Thursday, July 22, 2010


Hello--I'm new to the Hamline blog (though not to the program). I'm excited to be part of the conversation.

A week ago today, Phyllis Root and I slipped away to see the McKnight Prairie Preserve, a remnant of original prairie that runs along a low ridge south of the Cannon River. We parked next to a cornfield. I was still seeing generic grass and flowers when a meadowlark sang from a post, and Phyllis began to name the blossoms at our feet. Daisy fleabane. Milk vetch. Grey headed coneflower. Flowering spurge. Prickly pear cactus. (Yes, cactus native to the prairie. Who knew?) Prairie milkweed, nothing like Vermont milkweed, but also tasty to monarchs. Lead plant, far prettier than its name. I felt like my grandkids, who are pointing at everything and asking “Zat?” Luckily for me, Phyllis knew the answers.

I love learning new names, even though I may forget them. Specific names add spice to bland prose. They also bring up images and associations. When an illustrator for my picture book wanted me to remove the word “seagrape” from my story—because she’d never seen a seagrape bush—I sent her photos. For me, the word seagrape evokes the sound of flat, saucer-shaped leaves rattling in the wind. I smell the salt air, and hear my grandfather’s scratchy voice as he shows me the tracks of a bobcat, imprinted in wet sand beneath a seagrape bush.

As I clear my desk this morning, perhaps these names will find their way into a poem or story, like Ron Koertge’s talismanic words. Showy tick trefoil. Culver’s root. And here’s one for Buddy the Poetry Cat: Field’s Cat Foot.

What specific nouns and names show up in your writing now?


  1. Buddy asks me to send along his greetings and to ask if you'd write about nomenclawture. Buddy's a stich, isn't he?

  2. Mine say it's nomewnclature.
    Liza, you're a natural.

  3. As regards Ron and Anne's comments, I'll just quote the intrepid horticulturist Michael Dirr: "Alas, if I had nothing more to do than split taxonomic hairs, I'd have myself bound and shelved in the archives."

  4. P.S. Liza, Phyllis mentioned maybe next year having a writer's day out at the prairie where we go out, check out plants/bugs/skinks, and write. I'm all over that one! There's a prairie to my north here in Missouri where some folks left some boards lying arond here and there. Then visitors peek under the boards when they visit, and there'll be little snakes or skinks hiding there you wouldn't ordinarily see. It's pretty cool.

  5. Great to see you here, Liza!
    Seagrapes is a fun word. I want to see and smell and touch it. In my own writing, I use the names of streets in Hawaii (Moanalua Road, Kamehameha Highway...) to relate how foreign the place is to my protagonist--not that I expect readers to be familiar with the words.

  6. I LOVE horticultural names. Love. Them. I can't garden a whit, but have seriously considered reading plant guides for fun. I mean, saxifrage, bergamot, vetiver, St. John's wort? It's like reading candy. Horticulturalists and plant biologists everywhere, I salute you. Stop by and I'll buy you a drink.

    P.S. Has anyone read *The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate*? It's just gorgeous--one of the most well-crafted stories I've read in a long time. It's probably even more so if you're a plant geek.

  7. Something I was thinking about just yesterday after Mary Logue suggested a story for me to read. It's called THE WATER GHOST OF HARROWBY HALL. Read it for free online! It's old and funny (and short)and hearkens back to a litereay age which those of us raised in the 70s didn't get enough opportunity to share enough. I so appreciate Mary and Liza and Phyllis and all of the faculty who can share with us the names of stories they loved when they were kids--and as Liza mentioned, you always remind us to use the great details--bug and plant names, gravestone wording, water ghosts, Jim Backus (I totally knew who he was, Ron!) and everything in between.