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The Ninth Paper Birch November 11, 2012

Posted by Jenny in nature, plants, poetry, Smoky Mountains.
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Carl Linnaeus in traditional garb of Lapland, holding 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

in Lapland.

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.”

Vague location!

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

languishing mislabelled.

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.

Facing north.

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

Plane over Tuckasegee River October 24, 2012

Posted by Jenny in nature, poetry.
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Tuckasegee River

Not quite white noise, pale orange maybe,

river’s sound breaks down in tiny

splashes. Not quite a seamless hum.

From my deck I make the river change

its sound—I turn my head, its teeming

thrum runs deeper now.

At night through open screens the sound winds slowly

through vast half-asleep terrain of hope and

shadow. Just last night

a plane flew up the river,

rumpled up black air. The steady bumble

of its sound proceeded purposefully upstream.

It headed south toward Panthertown,

the river’s source,

where amber water gathers from

a thousand seams, and glides

deliberately

on potholed rock toward

waterfalls.

River, plane, made vectors in a wedge

of time in opposite directions.

Philosophers of flux:

dip your toes twice,

sever past from present.

— Jenny Bennett

Long ago: A dear departed sister July 31, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, memoir, poetry.
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My grandmother Sybil (r.) and her sister Celia (l.), about 1891

This is taken from a memoir entitled “When I Was a Girl” by my grandmother, Sybil Crowninshield Kennedy Bennett. The series starts here and alternates every other post.

I can’t write much about Celia Mary. It is too sad for me. She was born November 26, 1890. I was born September 27, 1889. We were never separated until I was fifteen and went to Weedsport High School, coming home each weekend. Then after a year at home, I went to college. She was quite small, not much over five feet tall, and slender, except when a little baby. She had lots of dark brown curly hair which was worn in long beautifully kept curls down her back and tied with a bow on her left forehead until she finished high school. Her eyes were blue but had large pupils and were a softer color than mine.

She was as bright in school but more gifted than I. She could recite in public long dramatic pieces and poetry, which was the fashion then. She played the violin quite well and wrote poetry herself. Some of it was accepted by newspapers and magazines, especially “Poetry” magazine, edited by Harriet Monroe.

She was very frail and had many periods of staying at home to build up her health. She taught high school in Cato [NY], Port Washington [Long Island], and Long Branch, New Jersey. English was her subject and she was successful and happy when not sick. She died after an operation, April 26, 1924, the greatest sadness in my life.

[My grandmother speaks of her and Celia’s love of books, how they read many classics but also lighter material:] The Disciples Church had the Elsie books. Luckily Alice [their friend] went to that Sunday School and we could trade with her for that delicious trash. Mildred Mehan, the girl next door, didn’t care about reading but by persuasion and since she didn’t like to be left out, would go upstairs [to the school library] on a Friday and we could sign a book out in her name. So we had three or four to read each week and usually finished them long before Friday.

“Little Women” was the very best of all. We read and reread and lived with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. I was Jo; Alice, Meg; and Celia, Amy. Mildred who was no good at that sort of play was Beth, who was too sick to do much and soon died, so we could go on without her. At times Celia did both Beth and Amy. The house where they lived was so vividly imagined that when I visited The Orchards at Concord, Mass. after I was married I couldn’t accept it. It was all wrong—I was nearly in tears.

[She describes a club formed by a small group of her friends:] The Secretta Society had at most five members, Mildred, Alice, Celia, and I, and later, Louise Taber. We met every Friday evening taking turns in our homes for a literary program and refreshments. We usually read aloud in turn from a book of poems and sang songs. Mildred and I could play the piano. Mildred had a beautiful singing voice and it was a pleasure to sing for quite a long time. Then we had fudge and popcorn and lots of fun. I can’t think why we had such happy times so simply but we did and felt well entertained….

Celia Kennedy. Photo courtesy of Corinne Lively.

*   *   *

Note from Jenny: After Celia died, her mother collected her poems into a book titled “Pinafore Poems,” of which I have a copy. Its cover has a charming red checked pattern with a title designed to look hand sewn. It was illustrated with silhouette pictures done by Laura H. Crowninshield, a cousin who became a fashion designer in New York City. Here is one that I especially like.

“Notoriety”

Clementine had a birthday cake—

A cake with fat pink candles.

There were little paper baskets, too,

With butterflies for handles.

Seven candies were in mine,

But the little Slater boy had nine!

Each of us had pink ice cream.

A plateful—a lot.

And a piece of frosted birthday cake,

With frosting birds on top.

The Slater boy ate his up fast—

But I kept trying to make mine last.

Then Clementine’s Uncle Jim came in,

And told us all about a bear!

But Billy Slater knew it first.

He said that he was there!

He said he killed bears quite a lot,

And drank their blood—he’d soon as not!

I brought my basket home with me,

With butterflies on the handles.

I wish I had a birthday, too,

With pink ice cream and candles—

And, mother, wouldn’t it be fun

If we had Billy Slater come?

Illustration for “Notoriety” by Laura Crowninshield