“This naming is no simple business, I see.”
– Adam Trask, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden
I have known these mountains before, worn the dust of these trails, sipped from these streams. A few days shy of my twenty-first birthday, I slept beside my first love in the fragrance of these evergreens. I lay next to him four years later, a wife failing in love, and watched the Milky Way bridge these jagged peaks. Five years have passed since then, and I have returned, now alone, to spend the summer in Yosemite National Park.
Here, memories make me feel like a stranger to myself. My own name scratches and constricts like an ill-fitting sweater. It comforts me to be with wild things that do not speak it. As I walk among Steller’s jays and Brewer’s lupine and Douglas firs, I think, you, too, wear someone else’s name. This is also true of mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes—names within names. I wonder about the people and the motivations behind these names, which I feel hesitant to say aloud.
A few days after my arrival in the park, I discover my favorite Yosemite waterfall two miles east of the backpackers’ camp at Little Yosemite Valley. There, Sierra snowmelt races down a hundred-foot granite slide, an uninterrupted ribbon of white water dissolving into a broad, round pool. This basin, when viewed from above, conjures a human iris. Golden green rings the shallows, deepening into jade at the center, and stones beneath the surface reflect the sunlight in varying hues.
Wandering through a flat stretch of cedars, pines, and fir after my early morning ascent of Half Dome, I enter a canyon between the soaring walls of Moraine Dome and Bunnell Point, where the Merced River spills out of the mouth of Lost Valley. I approximate my location on my topographical map and misidentify the falls as Bunnell Cascade.
Lafayette Houghton Bunnell was many things—career soldier, surgeon, explorer, writer, historian—but foremost in my mind, he was a bestower of names. In March of 1851, at age twenty-six, he and fifty-seven other militiamen of the Mariposa Battalion became the first whites to enter Yosemite Valley. Their commission: to capture the Yosemite tribe of the central Sierra Nevada, responsible for recent raids on mining settlements, and forcibly relocate its members to a reservation in the San Joaquin Valley.
And what to do with the newly appropriated land—with its glacial valleys, imposing rock faces, plunging waterfalls, and granite domes? As Steinbeck writes of California’s early settlers in East of Eden, “They had to give everything they saw a name. This is the first duty of any explorer—a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand-drawn map.”
As it is with mountains, so it is with people. We name children so that they can be recognized, known, found. We give them strings of letters, a cluster of sounds by which their friends and family, their teachers and employers, and the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service will identify them. We pick names that mean something. We investigate etymology, examine translations and significations. We choose the names of beloved grandparents, literary characters, historical figures, and biblical heroines. We consider possible nicknames, we sample pronunciations, and then we eliminate choices likely to garner teasing from unkind playmates. We contemplate alternate spellings and tally syllables. According to our preferences, we choose names that are modern, popular, exotic, old-fashioned, or unusual. The names must be beautiful, must delight the ears. And they must fit. As it is with mountains, so it is with people: to name is a privilege and a duty.
Lafayette Bunnell was nothing if not a man of duty. He executed his orders and, along with his fellow soldiers, assigned names—Half Dome, North Dome, Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall, the Three Brothers, Cloud’s Rest.
Before Bunnell came to me by way of a misread map, I made his acquaintance in several brief, glossy histories of Yosemite National Park—the kind found in brochures and travel guides. The physician-adventurer held a certain charm for me then, as the excerpts most commonly drawn from his writings reflected a thoughtfulness uncommon among men of his time and ilk (admittedly, I have a weakness for wanderlust-afflicted intellectuals).
In his memoir, Discovery of the Yosemite, and the Indian War of 1851, Which Led to that Event, he gave this account: As the men of the Mariposa Battalion discussed what to call the wonderland they had “discovered,” a great many names were proposed—most of them romantic, foreign, canonical, and scriptural. A number of soldiers favored “Paradise Valley.” But Bunnell, according to his recounting of the conversation, suggested naming the place for its native inhabitants. “I could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon,” he wrote. “Yo-sem-i-ty… was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American.” Despite protests by several who expressed distaste at naming the valley after “vagabond murderers,” Bunnell got his way.
