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I Know About Plants Now

Photo: UIG via Getty Images

I lost my umbrella the other day. People lose umbrellas all the time, I know, but this felt like a particularly stupid way to lose one: I was trying to take a photo of a flower.

It’s just that I needed a close-up shot, and so I had to wedge my phone into this little fenced-off garden, only I forgot I’d tied my umbrella onto my totebag, and then the umbrella fell into the garden, right in the middle where I couldn’t reach, and now I have to use my grubby hiking jacket when it rains, because it has a hood.

It could’ve been worse; I could’ve dropped my phone. And then I’d never know that this flower  — which looked like a dandelion puff, only it was waist-high and purple — is actually an onion.

An onion!

This is my life now. I take pictures of plants and then I privately marvel at their names, revealed to me by a free app called iNaturalist, which I learned about from Jenny Odell’s recently published book, How to Do Nothing. Odell writes that she started using the app “to identify species of plants I had walked right by my entire life”; soon, she was “met with the uncanny knowledge that these had all been here before yet they had been invisible to me.” This is a brainier way of expressing the glee I felt upon learning the weeds my dog likes to eat are not weeds at all, but are in fact a tiny tree: a “tree of heaven,” which happens to be the A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tree. A famous tree. A literary tree. Who knew?

I wondered if the app had experienced a spike in downloads since the release of Odell’s book in April, so I contacted the company. Indeed it has: April saw more than 700,000 downloads, about twice as many as the same month the previous year. But, a (big!) caveat: That increase can likely be explained by something called the City Nature Challenge, which encouraged cities worldwide to compete “to see who can make the most observations of nature” using iNaturalist to do so. “So while I’m pretty sure How to Do Nothing has motivated a good number of people to download iNaturalist,” Tony Iwane, iNaturalist’s outreach coordinator, said in an email, “there’s no way we [can] parse its impact from that of the City Nature Challenge.” Huh. Okay, cool.

Learning this about the app reminds me of the feeling I get from using the app itself. I learn this stuff, and it’s so interesting, but then it also feels like — huh. Okay, cool. Just yesterday, I learned that the trees down the street with the bark that looks like camo print are called London planes, and that people often think the NYC Parks Department logo is a maple leaf, but really it’s more likely a London-plane leaf. Huh. Okay, cool.

What am I planning on doing with these names I’m collecting? I know the entire point of Odell’s book is that not everything we do needs to have a point, but I still wonder sometimes why I’m doing this. Am I trying to impress someone? (Who on earth would be impressed by this?) Is this the long-term curse of being a straight-A student with nothing left to study? It’s like I’m prepping for a pop quiz, assuming that any day now I’ll need to demonstrate that I know the difference between a linden tree and a honey locust. (And I do: Honey locusts have compound leaves, meaning they have a bunch of little leaflets per stem. Lindens have just one leaf per stem, and they’re shaped like an adorable lopsided heart.)

I think it’s more that it feels respectful, somehow, to try to get to know these guys as individuals; it’s as if I’m participating in some kind of broader Earth civility. Walking right by is starting to feel rude, and ignorance is starting to feel like a minor breach of etiquette. Where were my manners all those years?

At one point in her book, someone asks Odell if using the app was doing more to alienate her from her surroundings than to connect her to them, in the way it reduces nature to something to itemize, to memorize. But she thinks of iNaturalist as “a temporary crutch,” as a first step toward noticing what she used to ignore. Or maybe ignore isn’t quite the right word: If you don’t know what you’re looking at, some cognitive scientists would argue that you aren’t able to see it at all.

Before I started using iNaturalist, I just saw “nature” — trees and plants and flowers. They all blended together. Now, when I’m walking my dog, I mentally nod to the ones I know. As Odell writes, “Learning the names of things was my first step in perceiving not just ‘land’ or ‘greenery,’ but living bodies instead.” This, rather than the urge to share my newfound knowledge, is why I’m so drawn to this app. I mean, plants live here, too. Learning their names just feels polite.

I Know About Plants Now