Fragrance in Literature-Great Possessions, by David Grayson

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Great Possessions, by David Grayson

I have always had a kind of errant love for the improvident and
adventurous Esaus of the Earth. I think they smell a wilder fragrance
than I do, and taste sweeter things, and I have thought, therefore, of
beginning a kind of fragrant autobiography, a chronicle of all the good
odours and flavours that ever I have had in my life.

I went from clump to clump of the lilacs testing and comparing them with
great joy and satisfaction. They vary noticeably in odour; the white
varieties being the most delicate, while those tending to deep purple
are the richest. Some of the newer double varieties seem less
fragrant--and I have tested them now many times--than the old-fashioned
single varieties which are nearer the native stock. Here I fancy our
smooth Jacob has been at work, and in the lucrative process of selection
for the eye alone the cunning horticulturist has cheated us of our
rightful heritage of fragrance. I have a mind some time to practise the
art of burbankry or other kind of wizardy upon the old lilac stock and
select for odour alone, securing ravishing original varieties--indeed,
whole new gamuts of fragrance.

I have felt the same defect in the cultivated roses. While the odours
are rich, often of cloying sweetness, or even, as in certain white
roses, having a languor as of death, they never for me equal the
fragrance of the wild sweet rose that grows all about these hills, in
old tangled fence rows, in the lee of meadow boulders, or by some
unfrequented roadside. No other odour I know awakens quite such a
feeling--light like a cloud, suggesting free hills, open country, sunny
air; and none surely has, for me, such an after-call. A whiff of the
wild rose will bring back in all the poignancy of sad happiness a train
of ancient memories old faces, old scenes, old loves--and the wild
thoughts I had when a boy. The first week of the wild-rose blooming,
beginning here about the twenty-fifth of June, is always to me a
memorable time.

Just now I have come in from work, and will note freshly one of the best
odours I have had to-day. As I was working in the corn, a lazy breeze
blew across the meadows from the west, and after loitering a moment
among the blackberry bushes sought me out where I was busiest. Do you
know the scent of the blackberry? Almost all the year round it is a
treasure-house of odours, even when the leaves first come out; but it
reaches crescendo in blossom time when, indeed, I like it least, for
being too strong. It has a curious fragrance, once well called by a poet
"the hot scent of the brier," and aromatically hot it is and sharp like
the briers themselves. At times I do not like it at all, for it gives me
a kind of faintness, while at other times, as to-day, it fills me with a
strange sense of pleasure as though it were the very breath of the spicy
earth. It is also a rare friend of the sun, for the hotter and brighter
the day, the hotter and sharper the scent of the brier.


Many of the commonest and least noticed of plants, flowers, trees,
possess a truly fragrant personality if once we begin to know them. I
had an adventure in my own orchard, only this spring, and made a fine
new acquaintance in a quarter least of all expected. I had started down
the lane through the garden one morning in the most ordinary way, with
no thought of any special experience, when I suddenly caught a whiff of
pure delight that stopped me short.
"What now can _that_ be?" and I thought to myself that nature had played
some new prank on me.
I turned into the orchard, following my nose. It was not the peach buds,
nor the plums, nor the cherries, nor yet the beautiful new coloured
leaves of the grape, nor anything I could see along the grassy margin of
the pasture. There were other odours all about, old friends of mine, but
this was some shy and pleasing stranger come venturing upon my land.
A moment later I discovered a patch of low green verdure upon the
ground, and dismissed it scornfully as one of my ancient enemies. But
it is this way with enemies, once we come to know them, they often turn
out to have a fragrance that is kindly.
Well, this particular fierce enemy was a patch of chickweed. Chickweed!
Invader of the garden, cossack of the orchard! I discovered, however,
that it was in full bloom and covered with small, star-like white
blossoms.
"Well, now," said I, "are you the guilty rascal?"
So I knelt there and took my delight of it and a rare, delicate good
odour it was. For several days afterward I would not dig out the patch,
for I said to myself, "What a cheerful claim it makes these early days,
when most of the earth is still cold and dead, for a bit of
immortality."

Of all times of the day for good odours I think the early morning the
very best, although the evening just after sunset, if the air falls
still and cool, is often as good. Certain qualities or states of the
atmosphere seem to favour the distillation of good odours and I have
known times even at midday when the earth was very wonderful to smell.
There is a curious, fainting fragrance that comes only with sunshine and
still heat. Not long ago I was cutting away a thicket of wild spiraea
which was crowding in upon the cultivated land. It was a hot day and
the leaves wilted quickly, giving off such a penetrating, fainting
fragrance that I let the branches lie where they fell the afternoon
through and came often back to smell of them, for it was a fine thing
thus to discover an odour wholly new to me.

