This past week, at least the latter part, was a time for walking by cool creeks–not on sunny ridges–that’s for sure. But the rhododendron is in bloom, which makes it all worthwhile. I believe that the rhodies we see along the roads and trails in the Michaux are the Rhododendren maximum or “rosebay.” They can grow up to 20 feet tall and the white (sometimes slightly pink) blossoms are at their peak at the end of June into July. As I looked at the flower closely I noticed that one of the upper lobes has green spots in the inner part of the blossom petal…which is a key ID. This is one of the largest and hardiest evergreen rhodies. John Bartram introduced this plant to England when he sent a number of living saplings in tubs to his English “plant agent” Peter Collinson.
Here they grace our stream banks, and reward us for venturing out in the heat of July! I especially like it when the blossoms drop in the stream and float. It is really very special.
I’ve been pressing and drying lots of plant specimens, but to what purpose remains to be seen! I have started a notebook with monthly “samplers” of the plants that are unique or prominent in that particular month. It is interesting to see what remains of their essence once they are dried, because their color changes as does the leaf texture. It’s amazing to think that specimens that were collected and dried by naturalist Joseph Banks 300 years ago on the Cook sailing expeditions are still preserved in the British Museum, and still retain sufficient quality to be useful to botanists. It was a popular past-time in the 1700s to have “herbariums” of specimens, along with seed collections, and greenhouses. With the huge interest in gardens and botany, people would visit the herbarium of an acquaintance and spend hours talking about plants. This was a development of the Enlightenment and the desire to explore the world using newly discovered scientific principles. It’s hard to picture that sort of passion now in our culture, for anything except maybe arguing over politics. Possibly we aren’t as curious as they were, or maybe they just had more time on their hands! I think it would have been an exciting time to live.
I’ve written before about the Quaker affinity for botany and nature in general. I’m particularly looking at this affinity in the lives of John and William Bartram. Why this affinity? Quaker belief makes much of a belief of the Light within. My understanding is that the Light first appeared to Friends in terms of feeling and experience. That may be a partial explanation for their great affinity for the natural world and the need to be part of it through exploration of plants. They didn’t just want to think about plants, they wanted to experience them. The same was true for their religious life. Howard Brinton (Friends for 350 Years, Pendle Hill Publications, p39) writes that 2 young converts, William Penn and Robert Barclay, said that thinking about religion was far less important than immediate experience. Barclay wrote “Friends were not gathered together by unity of opinion…and binding themselves by Leagues and Covenants; but the manner of their gathering was by secret want…in search of something beyond all opinion which might satisfy their weary souls.” A secret want to satisfy a weary soul…that is a pretty good description of why many seek the solitude and beauty of nature. A walk in the woods does wonders to clear my head! How about you?
Ann Nichols, in The Golden Age of Quaker Botany, notes the disproportionate number of Quakers among leading scientists in the centuries following the founding of the religion by George Fox in the 1600s. She thinks that the answer partly lies in the narrow views about appropriate behavior and cultural pursuits among early Quakers. Music, painting, sculpture, dance and the theatre were not encouraged, maybe because it was an attempt to try and copy the perfection of God’s natural world. But to study and appreciate God’s world was blessed. Quakerism was never a religion about certainty and this gave them an especial affinity for science. The Quaker book of faith and practice has this quote by Charles Carter: “True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known.” And so the Quaker plant explorers set off on horseback with a few provisions, a plant press, specimen containers for plants and seeds, and a love for adventure and learning. Gone for months in the wild, they would attempt to identify the strange plants with local names, as well as classify them botanically. One marvels at the courage and tenacity. Again, I think it would have been an exciting time to live.
Yesterday I attended the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boiling Springs. Since our Sunday School series on different faith traditions last winter, I’ve been thinking about visiting that church. It was a lively and engaging service, totally different from our own but very well grounded in spirituality. I must say that of all the churches I’ve attended (ever) they get the highest marks for hospitality. The greeters were well trained and indeed everyone in the congregation was well prepared to receive visitors. Not just the usual polite “good morning”, but an introduction and genuine interest in who I was and why I was there. I’ve brought much home to share with our church. It is very interesting to be a guest in churches as it affords a bird’s eye view of what our own visitors experience. Upon my return to Zion, there are some practices I will be recommending! Have a happy Fourth of July…and see you soon.