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Beyond Names

“A name should never trap a thing, it needs to be worthy and spacious, for the wildness of the invisible world is nameless”

– Eternal Echoes, John O Donohue

Names are important. In the landscape, names are part of the culture, representing part of local history and with a meaning that sum up the character of the place – Lakeland names like Lingmoor (heather moor), Langstrath (long valley), Sleddale (flat or even valley), Great Gable (gable on a roof top).  Over time we tend to use the name as an identifier so the meaning of the name gets lost and with it, the place loses some of its mystery.

Even if you comprehend the meaning of the name, it might not mean much to you.  I live in Longsleddale – the long flat bottomed valley – which is just that, a long flat bottomed valley. But it’s much more than that to me.  It’s my home, a melting pot of idling by the river, running through energy sapping tussocks, swimming in the tarn, picking blackberries in the hedgerows, days and nights, driving rain and blazing sun, the sting of winter days and carpets of flowers in the Spring.  Long, flat valley just doesn’t do it for me.  The name is just a convenience, a shallow tag that says nothing of what it has become for me. Shallow names make it too easy to pass through a landscape without a real appreciation for what it is.  Names on the map become identifiers; points to be reached; mechanistic locators. This reduces the whole experience where the multiple layers of nature remain hidden.

In Jewish tradition, a name tells of a thing’s mystery.  Similarly in more traditional societies, a name may speak of something beyond the physical.  Geographical names in Western culture rarely respect this tradition.  Whilst British explorers named the highest mountain in the world ‘Everest’ after surveyor, George Everest, the indigenous Tibetans call it Chomolungma, or ‘Goddess of the world’.  Other mountain names are often descriptive of form. Think of ‘Great End’ (the Lake District hill lying at the end of the Scafell range, and which presents a distinctive face well seen from the North, or Meall Gorm (from the Gaelic for blue hill).  This shapes how we think of them and reduces them to physical features, or worse, to points on a map. A name may hint of a thing’s past, but by naming it, too often a thing is shorn of its mystery. It becomes something to be identified, collected or acquired. Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we see. Soul doesn’t care what it’s called.

Exploring a new (or familiar) area without a map counters this tendency. It releases the imagination and invites exploration. It allows a thing to be multi-faceted, not restricted to a single name. It can be defined by your experience and freed from inadequate labels.