For several days now Owen and I have been kept company on our walks by swells of butterflies. Waves and waves floating and fluttering among the weeds and wildflowers that line the dirt road. I don’t remember when I’ve seen so many, so many different kinds. Except at the Butterfly House at Callaway Gardens. And the one in Key West. And the United States Botanic Garden in Washington. All places where the butterflies are tame, eager to light on an extended finger or an inviting shoulder.
My butterflies are anything but. The ones that dance through the ditches and the ones that play in my backyard are shy and skittish. They dart from one flower to another like newborn colts. They touch down for mere seconds and, at the slightest movement — mine, Owen’s, another butterfly’s — they skedaddle.
I have fallen in love with the butterflies. The delicacy of their wings, the tender tentativeness with which they fly on currents of air too light to notice. And falling in love sends me to my Audubon book so that I can name them, each and all.
Southern dogface: sulfur yellow with pale black smudges along the wings. Gulf fritillary: pumpkin orange trimmed with black spots and lines. Viceroy: orange and black like a stained glass tiger with white spots along the edges. Zebra swallowtail: striped like its equine namesake, with narrowing wings like its avian one.
It is important to speak something’s name, to call it what it is, in recognition of its unique nature. It is why my Audubon books contain what booklovers call marginialia, notes in my handwriting that record when and where and under what circumstances I saw butterflies and birds and wildflowers, even a couple of snakes.
What I realize today, turning the thick slick pages of my Audubon book, pausing to read the Latin names, the habitat, the seasons of the butterflies I’ve found, is that there is a big difference between identifying and naming. When I call the viceroy butterfly a viceroy, I am identifying it — recognizing what it is, what it was before I saw it, what it will be long after this October day. I am acknowledging that the viceroy butterfly exists without and despite my admiration, my wonderment, my delight.
Naming has an entirely different purpose. In her book, "The Wind in The Door," one of Madeleine L’Engle’s characters explains that we name something — be it a person, a pet, or a star — to help it “be more particularly the particular [one it] was supposed to be. [T]here are parts of us that will never be fully ourselves until we are named.”
The viceroy is a viceroy. Period. But Owen would never have been Owen without me.
The names that our parents so carefully consider, measure, fret over and then declare. The nicknames that form from indistinct syllables uttered by siblings. The terms of endearment that swell from the deepest parts of our hearts. Each one helps us to be “more particularly the particular” human we were meant to be.
I can’t help thinking that the epithet, the barb, the jeer has an opposite, but equally powerful, effect.
It is through connection and commonality, relationship and responsibility and through calling each other by true names, not identifiers, that we create and sustain our fellow humans, the world and ourselves.
The viceroy is a viceroy. But there is something in me that wants to call him George.