creative non-fiction shift

THE POWER OF KNOWING THE NAMES | Bonnie Radcliffe takes joy in learning about the world around her.

Creative non-fiction

by Bonnie Radcliffe

A tree is a tree and a bird is a bird. I learnt the basics in school when I was young, on one-off weeks in the countryside, or from listening to conversations around me and reading books. I know oak, I know pine, I know blackbird and sparrow, or at least I’ve heard the names. I appreciate the stretch of leafless branches in autumn, making a cage of the sky as I kick through discarded orange leaves. I know that birdsong is calming, a vocal community of so many unknown, unseen beings. I might notice one day that the tree beside the railway track is gone or that a group of birds, just dark spread-eagled shapes to me, soar overhead before I board my train. I might notice, but I might not. And certainly, I don’t have the words. 

Then the commuter trains stop and the life I have come to know, where bustling and busy-ness are signs of success, stops. A new order emerges and in it, a pressure to make the most of the time; still that yearning for productivity. Daily walks become the height of my adventures, and instead of feeling hemmed in, I realise there is so much I don’t know, even in my own back garden. A dark-green needled bush looms high and I mean to trim it back, but even with all this time, somehow, I never do. Unknown birds rest by the bird feeder, then flit through green leaves that are round and thin as paper coins. When I walk in the woods, I notice how tall the trees are, with no idea of their names. 

And so begins a process of slow-learning. Gently, a step at a time, for the natural world is vast and complicated and much, much older than we are. The task would be daunting if I let myself fall into the well of my own ignorance. Slow-learning is the only way, savouring each new root as it is uncovered. The RSPB pocket guide to birds, a pocket-sized copy of ‘What’s that tree?’, and my daily walks take on the feeling of expeditions. Each time I go out, I will find one new tree. Each time I hear birdsong, I will try to really listen. And gradually, as I watch the bluebells wilt and tiny caterpillars dangle from threads, as the beauty of blossom gives way to the hope of fresh green leaves, and then they too, in turn, crinkle at the edges and burnish before dropping to mark my footsteps with a crunch, I learn. 

“The power of knowing the names is undeniable. In fairy-tales, naming something was said to take away its power.”

The power of knowing the names is undeniable. In fairy-tales, naming something was said to take away its power. Rumpelstiltskin lost his deal because of the power of a name. But perhaps, now that we have forgotten or never bothered to learn the names of what is around us, perhaps now it is knowing the names that grows the power. The tree holds more for me because I stopped to look, learning to call it by its name. It is a mark of my respect to take this time, and as I do so the world of trees and birds as a big, blurred mass, divides and thickens. It solidifies and expands, and I realise again how very tiny I am and how much patience and quietness I still have to learn. By taking the time to call something by its name, I enter into the conversation. 

The birds on my feeder are Sparrows, Dunnocks, Blue-Tits and Great-Tits. That black bird, is not a Blackbird, but a Jackdaw, the smallest of all the crows. That laughing song is made by a Robin, though I can’t see him among the branches, and that bird hovering then diving over the common; that is a Kestrel. The red berries clustering in the woods are Rowan berries. That towering bush in my garden is a Yew. I haven’t trimmed it back yet, but if and when I do, I will know what it is I am cutting. I know now, what a Beech tree looks like, and I know that that one, with twelve pairs of veins on its leaves, is an Oriental Beech. I can tell the difference between Scots Pine and Douglas Fir. And I know that the English Oak is also known as a Pedunculate Oak. That the tree at the end of my road is a Sessile Oak. Sessile, Pedunculate; what beauty is held in words I never knew. And how much richer is my world for knowing them.

And while I start to learn, slowly, the magic is only half in what I know now. The rest is in the awareness that there is still so much to notice and so much to learn to recognise. There is still so very, very much I don’t know and what I have learned is painfully modest. My knowledge is minute, but it is so much more than I had before. Life will not stay this slow. But perhaps, as things speed up, I can hold onto this rich seam of nature, can notice and name the ordinary till it becomes extraordinary, can carry with me a bit of stillness and patience. I just need to continue to acknowledge the power of knowing the names. 

 


Bonnie Radcliffe | https://thewaterdiary.com

Bonnie has been writing most of her life and often gets lost in beautiful words. She has previously written for the Outdoor Swimming Society and Clothes on Film and is currently readying her first novel for submission. She would be adrift without stories.