On July 2, 1983, my parents gave me this name: Lucy Rebecca Bryan. My first name belonged to my father’s maternal grandmother, my great-grandmother, Lucinda “Lucy” Collins. This is what I know of her: When Lucy was in her late twenties, she married a much younger man, a man she called “dear boy” in the love letters my father discovered in a cousin’s attic years ago. She was from Missouri. And she died when my grandmother was only sixteen. Along with her name, I inherited twelve place settings of her silver, monogrammed with the initial we both share.
Lucy means “bringer of light.” When I was a child and my father was particularly enchanted with me, he would address me by this Latin translation of my name.
Rebecca is the name of my father’s sister, whose red hair I’ve always admired. The name ornaments many branches of the Bryan family tree, all the way back to the distant aunt who married Daniel Boone. It is an alternate spelling of Rebekah, the beautiful shepherdess of the Genesis account who married Abraham’s son Isaac, endured years of barrenness, and connived to help her favored son steal his brother’s blessing. This woman knew what it was to be loved, as she knew what it was to suffer. She was a complicated woman, which endears her to me.
Bryan. My father’s surname. An Irish name meaning “noble.” A name taken by my mother. The final in the succession of names fastened to me at birth.
After naming Yosemite Valley, Bunnell discovered that the natives living there actually called themselves the Ahwahnechee—“dwellers of the valley of the open mouth.” The name Yosemite, meaning “those who kill,” was given to the region’s occupants by neighboring Miwok tribes who feared them. But Bunnell was disinclined to change the name he’d already assigned.
As Yosemite expert Daniel Anderson has pointed out, “It was common practice by European settlers… to either ignore [a Native American] place name and rename it, or, as with Yosemite, to use another Indian word for a place name.”
Even so, Bunnell had a keen interest in learning the Ahwahnechee names for the Valley’s features. In his memoir, he said he actively lobbied for the adoption of these names, “but this proved to be a thankless task, or at least it was an impossible one.” So he instead dedicated himself to finding suitable English substitutions, often vetoing the fantastic and absurd names submitted by his companions, such as “Giant’s Pillar” and “Devil’s Nightcap.”
Should I praise Bunnell’s efforts? After all, he did preserve fragments of the language and culture of the people he had come to exile—vestiges that would otherwise have vanished. But I believe that the surgeon-historian’s obsession with place naming was not as innocuous as it seems.
Bunnell’s memoir records his initial impression of Yosemite Valley: “Although I had suffered losses of property and friends, the natural right of the Indians to their inheritance forced itself upon my mind.”
He knew. The goodness within him rose up against the Battalion’s mission. What philosophical acrobatics he must have done to silence that inner voice! I believe that Bunnell’s impassioned arguments for indigenous names were attempts at alleviating his guilt, that his preoccupation with Indian names allowed him to view himself as sympathetic to the Ahwahnechee, when in reality he was complicit in a campaign of genocide.
I married my college sweetheart three weeks after my twenty-second birthday, and according to custom, dropped my middle name and took his surname. I have a vague recollection of penning what would become my new name, Lucy Bryan Green, on a barroom napkin sometime during my engagement—writing it over and over again in loopy cursive. The image is so silly, so absurd, that I’m not convinced my memory didn’t swindle it from a cheap paperback. I am certain, though, that changing my name excited me. It symbolized a transition into adulthood. It meant that I would be a wife, would build a family with the man I loved. Besides, green had always been my favorite color, and my new name made a clever email handle for a budding environmentalist: lucybgreen.
I dropped my given name without hesitation, without a second thought. A generation after the women’s liberation movement, it didn’t occur to me that an alternative existed. How can this be? Geography had something to do with it, I’m sure. Women (and men) of the American South have a long history of clinging tenaciously to traditions, and my religion taught that it was my Christian duty to leave my family and join my husband’s. I wanted to belong to him, to be possessed. I said as much in my vows, in which I promised to submit to his leadership. Abandoning my name came easy; surrendering my stubbornness did not.
To put your name on something, whether a woman or a mountain, is to signify ownership, to proclaim dominion. Few of the white explorers who flocked to the Yosemite region intended to settle there, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t interested in cementing their legacies and fortunes by slapping the names of their heroes, their wives and daughters, and themselves on Yosemite’s most prominent and beautiful geographical features.
