A blog by Paul Wallace

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    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

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    My eclipse story

    Totality, here we come! (Yes that’s a penguin in the background. His name is Roger. He travels with us. I forgot to get glasses for him)

    I

    WE LEFT ATLANTA late Sunday afternoon, in search of a shadow. We ate dinner on the way and arrived in Blairsville in time to swim for an hour. The pool closed at 9:00. We returned to our room and watched Cartoon Network and ate snacks until Potter Time. Chapter 12 of The Goblet of Fire was up (“The Triwizard Tournament”). I read aloud while everyone relaxed and listened. It was an excellent family day.

    I had chosen the Blairsville Best Western back in April because (a) it was in the path of totality of the eclipse and (b) it had a room available. This latter point distinguished it from a dozen other hotels I had tried. It seemed a good plan—I’ve long been familiar with Blairsville because I attended Young Harris College, nine miles up the road, thirty years ago. As students we would come to Blairsville for groceries and movies. It was at Young Harris that I first heard of the eclipse. Jimmy Westlake, the astronomy professor, had told us about it. I seem to remember general laughter; in 1987, “twenty seventeen” didn’t even sound like a year.

    We planned on leaving Blairsville for the event itself. We were to drive north to Andrews, NC, early Monday because it was on the central line, where the eclipse would be darker and last longer. Andrews would have 160 seconds of totality, 40 more than Blairsville.

    But we rethought that. We didn’t want to stay in Blairsville for the event, but we didn’t know Andrews. I was unfamiliar with the route and we didn’t know what traffic would be like up on the narrow winding roads. So I did some research and found we could get 20 more seconds of totality if we went to Young Harris, which was super-easy to get to and boasted several fine places for eclipse viewing. Also Julia, our high-school sophomore, is just beginning to think about college options. So we could do an informal college visit along with the eclipse.

    We drove to Young Harris and located an outstanding parking spot. The students had been released from classes. A few hundred of them were out in the big grass bowl, picnicking and playing spikeball. Run-DMC rocked from a boombox (It’s tricky, tricky, tricky…). We brought out our food and blanket and pillows and lawn chairs and I handed out eclipse glasses. Henry and I threw the frisbee. Julia and Elizabeth sat and enjoyed the afternoon. Kristen, our 8-year-old, got chummy with a cat on a leash.

    II

    WHEN THE MOON first touched the sun at 1:05 there were very few clouds, and they were far away.

    But I was nervous. I had been aware of this eclipse for 30 years and had been telling my students about it for 20. Georgia is humid in August, even in the mountains, and clear mornings nearly always give way to cloudy afternoons. I had not checked the weather in a week because it only increased my worry. It was a very weird anxiety. It felt like I was holding my breath but it didn’t hurt, and by this time it had been going on for days.

    The moon bit a little deeper into the sun. Clouds multiplied. The earth warmed, air expanded and rose, cooled, and condensed in tumbles and ribbons, far outside my circle of control, the whole thing driven by the sun. What an irony, what a bad joke. But it wasn’t personal; it was science. It was what happens.

    One cloud in particular drifted out of the southwest and began to build. I prayed to God for the cloud to miss. Make it miss, God, please, and I meant it.

    This is not something I normally do—pray for certain outcomes—but I was beginning to feel jittery. Powerlessness is hard to accept. This eclipse had been on my calendar, had anchored my calendar, for three decades. It was a fixed point, a mathematical certainty that would come to pass with or without my witness. But, along with slow-moving Saturn, which had recently returned to the same spot in the sky where I first saw it from Young Harris 30 years ago, this eclipse has framed my whole adult life. To not be present for it would set me adrift and spinning, unmoored, into an uncertain future.

    The clouds persisted. The big one stood tall in the southwest.

    III

    I DIDN’T HAVE the energy to be around people so I took a walk. First I visited the old library. On the way I stepped on an ant with one of my waffle-soled hiking boots. It was unintentional—I saw the insect an instant before my foot landed. I lifted my foot and there was the ant, still moving across the sidewalk, untouched and undeterred, having miraculously found a hole in the waffle.

    I took it as a sign: the clouds would miss me.