Another odour I have found animating is the odour of burning wastage in
new clearings or in old fields, especially in the evening when the smoke
drifts low along the land and takes to itself by some strange chemical
process the tang of earthy things. It is a true saying that nothing will
so bring back the emotion of a past time as a remembered odour. I have
had from a whiff of fragrance caught in a city street such a vivid
return of an old time and an old, sad scene that I have stopped,
trembling there, with an emotion long spent and I thought forgotten.

But it is not the time of the day, nor the turn of the season, nor yet
the way of the wind that matters most but the ardour and glow we
ourselves bring to the fragrant earth. It is a sad thing to reflect that
in a world so overflowing with goodness of smell, of fine sights and
sweet sounds, we pass by hastily and take so little of them. Days pass
when we see no beautiful sight, hear no sweet sound, smell no memorable
odour: when we exchange no single word of deeper understanding with a
friend. We have lived a day and added nothing to our lives! A blind,
grubbing, senseless life--that!

In that keen moment I caught, drifting, a faint but wild fragrance upon
the air, and veered northward full into the way of the wind. I could not
at first tell what this particular odour was, nor separate it from the
general good odour of the earth; but I followed it intently across the
moor-like open land. Once I thought I had lost it entirely, or that the
faint northern airs had shifted, but I soon caught it clearly again, and
just as I was saying to myself, "I've got it, I've got it!"--for it is a
great pleasure to identify a friendly odour in the fields--I saw, near
the bank of the brook, among ferns and raspberry bushes, a thorn-apple
tree in full bloom.
"So there you are!" I said.

I hastened toward it, now in the full current and glory of its
fragrance. The sun, looking over the taller trees to the east, had
crowned the top of it with gold, so that it was beautiful to see; and it
was full of honey bees as excited as I.

A score of feet onward toward the wind, beyond the thorn-apple tree, I
passed wholly out of the range of its fragrance into another world, and
began trying for some new odour. After one or two false scents, for this
pursuit has all the hazards known to the hunter, I caught an odour long
known to me, not strong, nor yet very wonderful, but distinctive. It led
me still a little distance northward to a sunny slope just beyond a bit
of marsh, and, sure enough, I found an old friend, the wild sweet
geranium, a world of it, in full bloom, and I sat down there for some
time to enjoy it fully.

Beyond that, and across a field wild with tangles of huckleberry bushes
and sheep laurel where the bluets and buttercups were blooming, and in
shady spots the shy white violet, I searched for the odour of a certain
clump of pine trees I discovered long ago. I knew that I must come upon
it soon, but could not tell just when or where. I held up a moistened
finger to make sure of the exact direction of the wind, and bearing,
then, a little eastward, soon came full upon it--as a hunter might
surprise a deer in the forest. I crossed the brook a second time and
through a little marsh, making it the rule of the game never to lose for
an instant the scent I was following--even though I stopped in a low
spot to admire a mass of thrifty blue flags, now beginning to bloom--and
came thus to the pines I was seeking. They are not great trees, nor
noble, but gnarled and angular and stunted, for the soil in that place
is poor and thin, and the winds in winter keen; but the brown blanket of
needles they spread and the shade they offer the traveller are not less
hospitable; nor the fragrance they give off less enchanting. The odour
of the pine is one I love.

For the sense of smell we have, indeed, the perfumer's art, but a poor
rudimentary art it is, giving little freedom for the artist who would
draw his inspirations freshly from nature. I can, indeed, describe
poorly in words the odours of this June morning--the mingled lilacs,
late wild cherries, new-broken soil, and the fragrance of the sun on
green verdure, for there are here both lyrical and symphonic odours--but
how inadequate it is! I can tell you what I feel and smell and taste,
and give you, perhaps, a desire another spring to spend the months of
May and June in the country, but I can scarcely make you live again the
very moment of life I have lived, which is the magic quality of the best
art. The art of the perfumer which, like all crude art, thrives upon
blatancy, does not make us go to gardens, or love the rose, but often
instils in us a kind of artificiality, so that perfumes, so far from
being an inspiration to us, increasing our lives, become often the badge
of the abnormal, used by those unsatisfied with simple, clean, natural
things.

So he gave me a good apple. It was a yellow Bellflower without a blemish, and very large and smooth. The body of it was waxy yellow, but on the side where the sun had touched it, it blushed a delicious deep red. Since October it had been in the dark, cool storage-room, and Horace, like some old monkish connoisseur of wines who knows just when to bring up the bottles of a certain vintage, had chosen the exact moment in all the year when the vintage of the Bellflower was at its best. As he passed it to me I caught, a scent as of old crushed apple blossoms, or fancied I did or it may have been the still finer aroma of friendship which passed at the touching of our fingers.

