Oconee Bell

May 2, 2022

Who knows about the Oconee Bell? Probably very few, outside the botany field, and maybe not many botanists. They may know it as Shortia galacifolia, the scientific name. Obviously, Oconee Bell is easier for those who may have a reason to talk about it. It’s a rare, delicate flowering plant found only in a stretch of mountain forest in northwestern South Carolina and environs nearby.

We were introduced to the Bell, or Shortia, at a picnic put on by the Foothills Trail Conservancy, a bunch of city and small-town folks who love wild country more than meetings. It’s a taciturn group; we gathered they don’t get together much outside this once-a-year picnic. We met at Gorges State Park, just north of the state line, in spooky, near-impenetrable forest.

The massive park, 7,500 acres, is hidden high on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the rugged stretch of country between the gentle piedmont farther east and the soaring western North Carolina peaks that merge with the Great Smokies. This is magical country, crisscrossed by rushing whitewater streams and waterfalls, rich with wildlife and countless species of unique flora, where the pure forest mountain air creates its own unique weather patterns.


S.C. 11 follows an arc across the top of the state onto the Escarpment and into North Carolina’s vast Nantahala National Forest, at 531,000 acres the largest of the state’s four national forests. Route 11 meets U.S. 130 maybe a dozen miles east of the gorgeous Chattooga River, a National Scenic River that forms the Georgia-S.C. state line. The highway, dotted with a few homesteads, then steadily gains altitude as it winds north through the backcountry. In 12 miles it crosses into North Carolina and becomes N.C. 281. Within a half-mile of the border it rims huge, deep-blue Lake Jocassee and passes spectacular Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

The forest thickens along 281 as it rises into a sort of paved-road switchback open to vistas of green peaks stretching east. The Gorges gate is eight miles past Whitewater. The park road then cuts through woods for a couple more miles and you’re there.

Most of the Conservancy guys and gals are getting up there in years, although some younger ones showed up. They came from all over to this corner of the country, the pointed end of the South Carolina pie slice. Around there, state lines seem non-existent or at least invisible. Northwestern South Carolina, northeastern Georgia, and southwestern North Carolina, to those who know the territory, form one massive, rocky green world, crossed mainly by narrow, rocky trails and clear, fast-moving streams. 

Horsepasture River

Botanical research is one of many professions I know nothing about, and one I have never made any effort to learn. But as we sat after lunch, Kay Wade, a naturalist and co-founder of Jocassee Wild Outdoor Education stepped up. Her “Story of the Oconee Bells” introduced us to the explorations of Frenchman Andre Michaux and Scotsman John Fraser, late-18th century botanists who tramped the eastern wilderness of North America seeking unique species. They discovered the Bells in these parts. Michaux sent specimens back to nurseries in Paris.

In 1839 American botanist Asa Gray found the plants at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and named it Shortia galacifolia in honor of a friend, Dr. Charles Short. For decades he hunted for it around North Carolina with no luck.

Kay presented a deep dive in botanical history. In 1877 a man named George Hyams found the plant near the Catawba River in North Carolina. His father, a botanist, got word to Gray, who in 1879 was able to see it himself. In 1888 another botanist, Charles Sargent, found the Bell in the wilderness bounded by the Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers, where Michaux had discovered it. In 1973 part of the area was flooded to create Lake Jocassee.

Kay filled us in about flower, its coloring, leaf structure, where it’s found, in two species, northern and southern, even giving us the lowdown on the moist soil it likes. As it happens, we missed the blooming season, March through early April, which occurs in a narrow quadrant between Routes 11 and 178 in South Carolina and U.S. 64 in North Carolina. I learned there’s an Oconee Bell Nature Walk at Devil’s Fork State Park. But wait ‘til next year to see them.

She recognized her talk was a tad heavy on history and science, and with a smile wrapped it up in 30 minutes. A few folks, not including me, asked polite questions. She noted that Asa Gray is considered the “father of American botany.” I didn’t know that. For her, we could all tell, the story is a personal labor of love.

