Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Into the Great Unknown

No one knows if Linnaea borealis is alive and well in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over a century ago an amateur botanist saw the twinflower in the high mountains of Sevier County, TN. For the past thirty years, the curator of the NC Botanical Gardens has been trying to find it.

Photo - Mark W. Skinner @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

In August 1892, Albert Ruth was exploring the Smokies when he spotted a pair of pink flowers rising from a single, slender stem. Linnaea borealis acquired its name because it was a favorite of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. The flower is common in the Northeastern United States. Ruth was the first (and still the only) person on record as finding the plant anywhere south of West Virginia.

In 1981, ecologist Peter White began combing the Great Smokies to find the twinflower. Since then, he has found 200 other plants never before known to grow in the GSMNP. White is one of the hundreds of scientists participating in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), an ongoing effort to catalog every species of life in the Park.

But the twinflower has not yet been found.

Farther north, it tends to grow near the paper birch, so ATBI researchers have examined the occasional clusters of those trees in the Park, but without success.

The Park sprawls over more than 520,000 acres, a enormous area to go hunting for one particular plant, and an enormous area in which to find every form of life that is present.

Photo - Al Schneider @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Until a friend forwarded me a link to the full story about the quest for the twinflower - http://research.unc.edu/endeavors/spr2009/every_living_thing.php – I was not familiar with the work of Peter White.

Actually, that was not quite the case. A few minutes after I read the article, I picked up a wildflower guide that I purchased earlier this year, a book that I’ve carried almost everywhere for the past few months. This time, I happened to notice that the lead author of Wildflowers of the Smokies was Peter White.

And as it turns out, White will be the featured speaker this Thursday evening at 7:00 for the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series in Highlands. His talk is entitled, "Turn the Poet Out-of-Doors: a Natural History of Robert Frost."

To Earthward
by Robert Frost

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough.
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.


kanugalihi said...

peter white is a fantastic ecologist and a wonderful old timey guitar picker. he and tom wentworth have changed lives with their vegetation class at highlands biological station. i am a fan.

GULAHIYI said...

I'm planning a little follow-up on his Highlands lecture. I didn't learn about his guitar-picking, but was extremely impressed with his view of the world and ability to share that.