Is God a practical joker?
The Rev. Maximilian G. Duman might have wondered when he discovered, on a hillside filled with thousands of three-petaled trilliums, a single flower with four. So the Benedictine monk and world-renowned botanist did what world-renowned botanists do: record his find in a botanical journal, where it was forgotten for 60 years.
I stumbled upon his article, "An Aberrant Form of Trillium Grandiflorum," in the June 1951 issue of Pyrularia: Journal of Botanical Society of Westmoreland County, and enlisted the help of two local botanists, Bill Paxton of Unity, Westmoreland County, and Barry Poglein of New Florence, Indiana County.
"Wouldn't it be neat if we found it?" Mr. Poglein said.
About as neat as a four-leafed clover, we agreed. Luckily for us, Mr. Poglein excels at turning up uncommon wildflowers and plants when Mr. Paxton's company, EarthForms Land Design, is contracted to do flora inventories for utilities, developers and others. Bill and Barry often bring along the third Botanical Bee: Brother Bob Ryba, 55, a Carmelite monk who lives at the Mount Carmel Hermitage in Bolivar. He leaves the monastery only four times a year to take part in field trips with his botanical brothers. He became our secret weapon: a monk to find what another monk found nearly 62 years ago.
Father Max, who was born in 1906 in Nicktown, Pa., and joined the Benedictines at Saint Vincent in 1930, became known as the "Arctic priest" for his plant-hunting expeditions to the far north. In May 1951, he was a biology professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., when he went plant-hunting in Unity, Westmoreland County. Was he excited to find one of God's little pranks, a four-petaled flower whose very name means "three"? It's hard to tell from his description: "An interesting aberrant form of Trillium grandiflorum was collected in Westmoreland County on Carney's Hill, 4 miles west of Latrobe along the Pennsylvania Rail Road."
Fortunately for those who would follow in his footsteps, the tracks are still there and the hillside is too steep for development. Unfortunately for us, Carney's Hill isn't small and Father Max, who died in October 1990, never heard of a GPS.
Undeterred and filled with hope (Bob was on our side), the four of us drove out Beatty Flats Road on a sunny spring day last week. Mr. Paxton parked his station wagon on one of the few clearings by the road, and we hiked in. Two of the three botanists brought along their copies of Newcomb's Wildflower Guide -- Brother Bob's is twice as thick from all the notes and dried plants pressed between the pages -- but they didn't need them to identify the plants we stepped over, under and through -- golden ragwort, yellow corydalis, skunk cabbage, mayapple, jewelweed, spicebush, sweet Cicely, trout lily and winner for best name: gall of the earth (much cooler than its other name: rattlesnake root).
Mr. Paxton, a former forester and biology professor, demonstrated why the stalk of last year's Joe-pye weed is "the world's best pea shooter" and reveled in finding ground pine where he didn't expect it -- it's usually at higher elevations. "They always prove their point just by being," he said.
Yet none of this distracted us from our main quarry, Trillium grandiflorum. The bright white wildflowers were mostly on one side of the clearing. Those on the steepest slopes had escaped hungry deer by playing hard to get.
"Let's see: one, two, three ... one, two, three," Mr. Poglein pretended to count petals.
He teased the friend he met 19 years ago when he caught sight of him holding a rare red Canada lily, years before the former contractor built the monastery where he now lives, years before he took his vows. The two men were so fascinated with the plants they found together that they spent a year-and-a-half videotaping themselves as they tracked and identified them.
"You're looking at every one!" Mr. Poglein said as the brother in the ballcap stooped to see. "It'll make you crazy."
"Come on, Father Max, guide us," Brother Bob urged his fellow monk.
"There's probably a stake in the ground with white paint on it," Mr. Poglein said, laughing.
But there was no stake, no marker, no holy trail. Just three rounded white petals above three ridged leaves, with a sunny yellow heart. Each one was perfect, just as they had been 62 years ago, when Father Max stopped by for a visit.
We got back in the station wagon and followed the road as it ran alongside the ridge of Carney's Hill. Across farmers' fields, wooded slopes stretched toward the bright blue sky, their sides dotted with thousands of white trilliums.
"Look at them all!" Mr. Poglein said in amazement.
"You can see them shine," Brother Bob said softly.
Though I strained to see them, my eyes went instead to the clouds. I swear I saw a monk there, doubled over with God, laughing hysterically.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978.