Excerpts

A Bhutan Glory butterfly photographed by Sourabh Biswas

A Love Letter to the Natural World

Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-than-Human World (2024) by Isaac Yuen has been described as part self-help column and part nature guide. This tongue-in-cheek take on the natural world is a true celebration of the planet we inhabit, and the strange and wonderful creatures with whom we share space. At a time when any kind of environmental writing and discussion is fraught, Isaac’s work is a breath of fresh air, and a strong reminder of what exactly we’re trying to conserve.

The following excerpt is from the chapter, ‘Yes, You can Leave the Hospital Without Naming Your Baby,’ and has been printed with the permission of the author and the publisher, West Virginia University Press.

Yes, You Can Leave the Hospital Without Naming Your Baby

—up to two weeks before having to file the birth certificate paperwork; unless you live in Germany, where you have up to three months to find a moniker for the soon-to-be toddler before the state decides on your behalf. Or so I’ve been told. Regardless, it is wise to take the time to choose carefully, for some newborns can be one way in the womb and another out in the world. The Emma highlighted from the big book of names may not match the Bernadette you now cradle in your arms. Please forgive their tiny change of hearts. It is hard to hear clearly through a bellyful of fluid, so while they might have cooed at Liam while contained, they may bawl up a storm after discharge, unless you can conjure up distractions like calling them Li-HAAM, of which the yelling of the second half might usher in a fit of giggly delight, and then lead to permutations of Hammy, or Hamster, or even Sir Ham-Ham of Hamalot. Or so I’ve heard.

Of course, you can simply impose your will upon another, stamp your hopes and dreams onto any newly minted thing. This is the easiest and most unfair way to establish a relationship. Celebrities with their outsized egos do this on the regular, turning their hapless offspring into benign fruit, like Apple, or branding that means everything and nothing, like Goop. Ex-power couples may choose to dedicate their progeny to ex-prototype spy planes (preceded by Æ, which, according to the former Musks, is the “elvish rendition of artificial intelligence”) or to syllables of the Semitic abjads (here, at least Aleph Portman-Millepied has decent nickname potential, like Al or Alf or Alfonso Soriano and maybe even the Fonz, but rare is any child suave enough to pull off the latter sobriquet).

In the wild reaches, even less care is taken in the naming process. This is understandable, given that there are so many mushrooms and so many weevils, and everything adjacent to groups or branching from clades merits a station within life’s grand catalog. Overworked taxonomists may be too mossy-brained to conjure up yet more original labels after being tasked to come up with 1.3 million of them, often in both common and Latin scientific. Under such pressure some have resorted to the celebrity method but in reverse, so that the world is now blessed with the beauty of the Kate Winslet beetle, which may never sink beneath the waves but may yet still go under if its Costa Rican treetops are converted to pasture. Then there is the Bono’s Joshua Tree trapdoor spider, who has likely never heard its U2 counterpart sing but definitely scuttles beneath the desert national park, where the unpaved streets go unnamed.

When mired in designation indecision, one solution is to resort to using luminaries past or present: Darwin or Attenborough are fashionable go-to’s these days. One could also pay tribute to the venerated yet underrated Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt. It is hard to tell whether the nineteenth-century Prussian polymath would derive pleasure from having so many things under the sun named after him, a list that includes not only white-throated penguins and hog-nosed skunks but also a productive oceanic current, an entire region on the moon, and a pair of asteroids slinging around space why not. Without knowing the naturalist personally, it is difficult to gauge whether Humboldt would be humbled by such label-mad adulation or exasperated at the lack of imagination used to convey the splendors he saw all around, so succinctly captured in the dying words of his similarly multi-named brother, Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt, the genius linguist of the family: Wie großartig diese Strahlen! Sie scheinen die Erde zum Himmel zu winken!

The main shame of nomenclature negligence is that it can lead to the careless assignment of value. Is the lesser kudu, with the same spiral horns shaped like Parmesan cheese straws, any less elegant and distinguished than its greater antelope cousin? Must the lesser frigatebird be relegated to notions of lower-class, second-rate, a notch-below, all the while soaring above the thermals with his red-throated kin bestowed with titles of “greater” and “magnificent”?

Of course there is the justification of size, which is usually a justification for laziness. The least weasel is not any less for weighing the same as a stack of pennies but should rather be lauded for its prowess in tackling prey ten times its size, severing the spines of baby bunnies with surgical bites. The least tern is not diminutive in any other aspect of its life, as the double-ounced ball of fluff is fully fit to embark on round-trip, fish-fueled flights from Nebraska to the Brazilian state of Ceará. (Here is not the last time where a nickname suits better than the proper title, as the oft-dubbed “little striker” reflects the bird’s propensity to dive-bomb and defecate on anyone that encroaches upon its nest.) And of course we must thank the least bittern for being big enough to forgo any grudges that might arise from our naming slight, or so we assume its forbearance, not having heard any trace of bitterness in the cooing songs it sings through spring.

