Fragrance in Literature 14-Helen Keller

Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, political activist and lecturer. She was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.[1][2] The story of how Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become known worldwide through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker.
A prolific author, Keller was well traveled and was outspoken in her opposition to war. She campaigned for women's suffrage, workers' rights, and socialism, as well as many other progressive causes.

Here use of words related to the sense of smell are filled with life and vitality, helping those reading her works realize how valuable olfactory perception is in gaining knowledge of the world around one.

Those who wish to explore more about her life can study the following web sites:
Wikipedia article on Helen Keller
Works by and about Helen Keller
Images of Helen Keller

Story of My Life

We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to
the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the
woods--the fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the
perfume of wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild
tulip tree, I learned to think that everything has a lesson and a
suggestion. "The loveliness of things taught me all their use."
Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom had
a part in my education-noisy-throated frogs, katydids and
crickets held in my hand until forgetting their embarrassment,
they trilled their reedy note, little downy chickens and
wildflowers, the dogwood blossoms, meadow-violets and budding
fruit trees. I felt the bursting cotton-bolls and fingered their
soft fiber and fuzzy seeds; I felt the low soughing of the wind
through the cornstalks, the silky rustling of the long leaves,
and the indignant snort of my pony, as we caught him in the
pasture and put the bit in his mouth--ah me! how well I remember
the spicy, clovery smell of his breath!

Tuscumbia, Ala., August 7, 1889.

Dearest Teacher--I am very glad to write to you this evening, for
I have been thinking much about you all day. I am sitting on the
piazza, and my little white pigeon is perched on the back of my
chair, watching me write. Her little brown mate has flown away
with the other birds; but Annie is not sad, for she likes to stay
with me. Fauntleroy is asleep upstairs, and Nancy is putting Lucy
to bed. Perhaps the mocking bird is singing them to sleep. All
the beautiful flowers are in bloom now. The air is sweet with the
perfume of jasmines, heliotropes and roses. It is getting warm
here now, so father is going to take us to the Quarry on the 20th
of August. I think we shall have a beautiful time out in the
cool, pleasant woods. I will write and tell you all the pleasant
things we do. I am so glad that Lester and Henry are good little
infants. Give them many sweet kisses for me.

It is impossible to tell exactly to what extent the senses of
smell and taste aid her in gaining information respecting
physical qualities; but, according to eminent authority, these
senses do exert a great influence on the mental and moral
development. Dugald Stewart says, "Some of the most significant
words relating to the human mind are borrowed from the sense of
smell; and the conspicuous place which its sensations occupy in
the poetical language of all nations shows how easily and
naturally they ally themselves with the refined operations of the
fancy and the moral emotions of the heart." Helen certainly
derives great pleasure from the exercise of these senses. On
entering a greenhouse her countenance becomes radiant, and she
will tell the names of the flowers with which she is familiar, by
the sense of smell alone. Her recollections of the sensations of
smell are very vivid. She enjoys in anticipation the scent of a
rose or a violet; and if she is promised a bouquet of these
flowers, a peculiarly happy expression lights her face,
indicating that in imagination she perceives their fragrance, and
that it is pleasant to her. It frequently happens that the
perfume of a flower or the flavour of a fruit recalls to her mind
some happy event in home life, or a delightful birthday party.

Again, it was the growth of a plant that furnished the text for a
lesson. We bought a lily and set it in a sunny window. Very soon
the green, pointed buds showed signs of opening. The slender,
fingerlike leaves on the outside opened slowly, reluctant, I
thought, to reveal the loveliness they hid; once having made a
start, however, the opening process went on rapidly, but in order
and systematically. There was always one bud larger and more
beautiful than the rest, which pushed her outer, covering back
with more pomp, as if the beauty in soft, silky robes knew that
she was the lily-queen by right divine, while her more timid
sisters doffed their green hoods shyly, until the whole plant was
one nodding bough of loveliness and fragrance.

