I’m learning the names for things from my childhood—plants, clouds, the shifting of sands. I didn’t know most of these even though I was an outdoors girl. My parents weren’t naturalists, and neither was I, really. I just took in but didn’t name. But now with my trusty National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida, among other books, I’m educating myself.
I know much more about Maine, the common names and something of the habits of most of what surrounds me. Maybe it’s because I moved to Maine when I was twenty-three, and here is where I grew into adulthood and the next level of consciousness.
Bu now as I “return” in memory to my growing up in Florida, I need to learn the names of things. As Gary Snyder says in “What You Should Know to be a Poet:”
all you can about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the movements of the planets
and the moon.
your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind
For me, it means using something as “the best kind of metaphor,” as poet Constance Hunting once said, “the kind that springs directly from the subject matter.” A “daisy” can be one kind of metaphor, a “prickled-stem rose” another, and “rambling roadside vetch” still another. Specificity counts.
Take what we kids called stickerburrs, for example. Stickerburrs were the bane of a barefoot Florida childhood. I find the photo of one, close-up, in Audubon, and it tells me they are properly called “sandspurs,” or locally, “coastal sandspurs.”
Of course--sandspurs! As in Sandspur Motel, Sandspur Bar & Lounge, Sandspur Apartments, Sandspur Drive. How could I have missed the connection? The “tiny, roundish, greenish to beige burrs enclose minute flowers in 4” clusters” and are “often sprawling.”
That’s how we kids knew them—sprawling—low-growing enough to be half hidden from young eyes in the rough St. Augustine grass that passed for lawns in Florida or almost buried under the sand in an open area. A joyful, heedless dash through the dune down to the beach or across the lawn could end in a dead stop, then a hobble to a place to sit to examine your foot. You had to curl your foot as you limped so you didn’t put your weight on the burred part. (“CAUTION: Burrs sharp,” Audubon says.) I never noticed the minute flower, although Audubon has sandspurs filed under the wildflower section.
Sandspurs were inescapable. “Habitat: Beaches, pinelands, sandhills, fields, disturbed areas”—that pretty much described most of coastal Florida. As you got older, you developed a keen sense of watchfulness for the thin linear stalk rising out of its surroundings and the nasty hard ball, no bigger than a toenail, armored with spurs tough enough to stick into a car tire.
Even after you pulled the ball of burr out, there could be a couple of “prickers” left embedded that might take a mother or tweezers to get out. And sometimes even they failed.
So where’s the metaphor here? Perhaps it’s the burrs of family dynamics, the alcoholic disappointments that seemed to jump onto you and embed in young skin no matter how watchful you might be.