A Meandering Adventure of Connections

The following is an example of where a walk may take you. It began simply enough, with the appearance of Monotropa Uniflora, above, at my feet. It led to poems by Emily Dickinson, early 20th century ghost stories, an 1896 article about the relevance of American poetry abroad, a consideration of the accuracy of online plant classifications with several local botanists and plant people, and a fabulous collection of Cherokee Indian photography. Come along with me?

– – – – –

‘Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –
Nor any voice imply it here
Or intimate it there
A spirit – how doth it accost –
What function hat the Air?
This limitless Hyperbole
Each one of us shall be –
‘Tis Drama – if Hypothesis
It be not Tragedy –

– – – – –

In this lovely poem, Emily Dickinson refers to Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, also known as the Ghost Plant. According to Wikipedia, it is an herbaceous perennial plant, formerly classified in the family Monotropaceae, but now (possibly) included within the Ericaceae, the heath or heather family, along with cranberry, blueberry, azalea and rhododendron.

Unlike most plants, Monotropa uniflora is white and does not contain chlorophyll. Since it is not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can thrive in dark environments like the understory of a dense forest.

When I spotted Monotropa uniflora on a recent walk, it seemed familiar to me. And then I remembered! It’s the same flower that is embossed on my favorite volume of Emily’s poems. I’d read from it just last week at a summer solstice celebration with friends.

– – – – –

The bee is not afraid of me,
I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
Receive me cordially.

The brooks laugh louder when I come,
The breezes madder play.
Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists?
Wherefore, O summer’s day?

– – – – –

As Christopher Benfey notes in his book A Summer of Hummingbirds, Emily called Indian Pipe “the preferred flower of life.” In a letter to friend Mabel Todd, Emily confides, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances the mystery….”

But the mysteries of this eerie little flower were curious fare for other writers as well. Sylvia Plath mentions Indian Pipe in her poem Child, and Georgia Wood Pangborn weaves it into her ghost story The Ghost Flower, from 1908:

– – – – –

He held some Prince’s pine in one big hand and in the other a waxen, pearly, leafless thing with bent head like a novice at prayer.

“They both belong to the heath family,” he went on cheerfully.

Mrs. Thompkins spoke: “That’s an Indian pipe. I used to find them when I was a girl.”

He dragged the great table up to her chair at once.

“Have you studied botany?”

“A little-at the old academy and by myself. Another name is ‘corpse plant.’ You see they are blackening already, and they are cold and clammy to the touch.”

“Ugh. What a name!” shuddered Mrs. Banks, her manner implying that Mrs. Thompkins in mentioning it had committed a solecism.

“They call them ‘ghost flowers,’ too,” said Mrs. Thompkins. She examined the confused mass in the knapsack, and collected a dozen or so of the Indian pipes thoughtfully. There was a suggestion of dead and gone romance, of something that these flowers had once meant.

– – – – –

This plant is so bewitching, its reputation reaches out from Native American folklore as well. In her book Cherokee Plants and Their Uses, author and teacher Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey writes:

– – – – –

Before Selfishness came into the world-that was a long time ago-the Cherokee people were happy, sharing the hunting and fishing places with their neighbors. All this changed when Selfishness came into the world and man began to quarrel. The Cherokee quarreled with tribes on the east. Finally the chiefs of several tribes met in council to try to settle the dispute. They smoked the pipe and continued to quarrel for seven days and seven nights. This displeased the Great Spirit because people are not supposed to smoke the pipe until they make peace. As he looked upon the old men with heads bowed, he decided to do something to remind people to smoke the pipe only at the time they make peace.

The Great Spirit turned the old men into greyish flowers we now call “Indian Pipes” and he made them grow where friends and relatives have quarreled. He made the smoke hang over these mountains until all the people all over the world learn to live together in peace.

– – – – –

And so there I was, wandering in a place where “friends and relatives have quarreled” so long ago, walking in the woods looking for my own peace, and finding it here, in the meandering adventure of connections.

Thank you for sharing the journey!

• • •

RELATED LINKS

• Read an Except from A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfey, or click here to buy the book.
• Learn more about Monotropa Uniflora
• Find our more at US Forest Services: Wildflowers
• Read a discussion about the relevance of American poetry abroad from The Nation, 1896
• Special: read Georgia Wood Pangborn’s The Ghost Flower in its entirety
• Check out some amazing photos and ephemera at the Hunter Library Digital Collections

6 thoughts on “A Meandering Adventure of Connections

  1. i’ve heard of them but never seen them before… how oddly compelling they are, sitting with heads bowed and no chlorophyll… interesting!!

  2. I too had heard of them — as Indian Ghost Pipes! but never mind —
    but never ever seen any.
    Spooky, lovely, and mysterious, as mysterious as Emily D’s poetry.
    Exceptional post.

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