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Gentian Church

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One of the things, it turns out, that is almost impossible to do when one is constantly traveling is: 
Put up blogposts. 

I miss it. It's a meditative thing. I get to roll around in my photos and think about what I've experienced and try to put all that into words. 

But I can't do that when I'm rushing around preparing talks and publicizing said talks, matting prints to sell, packing the car and meeting people for lunch and dinner and trying to sell books and prints and notecards and keeping track of all that by myself. Talk about a one-man band. Yikes. It's amazing how much energy goes into making your living on the road. Which, I realize suddenly, is what I do now.  Just ask Liam and Bill and Chet. 

I'd been saving one special experience from my eastern Pennsylvania trip at the end of September. I was saving it for dessert, for myself, and for you. And then it fell off the radar screen altogether. 

So I'm sitting in a hotel room high above the Cornell campus right now and the view looks like this in the morning: 

and it also looks like this:

and I feel incredibly lucky to be seeing these things, to be treated like visiting royalty when all I'm doing is giving talks and showing people pictures of my little corner of Appalachia.

But  it's all going by much too fast. I don't even have time to reflect on it, to write the way I used to about every little thing I see. And I miss that, the down time I need to process all this beauty.  I woke up this morning meaning to go for a run but I couldn't tear myself away from the sunrise on Ithaca. I mean, holy smokes. How could you walk away from a view like that? So I took a little time just to watch it and take some photos and fool around with them until they looked as beautiful on the screen as they did to my eyes.

That's the thing--to try to share things so you feel a little bit of what I did when I experienced them. 
I'll try with this one. 

September mornings are magical almost anywhere, but September 20 in Kunkletown PA was killing me. 

I took off on a 4 mile loop and breathed in the meadows and the slowly changing trees, the expansive skies. 

I saw a closed gate with a No Trespassing sign on it. By the signage, it seemed to lead to a gravel pit, that for all I could tell was now defunct.  I examined the blacktop road. It was clear to me that it had had no truck traffic for some time. Weeds were growing up through the asphalt. I walked around the gate. Gravel pits can be interesting places.

I was drawn to the blooming goldenrod and New England asters that were thriving in a meadow. It looked to me like at some point the meadow had been a vacant lot, scraped, perhaps, and leveled for stacking timber from the surrounding forest, which had been heavily cut over. But the wildflowers were growing, thriving in rank profusion on what was once a waste place. I liked the way they looked against an unsettled morning cloudbank rolling over the Kittatinny Ridge. I knelt and got down low to put them as high against that blue ridge and sky as I could.

And then I noticed a royal-blue flower in the grass and goldenrod and aster tangle. And another, and another. 

I hadn't seen greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)  for easily 27 years. I knew a place in Connecticut where I could find a couple of plants come September. That was it until now.

It was cool, early morning, and bumbles were asleep on the flowers, waiting for them to open and release their sweet nectar and pollen to the bees' care. You can see the fringed eyelashes on the petals.

For all I knew they'd fallen asleep in a nectar-drunk stupor the evening before and spent the night on the bar's front step.  I stood up and gazed around me after taking these photos. There was gentian everywhere I looked. 

photo by Diane Husic

And that's the way gentians are. They sneak up on you. Maybe you see one here, one there. And then one fine September morning when you least expect it you come on a meadow and decide to walk into that meadow, deer ticks be damned, and kneel down to take a photo of goldenrod against a dark sky, and damned if you don't find a gentian. Or a hundred of them. 


Did some unseen hand send me around that gate, into the meadow? Sometimes I wonder.

When the sun warms them the gentians' eyelash fringed petals open up, the caps on the bottles, and the bees hurry to fall into them, crawling all the way to the bottom.

And they have to back out.

This plant grows as an annual or biennial in wet alkaline soils. It's rare, nowhere common. To find it in such profusion, growing to such magnificent heights,  overwhelmed me. It literally brought me to my knees, as in worship. 

And why not? For the plants were approaching a yard tall, each one so magnificently arrayed in tiers of elegant violet-blue blooms that they looked like a floral arranger's work, a perfect bouquet in each plant. I couldn't take it all in alone. The next morning Diane and I came together to the service at Fringed Gentian Chapel.

We wandered, aimless as two clouds, amidst the impossibly rich splendor in the grass.

For they hide, not easily apparent until your eyes are ready to pick up that royal velvet purple deep in the meadow. And once you see it, and begin counting, and pass 60, 70, 80, 100's like drinking a whole bottle of wine, and then pouring another glass.

