Fragrance in Literature 8-John Muir




Jon Muir was a Scotsman who after emigrating to America with his family in his youth, ventured forth to become one of the country's great naturalist's. His many written works include profoundly beautiful descriptions of his wanderings in the Sierra Nevada, the Mountains of Light. He had a keenly developed olfactory sense and wove them into his writings in a delightful manner.
Those who wish to more about his life can explore these websites:
Sierra Clubs John Muir Exhibit
Wikipedia article on John Muir
Works by and about John Muir
California Legacy Project on John Muir


The Mountains of California
Here, too, in the middle region of deepest cañons are the grandest
forest-trees, the Sequoia, king of conifers, the noble Sugar and Yellow
Pines, Douglas Spruce, Libocedrus, and the Silver Firs, each a giant of
its kind, assembled together in one and the same forest, surpassing all
other coniferous forests in the world, both in the number of its species
and in the size and beauty of its trees. The winds flow in melody
through their colossal spires, and they are vocal everywhere with the
songs of birds and running water. Miles of fragrant ceanothus and
manzanita bushes bloom beneath them, and lily gardens and meadows, and
damp, ferny glens in endless variety of fragrance and color, compelling
the admiration of every observer.

Go where you may, you everywhere find the lawn divinely beautiful, as if
Nature had fingered and adjusted every plant this very day. The floating
grass panicles are scarcely felt in brushing through their midst, so
flue are they, and none of the flowers have tall or rigid stalks. In the
brightest places you find three species of gentians with different
shades of blue, daisies pure as the sky, silky leaved ivesias with warm
yellow flowers, several species of orthocarpus with blunt, bossy spikes,
red and purple and yellow; the alpine goldenrod, pentstemon, and clover,
fragrant and honeyful, with their colors massed and blended. Parting the
grasses and looking more closely you may trace the branching of their
shining stems, and note the marvelous beauty of their mist of flowers,
the glumes and pales exquisitely penciled, the yellow dangling stamens,
and feathery pistils.

But few indeed, strong and free with eyes undimmed
with care, have gone far enough and lived long enough with the trees to
gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and
significance as manifested in the harmonies of their distribution and
varying aspects throughout the seasons, as they stand arrayed in their
winter garb rejoicing in storms, putting forth their fresh leaves in the
spring while steaming with resiny fragrance, receiving the
thunder-showers of summer, or reposing heavy-laden with ripe cones in
the rich sungold of autumn. For knowledge of this kind one must dwell
with the trees and grow with them, without any reference to time in the
almanac sense.

The wood is deliciously fragrant,
and fine in grain and texture; it is of a rich cream-yellow, as if
formed of condensed sunbeams. _Retinospora obtusa, Siebold_, the
glory of Eastern forests, is called "Fu-si-no-ki" (tree of the sun) by
the Japanese; the Sugar Pine is the sun-tree of the Sierra.

On the most sunny slopes the white-flowered fragrant chamoebatia is
spread like a carpet, brightened during early summer with the crimson
Sarcodes, the wild rose, and innumerable violets and gilias. Not even in
the shadiest nooks will you find any rank, untidy weeds or unwholesome
darkness. On the north sides of ridges the boles are more slender, and
the ground is mostly occupied by an underbrush of hazel, ceanothus, and
flowering dogwood, but never so densely as to prevent the traveler from
sauntering where he will; while the crowning branches are never
impenetrable to the rays of the sun, and never so interblended as to
lose their individuality.


Very old trees are usually dead at the top, the main axis
protruding above ample masses of green plumes, gray and lichen-covered,
and drilled full of acorn holes by the woodpeckers. The plumes are
exceedingly beautiful; no waving fern-frond in shady dell is more
unreservedly beautiful in form and texture, or half so inspiring in
color and spicy fragrance. In its prime, the whole tree is thatched with
them, so that they shed off rain and snow like a roof, making fine
mansions for storm-bound birds and mountaineers. But if you would see
the _Libocedrus_ in all its glory, you must go to the woods in
winter. Then it is laden with myriads of four-sided staminate cones
about the size of wheat grains,--winter wheat,--producing a golden
tinge, and forming a noble illustration of Nature's immortal vigor and
virility.