John Beck, an iron prospector, named Beck Lakes for himself in 1882. Homesteaders John Snyder and William Walker marked gulch, ridge, lake, and creek with their surnames. In 1909, Robert Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey named Elizabeth Lake for his niece and Flora Lake for his cousin. He named Forsyth Peak for his close friend William Forsyth, acting superintendent of the park, and he named Mary Lake, Dorothy Lake, and Polly Dome for Forsyth’s daughters. Charles Hoffmann of the Whitney Survey affixed his wife’s name to May Lake, which reflects the mountain bearing his name. In 1932, Al Gardisky named Odell Lake for a “friend” and Lake Helen for a “lady friend.” Park Ranger Otto M. Brown, who served as camp cook for Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited Yosemite in 1934, named Ardeth and Avonelle Lakes for his daughters. Billy Lake, Bugg Meadow, Cecile Lake, Ediza Lake, Gertrude Lake, Hart Lakes, Holcomb Lake, Laura Lake, Lily Lake, Lois Lake, Olaine Lake, Rosalie Lake, Stevenson Meadow, Sullivan Lake, Ward Lakes, Weber Lake—time has swallowed the stories of the people these places memorialize, but their names make a crowded cemetery of Yosemite maps.
In 1906, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names attempted to limit the self-interest and nepotism inherent in place-naming by implementing this policy: “Names of living persons should be applied very rarely, and only those of great eminence should be thus honored. No personal names should be attached because of relationship, friendship, or personal interest, nor should names of obscure persons be given. Names of eminent men now dead may be thus perpetuated, particularly those of early explorers, naturalists, geologists, topographers, etc.”
The policy aims to curb some of the basic human tendencies that attend the act of naming. Underlying each name is a set of values predicated on personal experience, cultural norms, and the desire for immortality. To name a place is an act of power, intrinsically self-interested.
When my husband left me after six years of marriage, everyone expected me to return to Lucy Rebecca Bryan. The lawyer friend who was handling our case called and asked for my maiden name so he could submit the form for me. I told him I wasn’t changing my name.
Why? Everyone wanted to know. There aren’t any children, thank goodness—so no need to keep the name for the sake of unity. You’re still young. You were a Bryan much longer than you were a Green. Do you really want to explain to future boyfriends that you still have your ex husband’s name? Besides, why would you want to keep the name of a man who walked out on you and refused to even try to work things out? Don’t you know how much this hurts your family?
At the time I made the decision, I’m not sure I fully understood it. I remember thinking, in the early days, that I couldn’t bear to wait in line at the Social Security Office and DMV. It seemed too punishing on top of all the paperwork, the meetings with the bank, the dismantling of the life we had built together. And when people asked, I told them that I’d published as Lucy Bryan Green, that I’d already established a professional identity. That sometimes shut them up.
The truth was more complicated. In my mind, Lucy Rebecca Bryan and Lucy Bryan Green represented two disparate identities. Lucy Rebecca Bryan was the girl who once argued that everything in the world was either black or white, right or wrong—self-righteous enough to think that she knew the difference. She was the teenager who sustained a series of flirtations in hopes of converting her crushes to Christianity. She held the incongruous (and equally offensive) beliefs that she deserved all the good things in her life—loving parents, a college education, thick hair and long legs, intelligence, sorority membership—and that God had given them to her. It took my husband to drag me out of that box of my own making.
It was Lucy Bryan Green, not Lucy Rebecca Bryan, who learned to embrace feminism, pacifism, and non-consumerism; who dared to befriend gays and liberals and atheists. She was the one who wrote a novel, who learned to garden by trial and error, who trekked all 212 miles of the John Muir Trail. The man whose name I took played a fundamental role in me becoming that person. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to move forward.
I also wanted to take responsibility for my contributions to the mess that my marriage had become. Anger that would boil into door-slamming, hair-pulling, glass-shattering rage; my need to control everything, down to what time my husband woke up in the morning and the clothes he wore; my anxiety, which made basic tasks like doing the dishes or shopping for groceries seem insurmountable—I wanted to work on those problems as Lucy Bryan Green.
