Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Quest of the Purple-Fringed

Small Purple Fringed Orchid, Platanthera psycodes

It’s one thing to hear an English professor lecture on Robert Frost, and it’s something else to hear a biologist discussing the poet.

Recently, UNC botany professor Peter White spoke at the Highlands Biological Station. The title of his talk was “Turn the Poet Out-of-Doors: a Natural History of Robert Frost.”

His was a unique perspective on Frost. According to White, the poems reveal not merely a casual observer, but a dedicated student of the natural world. White identified a dozen poems that illustrate basic concepts of ecology and conservation that he teaches in his own college courses.

While growing up in New England, not far from Frost’s home, he became familiar with the poet’s works at a very young age. White’s mother would read poetry to her children and Peter was able to recite many of the poems by the age of five or six.

The poetry made such an impression that he was convinced a road on his grandfather’s farm was the famous “road not taken.”

For me, the best part of 2009 has been learning the wildflowers of the southern mountains. White’s lecture underscored what I have been discovering: the study of nature can encompass both science and poetry.

Some of the greatest challenges and rewards in my botanical quest have come from the search for native orchids. White shared a Robert Frost poem on one of the most beautiful wild orchids, the purple-fringed.


I felt the chill of the meadow underfoot,
But the sun overhead;
And snatches of verse and song of scenes like this
I sung or said.

I skirted the margin alders for miles and miles
In a sweeping line.
The day was the day by every flower that blooms,
But I saw no sign.

Yet further I went to be before the scythe,
For the grass was high;
Till I saw the path where the slender fox had come
And gone panting by.

Then at last and following him I found –
In the very hour

When the color flushed to the petals it must have been –
The far-sought flower.

There stood the purple spires with no breath of air
Nor headlong bee
To disturb their perfect poise the livelong day
‘Neath the alder tree.

I only knelt and putting the boughs aside
Looked, or at most
Counted them all to the buds in the copse’s depth
That were pale as a ghost.

Then I arose and silently wandered home,
And I for one
Said that the fall might come and whirl of leaves,
For summer was done.


White’s appearance in Highlands was part of the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series. This week’s program, scheduled for Thursday evening, July 30 at 7:00 looks like it will be another interesting talk. Heidi Altman, Georgia Southern University and Tom Belt, Western Carolina University will speak on “Cherokee Ways of Naming Places.”

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