Beauty is a word for the ineffable. It is a word to describe vast feelings that arise within us when we’re in a meaningful relationship with an experience. Birth and death can be beautiful. A bright moon, a child’s laughter, a shared meal, so much in our day can be beautiful when we’re present to it. When we call something beautiful, we are stating that we are aware of being called to a higher place as a witness in this life.
A flower called me to this highest of places. Though it is not a striking flower, something about its rarity, its subtlety, its survival in adversity gives this Southern Appalachian flower the beauty of empowered presence.
The Oconee bell (Shortia galacifolia), or in Gillian Welch’s song Acony Bell, grows in the mountains near the wild and scenic Chattooga River. It can be found in Oconee County, South Carolina, where it gets its name, and also near Highlands, NC, northeast GA, east TN and western VA.
When I saw this plant bloom for the first time on a sunny day in March, I got down on my knees and knelt with it. Another life was here before me. It was a life I wanted to know more deeply. Time passed, yet it didn’t. I continue to call upon the Oconee Bell in my mind’s eye when I need to be reminded of the message of its life and existence.
This flower led me to my favorite Gillian Welch song describing the beauty of its life. This time of year I find myself humming this tune. Hopefully I’ll learn to play it on my hammered dulcimer one day.
The fairest bloom the mountain knows
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I’ll tell
Known as the brave Acony Bell
Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon
Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world “Why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away”
And so I’ll sing that yellow bird’s song
For the troubled times will soon be gone