Saturday, May 24, 2008

Natured and Nurtured

I traded in the concrete canyons of my city this week for the mountains of western North Carolina. As part of a family birthday celebration, I attended a wildflower workshop in the Southern Appalachians, held at one of North Carolina’s grand old rustic resorts, High Hampton Inn, (described by one blogger as offering “Such peace for those who want to get away from television and phones and radios and other signs of commercialism”).

What is a wildflower workshop you may ask? I had no idea before I went. What I found was a serious-minded but light-hearted series of lectures by the director of the UNC, Chapel Hill Botanical Gardens. The attendees were serious amateur gardeners seeking to be able to identify wildflowers on their own. In between lectures there were field trips, to actual fields (what a concept).

As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. Everything about this trip was a break from what I know. No television, no computer, no phones (or cell reception). The wildflower group ate together, and the conversation was often focused on plants and plant stories. Some of these people were repeat attendees, because the program is so excellent. They get very few Northerners, which is true to for the Inn itself. I was surrounded by those soft Southern accents, which made my clipped Northern speech seem very harsh.

The Blue Ride Mountains are beautiful but I glimpsed their dangerous power when a severe hail storm came out of nowhere. One minute the sky was blue, and with astonishing speed, dark clouds flew in and then exploded with fury. I could not help but think of the devastation in China, where the mountains lashed out and crumbled the man-made structures that had populated it. Man builds, but nature reigns.

The lectures taught me that man does more than build---he catalogs his world to create order and understand his surroundings. Part of this cataloging is the detailed science of botany. Not having a scientific mind in the least, what I enjoyed most from the lectures was their storytelling element, which I’ll illustrate here by the tale of the Oconee Bells, formally named Shortia galacifolia, something of a Southern hometeam favorite.

The botanist M.V. O'Gorman observed that Shortia galacifolia was "discovered by a man who didn't name it, named for a man who didn't see it, by someone who didn't know where it was."

It’s quite a backstory for a rare wild plant. It was first discovered by the great French botanist Andre Michaux in 1788. He brought back a fruiting specimen (an incomplete plant) to his Herbarium in Paris. It was there, in 1839 that Asa Gray—-the most important American botanist of the 19th century-—saw it. He was excited that there was an unclassified plant from the Southern Appalachians, and he and John Torrey named it Shortia galacifolia, the former in honor of the Kentucky botanist and physician Charles Short, and the latter for its resemblance to the foliage of the allied genus Galax.

However, they never found actual living plants, as Michaux’s notes to where he had found them himself were confusing.

In 1877 it was finally rediscovered, by accident, by a kid in North Carolina.

From there it was embraced by mountain pop culture, dubbed Oconee Bells for the county where it can be found. It has been misspelled as Acony Bell, which is how Gillian Welch (who shared in a Grammy for the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and David Rawlings spell it in their song.

There was so much to learn, on this vacation. I was glad to get home, where it’s easier for me to read the semiotics of the new Indiana Jones movie, than to identify a trillium on my own in the wild. The skills of either jungle are not very transferable.

"The fairest bloom the mountain know
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I'll tell
Known as the brave acony bell

Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon

Well it makes it's home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world "why should i wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away"

And so I'll sing that yellow bird's song
For the troubled times will soon be gone"


Jeremy said...

What a lovely post. I've no more of substance to add, but sometimes I just need to thank people for doing their thing.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Jeremy. Thanks.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

This is so nicely written. I enjoyed it so much. Thank you. Who would have thought that in the enormous upheaval of revolutionary France Michaux had the time and opportunity to bring plants in for his herbarium?

M.A.Peel said...

Christopher, Michaux is a fascinating figure in history. He was sent to the US by Louis XVI to "investigate plants that could be of value in France." Michaux's wife had died, and he gave himself over to his work for the rest of his life.

Jefferson asked him to undertake a westward expedition (10 years before Lewis & Clark). Political intrigue abounded, and Jefferson recalled Michaux and expelled him from the country.

He didn't actually leave until several years later, 1797. Enroute back to France he was shipwrecked and lost all his possessions and plant collection. He set out for Australia in 1800, quarreled with the captain, jumped ship, went to Madagascar to study its flora, and died of a jungle fever.

They just don't make lives like that anymore!

kathleenmaher said...

I can't imagine your voice sounding harsh, MA.