I’ve never been much on the details of what’s growing out there in the woods. Most likely I’ve passed Bells on trail treks, but never noticed them, never picked them out among the rich variety of the delicate and rough natural beauty in the places I’ve wandered through.

We came away touched somehow by this gentle dose of education we had not pursued. Nature here is mainly the still, dense forest in its rich shades of green and the multi-colored diversity of these specimens. Oconee Bells and every other living thing create grace that reaches out to us, like God’s mercy. In a stunning, fortuitous way they offer a measure of beauty and serenity that sustains us while, an ocean and a continent away, we confront man-made darkness.


April 25, 2022

A bright-eyed young woman wearing a baseball cap walked up our driveway. We met her on our way out, thinking she was a new neighbor, and said hello. She carried a tablet-type computer. She said she was offering AT&T’s internet service provided by superfast fiber optic lines. I nodded impatiently and said we’re leaving to run an errand. She said she’d stop by later.

I thought door-to-door was for survey takers, political campaign workers, and occasionally guys selling firewood or yard-care services. High-school kids raising money for a club or team go door-to-door. Many years ago we bought a set of encyclopedias from a young guy who came knocking. They’ve long since gone to recycling.

Some of us remember a bygone era when door-to-door was more acceptable. Suburban and rural residents, and in midday that usually meant women, were more willing to listen to product pitches from strangers. Well-dressed women sold beauty products door-to-door. Men in loud suits sold, or tried to sell vacuum cleaners, life insurance, and medical products, including patent medicines of dubious quality. Fast forward a few decades: schoolkids sold magazine subscriptions. Boy Scouts sold grass seed and fertilizer, Girl Scouts sold cookies, usually in pairs or with a parent. We haven’t had any Scouts come knocking recently.

These days most homeowners don’t welcome door-to-door salespeople. We’re sensitive, maybe hypersensitive, to the risk of shady characters casing the neighborhood. Some people don’t even answer ringing doorbells or knocks. You now can feed your paranoia by buying technology gimmicks to surveil your front yard and allow you to see who’s loitering outside. Some devices can snap photos, upload them to the internet, and call the police.

I’m not much for sales pitches. I’ll open the door, but quickly send strangers with clipboards on their way. We’re skeptical consumers in general; we’ve never bitten on invitations to free dinners with investment-advice firms or offers of weekend stays at retirement communities. The overly friendly invitations that come in the mail are easy to recognize. At restaurants, I’ll almost never order the special if the server pushes it too enthusiastically.   

The AT&T girl was a few doors away when we got back. We had not said “no” earlier. She approached again. In a grumpier mood I would have brushed by her into the house. But we lingered. Our internet seemed OK to me, although sometimes it ran slowly. Sandy mentioned we’re on the cheap introductory rate plan. “That’ll go up by $30.00 when the introductory rate expires,” the girl said. “That’s why it’s called an introductory rate.” I couldn’t argue with her. And I had not paid much attention. Researching internet services is an acquired, not a natural skill.

I know one thing about participation in the age of digital technology: the rates the customer service people quote never quite capture everything that later appears on the bill. You sign up, then you discover the costs: federal, and usually state and local taxes, then fees for maintenance, equipment rental, and insurance, and the surcharges for this or that. Who tries to figure it out? We look blankly at the bill, grumble a bit, and pay it.  

We invited her in. We sat, she introduced herself—Serena. She asked for my cellphone, opened the internet, and typed “speed test.” She stared at the phone, then looked at us. “Very slow,” she said. “That’s because you’re sharing a segment of the network with your neighbors.” That is, it turns out, the 200 megabits per second speed we thought we were getting, whatever that means, is the speed of a wider network, not our personal internet connection. We don’t have a personal internet connection. It’s more like the “party” telephone line my Aunt Irene, who long ago actually worked for the phone company, shared with her neighbors.

I didn’t know about the party internet connection.

We listened to her pitch. She was quick and sharp, with ready technical answers to my unfocused questions, which usually had to do with cost. She said her service would be higher, but less than the rate the current provider would stick us with very shortly. And AT&T is no fly-by-night operation. Decades ago my dad, a tech guy, worked for New York Bell, one of AT&T’s ancestors.

