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Names on a River Path

by Emma Wheeler (Alder)


Biking along the river path, names write themselves onto the textured landscape flying by. Given names, stolen names, names birthed from the land and names forced upon it. Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). San Lorenzo (St Laurence, Christian martyr). Sambucus (elderberry!). The streets and rivers, peaks and gullies of this town bear the naming scars of its histories, both heavy and bright.  Mission Street and Mission Plaza speak of the missions founded by the violent Spanish colonizer Junipero Serra. These bear witness to the time of colonization of this lands original Awaswas-speaking peoples. Much of the Awaswas language has been lost since colonialism, and what words remain have obscured origins. “Soquel” (potential phonetic-re-rendering of the name of the creek), “Aptos” (potentially meaning meeting of two streams) and “Zayante” (potentially meaning “at the heel”) all come from the Awaswas language. With other places, the land, like it does in Awaswas language, speaks for itself: Cave Gulch (a gulch with caves in it), Bay Street (a street that probably once was home to many bay trees), the Great Meadow (a really big meadow).

Names can have so many effects: empowering, classifying, erasing, perpetuating, oppressing. We can settle into names for ourselves that fit better than a gender and a name that was originally given to us. In doing so we can begin the process of giving birth to new realities and new selves. Can we do the same with the external world? Like the names written onto us at birth, names also write gender onto the land. Try this one out- think of as many mountains as you know the name for. If you do a little research, how many of them are named for the white man who ‘discovered’ or ‘conquered’ them? When I try this, I usually find about 80% of of them to fit this category. Monterey, for example, means (Spanish) Kings Mountain. If you listened long enough to Santa Cruz Mountains to see what they wanted to call themselves, what do you think they would say? How long would it take you to know, listening with wandering feet and huckleberry tasting mouth and hawk-chasing eyes. A moment? Months? Seasons? Generations?

Folks who identify as naturalists (myself being one of them) have quite a habit of listing the names of everything around them.  Which isn't all bad- a name is an important introduction to a relationship with a plant or animal. It helps us to understand it more, to notice it in the blur of green, to contextualize it within the rest of the landscape. But a name is only a beginning. If we simply name two groups of plants as ‘native’ and ‘invasive’, and correspondingly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we ignore the complexity of those plants stories, roles, and uses.

Naturalists often use binomial nomenclature (latin names) to refer to the natural world, especially plants. For example, rattlesnake grass, which can be found with its quaking florets (sweetly edible in early spring) in meadows throughout Santa Cruz,  is also called “Briza maxima.”  This naming system allows scientists to be accurate and specific. There may be several plant species commonly known as rattlesnake grass throughout the world, but only one “Briza maxima” that contains certain genetic material and fulfills a specific niche in an ecosystem. While these names are useful in classifying, building relationships with, and stewarding these plants, they also have nuanced and complicated roots. In her book Trace, Lauret Savoy explains that the Linnaean system of nomenclature, a system used by scientists worldwide, began as a part of colonial world trade which included colonial slave trade, classifying black people as separate species from whites and collecting them along with exotic plants and animals (Savoy 86). Natural History is a deeply useful discipline, but along with most disciplines, it must be situated within history and it’s colonial context, so that its students and visionaries can re-imagine their practices and impacts, and grow better together.

So we live in this world of names and words, both useful and necessary and painful. How can we bring more attention to the invisiblized power systems that write themselves onto our exterior (ecological) and interior (mental/emotional) landscapes.  What shift could that attention bring to our internal and external worlds? Our organizing? Our practice as naturalists? Our concepts of community, home, and place? I was once taught that if you ask the story behind someone’s name, you will never forget it, and I have found it to be almost always true.  Maybe bringing attention to the stories behind the names we so often use is a beginning. Maybe elevating names that came before colonialism is another step, along with listening to the needs of original peoples and supporting them in their re-learning and re-claiming of both land and language that was stolen from them. Maybe learning whatever lessons they’d like to share from their re-learning. Maybe spending enough time by the river for it to tell you some names of its own.

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