We began making Best Bouquet photos.
Here's a foursome of goldenrod, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

This was a nice combo, too. Red sumac, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

Might as well go all red white and blue while we're at it.

Each plant was so full of buds I could tell the show would go on for weeks.

What a sweet coda to the end of summer.

Diane and I spent Sunday morning in our makeshift church, praising satin blue creation. David was competing at a fiddle competition, but he'd come worship later that week.

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,

And colored with the heaven’s own blue,

That openest when the quiet light

Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean

O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,

Or columbines, in purple dressed,

Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com’st alone,

When woods are bare and birds are flown,

And frosts and shortening days portend

The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye

Look through its fringes to the sky,

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see

The hour of death draw near to me,

Hope, blossoming within my heart,

May look to heaven as I depart.

"To The Fringed Gentian"  William Cullen Bryant 

Yes. That Massachusetts poet had knelt at the same altar perhaps 170 years earlier, marveled too that this splendid plant raises its cup as a toast to dying summer, just as the nights turn sharp.  This poem made me happy, made me feel that Diane and David and I are part of a continuum of appreciators of the best things, which are, after all, often hidden in thick meadows.

When I'd said my thank-yous to the best hosts ever and finally got in the car to head home, my clock read 11:11. Yes. This morning had definitely gone to eleven. No time could have been better spent.

I drove east all day, and as evening came on traffic ground to a halt. A truck was burning up on SR 50 in West Virginia. I sized up the situation, took a couple of photos of someone's savings going up in flames, and peeled off on the side road to the right of the picture. I have driven enough side roads to know that sooner or later they all come back out on the main road. I'd just head west and hit Rt. 50 farther on down the line.  I'm sure the traffic was backed up for miles behind that conflagration. 

Not for me. I rolled the windows down and opened the moon roof and breathed the sweet autumn air as I found my way home. 


Love your adventures. Keep traveling, my friend!

ahhh, fringed gentian! What a precious find. Lucky duck.

Ithaca at sunrise: gorgeous. Thank you. You are good, so good.

Thank you Julie. For all of this. Thank you. I'm so glad you got to worship among the fringed gentians! I'm retiring in a year or two and will have to claw my way out of San Diego. I'm a Wisconsin girl and miss so much of what that part of the country offers. May have to swing by southeastern Ohio.

I read this several times and kept finding more meaning, synchronicity and beauty in your words pictures and the poem. The discovery of the gentian chapel must have felt magical,and wonderful that you were able to return the next day and share it with your dear friend. You are amazing; a one man band for sure, resourceful in averting a long drive home and being treated like visiting royalty not only by Cornell but by the meadow you were destined to find.

Posted by Lucy from MN October 14, 2014 at 9:06 PM

Yes, yes, yes. A lyrical photo essay, that wanders from "gravel pits can be interesting places" to a Bryant poem--well, I'm grateful to share the singular, shining path with you. Thanks. And love.xom.

Posted by Anonymous October 15, 2014 at 4:03 AM

Beautiful... love your photos and the poem. I was a little worried as on my Feedly your post showed up with the last photo of the burning vehicle! The fringed gentians are gorgeous! I know where there are some bottle gentians and I may go out in the rain today to look for them. I wonder if it's too late? I'm glad you got home safely, especially if you were "traveling east all day"! I know you don't live in the Atlantic Ocean... couldn't resist a little kidding. Thanks for sharing your worship time with us.

Poetry, prose, and gorgeous photos all in one post. What more could a girl want for? Thanks Julie!

257I love your photos, and best of all I love the way you can write about it all.

Posted by Jacqui Wells October 15, 2014 at 1:49 PM

Once, while wandering among a mountain valley south of Tucson Arizona, on a pick-nick, {I grew up near Tombstone Arizona} I found a patch of blue. gentians. I still vividly remember how blue they were. I am ashamed to say I picked one, {didn't know better then}. They are strangely peripatetic flowers, appearing here, then there. Then disappearing for years. There kinda the plant world version of the Pooka.

Aaahh. Just beautiful, all of it.
Thank you.

As soon as I started reading this, I thought--William Cullen Bryant's poem. So I "googled" it and had it all copied to send to you...only to read to the end of your blog and VOILA there it is.
Ah, well.
Glad you enjoyed your visit to Penn's sylvan lands. It can be lovely. As can many if not most places in the U.S.--all it takes is us slowing down and looking.

My traveling days are mostly behind me, so am so happy I can " go" on these lovely trips with you. Thank you. Linda in Texas

Posted by Anonymous October 18, 2014 at 10:01 AM
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