And then the barn, the cavernous dark doors, the hoofs of the horses thundering on the floor, the smell of cattle from below, the pigeons in the loft whirring startled from their perches. Then the hot, scented, dusty "pitching off" and "mowing in"—a fine process, an honest process: men sweating for what they get.

I should devise the most animating names for my creations, such as the Double Delicious, the Air of Arcady, the Sweet Zephyr, and others even more inviting, which I should enjoy inventing. Though I think surely I could make my fortune out of this interesting idea, I present it freely to a scent-hungry world—here it is, gratis!—for I have my time so fully occupied during all of this and my next two or three lives that I cannot attend to it.

"The pink blossoms of the wild crab-apple trees I see from the hill.... The reedy song of the wood thrush among the thickets of the wild cherry.... The scent of peach leaves, the odour of new-turned soil in the black fields.... The red of the maples in the marsh, the white of apple trees in bloom.... I cannot find Him out—nor know why I am here...."

I like also the first wild, sweet smell of new-cut meadow grass, not the familiar odour of new-mown hay, which comes a little later, and is worthy of its good report, but the brief, despairing odour of grass just cut down, its juices freshly exposed to the sun. One, as it richly in the fields at the mowing. I like also the midday smell of peach leaves and peach-tree bark at the summer priming: and have never let any one else cut out the old canes from the blackberry rows in my garden for the goodness of the scents which wait upon that work.

A score of feet onward toward the wind, beyond the thorn-apple tree, I passed wholly out of the range of its fragrance into another world, and began trying for some new odour. After one or two false scents, for this pursuit has all the hazards known to the hunter, I caught an odour long known to me, not strong, nor yet very wonderful, but distinctive. It led me still a little distance northward to a sunny slope just beyond a bit of marsh, and, sure enough, I found an old friend, the wild sweet geranium, a world of it, in full bloom, and I sat down there for some time to enjoy it fully.

I think this no strange or unusual instinct, for I have seen many other people doing it, especially farmers around here, who go through the fields nipping the new oats, testing the red-top, or chewing a bit of sassafras bark. I have in mind a clump of shrubbery in the town road, where an old house once stood, of the kind called here by some the "sweet-scented shrub," and the brandies of it nearest the road are quite clipped and stunted I'm being nipped at by old ladies who pass that way and take to it like cat to catnip.

So it is that, though I am no worshipper of the old, I think the older gardeners had in some ways a better practice of the art than we have, for they planted not for the eye alone but for the nose and the sense of taste and even, in growing such plants as the lamb's tongue, to gratify, curiously, the sense of touch. They loved the scented herbs, and appropriately called them simples. Some of these old simples I am greatly fond of, and like to snip a leaf as I go by to smell or taste; but many of them, I here confess, have for me a rank and culinary odour—as sage and thyme and the bold scarlet monarda, sometimes called bergamot.

I turned into the orchard, following my nose. It was not the peach buds, nor the plums, nor the cherries, nor yet the beautiful new coloured leaves of the grape, nor anything I could see along the grassy margin of the pasture. There were other odours all about, old friends of mine, but this was some shy and pleasing stranger come venturing upon my land.


But if their actual fragrance is not always pleasing, and their uses are
now grown obscure, I love well the names of many of them--whether from
ancient association or because the words themselves fall pleasantly upon
the ear, as, for example, sweet marjoram and dill, anise and summer
savoury, lavender and sweet basil. Coriander! Caraway! Cumin! And
"there's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember,...
there's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you: and here's
some for me--" All sweet names that one loves to roll under his tongue.


It is strange how much thrilling joy there is in the discovery of the
ages-old miracle of returning life in the woods: each green adventurer,
each fragrant joy, each bird-call--and the feel of the soft, warm
sunshine upon one's back after months of winter. On any terms life is
good. The only woe, the only Great Woe, is the woe of never having been
born. Sorrow, yes; failure, yes; weakness, yes the sad loss of dear
friends--yes! But oh, the good God: I still live!


One hill I know is precious to me for a peculiar reason. Upon the side
of it, along the town road, are two or three old farms with lilacs like
trees about their doorways, and ancient apple orchards with great gnarly
branches, and one has an old garden of hollyhocks, larkspurs, zinnias,
mignonette, and I know not how many other old-fashioned flowers. Wild
grapes there are along the neglected walls, and in a corner of one of
them, by a brook, a mass of sweet currant which in blossom time makes
all that bit of valley a bower of fragrance, I have gone that way often
in spring for the sheer joy of the friendly odours I had across the
ancient stone fences.


