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Last Day of May

May 31, 2014

It is the last day of May, unless you live in China, where May goes through to the 35th. But here in Virginia this is the end, and the bees busily feeding from the blossoms of the bush next to me know it. Those blossoms are starting to fade, most of them have already closed up shop. June isn’t their time . The bush will hold no blooms on Bloomsday, it will revert to the inconspicuous green that chemistry demands of light-feeders.

Once an aspiring writer was talking a stroll with Nabokov, hoping for wisdom, advice, a blessing, or an anecdote that he could tell at dinners for the rest of his life. As he was speaking of his ambition Nabokov stopped suddenly and pointed at a tree. “What is the name of that tree?” The young man admitted he did not know. “Then you will never be a writer.”

At least he got his anecdote. I don’t know the names of trees. I don’t know the name of the bush next to me. It seems like an undistinguished bushy kind of bush. I have been sitting next to it for years, its branches gently brushing up against me, but we have never really developed much of a relationship. Maybe I should learn its name.

Though there was a plucky little weed tree that sprouted in front of the porch once. It leaned out to the light, and would gently bob up and down in the breeze. I never knew its name, common or Latin, but still I felt it was my friend, and when the men the landlord sent to trim the yard cut it down I grieved. The bush was cut down to almost nothing, but it survived and grew again. But the little tree and a lilac by the road were not so lucky.

There is a passage in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, where one of the characters, as a teenager, is instructed by a Jesuit priest at his school in the names of the parts of a shoe, because it is important to know the names of things. It is not much of a challenge, shoes are not that complicated. Though a kid might not know aglets, the sheaths at the end of laces. But isn’t that one of those words that, once you know it, you never forget? It was that way with me. I learned about aglets by name from one of those books of strange and interesting facts that I loved as a kid, and I never forgot. Same with philtrum, the divot on your upper lip, so under-appreciated yet crucial to the aesthetics of the face. Those words may have been on the same list, of unfamiliar names of ordinary things. They were unforgettably charming words.

It is valuable to know the names of things. Even if you never use those names in communication. Because to have a name is recognize the existence of the thing it names. That thing now stands out, proud and distinct, its reality affirmed by a name. And in your perception the world goes from a vague blurry blot to an intricate tapestry of richly articulated detail.

I should really get to know the names of trees, and bushes, and all the the things I can, that make up this world of profusion.

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