled wings sailing toward me, banking, rising with heavy flaps of its wings above the field and into the dead tree. Its perches on a black branch against the blue sky, lifts and mantles its wings in a little waggle until the feathers interlock and it stands, sharp and red, over the field. Two sharp-shinned hawks (I think that’s what they are) dive and swoop at each other, chasing themselves into the cottonwood grove where scrub jays scream over and over again. A clattering shriek that gets real old, real fast, if only partly because I hear it nearly every day outside my own window.

Another hawk—I suspect a ferruginous hawk from my reading and the broad, muscular chest it turned toward me, but the who the heck knows—glided up onto a branch of a cottonwood, a terrifying predatory soaring until it landed and waggled its tail feathers, scooted around on the branch a few times and plopped down to face the field with me in it. Now and then I saw a black shape emerge from its yellow buff belly—its leg, adjusting—and after about twenty minutes or so, it shifted its weight to the side, leaning and stretching that right leg before it settled back. It lifted its wing to preen the feathers a bit, went back to staring out, beak casting a long dark shadow on its chest. The jays went on screaming.

While I was watching all this, an American Raven landed in the field about twenty feet from me and waddled around a bit, picking up bits of leaf and grasstuff in its beak. Ravens are smart, I’ve read. They also like shiny things. Trying to channel Abrams, I turned my pen slowly in my hand. The raven took off and flew a few feet in front of me, fixing its black eye on me as it passed and soared off. Soon after, when I stood to walk toward the hawk and get a closer look, it tipped out of the tree and flew off, wings casting long shadows over the cottonwood. Both birds had been well aware of me and tolerated my presence as one more thing in the field, in addition to mouse, bee, grass. They fixed sharp eyes on me, turned, and went the other direction. On the sidewalk near the hawk, I saw a cluster of gray digested/eaten rabbit fur, flattened by passing bicycles. And I don’t even have the names of these things.

I don’t have much at all, actually, of anything here. I don’t know the species, so even after moments of immersion, held breath, the small dramas of feather and wing, what I’ve got mostly me later is sitting at the computer typing AND WORDS AND STUFF AND THINGS LOOK SKY YEAH. I don’t know the history, species, place, time, seasons, day the way I learned other sites in Nebraska. I don’t have much at all except knowing that this field’s going to turn mighty predatory come winter. My touchstone for Colorado is always the hawks hovering over I-25 and I-70 in winter, the mountains desaturated to gray peaks lopped with snow. In the middle of winter, they’re still hunting. And they’re not doing it to be pretty for me.

So I’ll keep struggling to immerse myself in the field, to learn the names, to try to imagine myself in time when I can’t even really identify what’s in front of me, now, in 2016. I’ll keep tossing stones into the vast water that’s the internet’s web of pretty incorrect words and see what splashes up. Meanwhile, the birds hunt from the trees, and all I can do is sit beneath them, trying to get out of their way enough to let the beak and claw get on with it. Winter or no winter.



5 thoughts on “The Failure of Names

  1. Magnificent! Kelly, this is an extraordinary post, so rich in somatic intelligence(s), the calling out and forth of the body (yours) to others (theirs) in their known and unknown realms. Not to go all Rumsfeld on you, but your attention to the limits of your knowledge yields an extraordinary panoply of things, observations, rhythms, textures. The unknown knows are as striking as the known knowns (and boy, the unknown unknowns, they rattle in the sky). It is precisely your return, again and again, to the limits of things that draws you to their connections, their appositions, their becomings. You’re also funny, which is to say human, scratched in the ass and buffeted by wind. And it turns out your avian speak is remarkably reciprocal, both here, at your site, and there, in your memory. I feel enlarged by reading this.

  2. Kelly, about names. I once heard a painter say that seeing is what happens when you forget the name of what you are looking at.

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