    This is also not normal. It actually surprised me, that I did this, that I meant it. I am not one to see signs. Maybe it’s because of my scientific education, or maybe it’s the reason I’m a scientist, but I rarely see personal meaning or direction or affirmation in the world around me. The universe does what it does. I am but a grateful and astonished witness.

    For example: The house we now live in opened up at just the time we needed it, and in the neighborhood we needed to be in, and at a price we needed. And I do mean needed. And it became available in a way we could never have orchestrated. Was this God’s providence, a sign of divine care? Right or wrong, I don’t see it that way. I think sometimes things just work out.

    When it comes to the sun and moon, however, I sometimes find myself slipping into a world of signs, a world of intention and meaning, an old world.

    Sol and Luna really do make a magical set. These two bodies, one the center of our orbit and the other our lone natural satellite, one 400 times larger and at the same time 400 times further away than the other, appear to us the exact same size.

    This fact makes total solar eclipses both possible and rare. But, more to the point, the deep poetic and mythical and religious resonances of the sun and moon, which I believe would not exist without this perfect match of ratios, are too powerful to ignore. I have long felt an uncanny and very unscientific reverence for this pair of lights. And as I walked to the old library, I was feeling it so powerfully that I really did cross over into that old mythic world of meaning. The nearly-flattened but untouched ant, moving undaunted to its business, stood for me as a sign: all would be well.

    I left the library and it struck me how perfectly right it was that we were here, at Young Harris, where I had first befriended the night sky. Had God not brought us here? Having been loosed from standard-issue reason, I answered to myself, Yes. The word filled my deepest empty place, and it felt like joy.

    I entered the science building where I had taken calculus, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. I sat in my old classrooms and thanked God for that place and those teachers. They had changed my life. Maybe even saved my life. But that’s another story.

    IV

    AFTER THIS I felt strong enough to return to the crowd, to the family. I found Henry and Kristen throwing the frisbee, Julia napping, and Elizabeth taking a group photo for some local septuagenarians. I checked the sun. The partial phase had advanced and the world had faded slightly. It was as if the sun were shining through thin cirrus. But I looked up and it was a flame in a field of blue, the dark moon lost in its light.

    But the cloud in the southwest had by now assembled into something considerable. It had stacked higher and grown gray. And it was closing on the sun, but was still far from it. Its motion was nearly imperceptible. It was 30 minutes to totality.

    Over the next fifteen minutes new clouds formed between the thunderhead and the sun. A few thin ones passed across the solar disk, now about three quarters occluded. Minutes later one of these newcomers bulked up and blocked the sun entirely, the first time all day this had happened. The world dimmed.

    I begin to panic again, and this time it was much worse. The sign of the ant faded. Opting for control, I told the family to pick up our stuff.

    “We’re leaving,” I told them, “We’re going north.” But by the time we got to the college chapel the sun was back in the blue. We stopped; I decided we’d stay. My anxiety was uncontainable. I know this only because I saw Kristen sitting on a bench a little apart from us, crying.

    I paced and groaned. Three decades of waiting; now, at 10 minutes to totality, a decision. I looked up, paced, looked up again, over and over. Then I saw it: The cloud, huge now and charcoal underneath, seemed to have gotten caught in a new wind and was moving directly toward the sun. With certainty I knew the sun would be covered, and heavily, within three minutes. And it would stay covered. Anyone who stayed at the college would miss totality.

    The signs were back, and they were saying: Get your ass in the car.

    V

    “LEAVE OUR STUFF, all of it,” I said, “We’re going now.” We ran to the CRV. We had seven minutes. With six minutes to go we arrived at a police barrier at the front gate of the college, erected to keep campus lots from overflowing. Elizabeth jumped out of the car, said something about her husband needing to get through this barrier like right now please he’s going to have a heart attack. With five minutes to go we were out on US 76, motionless and half insane, waiting for Young Harris’ lone traffic light to turn green. With four minutes to go we were speeding up SR 66 toward North Carolina and I heard Henry say: “It’s working! It’s gonna work, Dad! I can see the sun!”

    “Ok,” I said, “When your phone clock shows 2:33 we’re pulling over. Wherever we are at that moment, we’re stopping.” That would give us two minutes to spare.

