The Naming of Names

Wisteria sinensis. A nice way to be remembered. See below for further details.

Helianthus maximiliani. The Maximilian Sunflower.

Spring is the classic time for wildflowers.  In Texas, even in an off year, the wealth of native flowers is Fat City for bees and butterflies and a heady treat to multiple human senses. There are cotton candy mounds of pink primroses, flagrantly crimson-red spikes of Indian paintbrush, those iconic sapphire swaths of the bluebonnet—and a few hundred assorted others.  On a still spring night, their collective scent is something that I have occasionally fantasized about distilling into a perfume that would give Chanel a run for its money.

One Maximilian w/ bee. An eternal partnership.

But the wildflowers of autumn are their own special pleasure; they stand out as a last summer hurrah in a landscape going sere and preparing for winter. Now that the Autumn solstice has brought cooler nights, days with a crisp edge, and the promise of wild-voiced migrating geese, it has also brought golden stands of Maximilian Sunflowers.

Prince Maximilian. c.1830.

The Maximilian Sunflower bears the name of the man who officially first described it.  In the early 19th century, Prince Maximilian of Weid– German noble, naturalist and botanist– came to the American West and looked with a scientist’s particular joy upon a flower that plenty of people—passing Comanches among them—had surely seen.  But he did more than look—he saw, he examined, he described.  And for that, he achieved the unique immortality bestowed upon those favored few who have a living thing named after them.

People who build monuments to themselves don’t seem to do much better with the immortality thing than the rest of us. Ask Saddam H.

The human quest to defeat oblivion by hanging one’s name on something tangible—and preferably large—is arguably one of the big drivers behind civilization.  For better or worse, there are many among us who like seeing themselves referenced in monuments, in eponymously named edifices, in the titles of sporting events.  The pyramid started small and got big as each builder tried to outdo his predecessors.  At the moment, the owner of a self-named building that sits upon real estate too pricey for even him to own is apparently dreaming of seeing his name stretched in very large letters across the nation’s southern boundary, ostensibly for the sake of national security.  Bowl games are a roll call of the corporations we are now assured can be seen as human entities.

Dr. Caspar Wistar, 1761-1818.

But the mighty and the self-important are no match for the gear shifts of time, public opinion, and the elements.  As Percy Shelly knew, the universe has a habit of curtailing such flights of vanity, of pulling the most massive of human egos up short.  Dust we are and dust we will be again, saith the Reaper.

A nice specimen of a Golden Sebright rooster–living monument to Sir John Saunders Sebright (English, 19th cent.), 7th Sebright Baronet.

The tenacity of life offers a unique out. Ozymandias is forgotten, but the 7th Baronet of Sebright lives on in the  pretty chickens named for him, the Silver and Golden Sebrights. Dr. Caspar Wistar, the 18th century American physician, is believed memorialized in the wisteria, that gloriously rampant spring flowering vine. George Wilhelm Steller (German, 1709-1746) has a few creatures named for him, including his sea eagle—and Prince Maximilian has his sunflower.

Steller’s gloriously badass sea eagle, Haliacetus pelagicus. To be found in the vicinity of the Bering Sea.

Their golden spikes are a graceful exclamation point in this early Autumn, in the time for thinking about mortality, of adding up, of tallying the ledger of gain and loss and possibilities realized or blown.  In the face of Autumn’s inevitable sadness, they are a joyous reminder that the meek do indeed inherit the earth where the naming of names is concerned; that immortality can come more lastingly to the humble than the fleetingly famous; that life itself is the ultimate monument to life.

LM Johnson 10.12.17

The Max in all its golden glory. A great way to say goodbye to a year.



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