It was still early morning when I found myself fairly adrift. Delicious
sunshine came pouring over the hills, lighting the tops of the pines,
and setting free a steam of summery fragrance that contrasted strangely
with the wild tones of the storm. The air was mottled with pine-tassels
and bright green plumes, that went flashing past in the sunlight like
birds pursued. But there was not the slightest dustiness, nothing less
pure than leaves, and ripe pollen, and flecks of withered bracken and
moss.

I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the
music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was
streaming past. The fragrance of the woods was less marked than that
produced during warm rain, when so many balsamic buds and leaves are
steeped like tea; but, from the chafing of resiny branches against each
other, and the incessant attrition of myriads of needles, the gale was
spiced to a very tonic degree. And besides the fragrance from these
local sources there were traces of scents brought from afar. For this
wind came first from the sea, rubbing against its fresh, briny waves,
then distilled through the redwoods, threading rich ferny gulches, and
spreading itself in broad undulating currents over many a
flower-enameled ridge of the coast mountains, then across the golden
plains, up the purple foot-hills, and into these piny woods with the
varied incense gathered by the way.


Winds are advertisements of all they touch, however much or little we
may be able to read them; telling their wanderings even by their scents
alone. Mariners detect the flowery perfume of land-winds far at sea, and
sea-winds carry the fragrance of dulse and tangle far inland, where it
is quickly recognized, though mingled with the scents of a thousand
land-flowers. As an illustration of this, I may tell here that I
breathed sea-air on the Firth of Forth, in Scotland, while a boy; then
was taken to Wisconsin, where I remained nineteen years; then, without
in all this time having breathed one breath of the sea, I walked
quietly, alone, from the middle of the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of
Mexico, on a botanical excursion, and while in Florida, far from the
coast, my attention wholly bent on the splendid tropical vegetation
about me, I suddenly recognized a sea-breeze, as it came sifting through
the palmettos and blooming vine-tangles, which at once awakened and set
free a thousand dormant associations, and made me a boy again in
Scotland, as if all the intervening years had been annihilated.

In this great storm, as in every other, there were tones and gestures
inexpressibly gentle manifested in the midst of what is called violence
and fury, but easily recognized by all who look and listen for them. The
rain brought out the colors of the woods with delightful freshness, the
rich brown of the bark of the trees and the fallen burs and leaves and
dead ferns; the grays of rocks and lichens; the light purple of swelling
buds, and the warm yellow greens of the libocedrus and mosses. The air
was steaming with delightful fragrance, not rising and wafting past in
separate masses, but diffused through all the atmosphere. Pine woods are
always fragrant, but most so in spring when the young tassels are
opening and in warm weather when the various gums and balsams are
softened by the sun.

Monardella grows here in large beds
in the openings, and there is plenty of laurel in dells and manzanita on
the hillsides, and the rosy, fragrant chamoebatia carpets the ground
almost everywhere. These, with the gums and balsams of the woods, form
the main local fragrance-fountains of the storm. The ascending clouds of
aroma wind-rolled and rain-washed became pure like light and traveled
with the wind as part of it. Toward the middle of the afternoon the main
flood cloud lifted along its western border revealing a beautiful
section of the Sacramento Valley some twenty or thirty miles away,
brilliantly sun-lighted and glistering with rain-sheets as if paved with
silver.

Everything is
refreshed and invigorated, a steam of fragrance rises, and the storm is
finished--one cloud, one lightning-stroke, and one dash of rain. This is
the Sierra mid-summer thunder-storm reduced to its lowest terms. But
some of them attain much larger proportions, and assume a grandeur and
energy of expression hardly surpassed by those bred in the depths of
winter, producing those sudden floods called "cloud-bursts," which are
local, and to a considerable extent periodical, for they appear nearly
every day about the same time for weeks, usually about eleven o'clock,
and lasting from five minutes to an hour or two.