Serena saw she was making an impression with us and relaxed a bit. So did we. She stayed more than an hour, in the end we signed up to make the change. She fired off a flurry of emails and text messages locking in the sale. It was late afternoon. I was tired of the internet hookup talk, but the story seemed larger.

I wondered: is door-to-door coming back? Why was a huge tech company deploying salespeople to pound the pavement ringing and knocking, getting far more “Nos!” than “Yeses?” She said the company is trying a new strategy: reaching out to potential customers directly, face-to-face instead of relying on time-worn mass-market advertising, like TV and internet pitches. Knocking on doors seemed an odd throwback to another time. It worked with us. It turned out that Serena also had landed our next-door neighbors, on both sides.

She told us she lived in a small town 50 miles away and had just finished high school. Her route to her sales territory was a traffic-choked commuter highway, meaning a solid two hours each way. She lived with her mom, siblings, and a cat. She said she and her sister planned to move into the city soon. Meanwhile, AT&T was an opportunity, salary plus commissions. And there wasn’t much to do in her hometown. I thought, well, she isn’t pounding a cash register.

Business in this midsized city is booming, you see “now hiring” signs everywhere. Fast-food joints, grocery stores, and auto-body shops are looking for people. But so are the “career” industries: machine shops, auto-parts manufacturing, electronics components, engineering support. What are bright young people in small towns in Middle America doing? I’ve met enough to know: they’re leaving, heading for cities, looking for opportunity to move on, to make a mark.

The data tell us that unemployment is down, wages are up. Still, some things aren’t getting better. Rural and small-town America, especially the places stuck in the mountains, away from the coasts and the interstates, are hurting, as they have for decades. No one has answers for them. Some people want more than retail, more out of life. Maybe AT&T is on to something. Serena probably won’t make a career of door-to-door. But right now, it’s working.

Grace and Hope

April 17, 2022

Holy Week arrived along with war crimes. The evil of the event on Calvary is matched today, right now, in Ukraine. We have seen it again and again, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, the Sudan, North Korea, Afghanistan. It is happening elsewhere, without headlines. The ending in Ukraine is unknown, but we understand it will change the world forever. It will happen again somewhere else. That also is the legacy of Calvary. Even now, at Easter, we struggle to grasp its meaning. Meanwhile, we are seeking grace.

We find it by acting. We drove to the boondocks past the rich green pastures and planted fields through outlying forestland. The quiet open spaces of the northwest corner of South Carolina unfold along rural roads unused to traffic other than tractors and pickups.

We turned onto U.S. 11, which skirts the boundaries of Georgia and North Carolina, passing the sheer rock faces of Table Rock and Pinnacle. The highway bisects the northern one-third of the state, separating the mountains from the piedmont. It vectors southwest past Walhalla then ends abruptly, the asphalt petering out just across I-85 at Lake Hartwell.

The lush scenery has a calming effect. This place is full of history pocked with tragedy: slavery, white-on-black violence, endemic “states rights” politics, and the legacy of all of that.   

Neighbors are out seeding, mowing, and so on. And most folks face the responsibility of earning a living, which usually comes before road trips and yardwork. Work, along with seeing new places or sprucing up the presentation of the house, apartment, flower plot, somehow can move us forward. Then too, some are working for the good of others, those who have less. The need, which is a mission, in fact, a crusade, is always present.

The point is attention paid to concrete achievements. We approach these things as the needs and exigencies of our lives. They help us confront the spasms of evil we see now, the war crimes and the rest, including the fundamentalist “end times” pronouncements that periodically emerge from dark corners to assign guilt to all of mankind. The attack on civilization in the assault on Ukraine is fully rational in its brutality, not a parable or an echo of an Old Testament allegory.

The Easter miracle meanwhile is the abundance of grace, which is no more and no less than the conquest of fear. The enduring lesson of the Gospels, the reason they were written and the reason they have been preached for two millennia is their promise of victory over the pervasive reality of fear: that is, the condition of human existence untouched by truth, the nearness of salvation and redemption.

