Updated: Dec 14, 2019
The toucan has been with us for more than a month now and she still doesn’t have a name. At first we didn’t want to name her. Freddie, who was so in love with her, said after a moment, “No, better not to name her for now, in case she flies away.” Or is given to a shelter, we further reasoned. Or what, of course, if she dies? Like farmers who don’t name the animal they might later have for dinner, we decided we would keep our hearts a little bit closed. Be practical. Don’t get attached. The fate of this little creature was entirely unknown.
But slowly things began to shift. First, she lived in the bathroom of Room 9 for a couple of weeks. We fed her daily, mashed banana and papaya, and ran the shower for her to bathe. She was so young that many of her feathers were just pokey pins and large parts of her body still naked. But in no time she grew strong enough to try using her wings, and flew from one corner of the room to another, landing on the overhead beams, or hurling herself at the window screen in a bid for the great outdoors. As soon as we release her, I thought, this creature will be gone. Wild and free, into the trees. Better not to name her.
The big day of release arrived. I couldn’t take the guilt any more. She seemed strong enough to survive, and each day we would hear her parents calling in the trees outside. Soon you will be with them, I would whisper in her ear. Soon you will be free. We walked along as a solemn little group, performing a ceremony none had every conducted before but which we knew nonetheless was momentous. We were going to release the toucan! Dalenis, a Costa Rican woman who works with us, came along. A farm girl from childhood, and keeping chickens to this day, she is knowledgeable about birds and had been the toucan’s ‘other mother’, feeding her when I couldn’t and always talking to her in the sweetest tones. Clara came along as I’d asked for moral support and accountability – if she could help me choose and stick to the moment of release, I was far more likely to do it. Gadi trailed behind with a camera, the moment not to be missed. We considered one spot and then another, each time listening closely to where the adult keel-billed toucans were calling – croak croak croak (they sound a LOT like frogs) – and trying to find a release spot as close to them as possible. On the way down the road we passed a laughing falcon, watching in ominous silence from the trees overhead. The wild seemed scary and full of such unknowns. Would her parents accept and protect her?
I lifted my hand from the back of her wings, so she had full permission to Go! She stayed seated on my arm. We saw what might have been the parents on a nearby cecropia tree, and perhaps they saw us, but if they did, they heeded us not, flying in their straggling flock away from us, deeper into the jungle and down toward the lake. Why were we sending this little toucan into the wild with so little training and no one to defend her? Would she know what to eat? Would she find a safe spot to sleep, away from the night time’s thundering rains and voracious gusting winds?
Finally she flew from my arm and onto a branch. We had grown so bored with waiting and so involved in our own little conversations that Gadi had lowered his camera and didn’t get the picture. But a minute or two later she was back, flying straight toward us and landing on Gadi’s head. This was not going according to plan.
Since that day the toucan has been wild and free but has chosen to remain close by, landing sometimes on our outstretched arms, or showing up to the daily meetings to tell us about her day, pulling on the strings of one client’s hoodie, or walking casually under the chair of another. I no longer go out each day convinced she has died the night before. But nor do I take her presence for granted. She still seems like an utter gift from the great world of nature. So how can we give her a name? But then again – why not?
“It has to be a common name,” said Gadi. “Something to match (the dogs) ‘Norman’ and ‘Jackson’. How about ‘Margaret’?”
I looked into the toucan’s violet eyes with the piercingly brilliant but somehow gentle attention shared by so many birds, cocking her head as she considered our words. “No,” I said. “Not Margaret”.
A few days later we considered further. Maybe she should be named after one of the great women of the world, why not a Latin American woman. So we tried Frida, Sosa, Isabel Allende… then expanded the field to Monserrat, Maria Callas, Hildegard Von Bingen. One name didn’t seem to be enough for her multi-coloured extravagance, so we tried ‘Frida Calla Sosa Von Wingen the First: the Duchess of El Aguacate’ – the nearby pueblo. It was a spectacular name, but it still didn’t suit her. “Frida,” I called lamely into the bushes. If I were her I wouldn’t have responded either.
I tried on a flurry of other such names, names glamourous enough to reflect her shimmering beauty – names like Esmeralda, or Rosalita, or Coralita, Dulcebella, or at perhaps simply Carmen…. Something dramatic to match her red and black plumage, but friendly to go with her lime greens and lemon yellows… but none of them seemed to stick.
I brought it up at a staff meeting. The truth is, someone noted, we don’t even know if she’s female or male. So how about something gender neutral? How about Coco, or Kiki, or Bijou or, or, or… maybe just Titi, short for The Toucan? Whoosh whoosh whooshwent her wings as she flew by spectacularly, banking sharply between two branches and gliding over an expanse of jungle. No. That’s not her name either.
Finally, I remembered a poem I read when I was a kid, from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was on the Naming of Cats, and how very difficult it is. Cats, claims Eliot, should have three different names. The first is the family name – like Jonathan or George – this was akin to our Margaret. Or, Eliot goes on, you can choose a fancy family name – like Demeter or Admetus – here was our Frida, Esmeralda, Carmen Miranda – but these too, claims Eliot, are mere everyday names.
