A Rose By Any Other Name

I think we’ve all heard the quote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course, if you’re like me, you misheard the quote and thought – for most of your life – that “a rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet.” I was recently enlightened by a friend with the true phrasing of Shakespeare’s words, but the deeper meaning I discovered for myself.

I was privileged enough to get to go to the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage the last weekend in May. Here I learned that a plant I had always called “phlox” was actually “Dame’s rocket” (Hesperis matronalis). I was stunned that I had misidentified such a common wildflower for such a long time. I can recall, as a child, poking my way through a patch of them in my backyard on late spring evenings – the rich smell filling the air. Butterflies visited them, mostly swallowtails, joined by bees and even hummingbirds. They ranked high among my favorite flowers. And yet apparently … I didn’t even know them. I had never counted the petals – dame’s rocket has four petals per flower while phloxes have five petals per flower. I had never thought to observe the way the leaves were arranged – phloxes have opposite leaves but dame’s rocket has alternately arranged leaves. I really hadn’t even made the connection that the fragrance the flowers gave off was stronger in the evening than at any other time of the day.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Since coming here to work with Audubon’s education staff, I’ve discovered I know relatively little about any of the natural history of my region – perhaps especially the plants and animals I thought I was familiar with. Those funny-colored birds I watched sway in the tall grasses of the hayfield beside my house weren’t “cowbirds” they were “bobolinks.” The crazy etchings in the bark of the dead logs my family split for firewood weren’t created by one worm but a whole family of bark beetles. The high trill I had so often heard in the swamp across the street wasn’t a chorus of frogs, it was the song of male American toads. Chipmunks are technically squirrels. I could fill pages with the misconceptions I’ve held for two decades.

But I’ve learned something else while working with Audubon. When elementary students come to Audubon for Day Camps or to go for Discovery Walks – they are thrilled with what they touch and see and feel and smell and hear … without ever knowing the real names or systematic classifications of things.

Come to think of it, I enjoyed those Dame’s rocket plants just as much when I thought they were phlox (maybe more) as I do now that I know their true name. A few afternoons I hid with my nose between their stems and gazed up at a dappled world of beckoning whorls and never once felt my wonder lacking because of my limited comprehension. A rose by any other name? The deeper revelation, for me at least, is that I could spend my entire life studying the ecology of the fascinating natural world around me (and I hope I do) but I will never know everything about it. Even if I picked one group of things or even just one specific organism, my expertise could never be complete – and, luckily, that’s not the point. Being a naturalist could never be about mastering every fact and feature about the natural world; who knows better than us the complexities of nature’s web? No, being an Audubon naturalist and volunteer is about enjoying nature, coming to respect her for the unpredictable mistress that she is. It’s fantastic to learn crazy facts and to come to appreciate our region’s flora and fauna as deeply as we can by the book, but in the end, awe isn’t directly related to expertise. The names we give things pale beside our experiences with them – see them, smell them, touch them, listen to them but don’t worry too much if you can’t name them all.

The second week in June, I attended a master naturalist training organized by Cornell and while I was there I was able to talk with one of Audubon’s avid volunteers. She expressed that at first she had been hesitant to want to lead Discovery Walks because she wasn’t an expert on birds or plants or ponds. Once she realized that the kids just wanted to experience the out-of-doors, however, she was excited to share with them what she did know and discover new things right alongside of them. She said she was glad to recognize that she didn’t have to know everything, she just had to facilitate marveling. That’s Audubon.

I can remember having a teacher in school who used to say he loved to wonder. He would ask us: “How does a superhero stop his laser vision in the room he wants to see into, why doesn’t it just go through the building and on and on?” The class would erupt with our adolescent explanations and he would hold up a hand to quiet us. “No, no. Please. Don’t tell me. If you tell me, I’ll have nothing left to wonder about.” It seemed silly to me then. Why wouldn’t you want to know the answer to all of your questions? But I think I understand now. As much as I want to learn everything I can about nature while working here at Audubon and for the rest of my life, I hope – in the end – I’ll have plenty left to wonder about.

June is Membership Month at Jamestown Audubon. Please consider volunteering with us and becoming a Friend of the Nature Center. Membership dollars during the month of June will be matched dollar for dollar by the Sheldon Foundation. There is no better time to get involved. Call the Jamestown Audubon with any questions you might have: 569-2345 or visit our website: jamestownaudubon2.wordpress.com/ Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Trails are open from dawn to dusk.