The Failure of Names

To see more of James Prosek’s images, click here.

WHEN I WAS FOUR OR FIVE years old, I would draw birds at the kitchen table. As I finished each piece I asked my mother to write the names of the birds beneath the pictures: Cock of the Rock, Plate-Billed Toucan, Motmot. Somehow a picture wasn’t finished if the animal’s name wasn’t there.

When I learned to write, I scrawled the common and scientific names of each creature beneath my drawings myself — by example of Audubon, or any others who made paintings in the natural-history tradition. At nine I developed a passion for trout and began to compile a list of all the diverse types I could find in books and magazines.

In my mind, an animal was distinct from others if it had been given a scientific name. My view was that the classification of creatures was figured out by authority figures and that I should defer to that authority. In the process of painting different types of trout, though, I learned that even the authorities could not agree on the names they gave to describe the enormous diversity of fishes in the Salmonidae family. Some trout had been named a separate species and subsequently renamed a subspecies, placed in a different genus, or just pushed into a category with allied species. The history of the naming became as interesting to me as the physical diversity of the fishes themselves, which I loved to paint.

I wanted to believe that there were many more distinct creatures rather than fewer, because then I had more trout to paint and to put into what I hoped would eventually become a book of the trout of North America. I used any and all sources I could find in assembling what eventually did become my first book, Trout: An Illustrated History — a book of seventy watercolors. I had not yet explored the idea that naturalists named things because they wanted to create a legacy for themselves, or wished to be published more, or because of an innate human compulsion. I accepted the names without question — at least where there was consensus. Where there wasn’t, I either made an educated decision or included the argument over a species’ status in the text that would accompany each fish.

Since I had seen only a fraction of the trout I painted in my book, there was some amount of mythologizing and imagination involved. I had traveled across country with a friend for a summer when we were just old enough to drive, and we hiked and searched out native trout in many western states. The rest I painted from photos other people had taken and from descriptions in old books. A favorite source was David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann’s 1902 book, American Food and Game Fishes. Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, named a fair number of the native trout west of the Continental Divide, including some trout he described only from dead specimens. The “longfin char” of the Canadian Arctic was based on a tenuous description from a remote lake in Greenland. But Jordan was an authority, so I happily added his fish to my list, and painted it from his descriptions.

As I painted trout through my late teens, major shifts in trout taxonomy were taking place. Through genetic analysis, which was fairly new in the early ’90s, it was discovered that rainbow trout (from the Pacific coast) and brown trout (introduced from Europe) were not as closely related as once thought. The genes showed that the rainbow trout was more closely related to Pacific salmon, fishes that die when they spawn, of the genus Oncorhynchus. The brown trout was more closely related to the Atlantic salmon, and remained in the genus Salmo. The native trout of my home state, Connecticut, the brook trout, was actually a whole separate genus, Salvelinus, more closely related to the Arctic char than to the rainbow or brown trout. Technically, it was no longer correct even to call the book I was working on Trout. I found myself wanting to ignore the namers because they were getting in the way of my own personal vision.

I began to understand that species were less static than the fathers of modern taxonomy — those like Carl Linnaeus — once believed. That nature was static and classifiable was an idea perpetuated by the natural history museum (repository for dead nature), the zoo (repository for living nature), and the book (repository for thoughts and images related to nature). These mediums were all distillations of nature, what individuals of authority deemed an appropriate cross section to present to the public. None had adequately represented Nature — at once chaotic, multifarious, and interconnected.

In the process of painting and writing my second trout book, Trout of the World, I gathered most of the information firsthand during extensive travels through Europe and Asia. As I saw more of the world and its trout in person, a few things became clearer to me. A species like the brown trout, its native range stretching from Iceland to the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, from the Kola Peninsula in Russia to Morocco, was highly variable. Pretty much every stream I pulled brown trout from, they looked different — not only every population, but every individual. There was no way that names could account for all this diversity. Were names then inadequate in the face of our changing relationship with, and view of, nature?

Ironically, despite the beauty and diversity I had witnessed, the differences between the fish I saw were not as great as I’d wished they’d been — not as great as the differences between the trout in my first book, when I accentuated characteristics that I had deemed important, based on bad photos and vague descriptions and colorful names. I was conflicted — I loved the names that had first led me to recognize the existence of diversity (golden trout, Oncorhynchus aguabonita; blueback trout, Salvelinus oquassa), but as I learned more I wanted to throw away the names, step beyond those constraints, in order to preserve a sense of wonder that I had felt from an early age.

