NASHVILLE — Certain old-fashioned words from fairy tales and storybooks still cling to me from childhood. Moor. Vale. Bog. Glade. For a child, such words conjure magical places — untouched, holy lands where fairies might live and animals might speak in ways I understand. Not long after I moved to Tennessee, I heard the term “limestone cedar glade” for the first time and immediately thought again of magic. But I’ve been here almost 32 years now, and until last week I had never visited the site of one of conservation’s greatest success stories: the Tennessee coneflower.
This unassuming purple flower is a member of the echinacea family. It grows in a tiny ecological niche — the limestone barrens and cedar glades of Tennessee’s Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson Counties. In limestone cedar glades, rock formations lie so close to the surface that soil is too shallow for the kinds of trees that grow in the deciduous forests surrounding them. Instead, this hot, stony land supports vegetation more typical of grasslands or deserts, including uncommon wildflowers: limestone fame flower, limestone glade milkvetch, cedar gladecress, glade savory, glade violet, glade bluet and a host of others.
The star of the cedar glades of Middle Tennessee is the Tennessee coneflower. First identified as a distinct species in 1898, it was for decades assumed to be extinct. In 1968 it was rediscovered by Elsie Quarterman, a legendary Vanderbilt botanist, who immediately went to work to protect it. The Tennessee coneflower became one of the first plant species added to the Endangered Species List.
Through the combined efforts of Dr. Quarterman, the Tennessee chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many private and corporate donors, the Tennessee coneflower population rebounded. It was removed from the endangered species list in 2011. Dr. Quarterman attended the delisting ceremony at Cedars of Lebanon State Park. She was 101.
The Tennessee coneflower is not the only species to return from the dead. Other so-called Lazarus species include the New Guinea wild dog, the Nelson shrew, the stubfoot toad, the tahake bird and the Bocourt’s terrific skink, just for starters. (There is also some hope for the Formosan clouded leopard, with a number of yet-to-be-confirmed sightings reported recently in Taiwan.) Each one reminds us that recovery is sometimes possible, even for a species believed to be lost forever.
When I made up my mind to visit one of Tennessee’s limestone cedar glades to see the Tennessee coneflower for myself, I wasn’t sure where to start. Today there are 35 colonies of the plant spread out across six different populations in Middle Tennessee, and some are far more accessible than others. So I called the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas and reached David Lincicome, manager of Tennessee’s Natural Heritage Inventory Program, which tracks rare and endangered species in the state. He recommended a trip to the Couchville Cedar Glade, which has one of the largest populations of the Tennessee coneflower, and this particular colony is easily reached via a level footpath, no GPS device required.
I knew what a limestone cedar glade is supposed to look like — more like a desert than the magical forest clearings of European fairy tales. But I was caught off guard by the alien nature of the landscape I found. The limestone glade is ringed by a kind of prairie — grasslands blooming outrageously with wildflowers: gray-headed coneflowers and Queen Anne’s lace and butterfly weed and pasture roses.
There were thousands of Tennessee coneflowers blooming all over the grasslands, too, and like the other wildflowers they were covered with bumblebees and butterflies. But what amazed me was the way they also bloomed right in the rocky barren of the limestone glade itself. They grew in the middle of the rocky path next to the prickly pear, Tennessee’s native cactus. They popped up out of what seemed to be solid stone. I would not have been more surprised to find flowers blooming on the moon.
There’s a great danger in hope, as Roxane Gay has pointed out: “Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others,” she writes. “When we hope, we have no control over what may come to pass. We put all our trust and energy into the whims of fate. We abdicate responsibility. We allow ourselves to be complacent.”
It’s no doubt a mistake to believe that everything will work out in the end. At the moment, everything is far, far from working out. But there’s as great a danger in despair as there is in unwarranted hope. Despair tells us that there’s no point in fighting, that there’s nothing to be done but surrender and make peace with the consequences. And if the consequences mean losing 50 percent of the world’s species — half of all the species that live, gone forever, gone in the lifetime of a baby born today — well, what’s to be done?
The lowly Tennessee coneflower tells us there is yet something to be done. It will not be easy, and it will cost money. It will not be solved by government alone, by the market alone, by advocacy alone or by personal responsibility alone. It will require everything we have, all the resources we can marshal.
But it can be done. The Tennessee coneflower reminds us that it can still be done. A flower that for decades was believed to be gone forever now grows in great profusion on what appears to be pure rock. If ever there was a Lazarus flower, this would surely be it — brought back from the dead, thriving in stone.
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