I spent the autumn months with my family at our summer cottage,
on a mountain about fourteen miles from Tuscumbia. It was called
Fern Quarry, because near it there was a limestone quarry, long
since abandoned. Three frolicsome little streams ran through it
from springs in the rocks above, leaping here and tumbling there
in laughing cascades wherever the rocks tried to bar their way.
The opening was filled with ferns which completely covered the
beds of limestone and in places hid the streams. The rest of the
mountain was thickly wooded. Here were great oaks and splendid
evergreens with trunks like mossy pillars, from the branches of
which hung garlands of ivy and mistletoe, and persimmon trees,
the odour of which pervaded every nook and corner of the wood--an
illusive, fragrant something that made the heart glad. In places
the wild muscadine and scuppernong vines stretched from tree to
tree, making arbours which were always full of butterflies and
buzzing insects. It was delightful to lose ourselves in the green
hollows of that tangled wood in the late afternoon, and to smell
the cool, delicious odours that came up from the earth at the
close of day.

Sometimes I would go with Mildred and my little cousins to gather
persimmons. I did not eat them; but I loved their fragrance and
enjoyed hunting for them in the leaves and grass. We also went
nutting, and I helped them open the chestnut burrs and break the
shells of hickory-nuts and walnuts--the big, sweet walnuts!

The hammock was
covered with pine needles, for it had not been used while my
teacher was away. The warm sun shone on the pine trees and drew
out all their fragrance. The air was balmy, with a tang of the
sea in it. Before we began the story Miss Sullivan explained to
me the things that she knew I should not understand, and as we
read on she explained the unfamiliar words. At first there were
many words I did not know, and the reading was constantly
interrupted; but as soon as I thoroughly comprehended the
situation, I became too eagerly absorbed in the story to notice
mere words, and I am afraid I listened impatiently to the
explanations that Miss Sullivan felt to be necessary. When her
fingers were too tired to spell another word, I had for the first
time a keen sense of my deprivations. I took the book in my hands
and tried to feel the letters with an intensity of longing that I
can never forget.

The other day I had a fine party. All of my
dear little friends came to see me. We played games, and ate
ice-cream and cake and fruit. Then we had great fun. The sun is
shining brightly to-day and I hope we shall go to ride if the
roads are dry. In a few days the beautiful spring will be here. I
am very glad because I love the warm sunshine and the fragrant
flowers. I think Flowers grow to make people happy and good.

When I walk out in my garden I cannot see the beautiful flowers
but I know that they are all around me; for is not the air sweet
with their fragrance? I know too that the tiny lily-bells are
whispering pretty secrets to their companions else they would not
look so happy. I love you very dearly, because you have taught me
so many lovely things about flowers, and birds, and people. Now I
must say, good-bye. I hope [you] will enjoy the Thanksgiving very

Thus far my summer has been sweeter than anything I can remember.
My mother, and sister and little brother have been here five
weeks, and our happiness knows no bounds. Not only do we enjoy
being together; but we also find our little home most delightful.
I do wish you could see the view of the beautiful lake from our
piazza, the islands looking like little emerald peaks in the
golden sunlight, and the canoes flitting here and there, like
autumn leaves in the gentle breeze, and breathe in the peculiarly
delicious fragrance of the woods, which comes like a murmur from
an unknown clime. I cannot help wondering if it is the same
fragrance that greeted the Norsemen long ago, when, according to
tradition, they visited our shores--an odorous echo of many
centuries of silent growth and decay in flower and tree....

The next morning I awoke with joy in my heart. Everything I
touched seemed to quiver with life. It was because I saw
everything with the new, strange, beautiful sight which had been
given me. I was never angry after that because I understood what
my friends said to me, and I was very busy learning many
wonderful things. I was never still during the first glad days of
my freedom. I was continually spelling and acting out the words
as I spelled them. I would run, skip, jump and swing, no matter
where I happened to be. Everything was budding and blossoming.
The honeysuckle hung in long garlands, deliciously fragrant, and
the roses had never been so beautiful before. Teacher and I lived
out-of-doors from morning until night, and I rejoiced greatly in
the forgotten light and sunshine found again....

The morning after our arrival I awoke bright and early. A
beautiful summer day had dawned, the day on which I was to make
the acquaintance of a somber and mysterious friend. I got up, and
dressed quickly and ran downstairs. I met Teacher in the hall,
and begged to be taken to the sea at once. "Not yet," she
responded, laughing. "We must have breakfast first." As soon as
breakfast was over we hurried off to the shore. Our pathway led
through low, sandy hills, and as we hastened on, I often caught
my feet in the long, coarse grass, and tumbled, laughing, in the
warm, shining sand. The beautiful, warm air was peculiarly
fragrant, and I noticed it got cooler and fresher as we went on.