And I still liked my name. It didn’t seem fair that he could take it from me. He’d already taken the canoe, a whole bookcase’s worth of books (along with the bookcase), half the set of glass nesting bowls, our nicest chef’s knife, two watercolors I’d painted, our cast iron patio furniture, our Honda CRV, the pine bedframe we’d stained by hand, all of the power tools, and most of the money in our bank account. Those were just the things. When he left, so did his family, many of our friends, my sense of security, the belief that I was unconditionally loved, my trust in God, my identity as a married woman, my plans to have children, and my sense of self-worth. I wouldn’t let him have my name. He’d taken enough.
When I am really honest, this reality surfaces: I hoped he would change his mind, would come back. I wanted to wear his name because I still loved him.
I like the idea of having a name that has emanated from me rather than been affixed to me like a cattle brand. What if we possessed names that reflected our identities—our personality traits, our physical attributes, or the events that formed us? This practice has obvious shortcomings and limitations. Brand new babies don’t have much to offer in the way of distinguishing characteristics (I’m glad not to be stuck with Won’t-Sleep-Through-The-Night or Eats-Dirt); and on a practical level, surnames serve vital administrative functions.
But it has been done. A 1907 text from the Bureau of American Ethnology describes a handful of Native American naming traditions, including naming people for dreams, noteworthy events, and personal qualities. The Maidu often called infants and children nothing more than “‘child,’ ‘baby,’ or ‘boy’ until they were old enough to exhibit some characteristic which suggested something appropriate.” In many indigenous cultures, people acquired multiple names and changed their names at “critical epochs of life” such as “birth, puberty, the first war expedition, some notable feat, elevation to chieftainship, and… retirement from active life.”
I wonder if I would feel more at ease with my name if it were a recent acquisition (perhaps received on the summit of Cloud’s Rest?) or if I knew I wasn’t stuck with it, that it would change as often as I did.
I don’t know what to do about my name. After a time of mourning and deep dwelling pain and what felt like loss upon loss, something shifted, and I fell in love again. The man I love wants to be my husband, and I want to be his wife. Naturally, he thinks it’s time for Green to go, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Here is an opportunity for change, but I don’t like my options: I can keep my ex-husband’s name, take my new husband’s name, or return to my father’s name. Each of those choices perpetuates a patriarchal system of naming that reduces me to property (at least symbolically). None of them will leave me with a name I feel is mine.
A number of my married friends have solved this dilemma by joining their surnames in some fashion or another. That solution seems sensible, albeit clunky. But my fiancé is unwilling to drop his middle name (his father’s first name) to adopt my father’s surname.
I envy Cheryl Strayed, whose recounts her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in her bestselling memoir Wild. As she filled out her divorce papers, the surname “Strayed” simply occurred to her. She adopted it as a symbol of where she had been and what she had overcome.
I have searched my memories, maps, even the dictionary for a word that fits my identity in this fashion. For the same reasons I haven’t gotten a tattoo, I don’t think this possibility will work for me. I know what it is to love deeply—so deeply that you want this person near you, as close as possible, for the rest of your life. I have felt this for two men, but I have never felt it for a word, picture, or symbol.
“Really, would it be so bad to take my name?” my fiancé recently asked. “Don’t you want to be part of my family?” The answer to the second question is easy: Yes. I love his family. The idea of joining it thrills me. But the answer to the first question isn’t so straightforward. It wouldn’t be a travesty to carry his name. It’s not a bad sounding name, and the old-fashioned notion of “two becoming one” still appeals to me. But I also feel an internal resistance, a need to create a protective space for myself. I want a name of my own—a name not connected to any man—because then he cannot walk out the door with it.
Yosemite and I—we’re both trapped. My present name is a burden, but I have none to go to, none that would truly be mine. And Yosemite wears a misnomer given by a willing participant in our government’s oldest (and perhaps greatest) atrocity. Its landscape is littered with unfitting names. But those names will remain, and soon, I will have to choose another name.
I recently bought an updated map of Yosemite and located the waterfall I visited in the Lost Valley. It’s not Bunnell Cascade, which lies further upstream, at the head of the Valley. This particular cascade is marked only by a blue line and the word “Falls.”
I think I will take my fiancé there when he visits me in a few weeks. We will peel off our packs and our clothes and dive into that deep green iris at the base of the falls. And it won’t matter that the place has no name. Indeed, that will make it all the more wonderful.