Beyond these, he says, a cat needs a particular name – one peculiar to that individual – such as Munkustrap or Coricopat. This name, he says, puts pride in their step, it helps them to hold their tails perpendicular. In the toucan’s case, I imagined, such a unique name would reflect her appreciation of the colours in her beak, the power in her wings, the beauty of those curly red feathers under her vent or the tiny shimmering feathers that adorn the back of her neck…
Yes, it makes sense to me – the toucan should have a name all her own, something that is not used for any other creature in the world. She is, after all, a unique individual. This name would define her individuality as we recognize the same in each other – this person’s laugh or that person’s smile.
But there is yet a third name, Eliot contends; one that humans will never discover. This is the name the cats holds all their own, the name they give to themselves. It is a secret name, a silent name, a profound name that encapsulates their very being. When a cat is sitting in deep meditation, he says, it is contemplating the thought of his most secret Name; it is sitting with it, resting with it, bathing in it, learning from it – this “effanineffable” name; the name that can and cannot be articulated.
This is the sort of name the toucan embodies, I realise. She is utterly natural yet utterly impossible to understand. She is utter wildness yet utter familiarity. Her presence in our lives is both possible and impossible. She talks constantly, chattering away while tugging on my finger or ear, asking perhaps for food or for games, yet all in an unintelligible tongue, saying a thousand things I will never be able to understand.
She is, in the end, an emissary from the wild. She is not ‘ours’ but a visitor. And one should never, I think, call a visitor anything but ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. One certainly should not name them. Like a stranger’s, her name has come from a far off country, and existed long before she arrived at our doorstep.
This contemplation on naming has extended to other areas in my life. Why, for example do we call Earth ‘the planet’? It makes it sound practical, replaceable – there are other ‘planets’ after all. It also makes it sound like an inanimate object, as if it were understandable. But what if it were still named as a god, as it once was? Would that not change my perception of it and therefore my relationship? What is the secret name of this place we live? What is She, herself, deeply contemplating?
I also understand even more keenly why in certain religions it is forbidden to speak the name of G-d. How could that which is (implicitly) known, that which sings to us on all registers, on all keys and notes simultaneously, which is so much vaster than our mind and body, and far beyond our meagre vocabulary, ever be named? Wouldn’t it be better to keep it only as an experience of rapture, a source of revelation, a subtle, given quality that inspires love and familiarity between all living things?
If you wish to truly know something, if you wish to have a living relationship with it, how much does the name of it help, and how much does it hinder? Does a name liberate or limit? Without names nothing can be referenced - how could I call to you in a crowd? - and yet with them all the world is reduced, risking the loss of mystery, shattering a sense of communion, and fostering an inability to truly see.*
(*footnote*I always think of this when I meet someone interesting on the plane. The best part of the conversation is the first nine-tenths of it. We open with ‘Where are you going’ or ‘Where are you from?’ and the conversation unfolds to deeper truths and reflections, joys and sorrows are shared, commiserated over, empathized with; lives are shared, reflected upon, learned from. A budding warmth emerges between me and the other, and by the end of several hours there is a deep sense of camaraderie, a sense of friendship or love, even. Then the artificial break as the plane lands back on Earth, the wheels roar along the tarmac; we are in a place with a name and a time zone and we have things to do. We are beholden to our established relationships. The plane comes to a stop and we must gather our things and prepare to go our separate ways. ‘What is your name?’ one of us will ask. And the gesture is reciprocated. And then there is a stillness – what do we do with this limitation? Here is a name; this person is known and loved by others. But to me their name is a new sound on my tongue; I roll it around, unfamiliar and strange – so at odds with the love I felt a moment before. We are formal now, strangers again. ‘It’s nice to meet you,’ we might say, shaking hands. ‘All the best on your journey.’ And so the name closes a door.)
Perhaps at best a name can lead us to truth. It can be, like the Zen saying, the finger pointing at the moon. There are words, writes Rumi, that lead us back to silence, and these are the words we should be seeking. The Everyday name of Eliot’s cat points, in its way, to the Particular name of the individual, which points, in turn, to that deeper, impossible-to-articulate Name that draws the animal back to their own state of being. Each name a veil leading deeper and deeper within.
The toucan, in her nameless, graceful state, with flashes of brilliant colour, swift strong wingbeats soaring high over trees or swooping low to land amiably on my arm, gently touching her warm bill to my nose and murmuring a language all her own, in herself brings me back to silence. She rests, like so many words, as a go-between between my limited life and the unlimited mysteries. Perhaps, in her essence, she is a word better left unspoken.
The Naming of Cats, by T.S. Eliot (1939)
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn't just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES. First of all, there's the name that the family use daily, Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James, Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey-- All of them sensible everyday names. There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter, Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames: Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter-- But all of them sensible everyday names. But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular, A name that's peculiar, and more dignified
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride? Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum, Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum- Names that never belong to more than one cat. But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess; The name that no human research can discover-- But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess. When you notice a cat in profound meditation, The reason, I tell you, is always the same: His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: His ineffable effable Effanineffable Deep and inscrutable singular Name.