    It worked. At 2:33, having traveled about a mile from the college, I pulled over. We stepped out of the CRV and into a rapidly-changing world. We stood in the road. The light was falling, visibly now. A steady breeze arrived from the north. Crickets picked up and a bird, whose eerie call I could not identify, sounded off repeatedly from a nearby tree, as if in panic.

    The road, weirdly, became a fast-moving stream of light and shadow. Deep purple and black wavelets sped northward along the asphalt and disappeared into the shoulder at a bend 50 yards away. It was a continual rush, a silent and unearthly torrent. It made me slightly dizzy. Then I figured it out. It was the sun’s attenuated light passing through thin nearly-transparent clouds, clouds invisible to the eye and riding high and fast on the stream out of the southwest, the same stream that carried the thunderhead, whose leading edge was now a full ten degrees from the sun.

    The world sank into deep purples and grays and browns and the edges of things looked silvered and razor-cut. The overall effect was of standing in the middle of a living, super-high-resolution tintype. The road and the trees and the sky fell further into shadow, and faster now. Venus appeared, and Mars.

    The sun became a thin arc, then a dancing, dazzling point, blue like burning magnesium. The moon emerged out of the glare like a dark ghost. The light took a final and sudden fall and the temperature dropped with it. The world hit bottom. The sun was gone: totality.

    I had seen this happen a hundred times on classroom video screens. I had turned my head from my students because I could not let them know what it meant to me. I’ve been actually dreaming about it for three-fifths of my life. I may have moaned like a wounded animal. I certainly called aloud to God.

    VI

    TOTALITY HELD FOR 2 minutes 20 seconds. During this time bats flitted by. The crazy bird fell silent. The pulse of crickets seemed to come from very far away. Suspended above it all was that black and silver wraith, a beauty if ever there was one.

    In the final minute I noticed Kristen. She was standing by herself at the edge of the road, her hands clasped in front of her and her head flung back. It was not until she lowered herself onto the asphalt and sat down that I noticed she was crying. I sat down and put my arm around her. Her eyes were fixed on the glittering, seething ghost in the sky. She was smiling, tears streaking her face.

    I was still sitting with her when a bright point appeared at the moon’s western edge. Within five seconds it stretched into an arc and intensified. Light enveloped the moon and it faded like a spirit at daybreak. A strange incandescence once more filled the world. For about thirty seconds SR 66 again became a river of dark purple light, steady and fleet.

    Then it was over.

    We laughed and hugged one another, incredulous and happy that we had made it. By the time we climbed back into the CRV the sun and moon were lost behind the great gray cloud, still moving northeast, still building.

    Back at the college we collected our things. We asked around; no one there had seen it. Out of courtesy I tried to contain my glee, to not overflow, but I didn’t succeed.

    VII

    TRAFFIC BACK INTO the city was terrible and we had lots of time to debrief. Elizabeth asked Kristen what she thought of it.

    “It was not as dark as I thought it would be,” she said. She also said it was the first time she had ever cried out of joy. Then she said she had prayed to God that we would see it.

    “I prayed too,” I said, and then I thanked her for praying. Does that make sense? I don’t know, but that’s what I said and that’s how I felt: grateful.

    Then she said she wished she had a Time Turner.

    “Like Hermione’s?” I asked.

    “Yes,” she said.

    The Time Turner is a device used by Hermione Granger in the third Harry Potter book. It’s a small hourglass on a chain. You wear it around your neck and every time you turn the hourglass you go back in time a single hour.

    “Why do you wish that? Would you go back and see the eclipse without all the fuss and running and getting in the car?”

    “No,” she said. “I would go back and not pray and see what happens.”

    “Really?”

    “Mm-hm.”

    “To see if your prayer made a difference, you mean? Like an experiment?” I asked, stunned.

    “Yes,” she said, smiling at me in the rearview. “An experiment. You know, like science.”

    The end of the world (of facts)

    IN MY VIEW, facts are divine gifts, fixed points in an ever-turbulent world. But these days facts are slipping through our fingers, as anyone who keeps up with the news can tell you. It’s happening in politics and religion, yes, but also in science, and in increasingly blatant ways.

    A few months ago I posed a question on Facebook:

    Has there been a recent spike in the number of flat-earthers?

