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Monday, May 9, 2011

The Naming of Parts….

Ranier in May Remember that feather I found the other day? Well, a feather’s a feather, right? But it’s not quite that simple. You could have knocked me over with one when I discovered a feather has an anatomy of its own. I learned each bird’s feather is like a little machine, comprised of separate parts all working together in a bird’s avionics, making each fowl of the air a feathered Dreamliner.

In general terms Webster’s 9th Collegiate defines a feather as “one of the light, horny epidermal outgrowths that form the external covering of the body of birds….” The central stem of a feather has two names: first, the quill, the thick tip of a feather that attaches to the flesh of the bird. A sharpened quill was the predecessor of metal pen nibs, thus the quill pen (interestingly the Latin word for “feather” is penna ; and nom de plume: “pen name from the French).The second is the rachis, the part of the central stem that supports the vane or web. “Webis an apt term for the feather part of the feather because that’s just what it is, a woven structure consisting of thousands of barbs, smaller structures attached to the rachis and “feathering” it.One for the cap Each barb is “webbed” to its fellow by barbules which in turn end in barbicels tipped by hook-like hamuli. So the entire horny contraption is woofed and warped together, a natural Velcroing, of sorts. And that’s why when you gently run your thumb and forefinger up and down the vane, it doesn’t separate. (Feel free to take notes from the above for your Ornithology 101 class.)

But is all this information necessary? Isn’t it enough to know “the horny epidermal outgrowth”on a bird is called a “feather?” What is it about the nature of some folks that they feel the need to name a thing to death? And who thinks up all these terms anyway? I wonder if you’d invite to a party the fellow who assigned the names “rachis” and “barbule” to the parts of a feather? Want him as a neighbor? A colleague, even? Assigning a name to something gives us power in some way over that thing, a means to a greater understanding of it. Naming a thing validates it—the name’s a symbol of its existence. That’s why we are so sensitive about our own names: their spellings, their pronunciations, how other folks use them.

This serious naming of things, of parts, began with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. (I’ve seen a portrait of the botanist and old Carl hardly looks like he’d be the life of the party. In spite of the twinkle in his eye, he looks as stiff as his wig.) Dissatisfied with laymen’s common terms for the animate stuff of Nature, Linnaeus devised binomial nomenclature, the system for naming flora and fauna and assigned plants and animals with a “generic” name and a second “specific” name: genus and species. Thus our modern system of classification. And wanting this method to be a universal system, Carl chose Latin for the naming of things. No longer can one go around willy nilly slapping names on things and have these monikers accepted by the scientific community. International commissions on zoological and botanical nomenclature strictly regulate the names of new plant and animal species. And then there are those name fanciers who believe anything important enough to name should be named in trinomials: genus, species, and subspecies. And who said Latin is a dead language?

The other day I stopped to talk to Denise and Matt Beebe who were tidying up the corner at Tualco and 203. Matt had just finished his lunch--a personal hotdog eating contest--downing four “dawgs” (loaded with the works, too, I imagine), giving a big boost to the daily receipts of the little hotdog cart that has sprouted alongside the latte stand.More dogs in the Valley I asked the Beebes what they had growing in the greenhouse behind the stand. Matt told me to go take a look.

It was a rare sunny day. The greenhouse was pleasantly warm and smelled of contented plants and vigorous root systems. We chatted a while about some of the unfamiliar varieties sunning themselves on the ground. Then Deb Kyle stopped by to check on the status of things. It was about a year ago I met Deb. That day I gave her a four-leaf clover for good luck. We also talked about books, and I discovered our literary tastes overlapped. Almost as rare as a sunny day is it to find someone who shares your taste in books. And here she is again one year later.

As I exit the greenhouse, I notice a patch of familiar vegetation growing by the entrance.common selfheal Familiar, yes, because the plant has pretty much invaded our place this spring, cropping up around the blueberries and raspberries, festooning the fence lines, and choking out the garden plot. I turn to Matt, point to the flowering clump and the very first words out of my mouth? “What’s the NAME of that stuff, anyway!” “Common self-heal,” Matt replies. And Deb comes at me with a mouthful of binomial Latin: “That’s Prunella vulgaris,” she boasts. As usual those Beebes are a wealth of information. “I have some drying at home,” says Matt. “It makes a nice tea. Belongs to the mint family. See? It has a square stem.” I know the bees are fond of the blossoms, and this is the only reason I have tolerated the weed on the property. But I have overstayed my welcome, and Matt looks anxious to work off all those dogs, so away I go.P. vulgarisAs I leave, Denise is doing battle with the dandelions in the gravel behind the greenhouse, and I think, “Ah, the dandelions.” They are in full bloom now, and the fickle bees have turned their backs on Prunella vulgaris, forsaken its lavender blossoms for the sunny pollen-smeared faces of this more cheerful weed. So come teatime the Beebes can have their vulgar plant. But for you and all your invasive vulgarity, P. vulgaris, I have another name for you: Round-Up!

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