Places vs. names: Making peace with my lack of interest in nomenclature

Back in high school, I loved science. More specifically, I loved naming and classifying things. Inorganic chemistry nomenclature? Oh baby. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Yes please! I was damn good at memorization and I liked structure and rules.

So imagine my surprise when, after discovering that I wanted to make mosaics from rocks I foraged for myself, I came to the realization that I had very little interest in learning their names and boning up on geology. At first this really bothered me and I was disappointed in myself. Even now, I still feel a bit guilty when people ask me what type of rock I used in a particular mosaic and I have to answer “I don’t know.” Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people identify my rocks for me, but I’m just not that motivated to search out the information myself (although if there were a compelling reason to do so, I would certainly do my homework). I think this is partly because I’m not great at learning this sort of stuff on my own from a book or a website—I’d much rather learn it from someone. But even more fundamentally, what I’ve come to realize is that what’s more significant and meaningful to me is where the rocks come from, not what they’re called.

Loading up on a family hike

I take such pleasure in recalling where I was, who I was with, and the whole experience of gathering the rock. There’s the batch of rock that was scavenged at lunchtime on the bank of the Ottawa river, when I ripped my pants scrambling back up the retaining wall. Or the haul from the cottage, gathered on a beautiful September day while hiking with my family for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Or the flakes of weathered rock sitting abandoned on the lawn of an apartment building that I passed every day on my way to work for the better part of a year until one day I finally said, “Enough!” and stopped to scoop them up. Or there’s the rock I grabbed on the way back from the monastery in Quebec’s Eastern Townships after pulling the car over to the side of the road on a whim on a misty Saturday afternoon.

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

My naming system, if you can call it that, is simple. There’s black rock, off-white rock, blueish rock, grey rock with sparkly layers that smells like gas when cut. To be fair, I have learned some of their actual names (like mudstone and bituminous dolomite), but that’s secondary to me. There’s rock that cuts effortlessly in neat little cubes, rock that has a satisfying snap, and rock that is unpredictably wonderful. I don’t need to get any fancier in my classification than that, because rocks for me are more about place. They are a moment in space and time—a memory—and they carry stories. That’s what’s important and interesting to me. That’s why I love using them.

So next time you ask me what kind of rock I’m using, please don’t be surprised when I say, unapologetically, “I don’t know, but I found it on the shore of this lake when I was out for a hike with so-and-so, and it cuts like a dream.” (And if you’re able to identify any of my rocks, I’m all ears!)

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2 Responses to Places vs. names: Making peace with my lack of interest in nomenclature

  1. Cate Thomassen August 28, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    It’s so nice to know that I’m not alone. I’m much more apt to describe rocks and stones by place, memory or physical characteristics, even on the off chance I know the proper name. I think it allows me to relate to them as art rather than as specimens.

    I so enjoy the posts of your work Julie. Your making some gorgeous mosaics.

    Thanks you,
    Cate

    • Julie Sperling August 30, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

      Oh Cate, and I’m so happy to know that I’m not alone! Also, “relate to them as art rather than as specimens” = the PERFECT way of describing it. Thanks for that!

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