    The ensuing discussion indicated a general, if vague, sense that, yes, flat-earthism seems to be on the uptick. Folks had seen the occasional headline, had heard a passing comment on TV. But nothing conclusive came of it and we all moved on to less clown-ass things.

    My question was inspired by the flat-earth claims of B.o.B and other (mostly minor) celebrites. I eventually wrote them all off as mere notice-me’s. Saying the planet is as flat as a table, and saying it without losing eye contact, is one sure way to stand out from the noise.

    But, anymore, perhaps less so. Now there is more competition, as evidenced by this story from last week’s Denver Post about a group of regular-Joe flat-earthers that meets weekly in a Fort Collins coffee bar. The group “touts itself as the first community of flat earthers in the United States.” Moreover, “Sister groups have since spawned in Boston, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Chicago.”

    One regular Joe—they are almost all white guys, apparently—calls it “a new awakening.”

    “Oh ha ha ha!” I laugh: that is my first response.

    My second response—honestly—is to blame Trump, but he’s as much a symptom as a cause.

    Third, a history lecture gears up in my head: “Did you know, Joe, that human beings have been aware of the planet’s spherical shape since at least the fourth century BC, when Aristotle came to that conclusion in the face of clear evidence? And that we achieved round-earth consensus centuries before Columbus and Copernicus… ,” etc.

    None of this would change Joe’s mind, of course.

    There is creationism. There is the antivax movement. There is climate denial. These antiscientific movements drive me batty, each in its own special way. But, though it gives me a headache, I can force myself to see why people might believe these things: creationists’ claims are a bulwark designed to protect their idea of God; many antivaxxers are seeking explanations for their children’s medical conditions; climate deniers often have economic interests at stake. These folks have very human and unremarkable motivations for their science denial.

    But why would Denverite Bob Knodel, a guy who worked as an engineer for 35 years, say something like,

    There’s so much evidence once you set aside your preprogrammed learning and begin to look at things objectively with a critical eye. You learn soon that what we’re taught is mainly propaganda.

    The round earth? That’s propaganda? Whose? Who benefits by it? And, given the number of pilots and air traffic controllers and astronauts and aerospace engineers in the world, does he have any idea how hard it would be to keep that lie going, even for a few weeks?

    My final question, and the one I most want answered, is: What is Knodel’s motivation? What does this do for him? What is he getting out of this?

    No matter how hard I try, I just can’t imagine any world in which this makes sense. I’m unable to construct any context at all for it.

    But I can speculate. Maybe these folks are feeling left behind, or dismissed, or something. Maybe flat-earthism is just pushback against the powers that be, a middle finger to the Establishment from teed-off and disillusioned middle-aged white dudes. Perhaps these flat earthers simply have a need to see themselves as guardians of the secrets of the world, to be privy to the new shit, to be noticed, to be respected.

    Yes, respected. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just guessing here.

    It’s easy to laugh this off. Maybe we should. The jokes write themselves, don’t they? I mean, it’s one group in one coffee bar; what’s the harm in making fun?

    But it’s a piece of our national syndrome, I tell you, and we’re all in this together. So I’ll keep teaching science to college students and congregations and ministers and anyone else I can find who will listen. You keep doing your thing. And while you do, please, please don’t let yourself or anyone you love leave the world of facts.

    I am impressed with existence lately

    His Orangeness surveys the killing floor

    NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON, in this recent CBS video, is asked if he believes in God. He says, among other things,

    The more I look at the universe, the less convinced I am that there is something benevolent going on… I look at disasters that afflict Earth, and life on Earth: volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, disease, pestilence, congenital birth defects. You look at this list of ways that life is made miserable on Earth by natural causes, and I just ask, “How do you deal with that?”

    I have no problems if, as we probe the origins of things, we bump into the Bearded Man. If that shows up, we good to go! Okay? Not a problem.

    There’s just no evidence of it.

    I get that.

    A stray red tabby showed up at our house a few months ago. We fed him tuna so he stayed. These days His Orangeness (aka Louie) mainly sleeps and strikes poses in our backyard. He is a living lawn ornament, graceful, discreet, inoffensive.

    Except when he catches small animals, traps them in our glassed-in patio, sets them “loose,” and slowly tortures them. During these hours—and I do mean hours—our backyard, nicely landscaped and full of flowers and photosynthesis, becomes Louie’s Theatre of Death. All readers with outdoor cats know the mindless cruelty of which I speak.