That message may sustain us through the ordeal of reading the headlines and trying to think ahead. We’re looking at trips to Nashville around Memorial Day, then New Hampshire and Wyoming in June. In Music City we’ll drive by the house we owned in the cute Vanderbilt neighborhood until 1986, when we packed up three little kids (the fourth had not yet arrived) and moved to Jersey. It’s been five years since we visited. I think about ringing the doorbell and asking if I can get a look at how the place has changed. We sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we hadn’t cut and run.

New Hampshire is the big college reunion. The Wyoming trip is the Bighorn trail run. We’ll see family and old friends, maybe make some new ones. The plan now is to drive, visit new places, see some things we haven’t seen.  

The point of all this is to move on, taking with us the Easter reinforcement of hope. We talked about the trips and went back and forth on whether to commit to them, or instead sit home and watch the grass grow, as the saying goes. Things could still fall apart. Covid is back as Omicron BA.2.

Carrying on, marching forward in hope. It’s what we see in those heartbreaking, sacred funerals in the ravaged cities, of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers, the elderly, the women and children. Family members hold each other as the priest leads them in prayer and says a blessing. They pray for their loved ones and for each other, for their country in its struggle against evil. They pray in hope, for victory for their country. We join them in sadness and hope, for their salvation, and ours.

Cool Town

April 11, 2022

We swooped into Traveler’s Rest for an afternoon to see what the excitement is all about. We walked along Main Street, ordered food in a pizza joint and looked from the sidewalk at a historic home. We stepped into an antique clothing shop and browsed for ten minutes. We dodged cyclists on the famous Swamp Rabbit Trail. As we walked we listened to deafening traffic noise along Main Street, which also is U.S. 276, a major commuter thoroughfare. 

The city of 5,000 souls calls itself “South Carolina’s Coolest Small Town.” It’s about 20 miles from the northern reaches of Greenville and about that far from our place. We’ve passed through it a few times, since it’s hard to miss if you’re heading almost anywhere north from here.

After we landed in S.C., we went for a ride up the interstate to the touristy town of Waynesville, N.C. To get home we jumped on 276 in Waynesville and rode its hair-raising ups and downs and twists and turns through the Pisgah National Forest. It dumps you in Brevard, another tourist spot near the N.C.-S.C. state line. You grip the steering wheel to climb back into the southern stretch of the Blue Ridge, then down, down the scary highway with a spectacular view of the mountains, if you’re brave enough to look. Soon you’re on Main Street in Traveler’s Rest.

The history of the place isn’t complicated. In the early 1800s the state built a road from Greenville to Asheville that was used by pioneers heading to new homesteads in the Blue Ridge and beyond. The spot now called Traveler’s Rest allowed them to rejuvenate before getting into the mountains. The road now is 276.

We wanted to see the place that every local real estate agent pitches to prospective homebuyers. Our daughter urged us to take a look when we house-shopped. We drove close one day past a couple of homes, nothing clicked. Then we found the place we’re in, a suburb like Traveler’s Rest, with a downtown we seldom visit. No bike trail, no cyclists.

It was a sunny springtime afternoon and we thought we’d take a ride to see the trees turning green, the azaleas in full, brilliant bloom, the pretty pink dogwoods. The local roads out of the city orient towards Traveler’s Rest. We took a roundabout route that with a couple of U-turns got us downtown. And in fact there’s a big sign with a blue arrow pointing to “Downtown.” We drove past a brewery and parked in a lot near the trail.

We got an appetizer at Sidewall Pizza. We were the only customers. The chain has two locations in Greenville. The waitress said the Traveler’s Rest site was the first. We chatted with her about nothing in particular. “They gave the staff a menu test Monday,” she said. “We all failed.” I wondered. The menu didn’t look complicated, pizza, salads, sandwiches.