Such thoughts were the origin of the curvilinear lines in my present work. For a long time I thought that my profession would be architecture, and that’s what I initially studied in college. The first paintings I did with lines emanating from creatures were meant to be imaginings of what God’s or Nature’s blueprint of a particular creature might look like. After drawing curvilinear lines, first emanating from the points on the body of a seahorse, I realized the lines were helpful as visual aids to point out particular parts of a creature that I wanted to bring attention to. The lines activated the space around the animal in a satisfactory way, erasing the need for the name to be written beneath. In this way, the lines became a very personal visual taxonomy, replacing the lingual one.

The lines in these works are also there to acknowledge that nothing is absolute, that even the laws of physics, though tested again and again, may one day buckle in the face of some unknown force. How can we say for sure otherwise? We willingly accept the way people in the past have viewed and arranged the world. Does bowing to that authority prevent us from looking at things with a fresh perspective? Naming gives us the illusion that nature is fixed, but it is as fluid as the language used to describe it. It is a challenge of the artist (if no one else) to un-name and re-name the world to remind us that fresh perspectives exist.

James Prosek is an artist and writer living in Easton, Connecticut. He is the author of many books, including Trout: An Illustrated History and Eels: An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish. His latest book (Ocean Fishes, Rizzoli, 2012) is a collection of paintings of 35 Atlantic fishes, all of which were painted life size based on individual specimens he traveled to see. Prosek has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine and won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler. His paintings have been shown in galleries across the country, and he is cofounder, with Yvon Chouinard, of the conservation initiative World Trout.


  1. I enjoyed Prosek’s article. Biological nomenclature is a fabulous tool without which making sense of the natural world would be impossible for us, but it’s good to be occasionally reminded that it’s only a tool, and that phyla, genera and species are inventions, not real things.

  2. When we name things we think we understand them. Nothing could be further from the truth. How many of these things we name behave, interact and support each other are still mysterious- and may be lost to extinction before we understand, scientifically, what they mean to the earth and to our survival? Such a tragedy in the making.

  3. As a naturalist and artist, I too was obessed with knowing the names of the plants and animals and birds around me. But I slowly came to realize that knowing the name of something was almost an excuse to check it off and move on to the next one. I thought that knowing the name of something meant I knew it, but as the author implies, that’s not true at all. If anything, it’s merely the beginning. But all too often, having the name is enough and make most people stop paying attention any longer. Which is too bad and rather indicative of our culture’s relationship to nature at this point and time.

  4. As my husband and I struggle to name our first and unborn son, this conversation strikes me as particularly pertinent. Although creatures change and sometimes outlive the usefulness of their names, names often do evolve with the creature. Growing, living things are not static. Naming is incredibly important, yet such a human thing to do, to try to control and understand things that may always have an element of mysteriousness.

  5. The artwork that accompanies Prosek’s article is so compelling and very expressive of the ideas he put in writing. As a botanist, I completely agree! I imagine a similar approach to botanical illustration combined with herbarium specimens. So interesting that much of classification is based on appearances in death rather than life. However, I would say that having name for a group/species/population or even and individual of a trout/bird/plant etc. is important if we are going to have meaningful dialogue about any life form. The diversity within any species or other taxon can be broadly described within the context of the label we give it, with the common understanding that the boundaries between taxon are often very fuzzy or overlapping. And if you’re an entomologist, this gets even more confusing because of various life stages! Great essay!

  6. i’m a visual artist, as well. i also write poetry, so i, too find the crossover between words and images very interesting. for years, i’ve been wanting to write a poem called, “name the birds,” which will feature many of the very beautiful and exciting bird names, but ultimately conclude with the truth that no name can possibly capture the essence of a living thing. lately i’ve been reading and listening to eckhart tolle, and i feel that he compasses the larger questions this idea comes from/goes to so wonderfully. and therefore recommend him heartily to all who ask them…

  7. I enjoyed Prosek’s writing and art, as I always do. It put me in mind of John Fowles’ great essay “The Green Man,” obscure these days, but one of the most brilliant essays I’ve read on art, process, and nature. It’s not easily distilled, but Fowles says of naming:

    “In the 1950s I grew interested in Zen theories of ‘seeing’ and aesthetics: of learning to look beyond names at things-in-themselves. I stopped bothering to identify species new to me, and I concentrated more on the familiar, daily nature around me, where I then lived. But living without names is impossible, if not downright idiocy, in a writer. . .. I discovered, too, that there was less conflict than I had imagined between nature as external assembly of names and nature as internal feeling; that the two modes of seeing could in fact marry and take place almost simultaneously, and enrich each other.”

    The essay examines naming further, and goes on to say: “The subtlest of our alienations from [nature], the most difficult to comprehend, is our need to use* it in some way, to derive some personal yield.”

    The word “use,” to Fowles, includes “to make ourselves feel more positive, more meaningful, more dynamic.” These, he concludes, are not reasons to preserve nature. It’s a fine essay written far before its time in 1979, in The Tree, by Fowles.

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