    The other night Henry and I were in the kitchen adjacent to the patio. We looked out through the sliding glass doors and saw that Louie had a baby rabbit under the patio table. I groaned. There was nothing we could do—the little guy was very bad off—so we turned our attention elsewhere. Thirty minutes later we heard a horrible shriek. Again and again it happened, three times, each cry loud and rising and abruptly cut off. It echoed in my head for several days afterward. A baby rabbit’s death scream is not something you want to hear.

    And although I have never witnessed it, I am aware that human beings sometimes suffer such ends: early, natural, brutal, mindless.

    So I get it when Tyson finds no evidence that “something benevolent is going on.” Life is death-saturated.

    Yet: Here we are.

    This fact is often overlooked.

    When I was a kid I played tee ball in a local church league. I remember the uniforms and the heat and the black rubber tee and the chain link dugout. I also remember trying to smack the ball between infielders and make clean throws to the cutoff man, but I was no athlete. Neither my heart nor my head was in the game.

    There were distractions. If you ask my mom what she remembers about those days she’ll tell you how my efforts in the field consisted largely of staring at my shadow and kicking up dust and watching it drift past. My mind couldn’t wrap around the game; it was not game-shaped. Shadows and dust, on the other hand, were a perfect fit.

    I spent those Saturdays in right field, stunned into uselessness by the bare fact of the world, by existence.

    I am no longer a child, and the game has changed from baseball to ladder-climbing (among other things). But my inability to play the game remains. Yes, I have worked hard and have a number of accomplishments under my belt. You won’t find me minimizing those accomplishments or the saints whose love and dedication made them possible. I have been freely given the material, emotional, educational, and spiritual resources—along with multiple opportunities—to organize my life into a clearly-marked, stable, one-way career. But the pieces never fit. My mind can’t wrap around that game and I’ve given up trying to play.

    I again blame existence, which is oddly persistent. My admiration for existence has led me from physics to theology to writing—what else is there?—and still I spend my life wondering. I feel as useless as an outfielder in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with three men on and two men out, wondering at shadows, lost in the interplay of light and dust.

    It really is something, existence.

    If it sounds odd to say such a thing it might be because existence is rarely acknowledged. It is rarely acknowledged because it is rarely sensed. Usually we need art to become aware of the surprising fact of the world, or music might do it, or science, or sustained religious practice, or great violence, or great loss, or great joy. Mostly we wander around “sunk into everydayness,” as Walker Percy put it, unaware of existence.

    This is probably OK. Existence can be paralyzing. Awareness of it, I mean. We can’t all walk around stupefied like Merton on the corner in Louisville, blinded by passersby shining like the sun. Nothing would get done.

    Ever since dad died last year existence has become harder than ever for me to overlook (and yes, it can be tough to get things done, but I show up as best I can). I can’t stop imagining the woods, the creek, the trees, the creatures, the sky; or walking through the actual woods, along the actual creek, under the trees, among the creatures, beneath the sky.

    The other day I was at the South Fork of Peachtree Creek and a saw a great crested flycatcher for the first time. I heard it before I saw it, a sharp buzzy wheep. It was so sudden and so loud it scared me still. I turned in the direction of the sound, toward a stand of gnarled boxelder. Waited, stared, focused on nothing, poised for motion or sound. And wheep there it was, in plain view and full sunlight, 15 feet away, lemon and gray and greatly crested. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I got home and did some research. It’s an impressive bird, yes, but it might have been a dodo for the lift it gave me.

    Existence, fully gratuitous and unasked-for, to the rescue (again). I can’t get past it—I tell you, there’s something holy out there.

    As for Tyson? He’s a super famous science guy and he’s got a line to toe when it comes to God. I get that too. But if he were to read this I bet he’d know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Waiting on a tree

    sassafras

    The sassafras at Agnes Scott took no time to ID — no other North American tree looks or smells anything like it

    I’ve been learning to identify trees lately. More than once it has reminded me of my first year in college.