Since then I have heard something about him, and seen him once or twice. A strange old man, a wanderer upon the face of the fragrant earth. Spring and summer he wears always an old overcoat, and carries a basket with double covers, very much worn and brown with usage. His cane is of hickory with a crooked root for a handle, this also shiny with age. He gathers bitter-bark, tansy; ginseng, calamus, smartweed, and slippery elm, and from along old fences and barnyards, catnip and boneset, I suppose he lives somewhere, a hole in a log, or the limb of a tree, but no one knows where it is, or how he dries or cures his findings. No one knows his name: perhaps he has forgotten it himself. A name is no great matter anyway. He is called simply the Herbman. He drifts into our valley in the spring, is seen here and there on the hills or in the fields, like the crows or the blackbirds, and disappears in the fall with the robins and the maple leaves. Perhaps he is one of those favoured souls to whom life is all spring and summer.

I met him once in the town road, and he stopped humbly without lifting his eyes, and opening his basket let out into the air such a fragrance of ancient simples as I never smelled before. He said nothing at all; but took out dry bundles of catnip, sassafras, slippery elm, to show me. He had also pennyroyal for healing teas, and calamus and bitter-bark for miseries. I selected a choice assortment of his wares to take home to Harriet, but could get him to name no price. He took what I gave without objection and without thanks, and went his way. A true man of the hills.

It being a mild and sunny day, the door of the fruit cellar was open, and as I came around the corner I had such of whiff of fragrance as I cannot describe. It seemed as though the vials of the earth's most precious odours had been broken there in Horace's yard! The smell of ripe apples!

Of well-flavoured men, I know none better than those who live close to the soil or work in common things. Men are like roses and lilacs, which, too carefully cultivated to please the eye, lose something of their native fragrance. One of the best-flavoured men I know is my friend, the old stone mason.

One who thus takes part in the whole process of the year comes soon to have an indescribable affection for his land, his garden, his animals. There are thoughts of his in every tree: memories in every fence corner. Just now, the fourth of June, I walked down past my blackberry patch, now come gorgeously into full white bloom—and heavy with fragrance. I set out these plants with my own hands, I have fed them, cultivated them, mulched them, pruned them, trellised them, and helped every year to pick the berries. How could they be otherwise than full of associations! They bear a fruit more beautiful than can be found in any catalogue: and stranger and wilder than in any learned botany book!

So much of the best in the world seems to have come fragrant out of fields, gardens, and hillsides. So many truths spoken by the Master Poet come to us exhaling the odours of the open country. His stories were so often of sowers, husbandmen, herdsmen: his similes and illustrations so often dealt with the common and familiar beauty of the fields. "Consider the lilies how they grow." It was on a hillside that he preached his greatest Sermon, and when in the last agony he sought a place to meet his God, where did he go but to a garden? A carpenter you say? Yes, but of this one may be sure: there were gardens and fields all about: he knew gardens, and cattle, and the simple processes of the land: he must have worked in a garden and loved it well.

Well, this particular fierce enemy was a patch of chickweed. Chickweed! Invader of the garden, cossack of the orchard! I discovered, however, that it was in full bloom and covered with small, star-like white blossoms.
"Well, now," said I, "are you the guilty rascal?"
So I knelt there and took my delight of it and a rare, delicate good odour it was. For several days afterward I would not dig out the patch, for I said to myself, "What a cheerful claim it makes these early days, when most of the earth is still cold and dead, for a bit of immortality."
The bees knew the secret already, and the hens and the blackbirds! And I thought it no loss, but really a new and valuable pleasure, to divert my path down the lane for several days that I might enjoy more fully this new odour, and make a clear acquaintance with something fine upon the earth I had not known before.

Once in a foreign city, passing a latticed gateway that closed in a narrow court, I caught the odour of wild sweet balsam. I do not know now where it came from, or what could have caused it—but it stopped me short where I stood, and the solid brick walls of that city rolled aside like painted curtains, and the iron streets dissolved before my eyes, and with the curious dizziness of nostalgia, I was myself upon the hill of my youth—with the gleaming river in the valley, and a hawk sailing majestically in the high blue of the sky, and all about and everywhere the balsams—and the balsams—full of the sweet, wild odours of the north, and of dreaming boyhood.

As for the odour of the burning wastage of the fields at evening I scarcely know if I dare say it. I find it produces in the blood of me a kind of primitive emotion, as though it stirred memories older than my present life. Some drowsy cells of the brain awaken to a familiar stimulus—the odour of the lodge-fire of the savage, the wigwam of the Indian. Racial memories!