What's In a Name: How Naming Tells Sacred Stories

Wendell Berry, one of the greatest cultural critics and environmental activists of our time, understands that while we are inherently members of a macro-ecosystem, a deep seeded connection to a place isn’t achieved through scientific understandings or biological theories.  He argues that the cultural sterility of these concepts can have the opposite effect on a community, causing people to turn away instead of turning toward the land due to lack of meaningful relevance.  To find one’s place within an ecosystem requires an introduction to the names and experience of the very real places that make up one’s homes cape. These features are found not only through direct experiences, but also by the stories we tell about them. 

“The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people, " says Berry.

I am curious about what happens to our sense of place, to our storied landscapes when they carry the name of notable patriarchs or a simple number. Does the name of a man truly give us a sense of a place and our relationship to it? Does a mere address number really tell you where you are? Many amazing places have been christened with a name detached from a story. In Seattle, many of our parks are known by a last name alone: Seward, Cheasty, and Denny to name a few. It is far more common for a house address to be sterilized with numbers, ignoring the storied lives and land upon which the home sits. 

In far more ancient times, a place became known for events that happened there. For instance, when walking south on the Holy Isle of Iona, with the Sound of Iona on your left, the road turns right to lead west across the island. On the left, just before the gate onto the grass above the seashore, is a smooth green hillock. The name of this rise tells a story in its two names: Sìthean or the Fairy Mound where, according to local legend, the music of the fairy folk could entice unwary mortals inside the hill; and Cnoc nan Aingeal or Hill of the Angels where, according to Adomnán, Colmcille was seen meeting with angels. When one makes pilgrimage to Iona even today, there is a hope that a sacred sighting might be witnessed on this storied hill, and that quiet wish changes the posture with how one engages with this place.

Then there is Mt. Rainier, an awe-inspiring presence in the Pacific Northwest, presumptuously named by George Vancouver after an admiral in the Royal Navy. Indigenous tribes, however, had always known its true name-Tahoma, "The Mountain That Was God." N. Scott Momaday doggedly believes that some names are "old and original in the mind, like the beat of rain on the river." There are names that tell the foundational story and give us a sense of the grandeur of God, the sacred presence of the Spirit, and how we participate in the on-going story of the universe.


When we forget the real name of a place, we forget the stories that happened there. 


Stories are critical to how we move through the world and how we understand our place within it. This last year, after years of simply calling our home "2809" we decided to name our house, a name that would taproot us even deeper into the fabric of stories that existed before our time and that continue to weave fresh patterns today. Hedgewood is the name that expressed the years of living in this place and the connections (human and more than human alike) that have grown out of our lavender hedge in the front of the house, the hedgerows we have planted along side it, and the woods that create a sense of refuge in our backyard. This name invites others into a storied landscape that awakens the imagination for what else a place may hold.

As we move through a season that is filled with stories about profound people and places, be curious about the wisdom and events that are seeping into the stories we tell. For example, do you know what Bethlehem means? The Hebrew, בֵּית לֶחֶם‎ Bet Lehem, means House of Bread. The meaning of this place becomes significant in the life and story of the historical Jesus. Be curious about the name beneath the name, investigate the original names of places within your bioregion and how these names tell stories of God and a sacred sense of belonging.