    I attended a tiny school in the southern Blue Ridge. There I spent many nights walking and learning the constellations. Under the stars I experienced something I had known in childhood but had nearly forgotten: the wild, boundless rapture of silence and solitude. My insecurities were stilled by the regularity of the night sky. My mind settled, my thoughts became clear, and my emotions, wary of daylight and company, slowly emerged from their hiding places.

    I went out at a regular hour and so new constellations arrived piecemeal. Night after night the sky slowly unspooled on the eastern horizon. The Pleiades, indicting the heart of Taurus, appeared in early September. A few days later they were higher up and I saw the bull’s eye, marked by the red giant Aldeberan, for the first time. A week after this I observed the first of the stars of Gemini. Castor and Pollux showed up a day or two after that. And so it went.

    At first I was impatient with this. More than once I found myself up on my toes facing east, thinking that if I could just get up a little higher I might see what was hiding behind the horizon. But after awhile I realized that nature was offering me a nightly dose of the familiar and the new, mixed just right for learning. Every night there was plenty to review and a little to learn. I came to like it that way. By early spring I was going out later and I felt myself avoiding the eastern sky. I didn’t want to spoil the pace.

    Today I’m in the latter half of my middle years. As a college student I thought I’d have life pretty much solved by now. I thought my faith would be steady and my income solid, that I’d have a strong health regimen, a dependable daily schedule, few anxieties, and no regrets. I thought I’d have worked through all the difficult but standard questions of personal identity and life purpose. I thought I’d be in control.

    But I’m not, and it can take a while to really see that and admit it. Since college my days have been filled with meetings and kids’ activities and new jobs and countless logistic and personal and professional challenges. There have been deadlines to meet, dates to remember, articles to write, papers to grade, classes to teach, messes to clean up, forms to fill out, bills to pay, all good and normal midlife tasks. But they seem to me like so many heads of the Hydra. It’s hard to take a breath when you’re fighting such a monster. I can list only a handful of times since college that I’ve been in touch with my essential freedom, times when I have not at some level been conscious of the push of my schedule, worried on some level about What’s Next.

    I’m tired and a little bewildered, to tell the truth, and I have miles to go before I sleep.

    I was in this mindset when I started on the trees. It was January. The conifers and laurels and magnolias were easy enough, but until lately the deciduous trees were really challenging. For them I had only branching patterns and bark. Also location: sandy soil, slopes, bottomland, creekside. I poked through ground litter and that helped in a few cases, but mostly I was at a loss. So I waited on leaves, flowers, fruit, anything. I checked certain trees regularly. The waiting was satisfying, just as it was for me as a college student under the stars. I stood and looked up at branches spread like fractals against the winter sky while life prepared itself underground, in the atmosphere, behind the bark of a million trees.

    Today, for the greater part, the leaves have arrived. I’ve learned maples and oaks and hickories and dogwoods and hornbeams and locusts and many others. But trees won’t be rushed. Many leaves are still new, and new leaves have this in common with new embryos: even across species, they can look a lot alike, and they reach their final forms on their own schedules.

    image1 (7)

    There is a small tree on the bank of Burnt Fork Creek, a short walk from my house. The leaves in the image above came from it. I have been watching it since February and I have found several others like it, some quite a bit larger. I have drawn pictures of the tree and its leaves. I have returned to it again and again over the weeks, and I’m still at a loss. It is neither dogwood nor elm. It is neither hornbeam nor persimmon. It might be blackgum. It might be silverbell. Right now I don’t know. One day flowers and fruit will arrive and I’ll know its name. But today its name is a mystery.

    Waiting for this one tree makes me conscious of time’s great stream. It takes my attention away from the ongoing staccato of deadlines and appointments that threatens to fragment my life. Waiting for this tree reminds me that life is not a problem to be solved or a situation to manage. It is not just one damned thing after another. It is an unfolding, a vast rising and falling, a wave of great depth. My job is to ride the wave, to wonder at it, to document it, to say: I am here, I am a part of this and a witness to it.

    My mind is settling. My thoughts and feelings are appearing here and there like animals after a long hibernation. The happiness of being outdoors and learning the names of things is once more proving to be unreasonably powerful in my life. And when I learn the name of this one green and particular feature of the cosmos, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    UPDATE: It’s Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina). Thanks to Alert Readers John Graham and Monica Sheppard for their help!

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