The Ninth Paper Birch November 11, 2012Posted by Jenny in nature, plants, poetry, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Betula cordifolia, Carl Linnaeus, Linnaea borealis, paper birch, twinflower
Along the Smokies’ bristly red-spruce crest,
teams of botanists sought
Linnaea borealis, last collected 1892
by Mr. Albert Ruth,
amateur from Knoxville.
It’s otherwise unknown in Tennessee.
Common name: twinflower.
Its stems divide,
providing perfect matching sets
of tubular pale-pink blossoms,
paired like miniature hands,
or maybe tiny motel bedside lamps,
the ones you click left right, on off.
Sole member of its genus.
Forms twinkling flowered carpets,
grows furry, curving stems.
Carl Linnaeus found it growing happily
He named the plant for himself.
Circumpolar in her range, Linnaea prefers
subarctic forests, lands of braided rivers,
frost rings, patterned ground.
She thrives on talus slopes
where summer ice exhales cold vapor under boulders.
In a 19th-century hand with loops and curlicues,
Mr. Ruth had scribbled his notation:
“Sevier County, mountain woods.”
I see him whistling cheerily as he wrote.
He mis-ID’d the plant. Moved.
Took his specimens to Texas. Died.
Circumstance kept turning.
UT’s herbarium burned down.
Knoxville botanists begged donations.
Ruth’s daughter in Fort Worth
kindly shipped them his collection.
Sorting through, a boggled expert spotted Linnaea
Borealis! Plant of the north! Somewhere in Sevier!
She had to live high up, she had to breathe
the same cool air as spruce and birch.
That meant the highest, roughest edges of Sevier,
the county’s toughest outer crust.
Curious minds deduced that Ruth
meandered up the path through Dry Sluice Gap
and maybe wandered out past sharp-edged blackrock crags.
Or into stark north-facing gullies
hiding oddball micro-climates,
chutes scoured out by downpours, landslides—
piling up big logjams at the bottom.
Squads of botanists searched. Twice.
Failed to find her.
Found a grove of paper birch, eight trees
consorting in a gully.
Likely southernmost in North America,
living at their limit.
Surely silver in the light, with copper trim,
glimmering in their own small glade.
Meanwhile our botanists wallowed
in the Smokies’ trove of species,
rare and homely (Rugel’s ragwort);
common, lovely (Turk’s cap lily).
I think I know where Linnaea might be.
You’d climb a staircase of cascades
and reach a swerving Anakeesta chute,
a secret hallway of the valley.
You’d angle to one side
and scramble through dense swaths
of knee-deep pale-green moss.
You’d pass a paper birch, the ninth,
its roots clenched onto rock,
the slope precarious.
The mists are closing in.
You hear the sound of Linnaea singing.
- Jenny Bennett