Thursday, November 26, 2015

January Fragrance

I am going to tell you of my discovery of winter fragrances. Perhaps you can tell me of some discovery you have made that is equally as interesting. Late one January afternoon I was standing under the brow of a hill watching some lusty crows tacking against a brisk southwest wind. The ground was frozen and partially covered with snow. I was in a sheltered position, yet occasionally quite strong currents of air swept around me. It seemed that I could detect a sweet smell, a fragrance, just as the current which bore it passed on, leaving a lull. The crows gone, I gave this my full attention. There was no doubt about it. It was a delicate fragrance that seemed to follow the low currents of air. Also it was a familiar fragrance; but meeting it on a bleak January hillside, I did not recognize it it, just as we fail to recognize some acquaintances when we unexpectedly meet them away from some accustomed environments. I was on my way to make a call on a pair of long-billed marsh-wrens  whose acquaintance I had made in the early winter. I wanted to know if they were still keeping house down there in the flat land along the brook, and to keep up the friendship; but this new phenomenon, a sweet odor in the air on a frosty January day, claimed my full attention, and I abandoned my visit to the wrens and went in pursuit of the source of the fragrance.

It was only reasonable to believe that I would find it to the windward side; so I followed back against the wind, sniffing the air as busily and earnestly as a hound on a fox's trail. Only occasionally could I pick up the sweet odor, and never in the strong wind. I tried a lateral course with the wind, and finally concluded that I had found a path or current of air about thirty feet wide in which the fragrance was almost constant.
About four hundred yards further back I came to the ruins of a burned farmhouse; the ground, that had once been a garden, had the summer just past been covered with a rank growth of artemesia, commonly known as old man, or sweet fern. So this was the source of the January fragrance, the mysterious perfume bottle which the winds had uncorked. The winter blasts were breaking up the dried stalks and the fragrance was being wafted away just as naturally as if they had been June breezes. Since then I have observed this fragrance quite often in the winter. It is not necessary, however, that the stalks be broken to liberate the fragrance, for on still cold days it is quite noticeable in its immediate vicinity. 
Blue Bird, Volumes 2-4

There is another plant, the catnip, that furnishes a fragrance any month of the year. This plant is very hardy. It is not an uncommon sight to see the green leaves any winter month. These four winter fragrances I have mentioned are strong and can be detected by any one.

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There are, however, other odors of the out-of-doors that require an unusual keen sense of smell to detect and enjoy. Among them is the odor common to the woods—the forest odor. It is neither sweet nor spicy nor musty. Something about it suggests bitter. The only words that seem to fit are “fresh,” “clean.” The odor from shucks of corn is like a sweet mustiness and can be detected at long distances by keen olfactory nerves. The dried plants of life everlasting give off a bland odor. One often meets it in waste fields in midwinter. It would be interesting to our readers to hear from others on this subject of winter fragrances.

Blue Bird, Volumes 2-4

The pungent and unique scent of the bayberry, equally strong in leaf and berry, is to me one of the elements of the purity and sweetness of the air of our New England coast fields in autumn. It grows everywhere, green and cheerful, in sun-withered shore pastures, in poor bits of earth on our rocky coast, where it has few fellow field-tenants to crowd the ground. It is said that the highest efforts of memory are stimulated through our sense of smell, by the association of ideas with scents. That of bayberry, whenever I pass it, seems to awaken in me an hereditary memory, to recall a life of two centuries ago. I recall the autumns of trial and of promise in our early history, and the bayberry fields are peopled with children in Puritan garb, industriously gathering the tiny waxen fruit. Equally full of sentiment is the scent of my burning bayberry candles, which were made last autumn in an old colony town.
Home Life in Colonial Days
 By Alice Morse Earle
There are few persons who have a strong enough love of leaf scents, or interest in herbs, to make them willing to spend much time in working in an herb garden. The beauty and color of flowers would compensate them, but not the growth or scent of leafage. It is impossible to describe to one who does not feel by instinct "the lure of green things growing," the curious stimulation, the sense of intoxication, of delight, brought by working among such green-growing, sweet-scented things. The maker of this interesting garden felt this stimulation and delight; and at her city home on a bleak day in December we both revelled in holding and breathing in the scent of tiny sprays of Rue, Rosemary, and Balm which, still green, had been gathered from beneath fallen leaves and stalks in her country garden, as a tender and grateful attention of one herb lover to another. Thus did she prove Shakespeare's words true even on the shores of Lake Michigan : —
"Rosemary and Rue: these keep
Seeming and savor all the winter long."
Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth
 By Alice Morse Earle
The whole family gathered in large quantities from roadsides and pastures the oily bayberries, and from them the thrifty and capable wife made scores of candles for winter use, patiently filling and refilling her few moulds, or "dipping" the candles again and again until large enough to use. These pale-green bayberry tallow candles, when lighted in the early winter evening, sent forth a faint spicy fragrance — a true New England incense — that fairly perfumed and Orientalized the atmosphere of the parsonage kitchen. They were very saving, however, even of these homemade candles, blowing them out during the long family prayers.
The Sabbath in Puritan New England
 By Alice Morse Earle