Monday, October 10, 2005

An interlude for naming rights

Part 3 of 4

“The glory and the nothing of a name.” Lord Byron

Connie Nugent has lots of files. She has files on city council meetings dating back to the creation of Blue Rapids; files on agendas, on resolutions, on social groups and their meetings, on businesses past and present; on the evolution of the town square, on Riverside Park, on the waterworks (which were the most advanced of any town in Kansas at the time). Woven throughout those files is our town’s narrative, from its bright beginning to its long slow decline. And somewhere, she says, there’s a brief reference to a Juganine. Maybe a horse once renowned at the race track here. Or maybe it was a prize bull exhibited during the early days of the fair. It’s in those files somewhere, she says. She just can’t remember where.

While she looks, I’m thinking of the Judith River in Montana. Not that I’ve ever seen it, but its name has resonated with me for decades since reading that William Clark named it for Julia Hancock as he and the Corps of Discovery worked their way up the Missouri River. At the time I thought it one of the most romantic things a man could do. I wasn’t aware that little Julia would have been around thirteen years old at the time, and, in fact, that when Clark had last been with her she would have been a waif of ten. The man apparently liked them young.

Even so, naming the river in her honor must have scored points with Julia’s father. I imagine Clark rapping on the door of the Hancocks’ Virginia plantation, a bouquet of flowers in hand, and who should answer the door but Mr. Hancock himself. Though Julia’s suitor is one of the most famous men in America, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s over twice her age. Mr. Hancock is understandably dubious. Mr. Hancock makes no move to allow Clark egress.

“Why,” he intones sonorously, “should I let you woo my daughter? Good God, man, she’s only fifteen!”

“Well,” Clark stutters, “I did name that river after her.”

“Major tributary?”

“It looked pretty big.”

“What a jolly good fellow!” Mr. Hancock exclaims, ushering Clark in with a gallant sweep of his arm.

Something about a name gives its namesake power and permanence. In the book of Genesis, the act of naming was the first thing God commanded of Adam. Parents often agonize over what to name a child, as if the name itself somehow bequeaths nobility or intellect. But these days naming rights rarely extend to points on the compass. There are few William Clarks about, and fewer unexplored areas.

Which leaves the stars and little no-name creeks like the one running past our house.
I seem determined to name something after my wife. Even as I plunged downward from the crest of the hill and vowed to place her name upon it, I was uncomfortably aware of the time I tried casting her name to the heavens—literally.

“An eternal home for your name in the night sky!” I’d read in an ad, and if that didn’t catch my attention, the next line did: “The perfect gift for a loved one!” Surely a star is loftier than a river, and here was a way to upstage Clark. The company offered several packages to fit my budget (Couples Stars! Constellations! Galaxies!) and even included free shipping. But an annoying little doubt crept in as I was fixing to give them my credit card number. A few minutes of research exposed star-naming as an utter sham.

And yet, and yet, there had to be a way to name unnamed landforms. In my spare time I rooted around the Internet looking for information, and after several days I found it at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Included on their Web site is a form for naming geographic entities, which I began gleefully filling out. Somehow, though, I skipped the part where it says the nominee must have been dead for at least five years. When it was pointed out, I felt I had run into a wall at full speed.


I walked outside and stared at the ribbon of trees and felt defeated. I questioned my motives for wanting so badly to place my wife’s name on something as eternal as a star, as a stream. Was there a trace of conceit, of pride, one of the seven deadly sins? Or was it something more benign, an old-fashioned romanticism hearkening back to that of Clark? I could not say.

But my way was barred, I knew that. All that remained was to proceed to the end.

The next morning I stepped outside to go to work and lightning shattered the darkness, silent flares of light exploding in the treeless west, and overhead a gibbous moon flitting between scudding clouds unseen in the velvet night. No breath of wind, no distant rumble of thunder, only the metronomic pulse of crickets. I stood by the car and thought of the cold front sliding down from the north, how it would drag migrants in its wake, and change, too, how it would shred summer’s final hold and replace it with an ascendant autumn, and how even if warm days returned they would be as insubstantial as dreams, transient, pale shadows of what once was. I got in my car and drove eastwards, the headlights sweeping the road, and lightning overtook me and engulfed in perfect lambency the wooded ridges beyond the river. Thus summer died.

It would be an autumn stream now. It would be named Juganine or named nothing at all, neither obscure nor famous but simply there. On a cool morning with leaves drifting to earth I slipped from the house and crossed the field and the woods swallowed me.

(Conclusion next week)

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