We slipped off our stools and walked onto the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which extends from Traveler’s Rest south for 20 miles to a park in Greenville. It’s an asphalt path, not a trail, mostly gentle in slope, aimed at walkers, cyclists, and joggers. We strolled past a few shops and a couple of bars. We sat on a trailside swing and rocked for a few minutes, enjoying the sunshine. This was nice, I thought, the kind of thing old folks getting past health problems should be doing. Maybe we’re hitting our stride here.

We ought to do more of this, I keep saying. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You never know when you’re going to stumble on something in a small town in America—some piece of local history, some artifact, some nondescript old house—that resonates in memory and teaches some lesson, something important, about life.

We saw a couple of other pedestrians, an older guy, then a mom with a stroller. We walked past the Spring Park Driving Range, which is mentioned on the town website. It’s a driving range much like any other driving range, a few people were hitting balls at a field. We passed a large Victorian house ringed with yellow tape. A sign explained that the house was being renovated—that’s all, we saw no one working.  Suddenly someone yelled behind us, we jumped to the side and a pack of cyclists with their funny helmets and colorful form-fitting leotards flashed by and disappeared up the trail. We stood and watched until our hearts stopped racing.

We stepped out of the way for more cyclists, then more after that. The trail veered left, we went right onto a local street and kept walking. We passed some small frame houses behind chain-link fences and the backsides of small businesses, some under construction or repair. At the next corner we regained the trail. We passed a sushi place and the Flop House consignment shop and stepped inside. Racks displayed what looked like Roaring Twenties-vintage women’s clothing. We looked around, but saw no other customers nor any employees, and backed out.

Across the highway, between the cars racing by, we spied a place named Sinclair’s in green and red lettering, which reminded us of the old Sinclair oil company. The place looks like it may have been a gas station, but we saw a sign, “Charlie’s Southern Rustiques.” We didn’t visit.

Beyond the highway a huge apartment complex is going up, the buildings Soviet-style in uniformity. There’s a Hampton Inn and a Best Western. Just off 276 on the U.S. 25 bypass a strip mall borders a Walmart, across the street is a Burger King, with a Hardee’s on the opposite corner. There’s an Arby’s, a Chick-fil-A, and a Wendy’s.  A block away is a Starbucks, McDonald’s, a Waffle House, and Pizza Inn. Walking the trail works up an appetite, I guessed.

The Traveler’s Rest website advertises a farmer’s market, a summer concert, and under “nearby adventures” mentions Caesar’s Head State Park, which is about 20 miles away, and Lake Jocassee, a long 40 miles away. It cites a science museum in downtown Greenville. In 2018 the town annexed the land occupied by nearby Furman University, which adds some academic weight, I guessed. North Greenville University is in Tigerville, just up the road.

Somehow, I felt we missed the Coolest Town. The website, with its colorful links, cleverly blends boosting the town’s attractions with regional and state tourist promotion. I could appreciate that, the city makes the best splash it could. Our walk took us past—not much. We got to a point on the trail where we saw nothing ahead except traffic. It was a weekday, off-peak for tourists, with spring just showing up. We squinted in the afternoon sunlight. More cyclists were bearing down, and fast. We headed for the car.

St. Rafka’s

April 4, 2022

I drove by Saint Rafka’s Maronite Catholic Church on U.S 14 in Greer a few times on visits here, even before we moved to South Carolina. It’s easy to miss, a low, squat brick building resembling a ranch-style house, maybe a farm outbuilding. A modest outpost for one of those half-dozen flavors of Catholicism out of the Middle East, I guessed. I didn’t give it a second thought. When we arrived we thought about the local churches, but not St. Rafka’s. You stick with what you know.

Right now Lent, the season of atonement and preparation, is racked with despair: Russian war crimes, men, women, and children dying, cities leveled, a nation ravaged before our eyes. We await the solemnity of the Resurrection but witness the pervasiveness of evil. We await a reason for hope, a sign to persevere in faith. We search for it around us, we search for the presence of God. It is there, to be discovered, or rediscovered.

The story of St. Rafka’s emerges from the tragic, fascinating story of the East-West schism. In 326 the Roman emperor Constantine moved the seat of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. Even earlier, the Christian Church struggled to fight heresies that tore at Christian teaching, setting off generations of bitter political and cultural antagonism. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon issued a declaration on the Church’s vision of Christ and decreed the See of Constantinople, which governed the Eastern Catholic churches, would have the same authority as the Roman Pope.

