Oconee Bell

  
Found by the widowed Frenchman Michaux
where the Horse Pasture and Toxaway almost
cross, this delicate Asterid was for a century lost,

the only known specimen a plant fragment
the botanist rescued for Paris and Bourbon
science. He later hoped to explore the west

for Jefferson, but that scheme collapsed when
the politics soured. It took an American, Asa
Gray by name—on occasion bewitched

by rare flora like this sweet shortia, kissing
kin to galax—to keep the legend alive. Ridges,
coves and weather, roads no wider than a deer

kept the secret amid gentian, cicily, various
worts and orchids, but somewhere up here
where the Carolinas border north Georgia

in the purlieu of Jocassee, which itself means
“place of the lost,” every April or May
the five-petaled lace continued to open amid

evergreen leaves’ gloss, and today dazzled
amateurs and pedants alike will pilgrim
to this harsh highland wilderness to witness

what the Cherokee always called
Shee-Show, meaning “two-colored plant
of the gods,” as they knew it thrived

at water’s edge, an omen that the rains would
eventually return. When at last I managed
to climb and crawl, sifting through sorrel,

fetter and cress over slicks and steeps,
I wondered if poor Michaux, dying of fever
in far Madagascar, wished for one final

time to kneel and listen, as if the Bell’s
flourish in silence were—amid bitter
chinquapin, saxifrage and the Lilium 

michauxii that bears his name—the sole
note he yearned to hear one last time amid
all the wonders of rogue beauty he had

sought and suffered for and, so briefly, beheld.                                                    

 

 

 

R. T. SmithR. T. Smith edits Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University, where he also serves as Writer-in-Residence. His sixth book of stories, Doves in Flight, published in 2017, and his 14th book of poems, Summoning Shades, is due later in the year. Smith has work forthcoming in Five Points, Southern Review, and Southern Humanities Review. He lives on Timber Ridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia.
 
Read poetry by R. T. Smith previously appearing in Terrain.org: Letter to Americatwo poems, three poems, and three poems.

Header photo of Oconee bell by Jason A G, courtesy Flickr.

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