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How Lost Words Translate Into Lost Worlds

Place names matter, even when describing the ineffable and especially if monikers provide cover for cultural amnesia

The river known as Ki-moo-e-nim and Yam-pah-pa to the Shoshone tribe, cuts a serpentine course through Jackson Hole beneath the Tetons. While white people coming into the country named it the Snake River, the aboriginal name referenced an herb that grows prolifically along its banks. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
The river known as Ki-moo-e-nim and Yam-pah-pa to the Shoshone tribe, cuts a serpentine course through Jackson Hole beneath the Tetons. While white people coming into the country named it the Snake River, the aboriginal name referenced an herb that grows prolifically along its banks. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
On summer solstice three friends and I hiked to a 6800-foot knoll in the foothills of the Snake River Range, a lesser-known curving line of mountains in west-central Wyoming not far from the Idaho border.  We ate a quick lunch in a chilly wind with clouds building over our heads before ducking back down into the aspens as one particularly dark cloud began to unload. 

We weren’t dressed for a snow squall but the woods sheltered us and we stayed dry as the precipitation bounced off rather than soaking in. We continued our rambling conversation about wildflowers and woodpeckers and the bulging pollen sacs on the lodgepole pines we passed (two of us being quite allergic) until we noticed something odd about the white pellets falling around us. 

At first they seemed like regular old graupel, a form of precipitation that can fall any day of the year in these mountains. But soon the broad leaves of sticky geranium and cow parsnip gathered enough of them to cause us to slow down and really look. These were not the usual rounded pellets of graupel, and they lacked the concentric structure of hail. What were they?

The best we could do to describe them was to call them cones, with slightly rounded bases, like little astronaut re-entry capsules. We held them in our hands, exclaiming, Wow. Out came the hand lenses and cameras as we pondered their strange formation. 

Then we tasted them. Graupel is often compared to Styrofoam, but the tiny cones weren’t like that – they were chewy

As more fell they began to hit the tall grass, where they were skewered on the ends of the blades like olives on a toothpick. The first one seemed like a chance oddity until we spotted many so impaled. This was fresh spring grass, soft and pliable to the touch—how could it stab a falling snowball? Acutely pointed leaves of asters and paintbrush also grabbed the white capsules until it looked like more of them were speared by plants than actually hit the ground. We looked at one another with astonishment and delight. 

The cloud passed and the sun came out and the little cones began to melt. The chewiness went away and the color went from opaque white to clear in a few seconds while continuing to cling to the tips of the grass. As far as we were concerned, though all of us had science backgrounds, we’d witnessed some kind of miracle.

What to call them? I liked the comparison to re-entry capsules, but that sounded a bit too technological for a wonder of nature. I could think of no seed or pollen grain that matched the shape. A volcanic bomb didn’t conjure the delicate balance of a quarter-inch snow pellet on a grass blade. 

We guessed that during freefall the cones developed their pointed tops as wind currents pushed the leading edge of each pellet enough to round its bottom and shove the blown-back bits onto the trailing end. The pellet had to have just the right density to cohere and to fall through just the right temperature of air to retain plasticity. 

Later, one of our group contacted local meteorologist Jim Woodmency, and he provided a more educated guess, identifying the cones astriangular crystals or plates that grow when the temperature is near 28-degrees F.  He thought they likely had cores of graupel since they were soft enough to stick to blades of grass.

He noted that the weather that day included very cold air aloft, with ice crystals falling through warmer air, causing some melting as they approached the ground. The atmosphere was unstable, so the crystals spent some time suspended in the cloud, going up and down through the freezing level, like a hail stone would.

Conical graupel pellet on grass blade. Photo by Susan Marsh
Conical graupel pellet on grass blade. Photo by Susan Marsh
So we had a scientific explanation for what we saw. But knowing how the little cones might have formed—in narrowly specific circumstances of weather and temperature—did not take away their enchanting nature. I still wanted to give them a name, a single word, not a couple of paragraphs. Though I witnessed the phenomenon for the first time, some other culture, past or present, must have had named them.

° ° ° °

Our desire to name, to be able to point to a flower or a mountain and call it something and have your companions know what you are talking about, seems ingrained in our humanity. When we encounter something we cannot name, we’re flummoxed. Words and language allow us to describe, understand and communicate what we perceive in the world, and many of our words for the things of nature link us to them. Our knowledge of the accepted name for a wildflower shows that we notice its existence, recognizing it like we do a friend. 

I have an uneasy relationship with names. While I want to know them, I worry that the act of naming allows us to imagine we have captured something wild, made it part of ourselves and our sphere of tamed, systematic knowledge. The unique graupel pellets didn’t know we called them re-entry capsules. The leaves on which they landed didn’t know we called them sticky geranium. Who knows what they might call themselves, in their unimaginable language?

I want names that honor and recognize, not names that trivialize or insult, the wonders of the wild. 

