The ternness of terns

George Szirtes discusses people’s need to identify things – flowers, birds – something he doesn’t share. Indeed he sets up (but slightly backs away from), an opposition between the botanist’s way of looking and the artists’s way. He ends like this:

Yet all the time I am aware that even an urban citoyen of the imagination should be able to tell a kingfisher by its silhouette as it flashes across a narrow stream or be able to name at least a hundred stars. One should be able to do that really, as well as trying to render the flashing sensation in language and learning to define the starness of stars.

I can’t help feeling that those people – the vast majority – who can’t distinguish a gull from a tern, a swallow from a swift, or a bee from a wasp or a hoverfly, are completely failing to appreciate the ternness of terns.

Being able to recognise something and distinguish it from superficially similar things seems absolutely central to any attempt to learn something about its thingness. The ability to attach a name is secondary to the process of coming to know a thing the way you know a familiar place or a friend.

Conversely, any birdwatcher could tell you that gaining some sense of a bird’s thingness, its inscape, is a key part of learning to identify it. Of course, being a prosaic bunch, they don’t call it ‘inscape’, they call it ‘jizz’. But if there’s a distinction between saying ‘I knew it was a tern because of its tern-like jizz’ and ‘I knew it was a tern because it had ternness’, it would take a better philosopher than me to elucidate it.