Sometimes being minuscule is what makes life possible in the first place, for being small may make you nontargetable to the many things that may otherwise wish to target you. Most foxes, if polled on their chicken-breed preferences, would rather avoid the hassle of defeathering a dozen Serama bantams when they could feast equivalently on one Jersey Giant. Mink farmers likely ran the numbers on the amount of weasel pelts needed for one fur coat before deciding to base their businesses on the larger family relation. Being Lilliputian in stature can also be advantageous should one find themselves residing on nonfictional Lilliputs, like the dwarf mammoths once did on Crete or the mini-mammoths once did on the Channel Islands of California, where compactness meant less time scrounging for food and more time enjoying ocean vistas. Yet any talk of reduced caloric intake would fall deaf on the North American least shrew, more commonly known as the North American horror show, at least to its subterranean neighbors. Driven by a heart revving at eight hundred beats a minute, the shrew avoids perishing by overexertion through practicing a regimen of overconsumption, devouring more than its body weight in food daily, caring not one whit whether that comes in the form of earthworms or sow bugs or the tails of unfortunate lizards trying to eke out a living, only to be forced to shed their precious appendages to appease the clockwork death machine. Should this shrew be deemed the least shrew, then all bears should be deemed least bears, for the shrew has no qualms about infiltrating beehives in the dead of winter to gorge on colonies too sluggish to defend themselves, biting off heads and crunching on thoraxes, leaving behind mangled wings and strewn abdomens for dismayed beekeepers, wayward in their belief that their charges would be safe behind electrified fences and the principles of hibernation.

But back to this GREATER, lesser, least business: Why the rabble-rousing around names, you say? What’s in a silly title, you ask? It is the opinion of this observer that names are sacred things, and namings are sacred acts. Thus you can imagine their botheration toward the sort who, careless at best or malicious at worst, doles out names conflating dimensions with deficiencies, such as whoever christened the lesser earless lizard, or the lesser sooty owl, or the lesser mouse-deer. Gray souls most likely, rigid devotees to preserved specimens in amber jars or outdated treatises scribed on yellowed pages, working without much empathy in their hearts. Perhaps they do not realize that names might be all any of us have in the end, and that a few considerate details, a charitable word or two, might have afforded many a final fading easier to stomach and harder to forget, unlike what happened with the lesser mascarene flying foxes, which once congregated in tree hollows and became easy targets to smoke out and extinguish; or the Lesser Antillean rice rat from the Lesser Antilles chain of islands, so scarcely known and doubly diminished in reputation and geography that it winked out of existence without much ruckus. Then there was the case of the lesser bilby, a white-tailed, rabbit-eared bandicoot banished from the Australian outback back in the 1950s. Even its fierce and intractable spirit, so opposite of its gentler greater relative, could not endure without a physical vessel. The only concrete thing about the lesser bilby, besides the woefully nondescript name, is the constancy of its current status, as attested to in its official Northern Territory dossier, which contains this final line and epitaph: “No further conservation management plan can offer further help.”

The next time you are tasked with naming a freshly forthed thing, do so with a measure of kindness. Resist the urge to name on a whim, for a good namer recognizes that naming can only be rightly done by knowing a life through its seasons, by sight and song, by fur or root. But don’t fret overmuch on making mistakes. What is better than being a gifted namer is being an adaptable one, one willing to learn from past mistakes and able to make amends. This is a skill most paleontologists learn on the job, having to deal constantly with creatures so lacking in qualities most take for granted, such as being alive and being intact. We can learn much from those open-minded enough not to set names into stone, changing them when necessary to better fit the nature of their fossilized hosts, like when the Brachiosaurus displayed in Berlin was renamed a Giraffatitan from Tanzania, which was probably for the best, since most would agree that an African “titanic giraffe” hews closer to the truth than any European “arm lizard.” Holding a flexible mindset can also help reflect a world striving to move beyond old egos and dusty traditions by drawing upon a richer reserve of culture and mythology, like the christening of Hagryphus giganteus, which melds the Egyptian god of the western desert with the ancient Greek’s premixed lion-eagle, or Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, which means “Colville River’s ancient grazer,” not in distant Latin but in the living Alaskan Iñupiaq tongue that is still spoken in the area where the creature once dwelled so long ago.

Of course, better than being named by another is to discover a name for yourself, to attain that long-sought, hard-fought description that captures the essence of your being, the one that might not be so much spoken as made manifest. This is exemplified, for example, in the ancient branching gestures by what we call the bristlecone pine, or in the states of grace displayed by the entity some know simply as the peregrine. Once realized and embraced, this self-name cannot be co-opted by any outside powers, try as they might to hide it from sight, try as they will to erase it with official decrees or to slot it into classes below or beneath its deserved footing. To forge such a self demands a lot of soul-searching and practiced living, and the quest to attain it can be arduous. Sometimes the names we discover come to be single notes in a longer song, one that only reveals itself wholly at opportune moments, like when a lowly caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis as the Bhutan glory, or when a Diane’s bare-hearted glass tadpole transforms into a Diane’s bare-hearted glass frog, or the moment an Icelandic cyprine decides to trade in its drifting lifestyle to spend the next five centuries crafting its carbonate masterpiece one ring at a time. Perhaps such a self-name is less of a set thing, less a flawless gem to be hoarded in a safe, and more akin to breath, to water, as a process in progress, fluid and ever-changing, part of the shimmer of a sentence spoken while living life for life’s sake, as something no one, no one, can take away—this work, this dignity, this worth.