Landmark names in particular trouble me when they honor people instead of the natural features themselves. Some of the most magnificent mountains on the continent are named for outlaws and crooked politicians whose favor was sought by explorers and who couldn’t have cared less about the peaks that bear their names. 

I can think of dozens of peaks with such names in the Rockies.

Mount Doane in Yellowstone National Park has been in the news lately, named for a Civil War vet, Gustavus Cheyney Doane, who helped survey the region and who wrote, “I remember the day when we slaughtered the Piegans, how it occurred to me, as I sat on the bank of the Marias & watched the stream of their blood, which ran down on the frozen river over half a mile, that the work we were doing would be rewarded, as it has been.” The quote was highlighted in an essay, "Yellowstone Mount Doane Rename: First National Park Should Have Features Named After Genocide Experiment," written by Hannah Osborne that appeared in Newsweek.

There’s also a Doane Peak in the Tetons, located at the head of Waterfalls Canyon. Quite the fellow to be so honored.

Although renaming Mt. Doane “First Peoples” as currently proposed is a step toward righting an old wrong, I would look for a name that was more local and specific, one that hinted at the wonders of the place. The stratified volcanic walls sliced by glaciers and avalanches, the tiny alpine plants that thrive in its crevices, the many forms of wildlife that find homes on its slopes. Why not honor the local first people, the mountain Shoshoni (so-called Sheepeaters)?  
Mount Doane in Yellowstone.  What did Gustavus Cheyney Doane do to warrant having a mountain named after him in our first national park?  There is a new effort underway to have it renamed "First Peoples Mountain." Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Mount Doane in Yellowstone. What did Gustavus Cheyney Doane do to warrant having a mountain named after him in our first national park? There is a new effort underway to have it renamed "First Peoples Mountain." Photo courtesy Wikipedia
On the other hand, hard-to-access and unclimbed mountains stir the soul. While Mount Doane already has a name, there are others that perhaps don’t need them. I prefer to follow the lead of poet Robert Service who, in the voice of a spellbound gold prospector wrote of “a land where the mountains are nameless/And the rivers all run God knows where.”  Names are fine for effective communication, but it’s also nice to have a few places left that are too wild to bear our signature.

I have my own names for mountains, of course. Favorite peaks along nameless ridges have been variously christened Elk Calf, Elk Heaven, Draba Point, and so on. Each of my names comes with a story, as I think names ought. And when I am gone, so too shall go my names.
I have my own names for mountains, of course. Favorite peaks along nameless ridges have been variously christened Elk Calf, Elk Heaven, Draba Point, and so on. Each of my names comes with a story, as I think names ought. And when I am gone, so too shall go my names.
While my mind remains unsettled about naming every wild thing we encounter, others have helped me understand that naming doesn’t have to trivialize the wondrous. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, says that finding the word is a step in learning to see. It can be a way of honoring, rather than dismissing, the named.
Names are shorthand for experience and knowledge, the means by which we pass our knowledge on. But we often suffice with the names alone. How much more depth we gain when we really pay attention with wonder: those little hairs on the flower stem which help get us to genus and species in the dichotomous key, how lovely they are under a hand lens when they catch the sunlight. 

Poet Mary Oliver said that “attention without feeling is only a report.” The scientific explanation of coned-shaped graupel feels like a report, but one can still sense the underlying wonder. Knowing more about the object of attention seems to deepen appreciation.
Poet Mary Oliver said that “attention without feeling is only a report.” 
And I question the ability of most of us to avoid any feeling when we truly pay attention. Wonder, or at least amazement and curiosity, seep in uninvited when we scan a wildflower with care. By the time we reach for the hand lens lanyard, the subconscious mind has abandoned the report. We want to make its acquaintance. We want to know its name.

° ° ° °

Most of us know arrowleaf balsamroot, Balsamorhiza sagittata, and seeing a slope in glorious bloom makes us smile. I shout with joy when I see the first silvery leaves appear in spring. They recall the times I waded through stands of balsamroot to get the perfect photo, then I think of the one I started in the yard from seed, which took ten years to get large enough to bloom and was later shaded out, and I was unable to transplant it since its root had become so deep and established.
Arrowleaf balsamroot, one of the stars of the summer wildflower season.
Arrowleaf balsamroot, one of the stars of the summer wildflower season.
That in turn reminds me of the specimen growing near the Grand Teton visitor center that had no flowers but its leaves were so large and numerous that based on my experience trying to grow one in the yard I knew it must be decades old.

Next, racing after my subconscious for which stories need no sequence, I muse with sadness on the vacant lot a few blocks away that was once crowded with balsamroot, a solid rectangle of brilliant gold in east Jackson, and how it was slowly killed by cars being parked on it, then choked with a layer of gravel until only a few plants remained and then the whole thing was paved over and marked for vehicles to line up in rows. 
"...racing after my subconscious for which stories need no sequence, I muse with sadness on the vacant lot a few blocks away that was once crowded with balsamroot, a solid rectangle of brilliant gold in east Jackson, and how it was slowly killed by cars being parked on it, then choked with a layer of gravel until only a few plants remained and then the whole thing was paved over and marked for vehicles to line up in rows." 
Decades later the balsamroot remains, its thick ropy roots sending stored carbohydrates to soil that won’t need them again in my lifetime, but I feel its living spirit under the pavement. When I pass that parking lot I still grieve.