The Maronite church had been established about 410 by followers of Maron, an ascetic hermit who lived in remote mountains in Syria. He created a spiritual movement that spread to Lebanon and built churches and monasteries. The Maronites’ practices and teachings were attacked by the heretics of the early Middle Ages. Muslims persecuted the church. Around 700 the Maronites retreated into the mountains for 400 years.

The first Crusaders, on their way to seize Jerusalem, discovered the Maronites between 1050-1100. They emerged to support the Crusades and affirmed their allegiance to the Pope.

St. Rafka or Rafqa (1832-1914) was a Lebanese Maronite nun who spent her life in prayer and service. Eventually she lost her sight and became paralyzed. She was canonized by Pope John Paul in 2001.

Today St. Rafka is the patron of Maronite parishes here and in Livonia, Mich., and Lakewood, Colo. The church is officially the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch with its home near Beirut, Lebanon. The Maronites, although affiliated with the Eastern Catholic Church, also accept the authority of the Roman, or Latin Church.

This is Billy Graham country, there’s a Baptist church on nearly every corner. Catholics may have to drive ten miles or more to find one. While in the apartment we headed first to St. Mary’s in downtown Greenville, an easy trip. When we got the house in Greer we bounced back and forth between the big parish three miles away and an even bigger one ten miles away.

When the pandemic arrived we stayed home as covid indifference ravaged the state. For almost a year we watched Mass on a computer—from Arlington Va., Asheville, churches in Florida and Arizona. Strange, but safe. Then one Sunday we broke out the masks and went to St. Rafka’s.

The tiny church, about one-tenth the size of the next-closest Catholic church—or any church—wasn’t crowded. The images of St. Maron and St. Rafka look down from behind the altar, the size of a kitchen table. Three priests presided over the High Mass. The pastor, or abouna, led prayers in Arabic and English. A cantor sang in lilting, lovely Arabic. We knelt, we stood with the congregation. The priests lit the pungent incense. We thumbed through the Arabic hymnals. The Mass was beautiful, transforming.  

We learned. More than 100 years ago a few Maronite Catholics migrated to the area to work in textile mills. For generations they tried to find a priest, for generations local bishops resisted. The locals could find no Maronite priest able or willing to move to the South. The Maronite church in the U.S. is headquartered at the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

In the late 1990s the local community found nearly 700 Maronite families in the state, in Charleston, Columbia, Spartanburg, and Greenville. Then Maronite missions set up in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Maronite priests began visiting Greenville, saying Mass at the downtown Roman church, St. Mary’s, then leaving.

In 2006 a Maronite priest, a Father Bartholomew Leon, arrived in Greenville. St. Mary’s served as a Maronite mission. The mission then moved to the Monastery of St. Clare in Travelers Rest but continued services at other local churches. Three years passed.

In 2009 Father Leon asked his people to look for a site for a permanent church. A member drove by a Church of Christ church in Greer and saw a “For Sale” sign. A local Baptist church already held a contract, the contract fell through. The congregation raised $100,000 against a mortgage. St. Rafka’s bought the property and renovated the building. Father Leon said the first Mass in the church on Easter Sunday 2010 for two hundred people.

Our parish nearby picked this week to remove the pews and refinish the floor, a chore that would take three weeks. “Let’s pray it’s done by Easter,” someone said. Why now, I wondered. The church was closed. If you want to attend morning Mass this Lent, you go to St. Rafka’s.

A priest and deacon from the Prince of Peace parish shuttle over. A small mix of Roman and Maronite Catholics gathers in that humble building in the early darkness. We stand for the prayers. A deacon reads the Gospel. The priest steps forward. He speaks to us, and to the world, of war and peace, of despair and joy, of loss and salvation. He turns and glances at the icons of saints. We feel the presence of Maron and Rafka across the centuries. They remain with us. We file out, into the new morning.