Thursday, June 14, 2012

the secret names of things

There are not names for many things, perhaps most. I make up names for how things look, when they change, how they fade, what their connections are to each other. The names just come to me, mostly, though sometimes I give them thought and planning. I sometimes consult books too, but mostly to find out what names have already been used. I have forgotten when I chose to name light that shines through spiderwebs at night “silklumen.” I think it was two summers ago, when a big garden spider who had made her web stretch across the eastern corner of my deck captured an errant flying cicada. I don’t know why the name wasn’t fiercer, more violent. The event was certainly intense, and the mostly artificial light I saw it under made it seem sharper and more calculated. Still, now when I see light through spiderwebs under any conditions the light carries that name for me.
I named the suspected but unconfirmed sound of tiny mousefeet in my kitchen on a winter night “skitterpaws.” I really did not want there to be mice in my kitchen. There were, though. I tried to make them leave without killing them. Eventually they did. In the meantime, this name did not make me less anxious about their presence. In retrospect, I wish I’d chosen something more abstract, less creaturely.
Last night I tried to name the recurrent experience of nearly crashing into a whitetail deer (sometimes a whole bunch of them, together) while I am out for a run. Nothing seemed to fit. This happens fairly often. I lose myself in my music or in the way the sky or trees look and suddenly this tawny flank and flashing banner of white haunch and tail blazes across Old Cove Road in front of me. No matter how frequently this occurs, the sight of the deer always makes my heart beat faster with exhilaration and joy. It always feels like a blessing, like a nod from the holy ancestral body of the forest. I know the deer population is out of control but I still feel called into conspiratorial beauty when I see them.
Mysterious ripples in ponds, probably caused by jumping frogs or fish, are called leapshadows.
The noisy, raucous phenomenon of a redtail hawk being harassed by crows (usually three, though not always) is called cawclobber. Really.
The area next to shore where cypress knees push out from under water into air is called the kneeshallows.
The phenomenon of dragonflies flying away when I first approach them but then coming closer and lighting either near me or actually on my body (usually my feet but once or twice my knee or ankle) is called snakedoctorsettle.
The mist rising off the headwaters of a busy mountain creek or river is called streamsoul.
I am still trying to decide what to name the way a bald eagle looks flying away from the side of the road as I drive past in my truck. I don’t think there are any words wild and strange enough for it in the language I know.
The mysterious grottoes in the forest below my house are called foxhollows. It sounds a bit too genteel, but I can’t seem to think of them as anything else. They are deep and green, and they sometimes have running water down in them, just past seeing. They seem bottomless and tricky. Really they are small caves, and they do open shyly into the body of the mountainous earth. Roots curl around and above them but they are not defined by trees. I have the feeling that if I look at them right they will show me something important, something mysterious and ineffable. That feeling comes other times too but not often. It has come when I’ve seen the eerie flicker of foxfire in a swamp and when black bear raises her snout and snuffs the air that we are both sharing and smelling. When coyote yips like a petulant child in the hills. It came one night at a place where two rivers flow together; I was awakened from sleep by the loud sharp slap of sound on water. Beavers, I was told the next day. The energy of it had a quality of singular deliberate familiarity. Palpable in the moonlight of three a.m. The feeling is one that really disavows language as we know it altogether. It stands aside from that and is more about the way things smell, the way they might taste if we could know them that way. The colors they are about to show us but fall just shy of letting us see.
©Laura Sorrells 2012
all rights reserved


  1. You have a wonderful attention to detail. "Streamsoul" will become a part of my lexicon. You don't see many cypress knees up in the mountains, do you? I remember swimming far out in a lake in Maine and hearing what I thought was a shotgun shot. I looked around and didn't see anything and swam some more only to hear it again. The third time I saw him, about 10 yards away was a beaver trying to chase me off his lake.

  2. That's a great story. Well, there aren't a lot of cypress knees up here, but I get out a little, and the monastery where I go about once a month has wonderful cypress knees. The other day I was out for a walk in a favorite wetlands area and noticed where beavers had almost but not quite felled a small tree that was leaning, poised on a narrow thread of trunk, against another tree. Thank you for appreciating this. I don't think it's the best thing I've written, but I haven't really been writing at all of late, so it's a move in the right direction for me.


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Georgia, United States
I live at the edge of the forest in a little town in the north Georgia mountains. I teach sixth grade Language Arts and am writing a memoir of sorts about family, spirituality, and narrative. I am also exploring a possible writing project having to do with contemporary lay contemplative experience and how it might be informed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity. I am a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, and Richard Rohr. I'm a Lay Associate of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I am interested in indigenous cultures, narratives, and spirituality, especially how these can inform my spirituality as a lay contemplative. I write, read, take pictures, play around with creating ephemera from paper and cloth and other organic things. I cook, hike, watch wildlife, and collect random bits of interesting oddness, both tangible and abstract. I am a seer of smallness and a caretaker of ridiculous minutiae. If you want, e-mail me at or