I've always found a sort of jigsaw-esque satisfaction in learning how to recognize things by name, placing an individual species into its place in my mental taxonomic map. I've become interested lately in how the way a name is learned -- whether from a signpost, book, or person -- effects that learning experience. Living as a foreigner in a new place (Taiwan) where virtually everything is unfamiliar (and my grasp of the language very poor), I've become much more conscious of the way these different sources enhance or work against the act of memorization.
|Identification guides at the Green Island Visitor Center|
"We suggest you slow down your steps and bend down to experience the magic of the land," reads the trailhead marker for the Across Mountain Ancient Trail on Green Island. Like many of the more popular hiking destinations I've visited in Taiwan, the trail is broad and meticulously maintained, lined with informative markers detailing the name, history and usage of notable flora along the way. Walking the trails, learning to recognize some leaves and fruits from these markers, it strikes me as interesting the way they build interpretation into the landscape. The way they function is similar to a field guide -- overlaying a consensus' taxonomy over geography -- but by virtue of being a physical part of the landscape, that "overlaying" feels much more permanent, treating trees and shrubs in a similar way to blazes and elevation markers.
|Ricepaper-wing Butterfly (Idea leuconoe)|
The idea of translating a trail's features has also been highlighted for me in the collection of region-specific field guides and pamphlets. As a general rule, the more specific the area, the less likely the guide will include information in English.
For the most part, only scientific names are listed in a way I can read. Because of this, I've fallen into an internet-dependent method of matching things visually between life and the guide, then searching them online for the sort of information my illiteracy keeps me from accessing, such as characteristic behaviors and rarity. As it turns out, this need to collect information from multiple sources seems to be aiding my memory. The need to patch together my own personalized pool of information encourages me to other practices, like drawing, that help to anchor things in the mind.
|Chinese Bulbul, Little Egret|
Another practice encouraged by my illiteracy, and one which I usually seem to avoid, has been social learning. Asking local residents about a particular plant is doubly interesting for the insight into the Taiwanese or Chinese name, where it comes from, the story behind it. The Spider-monkey Tree Fern (Cyathea lepifera) for example, is known here as the "pencil-case tree" because of its branchless hollow trunk, which often remains standing after the upper green fronds die off. The younger uncurling leaves, like the Fiddlehead Ferns they resemble, are edible raw or cooked. In town, they're priced as a delicacy.
Considering the various methods of learning a new place, I'm finding that it's anecdotes like these that seem to be most effective in helping me to remember a name. I suppose because anecdotes are by nature readily shareable, attaching human significance to a genus and species. It seems significant to me that this method is, compared with books or signposts, the farthest removed from physical presence or written word. It's perhaps even closer to the act of assigning a name than to the act learning one.