~ghost flower~

July 4th, 2020

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This weekend, dear friends came up to stay in our guest digs and meet us on the porch for some experimental socially distanced revelry.  On the fourth, we spatchcocked a chicken (along with grilled peaches and grilled Caesar salad) and christened our new-to-us bbq, but first hiked a nearby conservancy we’d yet to visit.

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The beginning of the trail was curiously close to a drag strip in full patriotic swing, and as we made our ascent, muffler-less funny cars echoed across the milkweed meadows and moss covered woodlands.  At the top of the crest, I came upon what I later learned was a single Ghost Flower/Ghost Pipe/Indian Pipe/Corpse Flower, aka Monotopra uniflora.

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While most plants survive by photosynthesis, these live in dappled light or deep shade via Myco-heterotrophy, a three-way relationship also seen in fern and orchid populations.

In this case, Russula mushrooms pull sugary carbon from tree roots (Beech or Oak, most often), and give back nutrients in a beneficial symbiosis. The ghost flower then pulls carbon from the mushroom, and, while not damaging the host plant, appears to give back nothing—except its haunting beauty.

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Turns out this plant was the favorite of Emily Dickinson, who mentions it in (at least) two poems. She also wrote, in a letter to painter Mabel Loomis Todd (regarding the gifted image that would eventually grace her posthumously published volumes): That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none.

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Todd’s original painting is at Amherst College, along with many documents archiving the complex circumstances surrounding these women (in brief: Todd was Dickinson’s brother’s adulterous lover, and later was a controversial editor, publisher, and executor of Emily’s estate, most notably tidying up the poet’s singular stylistic choices.)

She also published a book of her own, describing the phenomenon of eclipses–one of which was due at midnight, roughly twelve hours after our hike, the last in a Capricorn/Cancer eclipse cycle that has been ongoing since July 2018.  For the collective, this cycle has highlighted friction and opportunity to reinvent authority/structure/establishment (Capricorn) to better serve nurturing/intuition/creativity (Cancer).

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My artist friend and I spoke of the collective call to reinvent of late, and of the complicated hopefulness it had wrought.  Then talk shifted to our own creative paths in light of this, and I mentioned a chapbook I was reading and how I envied its wildness of form and content, relative to the conservative publication demands I’ve been entertaining recently.

Just as we came upon a mysterious plant I now think of as Emily’s flower, said I, only half in jest, maybe I should become a poet. Almost supernatural!

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(If mythical mycoheterotroph light your fairy lantern too, check out recently rediscovered Thismia neptunis, first sighted in Borneo by Odoardo Beccari in 1866, and thought lost for a century and a half.)

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