The storm was reflected in every gesture, and not one cheerful note, not
to say song, came from a single bill; their cowering, joyless endurance
offering a striking contrast to the spontaneous, irrepressible gladness
of the Ouzel, who could no more help exhaling sweet song than a rose
sweet fragrance. He _must_ sing though the heavens fall.

Sauntering in any direction, hundreds of these happy sun-plants brushed
against my feet at every step, and closed over them as if I were wading
in liquid gold. The air was sweet with fragrance, the larks sang their
blessed songs, rising on the wing as I advanced, then sinking out of
sight in the polleny sod, while myriads of wild bees stirred the lower
air with their monotonous hum--monotonous, yet forever fresh and sweet
as every-day sunshine.

This was the full springtime. The sunshine grew warmer and richer, new
plants bloomed every day; the air became more tuneful with humming
wings, and sweeter with the fragrance of the opening flowers. Ants and
ground squirrels were getting ready for their summer work, rubbing their
benumbed limbs, and sunning themselves on the husk-piles before their
doors, and spiders were busy mending their old webs, or weaving new
ones.

How perfectly enchanting and care-obliterating are these withdrawn
gardens of the woods--long vistas opening to the sea--sunshine sifting
and pouring upon the flowery ground in a tremulous, shifting mosaic, as
the light-ways in the leafy wall open and close with the swaying
breeze--shining leaves and flowers, birds and bees, mingling together in
springtime harmony, and soothing fragrance exhaling from a thousand
thousand fountains! In these balmy, dissolving days, when the deep
heart-beats of Nature are felt thrilling rocks and trees and everything
alike, common business and friends are happily forgotten, and even the
natural honey-work of bees, and the care of birds for their young, and
mothers for their children, seem slightly out of place.

The interesting Nutmeg Tree (_Torreya Californica_) is sparsely
distributed along the western flank of the range at an elevation of
about 4000 feet, mostly in gulches and cañons. It is a small, prickly
leaved, glossy evergreen, like a conifer, from twenty to fifty feet
high, and one to two feet in diameter. The fruit resembles a green-gage
plum, and contains one seed, about the size of an acorn, and like a
nutmeg, hence the common name. The wood is fine-grained and of a
beautiful, creamy yellow color like box, sweet-scented when dry, though
the green leaves emit a disagreeable odor.

The hylas make a delightfully pure and
tranquil music after sunset; and coyotes, the little, despised dogs of
the wilderness, brave, hardy fellows, looking like withered wisps of
hay, bark in chorus for hours. Mining-towns, most of them dead, and a
few living ones with bright bits of cultivation about them, occur at
long intervals along the belt, and cottages covered with climbing roses,
in the midst of orange and peach orchards, and sweet-scented hay-fields
in fertile flats where water for irrigation may be had. But they are
mostly far apart, and make scarce any mark in general views.

I made my bed in a nook of the pine-thicket, where the branches were
pressed and crinkled overhead like a roof, and bent down around the
sides. These are the best bedchambers the high mountains afford--snug as
squirrel-nests, well ventilated, full of spicy odors, and with plenty of
wind-played needles to sing one asleep. I little expected company, but,
creeping in through a low side-door, I found five or six birds nestling
among the tassels. The night-wind began to blow soon after dark; at
first only a gentle breathing, but increasing toward midnight to a rough
gale that fell upon my leafy roof in ragged surges like a cascade,
bearing wild sounds from the crags overhead. The waterfall sang in
chorus, filling the old ice-fountain with its solemn roar, and seeming
to increase in power as the night advanced--fit voice for such a
landscape. I had to creep out many times to the fire during the night,
for it was biting cold and I had no blankets. Gladly I welcomed the
morning star.

From a single Sugar Pine cone he gets from two to four hundred seeds
about half the size of a hazel-nut, so that in a few minutes he can
procure enough to last a week. He seems, however, to prefer those of the
two Silver First above all others; perhaps because they are most easily
obtained, as the scales drop off when ripe without needing to be cut.
Both species are filled with an exceedingly pungent, aromatic oil, which
spices all his flesh, and is of itself sufficient to account for his
lightning energy.