For four days in August I played host to my six-year-old nephew, Ryan. When he arrived, I was working through an unpleasantly heavy book of literary criticism. Its author argues that American nature writers are unique, for they seek to organize information and observations into a knowable world by combining the traditional form of spiritual auto-biography with scientific language.
Not remembering much about six-year-olds, I tucked the book under my arm and set out with him for the stream on my woodlot. I thought I’d get to sit and read while he turned over rocks and caught salamanders. It didn’t happen that way. Ryan set our agenda. “You lift the rocks, I’ll grab the salamanders,” he said. For two hours I lifted, and he grabbed. He missed a few, and a couple lost tails, but most he caught by the neck, held up to examine, and placed gently in the big, white bucket I carried.
“I think salamanders are cute, don’t you, Uncle Jack?" he asked. A good professor, I quibbled with his word choice and said, "They’re sleek and beautiful.” Though Ryan kept picking larger and larger rocks for me to move as the sun warmed the morning, I think I appreciated being in the woods doing nothing useful as much as he did.
Near noon, I persuaded him we had enough captives and suggested he draw them before returning them to the stream. He settled down with his sketch pad and markers on the step of my writing shack, and I leaned back against a tree with my book. Unlike Ryan, however, I didn’t settle down. My book aggravated me.
I watched Ryan. He held a salamander and gazed at it with such obvious, awestruck love I could almost imagine the salamander willingly lying down with him like the lion with the lamb. “This one is a boomerang salamander,” he said authoritatively.
“That’s interesting,” I answered.
“See the marks down its back? They’re like little boomerangs."
I went back to my book. As I read, I realized the author doesn’t think much of nature writers unless they are self-conscious about their work and recognize that it is nothing more than a biological reflex. Most writers, he complains, believe their language is more significant than a cardinal’s territorial song. The best nature writers, he insists, know better.
I snapped the book shut just as Ryan exclaimed, “Look! There’s a hummingbird bug!"
“What’s a hummingbird bug?" I asked.
“It’s a bug that flaps its wings so fast you can’t see them moving.”
"Oh," I said. My reading and the conversation Ryan and I had earlier that morning about the hummingbirds in my garden came together. “Where did you learn that salamander is called a boomerang salamander?" I asked.
“I made it up,” he said. Seeing my smile, he tilted his head and knotted his forehead. “It’s okay to make up names, isn’t it?" he asked.
"Sure," I answered. “You gave it a good name.” And he had. His name described the animal and allowed us to hold it in our minds as we talked. As in his naming of the hummingbird bug, he had gathered his knowledge and his observations and imaginatively made his world knowable.
My sociobiologist critic would demur. But he is a reductionist. Believing that human beings are created in the image of God, I am incapable of imagining our language acts as no more significant than a cardinal’s call.
The sociobiologist, working from purely materialist assumptions, is incapable of imagining that by acts of language human beings connect the objective, physical world with the subjective world of their responses. In naming the salamander, Ryan followed the command given to Adam in the garden. He completed creation by articulating a relationship.
His imaginative naming lacked only one thing-an institutional sanction. We find such sanction in the language of science and the language of faith. Nature writers, joining the two languages, act to bring forth a new way of organizing our knowable world. Creating a new discourse, they create a new community.
The boomerang salamander, by the way, is a mountain dusky salamander. The hummingbird bug I never saw. God knows what it is.
This essay is included in John Leax’s collection Out Walking: Reflections on Our Place in the Natural World.