With the naming of one plant species, stories leap to mind, connecting me to a beloved wildflower that brings an occasional tear but always a smile. 

The wild world brings together all kinds of human knowledge and responses for those who take the time to tune in. No specialized training is required. I don’t experience balsamroot the way a paver of parking lots might, or in the way of an indigenous person whose ancestors knew all of its culinary and medicinal uses, or in the way of a sheep rancher who knows that when the balsamroot blooms it’s time for the woolies to head for summer range. 

I know this flower mostly as an admirer, with enough botany and gardening experience to appreciate a few of its finer points. I like knowing its name but it’s more satisfying to stay with it a while, renew the acquaintance and watch a bumblebee covering herself with pollen as she feeds, or a flower spider peeking out from under a leaf. Or notice the way the disc flowers are arranged in a tight spiral like that of a galaxy.  
Plants named after people are as common as mountains named for cavalry captains. Most honorees are botanists or their helpers. Balsamroot’s close relative mule’s ear (Wyethia amplexicaulis) was first collected by Nathaniel F. Wyeth and delivered to his pal Thomas Nuttall, who named the new-to-science plant in his honor. What we call mule’s ear (for its long, erect leaves) already had other names, no doubt. 
Plants named after people are as common as mountains named for cavalry captains. Most honorees are botanists or their helpers. Balsamroot’s close relative mule’s ear (Wyethia amplexicaulis) was first collected by Nathaniel F. Wyeth and delivered to his pal Thomas Nuttall, who named the new-to-science plant in his honor. What we call mule’s ear (for its long, erect leaves) already had other names, no doubt. 

But Euro-American explorers and fur trappers weren’t known for asking the locals their monikers. [For more information on Wyeth and his peers, see the excellent book Montana’s Pioneer Botanists, published by the Montana Native Plant Society.]

Once named, a wildflower has an identity in our minds. Naming allows us to know it, the way we use the names of people to find their phone numbers in the book.  

I’ve also become aware that we are losing names that matter. A  review on Amazon discussing Robert McFarlane's book The Lost Worlds  left me astonished. This work was inspired, if you can use that term, by the publication of a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary which jettisoned a number of common words related to the natural world. 

The review reads in part that the discarded words “…were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” included acornadderbluebelldandelionfern, heronkingfishernewtotter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachmentblogbroadbandbullet-pointcut-and-paste, and voice-mail.”

This was a wake-up call to me. Names matter. Perhaps not the names honoring individuals who don’t deserve it, but names that conjure other beings, other lives, the diversely populated world we live in. I can’t imagine what some child will call a dandelion blooming from the cracks of a sidewalk if its name can’t be found. If the common dandelion is being axed from dictionaries, will anyone in future generations know balsamroot?
The Jefferson and Madison rivers converge and along with the Gallatin they form the start of the mighty Missouri River in southwest Montana. All three of the rivers are considered fly fishing meccas and they are revered, no more so, however, than indigenous people who had a relationship with these waterways for thousands of years and had their own place names.  Interestingly to some is that although Lewis & Clark gave them modern names, in honor of President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, none of those government dignitaries ever saw the rivers or ever ventured into the interior West. It speaks to Susan Marsh's question: who should get to decide how places are referenced on maps?  Photo courtesy Mike Cline/Wikimedia Commons
The Jefferson and Madison rivers converge and along with the Gallatin they form the start of the mighty Missouri River in southwest Montana. All three of the rivers are considered fly fishing meccas and they are revered, no more so, however, than indigenous people who had a relationship with these waterways for thousands of years and had their own place names. Interestingly to some is that although Lewis & Clark gave them modern names, in honor of President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, none of those government dignitaries ever saw the rivers or ever ventured into the interior West. It speaks to Susan Marsh's question: who should get to decide how places are referenced on maps? Photo courtesy Mike Cline/Wikimedia Commons
 If, as Robin Wall Kimmerer says, finding the word is learning to see, then losing the word blinds us. 

After this long and wide-ranging ramble I have nearly forgotten about trying to name the conical graupel. In honor of the date when I saw and tasted it, I will borrow from a common garden flower in the mustard family which goes by snow-in-summer. The Cones of Summer perhaps? 

I’m for names, it turns out, with some caveats. No more scoundrels or slurs against native peoples (how many creeks are still named Squaw?). Names that help us see and deepen our relationship with the earth—all good. But it’s still worth leaving a few for their own nameless grandeur. Here’s Robert Service again: 

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
   It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
   So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
   It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
   It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For further reading, click here for MoJo writerJesse Logan's piece, "What's In A Yellowstone Place Name?  A Man of Infamy, It Turns Out."
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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