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Photo by Keshav Prakash: Galapagos, Ecuador
Photo by Keshav Prakash: Galapagos, Ecuador

Richard Feynman shares the following, as a part of a story he narrates about how when his dad took him for a walk in the woods, and together they spotted a brown-throated thrush, his father told Richard:

‘See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a Halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a Chung Ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way’.

Richard Feynman recalls this very fondly in many of his talks, lectures and books, and says: ‘I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something’.

I read Feynman several years back, and each time I come across this narration, it resonates with my understanding and observations deeply.

I have experienced this time and again on many nature walks or on safaris. A lot of energy is spent in naming and making a list of the spotted birds/animals/insects etc. The eagerness to name, also means that the next time we spot them during the same walk/safari, the time spent on them is drastically reduced, and if one has spotted them 3-4 times, all interest is lost in that bird/animal.

For example:

`Oooh…what is that?’, and someone in the group shares, `that’s a mynah’.

`Aah, so that’s a mynah’…and the next time, we just call out, `look a mynah’, and minutes later somebody says, `there, another mynah’, and few steps later, even if one sees it, nobody really mentions it, and it’s all but forgotten. Hardly is any time spent on understanding the bird.

Already our human mind starts to seek something different and new. In other words, knowing the name of the organism, can become the end of our experience with that particular animal.

Further, if we are from a non-science background, it can feel like there is nothing much we can do to understand, than being able to spot a bird/animal and ask for the name, rejoice in a couple of trivia that gets shared , and that’s it.   

But here is something I wish to invite you into, no matter your background/discipline/age/etc, that many friends and I practice, several naturalists highly encourage, and I am sure there are some of you who already do so as well. Which is to build a relationship beyond the name, and it is certainly what seems to inspire poets, authors, artists, who probably come to the name much after being mesmerized by the life that touched them.

Whether you see something from the window of your home, or you are out walking alone, or with a naturalist in a group, or you are on a safari, whether you ever get to know the name of the organism that captures your mind or you don’t, do not lose the opportunity to pay attention to them. Do not lose the opportunity to observe them. Let curiosity be your guide, and while doing so, you can hold some of these questions in your heart, to know them better:

  • What is the physical appearance? What is the colour, shape, size? Is there any particular feature that stands out? What is the shape of the feature? What is the skin like? You can make a mental note of this.
  • What part of the habitat is the organism occupying? – is it top of the tree, or a  a bush, or the ground? Observing where they are, what surrounds them, gives so much information as every organism exists in a context, and what we do by observing their environment, is to understand where they like to live, hide, hunt, mate, take shelter etc.
  • What time of the day did you spot them?– is it dawn, after sunrise, afternoon, in the dark, when? Each organism has its preference, and so over a period of time, we will begin to notice certain patterns. You might observe, that the crows prefer to be out first thing in the morning, parrots tend to come out once they see some sun, butterflies too prefer the sun, so on and so forth.
  • What season are you out and observing? – is it spring, summer, rain, winter? Make a note of it.
  • Are they alone, or in a flock/group? – this slowly reveals a pattern, whether the organism likes to hunt alone, or be in a group, and then if they are in a group, you can observe certain group behaviour as well.
  • Are they interacting with any other organism actively? – is the bird actively engaged in drinking nectar from a flower? Then how does this flower look? Is this bird only on the tree that has this flower?
  • If a bird/insect is calling, what is the sound? – listen to it. Is it soft, is it loud, is it continuous, is it after breaks?

I am sure you get where I am going with the above pointers. None of these observations, wondering, paying attention, and rejoicing in the organism we love requires any knowledge of science, needs knowing the name, or requires us to be an expert in any form. It only needs our love for the natural world, curiosity to explore, a desire to build kinship with the other beings that surround us and enrich our survival on this earth. A curiosity to know who we occupy this home with.

Imagine, we are new to our neighbourhood or that we have been staying in a particular home for a while. Wouldn’t we love to see friendly faces, people coming up to us to say hello, or at least notice and acknowledge us?

Maybe the natural world is waiting for us to notice them and acknowledge them. When we are able to give that, we are drawn into the tiny magnificent details of their being. We move into the possibility of a kinship with them.

This doesn’t in anyway mean names aren’t important. They very much have their place and serve several other purposes. What I wish to bring your attention to is that, it is only relatively important. More important is to check – is not knowing the name stopping you from experiencing life around you? OR is knowing the name closing your door of a possibility of kinship that you have an opportunity to build through paying attention? If yes, please do not allow for that to be your obstacle to experience Life.

Let that curiosity that led you to even go on that walk, or that safari, or to sit by your window and look out; let that natural instinct in you that made you admire a particular life form; let that heart filled with awe and wonder when you saw them, be your guide to forming the relationship.

I share this as an invitation so we can remember that discovering, exploring and experiencing the natural beauty and life that surrounds us is not a privilege of the few, but a gift for all of us. We can each experience it in a way that is unique to us, fall in love in a way that lifts our spirit, and have a language that’s between us and them.

If you have your own practice, own way of making observations interesting, your own experience of that kinship, please do share, as they can serve as beautiful pointers to all of us. I very much look forward to hearing about it.

Thank you for reading.

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