Our cottage was a sort of rough camp, beautifully situated on the
top of the mountain among oaks and pines. The small rooms were
arranged on each side of a long open hall. Round the house was a
wide piazza, where the mountain winds blew, sweet with all
wood-scents. We lived on the piazza most of the time--there we
worked, ate and played. At the back door there was a great
butternut tree, round which the steps had been built, and in
front the trees stood so close that I could touch them and feel
the wind shake their branches, or the leaves twirl downward in
the autumn blast.

When the ground was strewn with the crimson and golden leaves of
autumn, and the musk-scented grapes that covered the arbour at
the end of the garden were turning golden brown in the sunshine,
I began to write a sketch of my life--a year after I had written
"The Frost King."

More than once in the course of my story I have referred to my
love of the country and out-of-door sports. When I was quite a
little girl, I learned to row and swim, and during the summer,
when I am at Wrentham, Massachusetts, I almost live in my boat.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to take my friends out
rowing when they visit me. Of course, I cannot guide the boat
very well. Some one usually sits in the stern and manages the
rudder while I row. Sometimes, however, I go rowing without the
rudder. It is fun to try to steer by the scent of watergrasses
and lilies, and of bushes that grow on the shore.

"Yes," he replied, "the Charles has many dear associations for
me." There was an odour of print and leather in the room which
told me that it was full of books, and I stretched out my hand
instinctively to find them. My fingers lighted upon a beautiful
volume of Tennyson's poems, and when Miss Sullivan told me what
it was I began to recite:
Break, break, break
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!

Much of her knowledge comes to her directly. When she is out
walking she often stops suddenly, attracted by the odour of a bit
of shrubbery. She reaches out and touches the leaves, and the
world of growing things is hers, as truly as it is ours, to enjoy
while she holds the leaves in her fingers and smells the
blossoms, and to remember when the walk is done.

Like every deaf or blind person, Miss Keller depends on her sense
of smell to an unusual degree. When she was a little girl she
smelled everything and knew where she was, what neighbour's house
she was passing, by the distinctive odours. As her intellect grew
she became less dependent on this sense. To what extent she now
identifies objects by their odour is hard to determine. The sense
of smell has fallen into disrepute, and a deaf person is
reluctant to speak of it. Miss Keller's acute sense of smell may
account, however, in some part for that recognition of persons
and things which it has been customary to attribute to a special
sense, or to an unusual development of the power that we all seem
to have of telling when some one is near.

Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left
the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which
meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange
odour came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odour that
always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at
my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and
the firm earth. The immense, the unknown, enfolded me. I remained
still and expectant; a chilling terror crept over me. I longed
for my teacher's return; but above all things I wanted to get
down from that tree.

After this experience it was a long time before I climbed another
tree. The mere thought filled me with terror. It was the sweet
allurement of the mimosa tree in full bloom that finally overcame
my fears. One beautiful spring morning when I was alone in the
summer-house, reading, I became aware of a wonderful subtle
fragrance in the air. I started up and instinctively stretched
out my hands. It seemed as if the spirit of spring had passed
through the summer-house. "What is it?" I asked, and the next
minute I recognized the odour of the mimosa blossoms. I felt my
way to the end of the garden, knowing that the mimosa tree was
near the fence, at the turn of the path. Yes, there it was, all
quivering in the warm sunshine, its blossom-laden branches almost
touching the long grass. Was there ever anything so exquisitely
beautiful in the world before! Its delicate blossoms shrank from
the slightest earthly touch; it seemed as if a tree of paradise
had been transplanted to earth. I made my way through a shower of
petals to the great trunk and for one minute stood irresolute;
then, putting my foot in the broad space between the forked
branches, I pulled myself up into the tree. I had some difficulty
in holding on, for the branches were very large and the bark hurt
my hands. But I had a delicious sense that I was doing something
unusual and wonderful so I kept on climbing higher and higher,
until I reached a little seat which somebody had built there so
long ago that it had grown part of the tree itself. I sat there
for a long, long time, feeling like a fairy on a rosy cloud.
After that I spent many happy hours in my tree of paradise,
thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams.